Analysis: On Sunday, the Climate Change Commission will release a raft of advice for reshaping our economy in the face of the crisis.

January 31 will be a reckoning for New Zealand.

The Climate Change Commission will release draft advice on everything from the amount of greenhouse gases New Zealand should emit in the next 15 years to whether we’re dealing with methane from cows in the right way and whether our emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement needs to be strengthened. It could also make specific policy recommendations, like converting dairy land to forestry or banning the import of fossil fuel vehicles from a certain date.

The sum total of its advice is likely to shock the nation out of its multi-decade-long complacency on the urgency of the climate crisis – and our own failure to tackle it.

While other countries have managed to reduce emissions in the past three decades, New Zealand’s have only grown. In fact, we hold the dubious honour of registering the second greatest increase in net emissions since 1990 of any industrialised nation, beat out only by Turkey.

In order to change that, the Commission will outline a programme for total economic transformation in an attempt to shed the aspects of our society – like our reliance on cars and cows – which contribute to such high greenhouse gas emissions. It may not venture too far into the specifics of the policies needed to effect that transformation, leaving that to the Government, but the overall message will be clear: New Zealand must change drastically in the near-term to avert catastrophe in the long-term.

The Commission, in a range of public webinars and interviews with media outlets, has made clear that it takes climate change seriously. This state of affairs – New Zealand talking a big game while doing nothing to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions – will not be tolerated by the expert panel. Its advice will be wide-ranging, setting limits on how much we can emit in successive five-year periods through 2035, calling for the strengthening of a Paris target that even government officials and ministers don’t think is sufficient and recommending the transformation of the way we work, move and eat in order to ward off the crisis.

The Government will be under no legal requirement to follow the Commission’s advice and could set itself much more lenient targets for emissions and leave the Paris target unchanged. However, the political pressure from a panel of experts that Jacinda Ardern and Climate Change Minister James Shaw specifically set up to hold future governments to account will be significant.

Added to that domestic pressure is the warning of some of New Zealand’s closest trade and diplomatic partners, who have privately expressed doubts about our commitment to climate action. They also express bewilderment about an apparent gap between the Government’s rhetoric on climate and its policies.

Also key is the advocacy from the climate movement, which came into its own in 2019 in New Zealand with multiple school strikes. Although the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted further organising, School Strike for Climate organiser Sophie Handford told attendees of a climate change discussion panel in December that more actions were planned for 2021.

At the same event, Shaw conceded that New Zealand’s Paris target isn’t strong enough to comply with the Zero Carbon Act, which requires New Zealand to reduce emissions in a manner compliant with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. That came after he received advice from Ministry for the Environment officials who said the target would have to be significantly more ambitious to meet the 1.5 degree threshold.

In a Zoom webinar last week, Commission staff also hinted at specific policy levers they may recommend the Government pulls to reduce emissions in certain sectors.

“By switching to electric vehicles, road transport – including heavy vehicles – can be almost decarbonised by 2050. This requires a rapid increase in EV sales so that nearly all vehicles entering our fleet are electric by 2035,” principal analyst and transport team leader Alexandra Aimer-Seton said.

Land use principal analyst Sally Garden also warned that, if new technologies to reduce methane emissions from livestock don’t eventuate, some land may need to be converted away from livestock agriculture – with a corresponding reduction in herd size accompanying that move.

Commission chair Rod Carr has been less specific but no less radical in his own public comments. Speaking to Newsroom in November, he called for fundamentally transforming the way we live our lives.

“We are going to have to fundamentally change how we move about and how we move stuff about,” Carr said.

“It means more active mobility, more walking, more biking, more public transport using electrified energy sources from renewables. It means EVs where appropriate. It means we use the internal combustion engine sparingly, in special use cases, until they can be swapped out as well. We need to get on with that sooner rather than later.

“I think in the next budget, climate action needs to be right up there with the budget for health and the budget for education, because it’s that scale of commitment that we are going to need if we are really going to change the infrastructure and work practices to decarbonise and create a climate-resilient, low-emissions Aotearoa.”

Each of those sectors takes in more than $10 billion a year, for comparison.

“If we’re going after the least probability of regret, I think early bold action on climate that harnesses the community to walk with us, is going to be very important,” he said.

“If it turns out that we have slightly overreacted because technology breaks our way a little faster than we thought, or behaviours chance a little sooner than we expect, then I would rather live with that regret than the alternative, which is we leave it longer and have higher regret later.”

Note: This article was written prior to Newsroom receiving an embargoed copy of the Commission’s draft advice.

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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