In briefings to James Shaw, New Zealand diplomats raised concerns the United Kingdom doesn’t understand our emission reduction targets or climate policies, writes Marc Daalder

Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade criticised UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s knowledge of New Zealand’s climate change efforts in documents obtained by Newsroom.

Recounting a December call between Johnson and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador Kay Harrison reported that “Johnson seemed unaware of New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitment or agricultural emissions work”.

“Prime Minister Ardern explained that New Zealand has an NDC target of 1.5 degrees in our legislation and that the Government was expecting advice from the Climate Commission. When implemented, New Zealand would be the first country in the world to have a pricing mechanism for agricultural emissions.”

It is unusual for critical comments about a foreign leader like these to be disclosed in a government document.

A second paragraph about the call between the two leaders was redacted under a provision of the Official Information Act which allowed Climate Change Minister James Shaw’s office to withhold the information if “the making available of that information would be likely to prejudice … the international relations of the Government of New Zealand”.

The comments came after Newsroom reported late last year on international skepticism about New Zealand’s commitment to climate action. Some of New Zealand’s diplomatic partners most dedicated to fighting climate change have privately expressed doubts about our dedication to the cause. They also express bewilderment about an apparent gap between the Government’s rhetoric on climate and its policies.

Misapprehensions and misunderstandings

The confusion appears to be the result of New Zealand’s split-gas domestic targets. Because emissions from livestock and waste are difficult to completely eliminate and because emissions of methane don’t need to reduce to zero to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the Zero Carbon Act only requires biogenic methane emissions to fall 24 to 47 percent by 2050. By the same date, however, all other gases will have to fall to net zero.

New Zealand’s NDC or Paris target, however, lumps all of the gases into a singular goal of reducing emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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This confusion extends beyond just Johnson, however. Another briefing released to Newsroom, preparing Shaw for a February meeting with the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner in New Zealand, Laura Clarke, reiterated concerns that the British don’t understand New Zealand’s climate work and once again raised Johnson’s misconceptions.

“We understand that the UK government (and possibly others) may be under the misapprehension that New Zealand has excluded livestock methane from its Paris target,” officials wrote.

“This was raised during Prime Minister Ardern’s call with Prime Minister Johnson in December 2020, during which PM Johnson asked what New Zealand planned to do nationally citing our agricultural emissions. It is possible the UK may have been confused by the separate 2050 target levels required under the Zero Carbon Act. Your meeting with the High Commissioner provides an opportunity to clarify New Zealand’s approach to livestock methane.”

Under a section headed “New Zealand’s NDC and methane”, officials wrote that “the PM and officials have sensed some misunderstanding on the part of the UK”. Shaw was told to “Reaffirm New NDC target is economy-wide; it includes all sectors and gases”.

Bronwyn Hayward, a political scientist at the University of Canterbury and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author, told Newsroom the international reaction to New Zealand’s targets was understandable.

“As a political scientist working on climate locally and internationally, I am not surprised about the confusion. It is confusing and having a split target will raise a lot of diplomatic tension no matter whether New Zealand feels confident that a split gas target has a strong justification,” she said.

“Whether we like it or not many of our trading partners will want the more straightforward system where each government can reassure its own population the playing field is even and no country’s policy sector is getting a better deal.”

Shaw told Newsroom that the UK and other countries now have a “better understanding” of New Zealand’s climate ambition than they did when the briefings were written, between December and February.

“I have to say, this was always going to be the challenge for us internationally by having a target in our legislation that’s a split-gas target, versus how we represent it internationally. Because internationally, we roll it all into one and we just report it as an all-gases target,” he said.

“Certainly, because we’ve got what you could describe as a nuanced position, when it comes to communicating that internationally, it is challenging. It’s not surprising that when you’ve got a position like ours, it’s open to misinterpretation.”

NZ’s Paris target falls short

In a statement to Newsroom, a spokesperson for the British High Commission said the UK “is in regular contact with the New Zealand Government on climate change issues, including in the run-up to COP26, which the UK is hosting in partnership with Italy.

“We welcome the Climate Change Commission’s recent recommendations to bring New Zealand in line with the Paris Agreement target, and recognise New Zealand’s expertise in agriculture – including as a founding member of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Emissions.

“New Zealand and the UK will continue to share a close partnership on climate change issues ahead of COP26 and we look forward to seeing a revised NDC that reflects the highest possible ambition.”

New Zealand’s current NDC commits us to reducing emissions to 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 – although we expect to achieve some of these reductions by funding carbon-cutting projects in other countries. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has pledged to reduce emissions to 68 percent below 1990 levels by the same date and 78 percent below 1990 levels by 2035.

This discrepancy was also addressed in the documents. Ahead of his meeting with Clarke, Shaw was told to emphasise that while New Zealand’s emissions have risen since 1990 (and the UK’s have fallen), we have experienced greater population growth.

Plus, officials added, “Our starting points were different. New Zealand emissions had increased 25 percent between 1990 and when our first target began in 2008, so getting to 1990 levels and then to -11 percent on 1990 levels requires a lot of effort. The UK’s emissions were already 16 percent below 1990 levels when their first target began.”

When asked whether criticism of New Zealand’s ambition by other countries was fair, given they didn’t fully understand our policies and targets, Shaw said it was “mixed”.

“Many of these countries have got net zero all gases targets and we don’t. So they are planning to offset their residual methane, whereas that’s not part of our domestic ambition. So in that sense, they’ve got a higher level of ambition than we do,” he said.

“On the other hand, we are the only country in the world that is currently building a measurement, management and pricing system for agricultural emissions reductions. Some of our challenge back would be to say, we think it’s great that they’ve got this level of ambition, but what are they actually doing about it on the ground?”

He also emphasised New Zealand’s “very close relationship” with the UK and said the country was very helpful in shaping New Zealand’s zero carbon legislation.

UK not alone

Hayward said the discrepancy between New Zealand’s targets and the UK’s would raise further doubts overseas about our commitment to climate action.

“Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that other countries are looking hard at New Zealand, so we also have to keep our eye firmly on our pledges and our actions. If we want to be an honest broker in the international community, we need to be taking fast, real action to reduce emissions,” she said.

“We have gross emissions reduction target for methane contained in our legislation and I’m pretty sure nobody else in the world has got that,” Shaw said.

“So in that sense, we’re going further than, we think, anybody, when it comes to agricultural greenhouse gases. But it’s sort of one of those things where the proof has to be in the pudding. You have to actually not just make a commitment but have a plan for achieving that as well.”

Clarifying New Zealand’s climate ambition wasn’t Shaw’s only task. In briefings ahead of virtual and in-person meetings with a range of British officials, Shaw was asked to inquire about a “Plan B” for the COP26 climate summit, currently scheduled to be held in-person in Glasgow in November. Even as late as February of this year, however, New Zealand officials wanted clarity about the possibility of the summit going virtual or being postponed if the pandemic made in-person attendance impossible.

The UK wasn’t the only subject of concern from New Zealand officials.

In a February 11 briefing, officials detailed the outcome of a virtual meeting between New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador, Kay Harrison, and her French counterpart, Stéphane Crouzat.

“In addition to a broad discussion on ambition, climate diplomacy and the prospects for COP26, Crouzat asked about New Zealand’s approach to methane and seemed possibly to be under the illusion that methane was left out of New Zealand’s targets, which we remedied.”

The French Embassy in New Zealand was unable to respond before publication.

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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