There appear to be many good recommendations contained in the Climate Change Commission Advice Report issued at the end of January. We need to act on them soon to get things moving.  But these recommendations are undermined by lack of attention to what level of success would be desirable. Unless we have this most basic criterion clearly in our sights it is difficult to fully assess the recommendations made.

Unfortunately, the Commission’s recommendations have only a 66 percent likelihood of achieving a safe climate. The success level accepted by the Commission is the consensus target adopted by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Because of the consensus nature of the UN process, this target is subject to political and special interest influence, and is not a scientifically determined goal.

It is as if we allowed the Chamber of Commerce to determine what our pandemic strategy should have been rather than leaving it to the medical experts.

Think about this for a moment. If all the recommendations of the Commission are implemented successfully, the likelihood of avoiding more than 1.5C degrees global heating above pre-industrial levels is only 66 percent. The 1.5C threshold is regarded by scientists as a critical marker for global heating to avoid significantly greater risks to our lives and livelihoods. Warming beyond this level opens the future to irreversible climate damages.

If you knew that the likelihood of a particular ferry making it safely across the Cook Strait was only 66 percent, would you board that ferry, or seek a vessel that offered a much lower risk to your safety?

The Commission identifies a “Tailwind” scenario, which projects a relatively swift decline in emissions to net zero by 2040 (assuming all factors are aligned and all its recommendations are successfully implemented). 

This is their best case scenario given the recommendations. But the Commission does not attach any increased likelihood of remaining within the 1.5C threshold if this outcome is achieved. Is it 90 percent, or only 67 percent? We don’t know. So we don’t know whether the extra effort to try to achieve it is worthwhile.

There is no doubt our scientists can calculate what level of emissions reduction would give us a 90 percent or better chance of actually achieving a safe climate. But they haven’t.

A higher criterion for a successful climate mitigation plan would no doubt be more of a stretch to achieve. The more we do and the faster we do it, the better. But how much more? How much faster? Don’t we deserve to know this most basic information about our future?

Knowing what is required to have greater confidence for a safe climate future is important because it informs us what kinds of decisions we need to make.

Some might argue that little New Zealand should simply accept the weak IPCC criterion for success and get on with it.

The Commission has reassured us that its plan is doable and will have minimal impact on our economic activity.  But what use is it to know that a low probability of success is achievable in a high stakes endeavour? Such information might be acceptable for betting on a rugby playoff, but surely not for the kinds of life and death issues involved in serious global heating.

If we have such information as a nation we can then decide what we are prepared to do about it. Attempting to assess whether the Commission’s advice to the Government is sensible is not currently possible. Our first task is to agree on the level of success we wish our climate plan to achieve.

Some might argue that little New Zealand should simply accept the weak IPCC criterion for success and get on with it. On a fine summer day it can be difficult to keep in mind that climate change is a planetary emergency because of its gradual, slow and episodic pace.  But the science is clear that we are in an unprecedented emergency and we have left it far too long for easy solutions.

Perhaps if New Zealand clarified the weak consensus goal of the IPCC it would have a ripple effect in other countries. Establishing a target that has a high likelihood of actually achieving a safe climate could be inspiring and the single most important contribution New Zealand could make to a safe global climate strategy.

The Commission is open to submissions up to 28 March.

Leave a comment