Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw has dedicated his political career to tackling the climate crisis. He spoke to Newsroom’s Marc Daalder about the Climate Change Commission’s landmark report and the Government’s intention to implement it

For James Shaw, now entering his fourth full year as Climate Change Minister, the most important takeaway from the Climate Change Commission’s new report is that New Zealand is up to the task of decarbonising its society and economy.

The historic report, released on Sunday afternoon, calls for “transformational and lasting change across society and the economy” but finds “the tools to start the work to reach our targets and address climate change in Aotearoa already exist”.

The Commission said New Zealand would miss its emissions reduction targets if it didn’t engage in “strong and decisive action now” and recommended ambitious limits on the amount of greenhouse gases the country should be allowed to release over the next 15 years.

The Commission’s draft advice to the Government includes three emissions budgets covering five-year periods to 2035, recommendations on how to meet these budgets and a finding that New Zealand’s target under the Paris Agreement “is aligned with an approach – that if adopted by all nations – carries major risks in the ability to limit global warming to 1.5°C”.

New Zealand is currently on a pathway to emit 112.5 million more tonnes of greenhouse gases between 2022 and 2035 than the Commission’s budgets call for.

“The greatest thing that I take out of this draft report is that, yes the challenge is massive, but we have the technology and it’s all within the variabilities of normal economic change. ‘We can do this’ is the thing that I take from it,” Shaw says.

Read more:  Key takeaways from the Climate Change Commission’s advice

Read more:  Newsroom’s in-depth analysis of the Commission’s report

Read more:  The climate science behind the Commission’s findings

Implementing the report

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. The scale of change required, across every sector of the economy, calls for comprehensive, coherent and ambitious government action. That isn’t always easy – Shaw says previous New Zealand governments don’t have the best track record on transformational change that doesn’t leave people behind.

“Often it’s ad hoc and kind-of responsive. Whereas here, we’re doing something that’s got to be highly coordinated and proactive,” he says.

Implementing the changes, which include rapid electrification of the vehicle fleet and a build-up of more public transport capacity, moving industry and electricity generation away from fossil fuels, reducing emissions on tens of thousands of farms and massive tree-planting programmes, will be coordinated by an emissions reduction plan. Mandated under the Zero Carbon Act, the plan will be the Government’s response to the Commission’s report and lays out a map for decarbonising the economy.

It needs to be comprehensive, so it can’t be missing any of the key components. We’re not gonna get there if we don’t do anything on the waste front for example,” he says.

“It’s the accumulation of a thousand small decisions that are going to add up to the transformational change that the Commission required.

“It’s [also] got to be coherent and that’s probably the biggest challenge for government is making sure that we, to the maximal extent possible, reduce the grit in the cogs. That there are synergies between different policies that have been led by different agencies and there aren’t too many duplications or overlaps. That’s a coordination challenge for the public service but I think it’s one that’s surmountable,” Shaw says.

“And then the third requirement is that it’s of sufficient ambition. And that’s where we need to be able to demonstrate that the modelling of the impact of each policy collectively adds up to the scale of the change that’s required in the time available to do that. So I don’t think it’s going to be easy and especially in governmental terms, there’s very little time to do it, but I do think it’s doable.”

Shaw declines to say whether specific policies recommended by the Commission, such as a ban on importing fossil fuel vehicles sometime between 2030 and 2035, would be endorsed by the Government. That would get ahead of the usual policy-making and Cabinet processes. But, he acknowledges, if the Government doesn’t reduce emissions as much in transport, they’d have to make it up somewhere else.

On the overall headline figures, Shaw implies the Government would likely accept whatever the Commission’s final emissions budgets were when they are released on May 31.

“The Government and the Commission are both required by the law to act in a way that’s consistent with a 1.5 degree temperature threshold pathway. When you look through the Commission’s advice, it is really clear that that’s what they have done. All their modelling’s built around that consistency,” he says.

“If we wanted to come up with a different emissions budget than the one that they’re recommending, the Government would still be required to act within a 1.5 degree pathway. So that suggests that any alternative that we come up with would have to be stronger than what the Commission are proposing, because anything weaker almost certainly would not be consistent with a 1.5 degree pathway so then we’d be breaking the law. That suggests a decision [has been reached on accepting the budgets].”

Trees and cows

While tree planting to offset rising emissions has been a cornerstone of New Zealand’s climate change strategy to date, the Commission called for a significant reduction in forestry offsets and a corresponding effort to genuinely reduce gross greenhouse gas emissions.

“They’re saying that actually we should scale back the amount that we expect to use forestry offsets, quite dramatically. I think the provisional emissions budget was suggesting something like 1.1 million hectares and they’re talking about 700,000 hectares. What they’re saying is you’ve really got to crank your gross emissions,” he says.

Read more:  Why can’t we plant our way out of climate change?

“I think that they’re points about both scaling back the amount of forestry offsets that you allow to be supplied into the market and the period of time over which you’re allowed to use forestry offsets at all, and the mix of essentially rotational exogenous versus permanent indigenous, those things are not new in the debate but they are new in terms of specific policy recommendations coming to government. Those are quite big reforms.”

