Newsroom senior political reporter Marc Daalder details some of the key potential changes to keep an eye out for in today’s package of advice from the Climate Change Commission
ANALYSIS: At noon today, the Government will table the final advice from the Climate Change Commission in Parliament.
This will be an updated version of the extensive package of recommendations the commission released on January 31, which called for “transformational and lasting change across society and the economy”, suggested caps on the amount of greenhouse gases New Zealand can emit by 2035 and said the Government needed to significantly increase the ambition of its Paris target.
After a two-month consultation period and furore from environmentalists and fossil fuel lobbyists alike, the commission delivered its final advice to Climate Change Minister James Shaw in May.
The degree to which the commission might have bowed to pressure or remained confident in its advice is one of the key things to look out for when the details are revealed at noon.
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The big question: Will the commission’s budgets stay the same?
In January, it advised the Government on what its emissions budgets for three successive five-year periods should be. Between 2021 and 2025, the commission recommended, the country could emit 273 million tonnes, for example. The next two budgets shrink further.
While the Government is obligated to set emissions budgets by the end of this year, it doesn’t have to choose the commission’s. But after the release of the advice, Shaw and Jacinda Ardern said they would accept the recommended budgets.
In the months since, climate activists have called out the commission for a perceived lack of ambition. The budgets are not consistent with New Zealand meeting its obligations under the Zero Carbon Act to reduce emissions in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels, they say.
In part, this is a result of the commission’s accounting method (more on that later). In part, it is a result of its decision to limit the use of exotic forestry to offset emissions and to rely only on technology that works at scale today. These activists say New Zealand can and should make steeper cuts to emissions.
For example, the commission’s pathway would see New Zealand’s emissions by 2030 fall 21 percent from 2010 levels. While this is bold, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report on 1.5 degrees found global emissions would need to be 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030.
“We say that when the Act says its purpose is to ensure that New Zealand contributes to the global effort to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, the only way you can really interpret that is to say that we will do at least what is required by the world as a whole to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. Otherwise you are not contributing to achieving that goal, you are contributing to failing to meet that goal,” Jenny Cooper QC, the president of Lawyers for Climate Action New Zealand, told Newsroom in March.
Carbon accounting is another critical issue, also raised by the climate lawyers. The commission chose to smooth the carbon-sucking impact of a given plantation forest over the entire lifetime of the patch, while New Zealand has traditionally calculated emissions absorption from forestry in “real time”, with a plantation sequestering carbon while it grows and then releasing carbon when chopped down.
While the commission’s approach (called modified activity-based accounting) avoids big swings in emissions that result from the country’s 30-year plantation forestry cycle, it also presents what Cooper called a “misleading” image of the ambition of the commission’s pathway.
Under the usual land-based accounting method, for example, the commission’s pathway would see New Zealand’s emissions in 2030 rise to 15 percent above 2010 levels.
Were the commission to restructure its advice to follow land-based accounting, this would produce all-new budget figures. Likewise, if it chose a more ambitious pathway, new budgets would also be required.
If it has indeed rejigged its emissions budgets, that will pose a new challenge for the Government – will it again heed the expert panel’s advice or will it decide the approach is too ambitious or not feasible?
Also key will be the advice on New Zealand’s emissions reduction target under the Paris Target. The commission told the Government the target – which hasn’t been changed since it was set by the National government in 2015 – was “not compatible with global efforts”.
However, what would be compatible with global efforts wasn’t clear. The Government’s current target is to reduce net emissions to 30 percent below gross 2005 levels. The commission said a fitting target would involve “much more” than a 35 percent cut on those same metrics, but said the exact target would have to be set by the Government.
Shaw has been clear in the months since the release of the draft advice that he would like a narrower range from which to choose. He reiterated that to Newsroom on Tuesday, saying, “I’ve made sure to stay independent of the advice they’ve formed. I did make public statements that I thought that the range that they had given us was very wide and that it would be helpful to have a narrower range.”
One final thing to look out for in the advice is the approach to specific industries. Certain industry groups have called on the commission to rethink its estimates and assumptions around their role in the country’s decarbonisation.
One of the commission’s most controversial proposals involved a ban on new natural gas connections to homes and commercial buildings. This was greeted with outrage from gas fitters and lobbyists for the oil and gas industry alike.
The commission’s projections for the diminishing role of exotic plantation forestry in helping New Zealand meet its targets were also the subject of consternation in some quarters. Euan Mason, a professor at the University of Canterbury’s School of Forestry, wrote in his submission to the Commission that “the conclusions that we must plant native forests and that these forests will greatly help us reach our 2050 target are flawed”.
He also said the budgets were not ambitious enough and would “perpetuate the very transactional, ineffectual approach that has seen New Zealand do virtually nothing to mitigate climate change up until now”.
Finally, the most important thing to come out of today’s announcement will be the Government’s reaction to it. In January, the Government embraced the draft emissions budgets but demurred on specific policy proposals contained within the advice. The degree to which it welcomes, rejects or hesitates will be critical in scoping out the likely ambition of the Emissions Reduction Plan due later this year.