James Shaw won’t say whether New Zealand is now doing its fair share in the fight against climate change and the numbers bear out his doubts, Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is confident that her new Paris target for emissions reductions will see New Zealand doing its fair share in the global fight against climate change.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. Asked three times by Newsroom, he demurred each time. Ultimately, he said only that this was the best we could realistically do at this stage and that our hands were tied by three decades of inaction on climate by successive governments.

The new target – expressed either as a commitment to reduce net emissions in 2030 to 50 percent below the level of gross emissions in 2005 or to reduce average annual net emissions over the next decade to 41 percent below 2005 gross levels – does align with the reductions needed globally to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. However, it falls short of a “fair share” target by a number of common metrics, according to Shaw’s own briefing materials.

On a per capita basis, New Zealand’s fair share would involve reducing average annual net emissions over the next decade by more than 60 percent – and in some cases more than 80 percent – compared to 2005 gross levels. If you account for our responsibility for warming since 1850, we would have to reduce emissions by more than 100 percent over the decade, ultimately removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than we contribute to it by 2030.

“Particularly when you look at those equity principles and ways of measuring it, I think we should be doing a whole lot more. Especially given our rubbish record historically,” Shaw said.

“But, the alternative is committing to something that we can’t deliver on.”

New Zealand’s new target – technically called a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC – puts us roughly in line with the commitments by the European Union. The difference is that the European Union expects to accomplish its target through reducing emissions within its borders. Of the 147 million tonnes of anticipated emissions that we must now avoid over the next decade, the Government expects less than a third will be done domestically.

That's the gap between our expected emissions and the Government's new emissions budgets - between 2021 and 2030, about 44 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e).

The remainder will be accomplished through offshore mitigation - either purchasing carbon credits from other countries or working directly with them to fund emissions removals (tree planting) or reductions (the shuttering of a coal plant, for example) that they wouldn't have engaged in without our help.

In other words, current policies would see New Zealand emit 717 Mt CO2e between 2021 and 2030. Through domestic action, we'll reduce that to 673 Mt CO2e, to meet our emissions budgets. And then through offshore mitigation, we'll reduce global emissions by an additional 102 Mt CO2e and claim the credit for it, bringing our emissions over the decade to 571 Mt CO2e - the NDC.

All that said, this is something of a step up from the previous NDC. The National government which set it in 2016 expected up to 85 percent of the reductions to be achieved through offshore mitigation.

Plus, the new NDC actually has us reducing emissions. Under the old one, our net emissions over the next decade would actually have remained flat from 2005 levels or risen slightly from current levels. The new one will see emissions fall by between 20 and 30 percent on a net-net basis, depending on how you calculate it.

This highlights one of the greatest issues with the setting of climate targets - how creative carbon accounting can inflate the apparent ambition of a given commitment.

The new NDC relies, like the old one, on two accounting methods which make it look more impressive than what truly matters for the atmosphere. There are good arguments for why these should be used, but the Government won't be too upset by the side effect of perceived increased ambition either.

One of these accounting methods is gross-net comparisons. Our targets deal with net emissions, counting the emissions removed by our vast forestry sector. But they're compared to the gross emissions of a base year (usually 2005), meaning the percentages look greater than on an apples-to-apples juxtaposition.

The other method is about how to deal with the cyclical nature of forestry harvesting. Because vast quantities of trees will be harvested in the coming decades, our emissions may actually increase as less carbon is sequestered than usual. To ensure our other climate policies aren't overshadowed by this harvesting effect, the emissions impact of the harvest is instead averaged over the entire lifespan of the forest. That means our historical emissions look higher than they actually were and our future emissions will look lower than they actually are.

From the perspective of what the atmosphere "sees", our emissions in 2030 may be less than a quarter below our 2005 emissions - and that's only with offshore mitigation bolstering our efforts. But due to these accounting methods, the headline figure the public will remember and expect is a 50 percent reduction.

That's why Ardern can state with such confidence that New Zealand is doing its fair share, even if the numbers behind the numbers don't bear that out.

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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