The Commission does envision a role for permanent native forests in offsetting residual emissions – the remaining long-lived gas emissions from hard-to-decarbonise sources like air travel or industry that requires extremely high temperatures which can’t be reached by electricity alone.

“I completely agree [with that approach],” Shaw says.

“For me, the idea of net zero should always have been about offsetting your residual [emissions] that you basically cannot get rid of out of the system, rather than as your default. To me, that just makes perfect sense.”

He also endorsed the Commission’s recommendation that more waste from forestry be turned into biofuels. Late last week, the Government announced it would reinstate a mandate that petrol be blended with a certain amount of biofuel to reduce emissions.

“We know that, for some decades, we will still have a need, a technological need, to use transportable liquid combustable fuel. Biofuels is better than fossil fuels. And actually using waste, converting waste to energy is a good use of that waste and it’s a much better use of it than chucking it in a hole in the ground which is the current strategy,” Shaw says.

On agriculture, the Commission found that existing farm management practices and the proven technology of selective breeding for low emissions sheep could be implemented to meet methane reduction targets. Additional technology would hasten the transition but is not required.

“We actually know, there have been multiple sets of experiments by multiple organisations that have demonstrated that in most animal farming systems, changes in practice that focus on the profitability of the farm both increased profitability and quite dramatically cut emissions. So if you adjust to commercialise what we already know works, you’d actually blow through the targets. And that’s what the Commission is saying.”

Hope for change

Shaw extrapolates the lesson from the Commission’s findings on agriculture to the chances of the overall response.

“That’s one of the points of hope that I felt about, not just agriculture actually but in every other sector. What they’re saying is there’s a huge challenge here in terms of the scale of the change that’s required, but we can get there without any new technology for the next three decades. That’s astonishing,” he says.

“It’s saying that we actually have sufficient technology now in every single sector to be able to achieve the kinds of dramatic emissions reductions that we’re talking about. And then they make the point particularly in relation to agriculture but also in other areas as well, that on the assumption that humans do what humans have always done which is to invent new things, then the task will get easier because we’ll be able to accelerate or deepen some of those cuts.

“Not only that, that the challenge is economically almost neutral, if not actually positive. That’s one of the things about this that I think is new, because historically in New Zealand, the reports that have come out said we need to achieve these massive emissions reductions and the economic impact will be enormous. And that’s generally why governments have been very reluctant to take strong action, because they don’t want to be seen to be doing things that would dramatically cut GDP, when actually what they’re saying is that it’s virtually neutral.”

Compared to the Covid-19 recovery, decarbonising the economy is a bargain, Shaw says.

“When you look at some of the other costs we’ve blown through recently, this is a rounding error.”

In order for that change to be realised, however, it may need cross-party support (something the Commission’s report explicitly calls for) and the willingness to change behaviours by the general population.

On the former front, Shaw says the Commission is proving its value as an independent body that has endorsed prior calls for transformation.

“It’s exceedingly helpful. And ultimately that’s why we set the Climate Change Commission up and also why it had bipartisan support. Having a politically-neutral, expert, independent Crown Entity come out and say these things – and with the quality of the analysis that sits behind that, in particular – is vital.”

Getting the country on board

Does that mean he expects National, which voted for the Zero Carbon Act in 2019 (albeit with plans to alter some aspects if it had the chance to govern), will endorse the Commission’s report?

“You’d need to talk to the National Party about that and obviously their internal circumstances have changed a lot. But, the Commission was the thing that they were the strongest on. They put huge stock in the commission and so I think it would be, shall we just say, highly inconsistent of them to now come out and say ‘Oh, actually, we’re not interested in what they’ve got to say.’”

What about everyday New Zealanders? Do they understand the scale of the problem and will they get on board?

“What’s interesting is [Commission chair] Rod Carr himself came out a few months ago and said we need a massive public information campaign and I would tend to agree. This is an astonishingly complex thing that covers every sector of the economy and most of our consumption habits. You can’t boil that down,” Shaw says.

“You can chop it up and I actually think the media in recent years have been doing an increasingly good job of biting off different bits of the jigsaw puzzle and starting to communicate those. But I do think that part of the challenge that we’ve had over the last 30 years is that it’s been a very wonky, scientific, economic and political thing which restricts the audience. We do need to start working out how to communicate more effectively about what’s required, what the options are and actually what’s exciting.”

That means bringing people back to the discussion – reengaging with them.

“I think that people have disengaged from the debate on climate change because they just think it’s too big, too overwhelming, we can’t really do anything about it so they actually get disempowered by it. It’s too expensive, it’s too hard,” Shaw says.

But the report’s conclusions conflict with that – the technology to decarbonise exists now and the overall economic impact will be marginal.

“I think that should make it a lot easier for normal people going about their lives and worried about all the things that they’re worried about to be able to engage.”

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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