Climate Change Minister James Shaw at yesterday's NDC briefing

New Zealand is lagging so far behind and starting so late to reduce its Greenhouse Gas Emissions that most of the reductions it will pledge at the Glasgow Climate conference, which starts today, will come from arrangements it makes with other countries to effectively buy from them the real reductions they make.

The actual tonnage of GHG gases emitted from New Zealand up to 2030 will decline but not by nearly as steeply a path as that implied by the headline reduction figure Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, will take to Glasgow.

Initial media reports yesterday headlined a reduction in New Zealand emissions of 50 per cent by 2030.

The joint press release from Shaw and Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, headed “Govt increases contribution to global climate target”, took 17 paragraphs before it conceded that New Zealand would meet most of its commitment with offshore deals.

At his media briefing yesterday afternoon, what Shaw was saying was carefully worded.

Shaw: “ The amount of pollution that New Zealand is responsible for in the year 2030 will be just shy of half of what it is today, right? That’s what we’re announcing today.”

Media: “But only a third of that comes from us.”

Shaw: “That’s why I’m saying the pollution that New Zealand is responsible for in the year 2050.”

It turned out that what he meant by “responsible for” was not only reductions that would be made in New Zealand but also the offshore deals it would make.  

And he conceded that two-thirds of New Zealand’s target would be met by offshore deals.

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He said that was likely to cost between $900,000 and $1.5 billion a year.

“Our hands are tied by our history and the fact that we failed to reduce emissions or get our economy ready,” he said.

“And I’ve said this over and over and over again, which is that the longer you leave it, the steeper the decline.

“And of course, what that means is that because we’ve left it for three decades and our gross emissions have risen over the period of time when they were supposed to have fallen, we have this accumulated momentum in the economy.”

Shaw (and the Cabinet) have rejected Climate Change Commission to make big cuts in emissions between now and 2030.

In its advice to the Government on carbon budgets up to 2025, the Climate Change Commission proposed a cumulative GHG emissions target to 2030 of 568 million tonnes of C02 equivalent gases (MtC02).

Shaw yesterday announced that the Government had settled on a target — called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)  of 571 MtC02 explaining the difference away as a consequence of the frequently changing baselines used to measure climate change by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But the Climate Change Commission had asked for more.

“Our advice is that the NDC should reflect emissions much lower than just aligning with the middle of the IPCC interquartile range,” it said in its report.

“This means emissions of much less than 568 MtCOre over the 2021-2O3O period or reductions of much more than 36% below 2005 levels by 2030.

“How much stronger the NDC should be beyond this is a question for elected decision-makers, given the social, political and ethical judgements involved.”

Shaw defended the decision not to go further with reductions because it would not be “feasible”, and he suggested that the Labour Cabinet had turned down his own proposals.

Shaw was asked whether New Zealand’s NDC target was equitable.

”It’s not going to surprise you to learn that I would like us to be doing a lot more, particularly when you look at those kinds of equity principles and ways of measuring it,” he said.

“I think we should be doing a whole lot more, especially given the kind of rubbish record historically.

“So, that is there, but the alternative is committing to something that we can’t deliver right now.

“There may be a point during the course of the coming few years where something opens up that we haven’t baked into our assumptions, and that changes everything, and that would be great.

“And then I think at that point, we really want to ratchet up ambition.

“And as long as I’m in this job, I will be looking for ways to strive to do more constantly.”

The Climate Change Commission always accepted that considerable offshore mitigation would be required.

“We estimated that if the current NDC had to be met solely domestically, an additional 52 MtCO2 e would need to be reduced over the period in addition to the effort required to meet our proposed emissions budgets,” it said.

“Any combination of actions to deliver so much mitigation in so short a time would require large scale cuts to economic output across Aotearoa.

“For example, closing iron and steel production from 2025 would bridge less than a third of the gap. In addition, it would require either cuts to all agricultural output of the order of halving output by 2030.

“Alternatively, it would require imposing tight restrictions on private transport use – beyond those that saw the need for careless days in the 1970s – alongside broad cuts to agricultural output.”

But Shaw remains optimistic that it will be possible to get greater reductions domestically than are proposed in the NDC using what the Commission called its “Tailwinds’ scenario, which would be a more rapid and comprehensive replacement of fossil fuels in transport and industry with electricity and through the advent of technology, agricultural biogenic methane reducing by 47 per cent by 2050.

“Cabinet has said that our top priority in this NDC is domestic investment because that increases the likelihood of the commission’s tailwinds scenario occurring,” he said.

“It doesn’t guarantee it, but it increases the chances that it will happen.

“And that means that if you do, then you can rely less on having to work with other countries.”\

Shaw said there were things that could be done to invest in the domestic economy, which would increase the chances of a tailwind scenario.

“Things that will really transform;  the hydrogen economy, for example. So your transport fuels move a lot more quickly than they otherwise might.

“So Cabinet has prioritized those things, and you will see those things reflected in the emissions reduction plan that comes out around about the time of the budget next year.

“And so what that means is, is that if that happens, then the gap between the domestic emissions budgets and the NDC will be a lot closer.

“But the problem that you’ve got is that you’ve only got nine years left.”

Apart from the offshore deals, the other great climate change fallback position is afforestation.

The Climate Change Commission says net long-Jived greenhouse gas emissions are projected to fall by around 75 per cent by 2050 under current policy settings.

“These net emissions reductions come mostly from increased carbon removals, with 1.1 million hectares of new forest, mostly exotic, planted by 2050.”

That increase compares with a Ministry of Primary industries estimate that there are currently 1.7 million hectares planted in exotic production forests.

But if the Tailwind scenario occurred, then there would be greater gross emission reductions from the removal of fossil fuels and conversely less need for exotic forests.

The Climate Change Commission has estimated that deep reductions in gross emissions in the 2050 targets could be met with a significantly smaller area of new exotic forestry than would occur under current policy settings: a total of 570,000–760,000 hectares to 2050.

The next step — after the Glasgow conference – will be for the Government to bring down a detailed Emissions reduction Plan, probably around the time of the budget next year.

The most recent United Nations International Panel on Climate Change report, published in August, painted a bleak future for the global climate.

It provided new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades and found that unless there were immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even two °C would be beyond reach.

“There aren’t a lot of good news days when it comes to climate change,” said Shaw.

“We’re still looking at 2.7 degrees of warming.

“We need to be looking at a 1.5-degree world.

“The IPCC said three years ago that we had about ten years to cut our emissions roughly in half.

“Currently, that is not the collective plan of planet Earth.

“So we absolutely need to be constantly looking for ways to do more.”