Political parties have failed to tackle the issue of climate change with any specificity. Ahead of the upcoming election debates, Marc Daalder presents five questions every party leader should be asked.

While Covid-19 has captured the world’s attention this year, public health experts agree that the largest threat to our wellbeing is still on its way: climate change.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote last year, “Climate change exacerbates chronic and contagious disease, worsens food and water shortages, increases the risk of pandemics, and aggravates mass displacement.”

In August, he reiterated his warning, saying, “The pandemic has given new impetus to the need to accelerate efforts to respond to climate change.”

Michael Baker, the University of Otago epidemiologist who urged the Government to lock down early in March and has become one of the architects of the country’s elimination strategy, similarly sees Covid-19 as the sort of threat that will become more and more common in a warming world.

And yet, while our handling of Covid-19 and its economic impacts remains a major campaign issue, climate policy is almost entirely absent from the conversation.

Ahead of the second leader’s debate on Newshub on Wednesday evening and the TVNZ minor party debate next week, here are five crucial questions every party should have an answer for:

What are the emissions impact of your policies?

The past two weeks have seen journalists and political analysts poring over the National Party’s mock budget and the revelation that it has miscalculated the cost of its policies by billions of dollars.

The reason this investigatory exercise has been possible is because National followed the political convention of costing out its policies. Both major parties and most serious minor parties engage in this exercise, explaining how much a given policy will cost and how it will be paid for.

While there are debates to be had about the differing methods each party uses, the broader commitment to fiscal transparency is admirable.

The country would benefit from a similar approach to the climate impacts of policies.

As it stands, when parties release policies that affect the environment, they rarely make an effort to explain the precise emissions reduction impact. But understanding that is crucial when we have emissions reductions targets – in the Paris Agreement and our own Zero Carbon Act – looming over us.

Transparency on this front would allow people to see through the rhetoric and view the actual impact of policies. Labour’s pledge of a fully renewable electricity system by 2030, for example, sounds like a big move. But New Zealand’s electricity generation is already 84 percent renewable and the remaining generation makes up just 4.2 percent of our emissions.

It would likewise be helpful to understand the negative emissions impact of some policies. Promises to build more roads, put up hundreds of concrete-reliant buildings and subsidise or bolster polluting industries will all see our emissions rise in the long-term. Quantifying that could add more context to the debate of how and where we scale up our infrastructure for a growing population.

Of course, political parties would be loathe to voluntarily release context that makes their policies look bad. This could be worked around through the creation of an independent climate costing unit. The Government attempted to create an independent Officer of Parliament – who would require bipartisan consensus to appoint and remove – to perform fiscal costing of party policies, but this was blocked by National.

Bronwyn Hayward, a political scientist and climate policy expert at the University of Canterbury, said she was disappointed by how little substance was behind the climate policies released in the campaign thus far. She suggested the Climate Change Commission could have a role in encouraging or performing the climate costing of party policies.

What will you do to prepare New Zealand for the impacts of climate change?

In August, the Government released the first ever National Climate Change Risk Assessment (NCCRA). The report does what it says on the package, laying out the ways New Zealand is threatened by climate change.

The NCCRA found that over the next 70 years, wildfires and extreme storms will become more common in New Zealand, vast swathes of coastal property could be inundated by rising sea levels and social cohesion and the financial system could fracture under the pressure of climate change.

The report was based on calculations from NIWA which was essentially the worst-plausible-case outcome if countries do not begin a serious effort to reduce emissions. While the real impact could be slightly lessened through quick and effective climate action, the report underscores that the country needs to be preparing now to head off the effects of climate change.

But its release was quickly overshadowed by campaign bickering and the reemergence of Covid-19 in New Zealand just five days later. No serious conversation was held over how we future-proof New Zealand.

It is clear the task before us is immense – but no one seems to have an answer for how they will handle it. The review of the Resource Management Act found that a new Managed Retreat law was needed, giving councils the ability to retroactively cancel consents for buildings now rendered unsafe by the impact of climate change.

