Climate Change Minister James Shaw has asked the Climate Change Commission to review the Government’s emissions reductions target under the Paris Agreement, Marc Daalder reports

The country’s emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement, which has previously come under criticism from environmental activists and then-Opposition member James Shaw for not going far enough, will now be reviewed by the Climate Change Commission.

Shaw, in his current role as Climate Change Minister, has asked the independent body to ensure that New Zealand’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to global emissions reductions is consistent with Parliament’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

“Nearly every government in the world has promised to take part in a global effort to clean up their economies and avoid the worst effects of climate change. New Zealand is once again showing leadership by committing to a review of whether our international target is ambitious enough to help create a better, cleaner, and more prosperous future,” Shaw said.

Commission to review methane and carbon commitments

The current NDC commits New Zealand to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions – which includes the carbon sink from forestry and other land use activities – for the period 2021-2030 to 30 percent below 2005’s gross emissions levels (which don’t include sinks).

The terms of reference for the commission specify that a report will be due when it turns in its first recommended emissions budgets in February of 2021. The report should include advice on whether the NDC is “compatible with contributing to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5o Celsius above pre-industrial levels” and any recommended changes to ensure it is compatible.

The Climate Change Commission has also been instructed to take a careful look at what reductions in biogenic (animal-produced) methane emissions in particular might be needed to meet commitments under the Paris Agreement. In so doing, Shaw has told the commission to ignore the current target range for methane emissions as enshrined in the Zero Carbon Act of reducing methane emissions by just 24 to 47 percent by 2050.

Methane emissions were one of the hot topics for the bill during select committee and remain one of the issues the National Party has vowed to change, if able, after the September election. Although shorter-lived, methane heats the atmosphere faster. The degree to which it should be prioritised over carbon reductions is a matter of not just political but also scientific debate.

Shaw’s announcement comes just days after the Climate Change Commission wrote to him to ensure that any stimulus addressing the Covid-19-caused economic downturn didn’t lock in high emissions for the coming decades. Newsroom has previously reported on how climate hawks, including Shaw, see the upcoming wave of Government spending as the climate’s “Last Change Saloon”.

The Government was previously expected to update the NDC of its own accord in early 2020, but that process may have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It remains unclear when or if an updated NDC will be released.

Gross-net accounting used for NDC

Newsroom has previously reported on an accounting trick New Zealand uses to make its emissions targets appear more ambitious than they are.

In the fine print, the NDC specifies that negative emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) – essentially, the carbon absorbed by plants – will be counted in its target. However, it doesn’t make clear that the 2005 benchmark will be gross emissions.

In other words, New Zealand emitted 83.27 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases (CO2e) in 2005. That’s the gross emissions benchmark that the NDC commits us to reducing by 30 percent for the period 2021-2030, to around 58.29 million tonnes a year on average.

The 2019 biennial report, a UN-mandated report containing estimates of future emissions, very roughly projects New Zealand will emit an average of 76.62 million tonnes of CO2e each year over the relevant period. However, New Zealand plans to count the roughly 8.94 million tonnes of CO2e that will be removed from the atmosphere by LULUCF each year towards its Paris goal.

At the same time, New Zealand isn’t counting the 28.81 million tonnes of CO2e removed from the atmosphere by LULUCF in 2005 towards its benchmark. The Government has been using two separate measures for emissions, gross (total) and net (including forestry removals) in order to make it look like we’re cutting emissions more than we actually are.

If this country was to make the Paris commitment of reducing emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels under a gross-gross accounting scenario, that would require cutting gross emissions to around 60 million tonnes for each year from 2021 to 2030, more than 16 million tonnes below where forecasts say we’ll be.

If we were to attempt the same target under a net-net accounting scenario, that would require cutting net emissions to around 38 million tonnes, after accounting for LULUCF removals. Instead, the biennial report predicts New Zealand’s average annual net emissions over the period will be 67.68 million tonnes, or almost double where they need to be.

The terms of reference for the Climate Change Commission’s review of the NDC make no mention of gross-net accounting.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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