Support for the Zero Carbon Bill shows our action on climate will have to disrupt the status quo, writes Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton. That will mean new opportunities – and costs.

Last week’s passage of the Zero Carbon Bill attracted less attention than I expected. Was it the absence of opposition and recrimination that saw it relegated to page 15 in The Dominion Post? Or had the process dragged on for so long (two years) that people just wanted to move on? Neither the success of its enactment nor its implications for the future should be underestimated.

There was nothing inevitable about the Bill being passed into law without dissent. In other jurisdictions, climate change seems capable of bringing out the most visceral partisan divisions. That that didn’t occur is due, in no small part, to the determined work of a small number of parliamentarians from all parties who have worked together since before the last election. The former Green MP, Kennedy Graham, played a particularly important role in bringing a cross-party group together to build a shared understanding of the problem.

The three governing coalition parties should be commended for prioritising enactment of the Bill. James Shaw’s unfailing patience and courtesy surely played a major part. And the constructive role played by the Opposition meant that disagreements could be contained. Simon Bridges was correct to observe there is a place for compromise in politics. If page 15 is the price we pay for a mature and thoughtful process, then I’m all for page 15.

However, the issue will be back on the front page many times in the years ahead. All we have agreed thus far is a long-term target for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and a process for setting emissions budgets to progressively get us there on the advice of a specialist Climate Change Commission. A similar consensus on methane eludes us.

No one should be under any illusions about the demands the transition to net zero will make.

There will be strong disagreements over how successive governments implement that advice and the policy tools they deploy. Ultimately, the government of the day will have to take the tough decisions and they are likely to be contested. This is as it should be in a democracy. There is no unique path to a ‘net zero future’ by 2050.

It is an extremely ambitious goal – so ambitious that no one yet knows how we will get there. But that is the case in all countries. The scale of the challenge and the time available mean we are now fighting a stiff headwind. While many promising technologies are to hand, others are completely lacking – emissions-free long-distance air travel being one of them.

But complaining that we don’t know how we will deliver the final target isn’t really the point. We do know how to get quite a long way. Doing what is already possible is the key to unlocking answers to what, for now, isn’t possible. In the jargon of climate economics, there is low-hanging fruit, some of which has negative costs. Even where new technologies cost more, those costs are falling as the experience of learning by doing is incorporated in improvements. If we never start, we will fail surrounded by a heap of rotting fruit.

However, no one should be under any illusions about the demands the transition to net zero will make. Even where financial costs appear small, learning to do things differently makes a claim on people’s time and patience. While we should always attempt to minimise costs, there is no cost-free path here. Around the world people have supported climate goals but been quick to protest over even modest increases in fossil fuel prices.

While we should always attempt to minimise costs, there is no cost-free path here. Around the world people have supported climate goals but been quick to protest over even modest increases in fossil fuel prices.

So let me say it for the 119 MPs who supported the Zero Carbon Bill: an economic transformation on the scale envisaged will be costly. Any government should both acknowledge this and be prepared to shield those who have little ability to respond. But if we are ever to make progress, that shielding can never be for more than a small fraction of society or the economy.

New Zealand has chosen an emissions trading scheme as its preferred policy instrument to make progress. That means making fossil fuels steadily more expensive. To attack a rising price down the track would be to attack the policy ambition that has just been enacted. I hope MPs of all stripes will resist that temptation.

That said, a carbon price isn’t a magic wand. It will incentivise a certain amount of change. But governments can support changes in other ways too, in particular through information, standards, research, subsidised experimentation and investment in infrastructure. Light electric vehicles may, in less than a decade, become sufficiently commonplace to need little encouragement. But there are rafts of other fossil-dependent devices that are part of the everyday lives of New Zealanders.

We need zero-emission off-road utes, outboard motors, power tools and a ton of stuff used on the coast, the farm and on holiday. A mixture of batteries, biofuels and maybe even hydrogen fuel cells will likely be needed to substitute for fossil fuel. How can these technologies be retro-fitted? What new supply changes and distribution networks will be needed? Pragmatic and practical engagement with ordinary people is needed if zero emissions is to be everyone’s goal.

The Zero Carbon Act is far from perfect. Necessary compromises meant that it never would be. We have to learn by doing and I am sure there will be changes down the track. But if the affirmation of 119 MPs means anything, it has to involve measures that disrupt the status quo. That will mean new opportunities. And, yes, it will mean costs. If that sounds unpalatable, so will be the costs of climatic disruption. There are no costless ways forward.

Simon Upton is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

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