On the road to Net Zero, the next step is to update our UN pledge

By Robert McLachlan

A lot has happened since the UN’s report on 1.5ºC was released in October 2018. New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Bill has passed, and enshrines the 1.5ºC goal in law. The UK and France have also legally strengthened their targets to Net Zero 2050. The School Strike For Climate and Extinction Rebellion have become household names. But progress on the ground is slow:

Under the Paris Agreement, each country lodges a “Nationally Determined Contribution”, or NDC. This is one reason why the Paris Agreement is regarded as a breakthrough in climate negotiation. The NDCs will be updated every five years and must reflect each country’s “highest possible ambition“. The first update is due at the end of 2020, with the UN recently releasing a progress report.

Despite Jacinda Ardern’s speech at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit on 23 September, New Zealand does not appear on the list of 70 nations that have said they will enhance their NDCs by 2020.

Our current NDC calls for a 30% reduction in net emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. (Because emissions skyrocketed during the 1990s, that’s equivalent to nearly double our 1990 levels). Climate Action Tracker has rated our NDC “insufficient” (consistent with global warming of up to 3ºC) and our projected emissions “highly insufficient” (consistent with global warming of up to 4ºC). Of the Zero Carbon Bill, they remark that “New Zealand has very few policies to implement this bill.” Globally, emissions have to halve by 2030 to stay on track for 1.5ºC.

(It’s surprising to be in the same category, “insufficient”, as Australia. But Australia is a world leader in the shift to renewable energy, installing a staggering 5 to 6 GW of new wind and solar every year – three times as much per capita as the nearest competitor, Germany.)

And how is our target looking?:

If you’re struggling to see how that target (the green line, 70.5 Mt net emissions in 2030) is a 30% decrease on 2005 levels, welcome to the topsy-turvy world of carbon accounting. The target is for net emissions, compared to a baseline of gross emissions. In 2005 gross emissions were 83.3 Mt. So our present target allows us to increase net emissions (currently 56.9 Mt) massively over the next decade.

But hang on, we’re not done yet. How is net emissions of 70.5 Mt a 30% reduction from 83.3 Mt? (Hint: it isn’t.) The answer lies in further carbon accounting. As our NDC says, “In meeting its target New Zealand intends to use international market mechanisms” – in other words, by buying international carbon credits (an activity that got us into trouble in the past). On the other hand, the Zero Carbon Bill says that “Emissions budgets must be met, as far as possible, through domestic emissions reductions and domestic removals”, a requirement that was strengthened further as the bill progressed.

These two things appear to be in conflict. But as of today, a focus on “international carbon markets” is one of New Zealand’s priorities at COP25, which opens in Madrid on 2 December.

Some of these issues will be worked out in time, in particular through the Climate Commission’s carbon budgets; the budgets for 2022–2035 are to be announced in March 2021. In the meantime we need a new Nationally Determined Contribution that reflects true accounting, our “highest possible ambition”, and genuine cuts to emissions.

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