Climate Change Minister James Shaw says New Zealand has finally taken a side in a global diplomatic battle over the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

In an interview with Newsroom, James Shaw said a range of countries – including the “petro-states” – have been attempting to undermine the global climate accord since it was signed in 2015. Under a new diplomatic strategy seeking to preserve the hope of limiting warming to 1.5C, New Zealand will fight back against those efforts.

A rough outline of the approach is available in a briefing from officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Shaw, obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act. Titled “Fighting every tonne”, the new strategy positions New Zealand as a leader in pushing for global emissions reductions, rather than a fast follower or a consensus-builder.

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It links in the findings of recent IPCC reports, that global emissions must peak well before the middle of the decade if warming is to be halted at 1.5C.

“2025 provides a focal point – 1.5C requires peaking of emissions by 2025. Working back, over the next three years what does the world need to do? How can we make that happen?” officials wrote.

The strategy consists of turning that science into specific key actions and points of inflection, mapped over the next three years. New Zealand will “seek wins constantly throughout the period (ie not a build to 2025, but consistent chipping away)”. Like-minded countries would work together diplomatically and economically to accelerate the transition, and the advocacy would occur not just at climate summits but all international forums – “wherever possible”.

New Zealand itself will be “loud, consistent, and dogged in pursuit of mitigation outcomes”.

Officials said they were working on translating the science into policy goals and reaching out to other countries which were similarly marshalling their efforts “after the disappointment of COP27” in Egypt.

“You need to pick a team, because there is a fight going on here and we need to work with other countries who are as alarmed as we are about the risk that we’ve passed that 1.5 degree threshold in the next few years,” Shaw said.

Shaw told Newsroom this was a new avenue for New Zealand.

“First of all, the international context since Paris is that it’s clear that there is a group of countries that are working very hard to try and undermine the Paris Agreement. They were never really on board in the first place. And you see this continual effort – particularly by the petro-states but not exclusively – to try and introduce language into the COP decisions at every COP which essentially re-litigate Paris or Glasgow,” he said.

“What we’re saying is, we need to fight that. New Zealand’s traditional stance has been very much the kind of enemy-of-none, friend-of-all-type of approach. Where we’ve said, ‘well, a consensus outcome that moves the world forward is better than nothing’. And so we have generally adopted a stance of trying to support the multilateral system in arriving at an outcome on the basis that that outcome would be better than the status quo.

“What we’re saying now is, you need to pick a team, because there is a fight going on here and we need to work with other countries who are as alarmed as we are about the risk that we’ve passed that 1.5 degree threshold in the next few years. And we need to be as coordinated and as firm and as uncompromising in that as those other countries are in trying to undermine it.”

New Zealand is able to adopt this strategy because it has begun to take action domestically.

“We didn’t really have a leg to stand on for a really long time as well. It was difficult for us to take a leadership position internationally when our own transition was so anaemic,” Shaw said.

“So I feel like whilst we’re only really nudging at bending the curve at the moment, we’ve started the ball rolling and it becomes easier for us to go, ‘Actually we are doing what we need to do to start that transition’. Therefore we can have a bit more integrity when we go out and say to the rest of the world, ‘Yeah look, we need to get rid of fossil fuels subsidies. Actually, we need to get rid of fossil fuels.’”

Otherwise, the sort of loud diplomacy New Zealand is adopting might seem hypocritical. Absent the domestic action, “you’re just talking through a hole in your head”, Shaw said.

Diplomats are meeting right now in Bonn for the regular mid-year climate summit, which sets the stage for the major annual COP at the end of the year. This new approach is already being used there, but it may not be visible to the public.

“Most of it will be, really, to do with the stances that we take into the room. We’re getting a bit more active in the run-up to COP in the shuttle diplomacy that is occurring in the background between countries or country groups,” Shaw said. New Zealand has also closely coordinated this pivot with Australia, which is chairing the powerful Umbrella Group of non-European, climate-concerned countries.

Bronwyn Hayward, a professor of political science at the University of Canterbury and an IPCC author, said New Zealand hasn’t historically taken a proactive position like this. Though she hasn’t had access to the diplomatic negotiations, she has seen Kiwi representatives during the IPCC negotiations over many years.

“Certainly, New Zealand’s always used the line of being a fast follower,” she said.

“As a scientist who has been in the room at the science negotiations, it would be very welcome. There certainly is a very difficult battle now to ensure that mitigation remains on the agenda and is real and has integrity.”

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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