Should we care Jacinda Ardern has skipped every UN climate summit? David Williams reports

Actress Lucy Lawless and climate scientist Jim Salinger popped to Parliament in November 2009, with flowers, an over-sized boarding pass, and a cheque for $4781.

The Greenpeace-organised stunt was designed to guilt Prime Minister John Key into attending that year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Key was busy, apparently. He said later, unconvincingly: “I was probably out getting lunch or something.”

Lawless and Salinger told assembled media that international progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions required heads of state to make it happen. Sending bureaucrats or other representatives was a cop-out, they said.

Lawless quipped: “He’s a man, he can change his mind [about going to Copenhagen].”

Key who previously argued the talks were basically a photo opportunity, said it was appropriate New Zealand was represented in Denmark by Environment Minister Nick Smith, given a binding treaty was unlikely to emerge.

As the summit approached, however, United States President Barack Obama confirmed he would attend, putting pressure on negotiators to reach a deal. Obama’s appearance also put pressure on world leaders.

Key, probably to Lawless’s surprise, did change his mind.

Hopes were high.

As the late Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said at the time: “I do know that you don’t get 100 world leaders coming to a conference where they expect to get no deal.”

History tells us a lukewarm deal emerged, which Fitzsimons dismissed as a “tragedy for humanity”, “papered over with some fine-sounding words by Obama”.

Fast-forward to this week, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, late in her second term of office, has failed to attend one annual international climate summit – known as a “COP”, a conference of the parties, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (Copenhagen was COP15, and this year’s event is COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.)

It’s an interesting position for a Labour Party leader, one might think. Helen Clark might not have attended one, but her government didn’t declare a climate crisis.

At her post-Cabinet press conference at Parliament on Monday, Ardern said she was attending the East Asia Summit, in Cambodia, and APEC in Thailand. “Whilst I have no reason why I wouldn’t choose to in the future, perhaps, attend a COP, the scheduling does make it difficult.”

Yet, while Ardern spent the first part of the week in Wellington, more than 100 world leaders made their way to Egypt without scheduling problems.

Leaders like Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, who blasted rich countries for attaining prosperity at the expense of the poor – and then forcing poor nations to pay again.

“We were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution,” Mottley said. “Are we now to face double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution? That is fundamentally unfair.”

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano, together with 100 Nobel peace prize laureates and thousands of scientists, urged world leaders – even those not present – to join a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged nations to uphold all climate commitments, while Alexander Van Der Bellen, Austria’s President, channelling climate activist Greta Thunberg, lamented there is “too much blah, blah, blah, and far too little concrete action”.

Even Britain’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, made a brief appearance at COP27, after a U-turn John Key would have been proud of.

US president Joe Biden, who will also attend the East Asia Summit, heads to Egypt on Friday. But Ardern has another scheduling clash to resolve – the Women’s Rugby World Cup final in Auckland on Saturday.

“I’m seeing what’s possible,” the prime minister said on Monday. “I would love to be able to fulfil my role as Prime Minister at the East Asia Summit and also my role as Prime Minister here supporting the amazing Black Ferns. I’m seeing if I can do both.”

But not Egypt.

“New Zealand Prime Ministers have not routinely attended COP meetings,” a spokesperson for the PM tells Newsroom in an emailed statement.

The statement continues the line about a scheduling clash: “Given the Prime Minister is attending the upcoming APEC and East Asia Summit meetings in November it would not have been possible to include COP in Egypt in that travel.”

Professor Bronwyn Hayward is disappointed but understanding. Photo: David Williams

“It’s disappointing that the New Zealand Prime Minister isn’t going for some of it,” says Bronwyn Hayward, a professor of political science and international relations at University of Canterbury.

“But it’s understandable, because we are seeing a no-show from the leaders of Canada and Australia, who we probably are most closely linked to in terms of attending these kinds of international events.”

Those countries are also quite aligned in gross greenhouse gas emissions.

Between 1990 and 2020, New Zealand’s emissions rose about 21 percent, to 78.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Over the same 30 years, Australia and Canada’s gross emissions increased by 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Compare that to the US, with a 7.3 percent drop, the UK, down 49 percent, and Germany, down 44 percent, and you can understand some of the international frustration about the gap between New Zealand’s rhetoric and action.

“Despite all the other criticism about [former British prime minister] Boris Johnson, he was extremely focused on climate change,” Hayward says.

Ardern told journalists at Monday’s post-Cabinet briefing it was appropriate for James Shaw, the Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister, to represent New Zealand at Sharm el-Sheikh. (Shaw leaves on Friday.)

“He applies Cabinet collective responsibility and represents New Zealand’s interests well at COP— always has.”

Yet he’s a minister outside Cabinet whose climate ambitions have been frustrated by his Cabinet colleagues – both on an emissions reduction target (since increased), and a push to include agriculture in the country’s net zero commitments.

