The Ardern Government has two months to prove to New Zealanders and the world that it’s serious about climate change, writes Rod Oram

While the rest of the world works intently on the imminent UN climate negotiations, New Zealand is limping off to the sidelines.

* The global climate debate is shifting fast from “pain to gain,” as Carbon Tracker astutely analyses in this piece.

* More countries, such as in the EU and elsewhere, are progressing their zero carbon agendas. An ongoing series by Bloomberg describes some of their achievements and setbacks.

* The Biden Administration is pushing hard in Congress and beyond to build a powerful US mandate for Glasgow.

* Some but not all countries increased their climate pledges by the July 30 deadline mandated in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

… to name just four examples.

And the pace will only escalate rapidly in the countdown to the October 31 start of COP26, the UN negotiations in Glasgow.

But with 44-days to COP, New Zealand is backsliding fast.

* The Ardern government has yet to announce our improved pledge to tackle the climate crisis. This Nationally Determined Contribution is now two months overdue under UN rules.

* It has postponed its Emissions Reduction Plan for five months. Our Zero Carbon Act mandates a December 31 deadline for this formal response to our Climate Change Commission’s carbon budgets and pathways. Now the Government won’t deliver its final Plan until next May at best.

* It’s unclear Climate Change Minister James Shaw will go to Glasgow. With so much on the domestic political agenda he needs to know when he’ll get home; Climate Ambassador Kay Harrison, our top climate official, is leaving for pre-COP negotiations starting in Italy September 30 not knowing when she can return.

The Government causes such ridiculous situations by refusing to guarantee senior politicians and civil servants places in quarantine, for fear of showing favour if they do. Even though they are doing utterly essential work for us, and contributing to humanity’s efforts to forestall climate calamity.

Meanwhile the Bangladesh cricket team has come to New Zealand not once but twice this year, as have a string of entertainers and sundry other characters. Over coming months, the Government has guaranteed quarantine places to 450 foreign fishermen, 298 Defence Force personnel and 70 mountain bikers among others.

Like King Canute, Prime Minister Ardern believes she can defy nature. She thinks nature will wait while she gets on with other things. But it won’t. The climate crisis is escalating rapidly. Scientists prove it. We see it.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans, for example, live in a county hit by a weather disaster in the past three months, according to Washington Post analysis of federal disaster declarations.

We can’t hide down here in the South Pacific. Climate systems are global. So is the climate crisis. Only a global response will work. The longer our Government delays its response, the greater the damage, the higher the cost, and the lower our chances of mitigating disaster here at home.

The Government offers a lame excuse for its decision to delay the Emissions Reduction Plan. It says the country is too focused on eliminating the current Covid surge to think much about climate now.

That’s utter nonsense. Many people and organisations have been very deeply engaged on climate for years. Particularly last year and this year as the Climate Change Commission prepared then delivered its draft and final recommendations to government.

Civil society is doing its job. We’ve provided invaluable evidence and insights to the Commission and the Government, in and out of successive lockdowns. We’ve shown we can do more than one thing at a time. People are ready right now to respond to the draft ERP.

But the Government is failing to do its job. It can’t even deliver the plan on time. Its Covid-obsession isn’t the problem. Its lack of political integrity, skill and will is. Not to mention its inability to get the best out of our public sector.

The government also offers a Budget excuse for the delay. “It also allows the Government to align the final plan with Budget 2022, so people can see how its delivery will be supported through Government investment,” Climate Change Minister Shaw said.

That makes no sense. Successive government have always set their core architecture and themes for each budget late the previous year. If Ardern’s government had delivered the ERP on time, Finance Minister Grant Robertson could have realigned the 2022 budget to trigger deep systemic economic and social change needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Instead, the later the government serves up its ERP, the weaker the plan’s influence will be on the 2022 budget. The government will waste another vital year.

The Government’s also failing to confront vested interests. It can’t bring itself to tell them: “We won’t protect your cosy status quo. Get on with making your future, and help New Zealanders make theirs.”

If the Government hopes the rest of the world won’t notice it’s missing in climate action, it has no sense of purpose or history.

A paltry New Zealand performance in Glasgow would be obvious to other nations, particularly those who have suffered far more from Covid than we have. They’d miss our talent for bringing to the table deadlock-breaking proposals and consensus-building skills. Over many decades, these have earned us a high reputation in climate negotiations and other intentional fora such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and APEC.

Two notable examples in previous UN climate negotiations were:

– In 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen, Prime Minister John Key proposed countries should establish a global research alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases, with New Zealand offering to be the initial secretariat. Strong agreement on it was one of the few positive outcomes in an otherwise disastrous COP.

Twelve years on, the alliance and the work of its 62 member countries is more important than ever. In aggregate, land use changes, agriculture, and food production are the largest source of emissions. Conversely, if they transform themselves globally through climate-compatible practices, they will become one of the best sources of nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. That opportunity for us in New Zealand is even bigger.

– In 2015 at COP21 in Paris, New Zealand negotiators devised a legal solution that made Nationally Determined Contributions non-binding. That broke a deadlock that got major emitters such as the US and China onside. Within a year, all but a handful of small countries had signed, enabling ratification of the Paris Agreement. In contrast, its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, took some seven years to ratify. Even then, the US and some other major emitters never signed.

While NDCs remain non-binding, they are an effective way to get countries to make climate commitments. These then help citizens keep governments – their own and others – accountable for climate goals, policies and actions.

Yes, COPs, hobbled by their vast scale and conflicting agendas, always teeter on the edge of dysfunction. They are extravaganzas of hope and despair, altruism and sanctimony, progress and setbacks, truth and lies.

Still, they are the one place each year nations can come together to test their commitment to tackle the climate crisis, learn lots, judge the performance of others, and foster relationships and alliances.

Our Government is no exception. It has two months, before and during COP, to show us and the rest of the world it can act on climate.

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