23 April 2020
The government has opened the way to pledging a tougher carbon-cutting goal under the Paris Agreement.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has asked an independent panel - the Climate Change Commission - to look at New Zealand's pledge for the decade between now and 2030. The current pledge is to cut emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels.
Shaw has asked the commission to advise on whether the target is adequate to enable New Zealand to do its bit to keep the world under 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels.
If the commission decides the target should be tougher, New Zealand might pledge a more ambitious cut before the next major global climate meeting next year. The government isn't bound by the commission's recommendations, but must give reasons if it doesn't stick to advice on matters such as New Zealand's emissions budgets.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to keep global average heating to less than 2 degrees Celsius, or ideally, 1.5C. That would give humanity the best possible chance of avoiding the costliest impacts of climate change, virtually all countries agreed.
But every country has the freedom to decide its own targets to help stay inside that temperature, by making individual pledges called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Currently, the sum of countries' NDCs has the world on track to greatly overshoot 2C - and many countries don't appear to be on track to meet their pledges
"The first NDCs were lodged at the beginning of 2016...we were one of first countries out of gate but the world has moved on tremendously since then," said Shaw.
The next big international climate conference was originally due to take place later this year, in Scotland. Nations had a chance to submit more ambitious pledges before the meeting.
Shaw said the government had originally planned to get the climate commission's advice on a new pledge in time to announce any changes before the conference. However, delays getting New Zealand's zero carbon law through Parliament meant it hadn't been possible to do that, because the commission didn't exist until recently.
By coincidence, Covid-19 lockdowns have meant the conference in Glasgow has had to be delayed.
Now, New Zealand might have time to announce a new target before the next meeting, if the commission recommends a different NDC.
The public will have a good indication of what the commission is thinking before it reports to the government next May, because the commissioners will consult the public before giving their verdict.
A separate, but related, task for the commission is looking at how much New Zealand agriculture will have to trim its methane, the most fiercely contested aspect of the current zero carbon law.
The current target in New Zealand domestic legislation is a 24-47 percent drop by 2050 and a 10 percent drop by 2030.
Shaw said he'd received feedback that the 2050 target for methane might be "so broad as to be unhelpful". With debate still swirling about the correct goal for methane, and where to aim within that range, he wanted the commission's independent opinion. "That's why we set up the commission, to de-politicise the whole process," he said.
The minister has asked the commission to supply advice on how much New Zealand's methane – mostly from animal burps – must fall to be on track for a 1.5C goal.
New Zealand's zero carbon law aims to get the country carbon neutral by 2050, with a lighter target for methane, which is not as long-lived.
One major development since the NDC was announced is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change putting out its 2018 report on limiting warming to 1.5C.
That report laid out the scale of the challenge, and highlighted how much suffering and cost could be avoided if nations managed to stay under 1.5C.
Countries have some freedom about how to measure their progress – and New Zealand has copped criticism domestically for using "gross-net" accounting. That means the 2030 target is for net emissions (including the carbon sink of forests), but it is measured against our 2005 gross emissions, meaning net emissions can grow and New Zealand still meet its commitment.
Shaw said the issue of gross-net accounting was not something he'd specifically asked the commission to look at it, but the terms of reference were broad enough that they could if they wanted to. "The important thing is to actually reduce emissions in gross and net terms, so to the extent to which the accounting methodology obfuscates that, it's unhelpful," he said.
The announcement that the NDC is under review was timed so Shaw could inform an overnight meeting of the Alliance of Small Island States.