His pleas for a massive green stimulus after Covid-19 hit, fell on deaf ears.

Shaw has his own view. Asked by Newsroom if the PM should attend, he said: “There are conferences of the parties where it would be important to have a prime ministerial intervention. I don’t think that this event is one of those.”

On Monday, Ardern said she’d been at great pains to lift the profile of climate change within the Asia-Pacific. “I don’t think anyone would question my commitment to climate change,” Ardern said on Monday.

Here’s an unfortunate sample of Newsroom headlines over the past few years:

The Ministry for the Environment’s emissions tracker sums up inaction from successive governments. When Key went to Copenhagen the country’s conditional target for emissions cuts by 2020 was 10 to 20 percent lower than 1990 levels. (A global recession put that target on the back-burner.)

Even using net emissions, which include carbon sequestration like forestry, 10 percent lower than 1990 levels would have meant 2020 emissions of 39.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Instead, admittedly after the global financial crisis, the 2020 figure is 26 percent higher, at 55.5 Mt CO₂-e.

Attending COP is a decision for the prime minister, National Party leader Christopher Luxon says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Hayward shifts the conversation. She says if the argument is the Prime Minister should go to Egypt then so should the Leader of the Opposition.

“We need continuity, no matter what happens.”

There is a modicum of political balance at COP27, as the National Party confirms its climate spokesperson Scott Simpson is attending.

A spokesperson for National Party leader Christopher Luxon says attending COP is a decision for the Prime Minister.

“But after declaring climate change as her generation’s nuclear-free moment, her Government has failed to deliver any meaningful change.”

He adds: “Labour is now importing more than a million tonnes of coal a year – almost three times more than when National was in government.”

(In May, Shaw said the Labour-led Government had taken more action on climate change over the last four years “than the combined efforts of governments over the last four decades”.)

Should Luxon attend the climate summit? He says the National Party is comfortable with just Simpson attending.

Hayward looks past COP27 to next year; not to COP28, to be held in the United Arab Emirates, but to New Zealand’s general election. She’s nervous.

The country is agonisingly close to solving a huge gap in our climate policy, Hayward says – pricing agricultural emissions through the climate partnership with industry called He Waka Eke Noa.

“These are pragmatic issues that need to be ironed out, and National could be offering really concrete leadership.

“The issues now from He Waka Eke Noa are things like, how do we recognise that beef and sheep farming is in a different position to dairy? How do we recognise and acknowledge and account for farms that have protected forests on their land and are not grazing those?”

Hayward’s worries next year’s election campaign will degenerate into US-style political polarisation, with parties taking easy pot-shots, and inflaming anger, to cynically play on societal divisions.

“It’s easy to fire up the farmers to be angry. It’s easy to fire up the urban communities to be feeling that the farmers aren’t doing their bit.”

The He Waka Eke Noa negotiating team is quite close to getting “a sensible outcome that reflects the diversity of farming needs”, Hayward says. Sealing the deal will require goodwill, and trust.

“We really need to find a way that we can climb out of our political stalemate on this, and actually just do some practical problem-solving, because we’re pretty close to a really good agreement.”

Luxon says, via email, National supports a price on agricultural emissions “but want to work with the farming sector on what that looks like”. He then uses a line often used to justify not putting a price on agricultural emissions.

“New Zealand has the world’s most carbon-efficient farmers, so the balancing act here is to put a price on emissions without sending production offshore which would raise global emissions.”

Really, though, if National needed the ACT Party to form a government, and ACT’s policy is to scrap He Waka Eke Noa, does National even have a choice?

“It is too early to be talking about potential coalition partners and talks,” Luxon says. National is committed to reducing carbon emissions, he says, and there are various ways to achieve that. Curiously, he specifically mentions “capturing and storing carbon”.

As the debate about emissions pricing goes on, the climate continues to change.

One interested observer is Jim Salinger, who staged the PR stunt for Greenpeace in 2009 to get Key to Copenhagen.

The climate scientist, who now lives in Queenstown, says the country’s heading for another summer heatwave, and the world is on track for temperatures 2.5-3C above pre-industrial levels.

“That’s seriously warm. The last time we were like that was in the Pliocene and of course sea levels were dramatically higher … and there wasn’t much ice on the globe, as far as we know.”

The signs of climate change are everywhere. At the local fish shop, Salinger heard snapper was being caught off the Fiordland coast a few weeks ago. “Talk about the fisheries moving – that’s huge.”

Salinger says it’s very good Shaw is going to COP27 because he’s got the best climate knowledge of any minister, and he understands the economics as well. But the scientist’s disappointed Ardern won’t be going, and hasn’t attended any COP summits as prime minister.

“Given that she’s declared it’s her generation’s nuclear-free moment, she should have been to at least one to experience what goes on,” he says.

“With what’s happening with the climate these days, it doesn’t stop, and it will affect all the future generations.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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