Legal liability aside, pretty much no coastal council has the resources necessary to fund the retreat of its population to higher ground. But no party has committed to funding this nationwide effort from central government coffers, instead leaving the project to councils which will have to choose between upping rates or letting their constituents be flooded.

Then again, a promise of hundreds of millions of dollars to bail out people who continue to buy homes in regions that almost everyone now knows are exposed to sea-level rise raises the issue of moral hazard.

These are complicated and nuanced problems which require a similarly complicated and nuanced approach. Instead of that, they’re simply being ignored, even as sea levels continue to rise by a third of a centimetre every year.

What should our Paris target be?

In 2015, the New Zealand government – like almost every other country on the planet – signed us up to the Paris Agreement on climate change. They submitted an interim Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) or emissions reduction target for the period from 2021 to 2030.

At the time, the target was the subject of significant debate. Current Climate Change Minister James Shaw, then in opposition, called it “one of the world’s weakest and most embarrassing climate targets”.

After three years in Government, however, Shaw has failed to change the target. What he has done is refer it to the Climate Change Commission for a review, due back in 2021.

As it stands, New Zealand has committed to net emissions of 601 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (Mt CO2e) over the next decade. That’s above our emissions over the past decade – which are likely to settle around 573 million tonnes after all the accounting is finalised – but significantly below where the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) expects our emissions to be over the next 10 years. Projections based on current policy settings indicate the country will emit 707 Mt CO2e between 2021 and 2030.

So our Paris target already looks ambitious – although this is more a factor of our failure to halt greenhouse gas emissions growth earlier in the decade (or, indeed, before 2025) than any actual ambition on the part of those who devised it. This is backed up by advice from MfE to Shaw that our NDC isn’t consistent with the Paris Agreement’s stated aim and the legal obligation within the Zero Carbon Act to reduce emissions in a manner consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.

The advice, which underpinned Shaw’s decision to refer the NDC to the Climate Change Commission instead of submitting an updated and more ambitious target like other countries did in 2020, found that limiting emissions to 516 million tonnes over the next decade would be needed if New Zealand wanted to remain consistent with a 1.5 degree target.

While parties may want to wait for the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations before making any final calls, they should at least indicate whether they want a target in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and whether they think the current NDC is too weak, too ambitious, or about right. That will be crucial for informing how we prepare as a country to reduce emissions over the next decade.

How will you reach our Paris target?

Once we know the emissions impact of proposed policies and once we have an idea of what each party wants our Paris target to be, it should be pretty easy to tell whether parties have a realistic plan for reaching that target.

Even now, however, it is clear that no party has so far proposed a path that rises to the challenge of meeting our current Paris target, let alone the MfE-devised target that would be consistent with 1.5 degrees of warming.

Nearly half of our emissions come from the agriculture sector. When Newsroom asked party leaders what they planned to do about agricultural emissions while in government, few presented a compelling plan for reducing them.

Only the Māori Party said it would immediately put a price on agricultural emissions. Putting the sector into the Emissions Trading Scheme is broadly seen as the best incentive for getting farmers to reduce biogenic methane, which makes up more than three quarters of emissions in the sector.

Most parties backed the current Government’s approach of waiting until 2025 to price emissions, and then doing so at a 95 percent discount. The Ministry for the Environment found last year that this strategy would lead to emissions reductions of 95,000 tonnes of CO2e in 2030. That’s out of an expected 35 million tonnes of agricultural emissions that year.

Likewise, only the Greens and the Māori Party came up with policies to tackle synthetic fertilisers, responsible for about 7 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions a year – mostly in the form of nitrous oxide.

Without a genuine strategy for cracking down on agricultural emissions, our other largest emitting sectors take on outsized importance. That means taking a hard look at transport, which is responsible for 19 percent of emissions and our fastest growing sector in terms of greenhouse gases. As with agriculture, however, no one has proposed a policy that will drastically reduce the number of fossil fuel vehicles on the roads by replacing them with electric cars or by replacing roads entirely with infrastructure for active transport – that’s cycling, walking, e-scooters and so on.

