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Climate policy vs. Princess and the Pea – better to stick with the story-books

by Kennedy Graham

As we all now know, we are running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.  Twenty-one years after Earth Summit and the UN Framework Convention, we are still to strike a global agreement that will bind all countries to curb and then reduce emissions to stay under the 2°C threshold.

In fact, we are about a decade behind schedule, having meant to bring such an agreement into force in 2013, immediately following the end of the Kyoto Protocol’s 1st commitment period.  The way things stand now, we are negotiating for an agreement that will come into force in 2020 – about a decade too late.

So, how are things going, even on the slow timetable?  Well, slowly. The 19th UN climate meeting in Warsaw last month called for countries to do their preparatory work this year with a view to adopting the text in Paris in December ‘15.

The UN resolution adopted in Warsaw urges countries to get real.  The time for smoke-and-mirrors is over. It warns that climate change represents an ‘urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies, future generations and the planet’.  It notes that the elements of a draft negotiating text would be considered by the Parties in Lima in December ’14.  It therefore invites all parties to initiate or intensify their domestic preparations for post-2020 national contributions, and communicate these by the 1st quarter of 2015.

Then the parties sloped off home.

But the Europeans take this stuff seriously.  The EU commenced work immediately after the Warsaw resolution.  Member country ministers urged the Commission to adopt a target for 2030 of at least 40%.  This, incidentally, would be a domestic EU reduction target, that is to say, not one dependent on the purchase of external Kyoto credits (mainly CERs acquired through projects in developing countries).  “It is essential”, said British, French, German and Italian ministers, “that we get an ambitious agreement if we are to avoid the most serious and damaging effects of climate change”.

By 24 January, the EC had reached agreement. After considerable debate, they decided on the 40% target.

But how, dear Lord, is New Zealand going to respond?  We were as silent as a mouse during Warsaw.  So I thought the Government might appreciate an opportunity to address the NZ public on the matter.  Yesterday I asked the question: will the Government be announcing a target for 2030, if so, when?

‘No’, said Minister Tim Groser.  For “multiple good reasons, no”.  The exchange is here. In short, the reasons the Minister gave for refusing to announce a 2030 target were the following:

  1. We already have an aspirational target of 50% for 2050.
  2. We also have a 5% unconditional target for 2020, which is marginally better than Australia, Canada and the US.
  3. Try to implement a 40% cut for New Zealand and you will ‘destroy the economy’.
  4. Picking figures out of the air without reference to a country’s national circumstances is ‘insane’.
  5. It is ‘insane’ because our forestry works on a 27-year rotation cycle, and by 2040 our forests will become a carbon sink again.
  6. The EU is projected to be about 25% off 1990 levels by 2020, so a 40% cut ‘looks entirely different’.
  7. The EC had failed to agree on a 27% increase for renewable electricity, which was a difficult ask of the European Union ‘because of its actual national circumstances’.
  8. What we need is a comprehensive, internationally-binding agreement that deals with the problem, not the 1.4% of emissions New Zealand contributes.

Brief answers to the Minister’s reasoning will suffice.

  1. What the UN COP-19 is calling for is not the 2050 aspirational target; it is a target for the Paris agreement that will apply to post-2020 and is relevant essentially to the period 2020-40.  That is why the EU is doing it.  Yet again, New Zealand, under Tim Groser, is being gratuitously truculent.
  2. The 5% unconditional target for 2020 revels in the company of the other pioneer societies, all of which are irresponsibly below the range recommended by the UN-IPCC for 2020: between a 25-40% cut.
  3. Every economy will be destroyed by dangerous climate change.  The challenge for 2015-20 is to commence a decarbonisation transformation through strong price signals in which all participate and no-one is unduly financially hurt (unless they wilfully oppose the transformation) That requires political leadership.—skills of a kind that the Minister lacks.  His Prime Minister has those skills but not the wisdom or depth of understanding to deploy them on climate policy.
  4. Nobody is picking figures out of the air. The UN-IPCC made it clear, back in ’07 (Synthesis Report, Box 13.7) that for the 2°C threshold, developed countries would need to reduce from 1990 levels between 25% and 40% by 2020.  The range is designed to account for national circumstances.  No developed country, whatever its circumstances, can be below the 25% lower limit, or it is failing to ‘do its fair share’. The ’92 Framework Convention identifies as one of its basic principles the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ of all countries – something this Government is developing a weird antipathy towards.
  5. Forestry plays a supplementary role to reductions in gross emissions, as was made clear in the Kyoto Protocol of which New Zealand remains a member.  To place a national climate policy on the vagaries of forestry planting that reflects non-climate related market conditions only, with spikes and falls from the 1990s to the 2040s, is a policy failure of monumental proportion.  Insane, really.
  6. The reason the EU is on target for 25% by 2020 is because it commenced serious policy from the ‘90s, while New Zealand fluffed around.  We are not exonerated from global responsibility simply because we have developed an agricultural-based economy. Our gross emissions could have been reduced – at least the 50% non-agricultural – and we have failed to do so.
  7. Here the Minister got himself badly confused. The EC actually did agree on a 27% target for electricity renewables for the EU, and that target is also binding.  It decided not to recommend national targets so as to accord intra-Union flexibility – that is the whole point of the EU. It is astonishing that Mr Groser can make this kind of mistake, in such cavalier manner. It denotes incompetence or wilful deception. Either one is unacceptable.
  8. It is time the Minister dropped the pathetic ‘we are so small as to be unimportant’ plea – it is demeaning to his country and contrary to the national spirit that was born in Gallipoli.  Neither the Europeans nor our Pacific neighbours regard us as unimportant.  The point of percentages, Minister, is that it reduces disparities to comparable dimensions.  New Zealand has the same obligation to reduce by an agreed percentage as do the largest countries.  It is not rocket science, but it is beyond the Minister.

In his State of the Nation address, President Obama said that he wanted to be able to look his grand-children in the eye and say we did all we could.  I conveyed that insight of political emotion to Mr Groser.  He said he reads The Princess and the Pea to his mokopuna.

I am glad he does.  I wish him well, and more particularly his family.  But it is time he stood aside and gave them a chance to inherit a half-decent planet.

02/01/2014 – 14:12


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