Analysis: A diplomatic liability for the incoming National-led government has already reared its head before any ministers have even been sworn in.

On Wednesday at the Pacific Islands Forum, Vanuatu’s Climate Change Minister, Ralph Regevanu, called on National not to reinstate offshore oil and gas exploration in New Zealand.

“We call on them not to do it. To be in line with Paris, the 1.5 degree target, the science says you cannot do new fossil fuels.”

The move caught National off guard, with foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee having told reporters just hours beforehand he didn’t expect Pacific leaders to comment on the oil and gas policy.

The next day, Brownlee said he hadn’t underestimated the importance of this subject to the Pacific, before arguing that Pacific countries rely on fossil fuel extraction elsewhere, such as New Zealand.

“The Pacific would be a pretty unliveable place in modern terms if it weren’t for fossil fuel. And they are all entirely dependent on other countries extracting that fuel and supplying it to them. It’s really important to focus on the long-term goal, which is the 2050 targets and Paris and to keep your commitment up to those.”

National’s problems will only be compounded in the coming weeks with the COP28 climate summit. Though high-ambition nations, including New Zealand, have spent the past year pushing hard for a concrete commitment to a global phase-out of fossil fuel usage, the new government’s first major action in this area will be to backtrack on oil and gas exploration.

Even worse, the country may get kicked out of a coalition of high-ambition nations – the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance – which requires members to have taken steps to end fossil fuel extraction. New Zealand was among the first associate members of the alliance when it was created in 2021 and it would be awkward, to say the least, if it were expelled during the climate summit.

In September, the International Energy Agency reiterated that there can be no development of new oil and gas fields if the world wants to limit warming to 1.5C. In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that even half of known gas reserves and 30 percent of known oil reserves must stay in the ground for a shot at keeping warming to 2C.

New Zealand was hailed by climate advocates in 2018 when it made the decision to bar further offshore oil and gas exploration. That helped reignite its reputation for being a climate leader. Trading on this and other actions such as the creation of the Emissions Reduction Plan and Zero Carbon Act, New Zealand has launched a new climate diplomatic strategy of being a loud and dogged voice for emissions reductions globally.

That influence will wane as National starts implementing its own climate plans, which will largely look like a step backwards, at least at first.

Though it has a policy to make it easier to consent renewable electricity, National has also pledged to can a raft of Labour-era measures. Alongside the offshore exploration ban, it has promised to get rid of the Clean Car Discount, delay agricultural emissions pricing by up to five years, end subsidies to help the public and private sectors decarbonise, and drain the Climate Emergency Response Fund to pay for tax cuts.

The poor reception for National’s climate plans in Rarotonga is partially to be expected, given the importance of climate change to the Pacific. But it will be replicated in other forums and with other countries as well.

Germany’s climate change envoy Jennifer Morgan was more circumspect when she spoke to Newsroom about the incoming government’s climate policies, but she did say there wasn’t an economic or climate case for investing in new fossil fuel extraction.

Renewables are “a pathway that I think could really meet the economic and climate needs of New Zealanders and avoid the risk of stranded assets, which clearly I’m sure any government wants to be doing that”.

Overall, New Zealand needed to be doing more than it is, not less, she said.

“It’s really clear at this moment in time that all countries, including Germany, including New Zealand, just have to step it up. We have no time for going backwards, we have to go forwards, we have to increase the pace and scale of change. We’re very much looking forward to learning what the new New Zealand government will be putting forward, keeping that in mind.”

If National is seen as taking New Zealand two steps backwards for every step in the right direction, it will face increasing pressure at diplomatic summits, including from traditional high-ambition partners such as Germany.

It’s one thing to greenwash your plans and policies to the electorate, who don’t have the policy nous to know what will work and what is just virtue signalling, but it’s another thing to try to convince the world you want to lead on climate while restoring the ability for companies to mine for oil and gas five years after it was first removed to broad acclaim.

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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