Getting New Zealand back on target

IMG_2227 crop1In late 2012, New Zealand declined a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and opted for a non-binding emission reduction target for 2020 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. On 16 August 2013, the Government finally named its 2020 target: a 5% reduction below 1990 levels.

Not only is the 2020 target weaker than the previous conditional pledge of a 10-20% reduction, but it applies only to a single year, leaving unspecified the responsibility for emissions from 2013 through 2019. The Government has not yet explained how the country will meet this target, how it will count surplus units from the previous period, or whether the Treasury will record target compliance as a financial obligation, as was the case under the Kyoto Protocol. Without this information, it is hard to know what the target actually means. Legally, the only check on New Zealand’s performance will be international reporting and the power of public opinion.  Time will tell.

According to its media release, the Government believes it has “carefully balanced the cost to New Zealand households and businesses against taking ambitious action to tackle climate change.”  Climate Change Minister Tim Groser was quoted separately in the media as saying, “Unless we get a serious international effort, anything we do with the ETS or subsequent to it is a complete waste of time.”


While the target is disappointing, the more alarming news here is that New Zealand is ignoring the need for low-carbon development. With an economy heavily dependent on agriculture, forestry, international tourism and shipping, we are lumbering into a future of global carbon constraints and climate impacts. This double-barreled shotgun should make us rethink what we consider a cost and why more ambition could produce substantial returns on our investment.

Where do we stand today? Between 1990 and 2011, our emissions excluding forestry increased over 22% and this does not count international transport fuels, which increased 39%. Our per capita emissions in 2010 were the fifth highest among developed countries. We now rely heavily on forest growth to offset our emissions but expect major harvesting in the coming decades. Our emissions trading scheme is structurally sound but has not been adapted to changing times, and we have lost a meaningful emissions price to drive investment decisions. We will lose direct access to the full Kyoto carbon market after 2015. Alongside land-use conversions from forestry to agriculture, we are pursuing Roads of National Significance and oil and gas exploration.

Being small and unique is no rationale for weak action. When it comes to climate change, everyone has unique circumstances and everyone is too small to fix this problem. This is why we need a collective and cooperative response. About 169 countries each emit less than 1% of global emissions (excluding forestry) yet together they contribute over 25%. Each US state except Texas emits less than 1% of global emissions. Subdividing responsibility does not make it go away. The negotiations to date have proven that waiting to do anything until everyone agrees on everything does not serve our country or our climate, nor does it influence others as much as demonstrating real solutions. 

Here is the good news. The Government’s weak target need not stand in the way of shaping a thriving and resilient low-carbon future for New Zealand. We can choose to reduce our emissions not because we have to under a global treaty, but because we want to, because it makes sense for New Zealand and we refuse to settle for anything less as responsible global citizens. 

A first step is to start a conversation about how smart climate action can serve New Zealanders both now and in the future. We need to create an effective low-carbon development strategy with broad public and cross-party support. The 100% Possible campaign on renewable energy is a great step in this direction.

Second, we can deepen our commitment in our homes, businesses and cities. We can use less electricity and transport fuels, generate our own renewable energy, reduce our waste, modify our diet and change our purchasing behaviour. We can set our own targets and beat them. We know firsthand that consumer demand can be more powerful more quickly than complex negotiations. 

Third, we can demand change from our leaders. They need to know that we will cast our votes according to what they do about climate change.

As change flows outward from individuals to organisations, communities and government, perhaps we can shift as a country from deflecting responsibility and defending entitlements toward facilitating cooperative action. Globally we are interconnected and interdependent, so ultimately none will thrive unless we all do.  And isn’t that what we all want?

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