Zero Carbon: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law

By Robert McLachlan

Two years into New Zealand’s Labour-led government, the long-delayed Zero Carbon Bill became law on 7 November. Passed essentially unanimously, the lengthy public debates and political manoeuvring faded away until the final passage was even anticlimactic:

So it’s worth remembering just how significant this new law is. We will start seeing action almost immediately. (The previous emissions target, not set in law, was for a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050, with no plan how to get there.) The Climate Change Commission will determine the first three carbon budgets (covering 2022-2025, 2026-2030, and 2031-2035) by February 2021, and the government will respond by the end of that year. Judging from experience in the UK, those budgets will have to show more or less a straight line to net zero by 2050. That’s completely different to where we are heading now.

Our gross CO2 emissions in 2017 were at their highest level since 2008. Land transport emissions jumped 6% in one year alone, and, with the fossil-fueled vehicle fleet continuing to increase by 140,000 vehicles each year, that’s likely to continue for some time. Clearly the Commission is going to have to recommend some strong measures. Very soon we will find out what the Zero Carbon Bill is made of.

No
No
Not this either
Caution

While some other countries have net zero targets in place, when this bill was introduced in May, only Norway and Sweden had set the targets in law. Since then, France and the UK have followed suit. Significantly, these laws are an effort to respond in detail to the 1.5ºC target and to base national plans around the science reported by the IPCC.

New Zealand has learned from processes that have worked elsewhere, notably the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which attempts to balance science, public involvement and the sovereignty of parliament. Ireland and Sweden are also following this model.

The few tweaks to the bill since its introduction have mostly strengthened it.

First, the Climate Change Commission will now make recommendations on gross emissions reductions and offsets through planting trees. This is vital, as current roadmaps to reach net zero by 2050 involve planting enormous numbers of trees, and (because landowners can be paid for the carbon stored in the trees) there are signs of a “Green Rush” already under way, despite questions about the net environmental and climate impact of plantation forestry.

Second, the focus has shifted slightly to emphasize domestic reductions over purchasing overseas reductions. Good news, since our track record in the latter is appalling.

Third, legal accountability has been strengthened slightly, although there is still no legal recourse if a carbon budget is missed.

Fourth, the Commission is now asked to advise in 2024 on whether to include international aviation and shipping in the target. At first sight, this is disappointing, since this is a large area of emissions that is at present unaccounted for and that is growing rapidly. The next five years should be spent making a start on what is known to be a difficult area. For example, the UK’s CCC is already trying to get their government to include these emissions. The EU has pointed out that jet fuel is effectively subsidised, and has proposed that it be taxed at 57 cents per litre to level the playing field. Even Air New Zealand, in their submission on the bill, did not ask for this delay.

Remember that global emissions are still rising. Even in the best-performing countries, substantial progress so far has been limited to essentially one area, electricity. We need to get the right agreements and structures into place so that when we start tackling harder areas like industry, transport, and buildings, we can find strategies that work and that everyone can get behind. That’s what the Zero Carbon Bill does.

It’s a massive achievement.

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