Climate Change Commission Chair, Dr Rod Carr

While the Prime Minister last week was filling in for Prince William at a celebrity-laden climate change event in New York, back home, her own Climate Change Minister and his principal advisor were offering a somewhat more sombre read-out of the country’s slow progress towards its climate change targets.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, did concede that New Zealand was not perfect.

“Our journey continues,” she said.

“But we have in recent years established a goal in law to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees.”

What she didn’t say is that the goal is to be achieved by us meeting “net’ emissions targets by offsetting our emissions against other activities, principally planting trees; that theoretically, we could get there by planting so many trees and purchasing so many offshore offsets that we might not need to reduce one kilogram of carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Climate Change Commission Chair Dr Rod Carr has recently been ramping up his warnings that offsets won’t cut it.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw is heeding those warnings and is in the early stages of setting up a review of the Emissions Trading Scheme and its role in encouraging offsets.

This could have profound implications for New Zealand’s preferred offset; planting trees for carbon farming.

Clearly frustrated by the current situation, Shaw, tweeted on Friday: “We are running out of time, and I am running out of patience.

“I’ve said it countless times: we need to protect the climate with a speed and scale equal to the crisis itself.

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“For that, we need more Green MPs in Parliament and more Green Ministers in the next Government.”

Shaw proposed that there be no new coal mines, that agricultural emissions be cut and that we stop importing petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

Currently, the Government is planning to ban those imports by 2040.

There is pressure on Shaw from Carr, who has recently been appointed to an 18-member expert committee to advise UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on climate change issues.

Earlier this month, Carr returned from a two-day meeting of the committee warning that there was growing scepticism about offsets being used to achieve emission reduction goals.

He presented the challenge in a typically blunt speech to the Auckland Climate Change and Business conference last week.

“We have embedded in an emissions trading scheme a reward for plant and pollute that the Climate Change Commission has identified as inconsistent with the long-term sustainability of net zero by 2050 and beyond,” he said.

“Because remember, the target is not just net zero in 2050 but that you get there and you stay there.

“And if the only way we get there is by planting trees and the only way we stay there is by planting even more trees, then we are not meeting our target.

“So one of the questions is, is carbon farming going to break that ETS?

“And the answer to that is if left alone, the planting of Pinus radiata purely for carbon credits will indeed mean the ETS is unable to play the part it should in reducing greenhouse emissions.

“We’re not there yet.

“The government has some time in which to address this matter, and it should do so urgently.”

Carr has convinced Shaw to “address this matter”.

“Carr is getting quite strong messaging that the international community is shifting its position on the balance of net rather than gross,” said Shaw.

“And so I think he’s warming up if you like.

“As he points out, trees generally sequester carbon temporarily, but carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to heat the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

“So drawing down carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through forestry is not equivalent to what we put into the atmosphere.”

Shaw said the Commission had sent the Government advice “that we absolutely have to address the imbalance between net rather than gross. Now we are intending to do that.”

One of the ironies of the Emissions Trading Scheme is that the higher the carbon price, the more attractive it becomes for businesses to purchase offsets.

As an example, DrylandCarbon, a partnership of Air New Zealand, Contact Energy, Genesis and Z, whose website says it has purchased 10,000 hectares of farmland for forestry for carbon credits “to meet their compliance surrender obligations under the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme.”

Carr told the conference that though property rights were involved in carbon farming, it was also a regulated market.

“All participants should also understand that this is a regulated market and there is regulatory risk in this market, and therefore any active participant in the market should be thinking about how is this market going to evolve, given the very clear signals that plant and pollute is not sustainable and not in the national interest as a way of solving our emissions problem,” he said.

“The reality is the world is increasingly sceptical about offsets.

“Net zero achieved with large chunks of offsets is not likely to be acceptable on the global stage.”

Shaw will act on this, but he’s not yet sure precisely what the government might do.

 “This is a very early conversation,” he told POLITIK.

“And I think we’re going to need to do a proper review and look at what the options are.

“And at the moment, we don’t even have a clear idea of what the balance that we want is between gross and net reductions because both are actually important.

“But it’s just that it’s heavily skewed towards net emissions rather than gross emissions reductions at the moment.”

He told the Climate Change and Business Conference that one option might be to have the 90 million  “free” units the Government is scheduled to give to industry before 2030 backed by forestry.

Shaw is not opposed to forestry and net reductions and believes they have a role to play, but the question is how big a role.

“We stick 80 million tonnes (of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere every year, and we pull about 20 million tonnes out of the atmosphere with forestry,” he said.

“And, you know, I would rather that we were pulling those 20 million tonnes out than not.

“But I’d rather we weren’t putting the 80 million up there in the first place.”

And that is the issue. How do we actually get that 80 million tonnes down.