The feebate scheme that was mooted by the current Government before being axed by New Zealand First is the most ambitious policy we’ve seen so far – but a Ministry of Transport analysis found it would only reduce emissions by 1.6 million tonnes over two decades. Even banning the import of fossil fuel vehicles from 2035 onwards would only reduce emissions by 27 million tonnes over 30 years, when the transport sector is expected to be responsible for 410 million tonnes over that same period.

[After this story was first published, the Green Party announced a plan to tackle transport emissions through building fast, electric intercity rail, pumping $1.5 billion into “Cycle Super Highways” for major cities and banning the import of fossil fuel vehicles at a future date – likely 2030. This plan goes a significant way towards reducing transport emissions at the scale needed.]

Transformative change is needed, but it isn’t on offer in this election.

If you fail to meet our Paris target, how will you pay for it?

Even failure to reduce emissions in line with our target, however, will have a fiscal impact. Under the Paris agreement, we have pledged to meet our NDC through real emissions reductions or, falling short of that, the use of carbon credits.

Diplomats were hoping to negotiate the framework for an international carbon market at this year’s UN climate summit in Britain, but that has been postponed due to Covid-19. When the market is finally settled on, there will be a few key questions for New Zealand. First, will we be able to use the junk Kyoto-era credits we purchased from Russia and Ukraine?

In the waning years of the Kyoto Protocol, which covered emissions from 2008 to 2012 and set up its own carbon credit market, Russia and Ukraine produced and sold extremely cheap credits which audits have discovered were not backed by actual emissions reductions. New Zealand was one of the largest purchasers of these junk credits.

If we’re able to use them, then that’s a cheap backdoor that would allow New Zealand to avoid reducing emissions and not get punished for it. But it would also mean that the actual greenhouse emissions we released into the atmosphere would not be offset by the carbon sinks that the credits are meant to represent.

Parties should clarify whether they support using these worthless credits to meet our climate targets.

If we aren’t able to use Kyoto credits, then we face a whole new challenge. For starters, many other countries are likely to fail to meet their NDCs as well. That means there could be more demand for Paris credits than supply, jacking up the price – or leaving New Zealand to default on its NDC due to a lack of supply of carbon credits.

Even without this complicating factor, however, the price of purchasing hundreds of millions of carbon credits could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars. Each carbon credit represents one tonne of emissions that has been sunk into the planet (usually through forestry). Given we are expected to emit 707 Mt CO2e over the relevant period, that places us in the unenviable position of having to buy 106 million credits come 2030.

While the price of carbon has been stubbornly stable for years, the IMF and World Bank separately estimate that an effective carbon price by 2030 would be somewhere in the range of $50 to $100 per tonne. That puts New Zealand on the hook for between $5.3 and $10.6 billion in 2030. On the high end, that’s more than the operating allowances for the four years to 2030 – that is, the amount of money Treasury expects will be allocated for new policy initiatives and rising costs for the entire New Zealand Government over that period.

Of course, that’s if our NDC remains the same. If we take on a more ambitious target, like MfE’s 1.5 degrees-consistent target of 516 million tonnes but still go ahead to emit 707 million tonnes over the next decade, that puts us on the hook for between $9.5 and $19.1 billion. That latter figure represents more than the amount Treasury has allocated for operating allowances from Budget 2022 all the way through to Budget 2030.

That’s also more than double the amount of money National is alleged to have made accounting errors over and nearly twice the size of the infamous fiscal hole from the 2017 election. And it isn’t something that will be able to be obscured through accounting tricks – if New Zealand fails to reduce emissions in line with our target, we’ll have to pony up or lose any credibility as a nation taking climate change seriously.

These are the sorts of considerations parties should be making as they develop and release climate policy. But so far, no party has grappled in detail with any of the questions raised above. We can only hope that changes fast – atmospheric warming certainly isn’t waiting for political parties to catch up.

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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