Governments around the world are trying to tackle climate change, what Jacinda Ardern has called her generation’s nuclear-free moment. But do New Zealand’s plans live up to the hype, and what are the stakes at home and abroad? Sam Sachdeva reports.

As both an existential threat and an economic threat, it is no surprise that climate change is high on the agenda of politicians and foreign policy practitioners alike.

New Zealand’s own plans had a rocky start, with the release of the much-hyped Zero Carbon Bill coming more than a year later than planned.

Speaking to the Otago Foreign Policy School, Environment Minister David Parker expressed confidence the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 could be met, referring to New Zealand as the “Saudi Arabia of renewables” and praising the good policy that was in place.

But speaking the day after Parker, Catherine Leining, a policy fellow at the economic research institute Motu, laid out a number of concerns with the legislation as it stands.

Leining said the bill’s distinction between methane – which must be reduced 10 percent by 2030, and by 24 to 47 percent come 2050 and beyond (and other greenhouse gases that must reach net zero by 2050 onwards) – was based not on “pure science” but concerns about alienating New Zealand’s agricultural sector.

“If the Government puts its hand on its heart and says the science is making us do this, it’s really not – this is a political target and they’re trying to deal with strategic challenges in the community.

“It’s fine to take that approach, but we just have to own it for what it is, and not claim it’s full science.”

“It doesn’t actually state a starting level for any of our targets – people get really fixated about the end point and they never really pay enough attention to the start point.”

Leining said the bill also did not require a progressive ambition, allowing governments to hold off on tougher short-term reductions in the hope that “magic bullet technology” would come to the fore in the 2040s.

“It doesn’t actually state a starting level for any of our targets – people get really fixated about the end point and they never really pay enough attention to the start point.”

While that would provide governments the flexibility to be adaptive, it also gave them the flexibility to underperform – failing to account for the threat posed by cumulative emissions as decades or centuries of gases remained in the air.

“It’s like turning off the faucet for a bathtub: even if you slow the water to a trickle, once the bathtub is full we will still flood the room. It’s not enough to get to net zero, we have to get to net zero fast enough.”

There was also no attention paid to international transport and consumption emissions, which could allow governments to claim the credit for outsourcing the production of steel and aluminium without accounting for the environmental cost of importing the products.

While some suggested New Zealand was too small for its emissions reductions to make a meaningful impact, Leining argued that was not the case.

“A pie has the same number of calories when you cut it into small pieces.”

What the Pacific wants, and needs

Some of the smaller pieces of the world most at threat from climate inaction lie in the Pacific.

Dr Tammy Tabe from the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific laid out what climate-related displacement would mean for those in the Pacific.

Tabe spoke of her grandparents and others who were forced in the 1940s and 1950s to move from Kiribati (then the Gilbert Islands) to the Phoenix Islands and eventually the Solomon Islands due to climate and overcrowding issues.

While the groups of Gilbertese became more integrated into the Solomons society, many still felt like “second-class citizens” and they had been denied agency to decide whether they wanted to be relocated or remain in their own land – a concern which still resonates today given the Government’s decision to scrap plans for a Pacific climate visa.

People in the Pacific wanted to retain their identities, Tabe said, and the world needed to account for that in the way it approached the issue of economic growth.

“I’m not trying to say GDP should be ignored in the case of Pacific countries, but what should also be considered is social capital.”

But it is political capital and an unwillingness to spend it, which has been most damaging in New Zealand as Leining outlined.

“With very election cycle, I’ve witnessed the waste of precious time and resources by both National and Labour-led coalitions as mitigations have been wiped away, radically changed or allowed to languish under very slow reviews.

“If we want to achieve any kind of successful low-emission economy, New Zealand needs a climate change policy framework backed by cross-party support that produces clear direction and enables evidence-based decision-making and continuous progress across elections cycles – that’s what the Zero Carbon Bill could deliver if we do it right.”

* Sam Sachdeva travelled to the Otago Foreign Policy School courtesy of the University of Otago.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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