By Guest Author 11/12/2015

Outgoing Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser says he’ll be “gob-smacked” if the COP21 climate talks fail to deliver a new accord. He spoke to New Zealand Herald reporterJamie Morton in Paris about his hopes for a deal, New Zealand’s position and leaving politics.

We’ve got a New Zealand delegation here that includes both Labour and the Greens. Is this what you’d like to see more of going forward?

We have an understanding that there are certain policy frameworks in New Zealand which take decades to put in place, and where you need a very high degree of consensus – particularly amongst the two major parties of Labour and National – on at least a structure of a policy response.

You can have an argument about the speed of adjustment, and that’s legitimate – we might want to go faster on trade than Labour and they might want to go faster on climate change than us, we can live with that – but what we can’t live with is radically different policy structures.

So one day, New Zealand’s free trade, and the other day we’re protectionist; one day New Zealand has got an emissions trading scheme, the other day we junk it.

We’ve seen this in Australian politics – where the complete absence of any broad consensus between the Australian Labour Party and the Australian Liberal Party on the core response to climate change has been the most divisive issue there in the last five years.

We don’t want that.

But can this happen in our political reality – particularly with some of the big measures the Green Party has proposed on climate change?

I was a bit annoyed with the Green Party at the last election, and said it publicly at the time, for precisely that reason.

I do not believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with the emissions trading scheme.

What is fundamentally wrong with its effects is the collapse in the international carbon price and that meant it was not driving any real adjustment.

So that’s the reason behind the closing of the window to the importation of some international units, which has raised the price from about US10c to about NZ$8.

And we are looking now at a review of the ETS.

What I didn’t appreciate was that Russel Norman – then leader of the Green Party – saying you want to throw the policy structure away and have a carbon tax.

I can guarantee you what that would have done – it would have set us back on a cycle of internal political conflict, which would have repeated exactly the problem in Australia.

But I think Labour and the National Party have a broad consensus on the main policy response and legitimate arguments about the speed of the response and the role of complementary measures to back it up.

Image: World Bank 2014, State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2014. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Image: World Bank 2014, State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2014. Washington, DC: World Bank.

We are addressing our methane emissions through science, but before 2030, is there any further give we can get from the transport and energy sectors?


I think the key to this is still how costs are going to fall in different bits of this puzzle, starting most importantly with the cost of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

At the moment, they’re beyond the reach of most New Zealanders – although when I say that there’s a very interesting concept you have to introduce.

According to the advice we get, 60 to 70 per cent of all new cars are bought by fleet managers, not mum and dad.

So this is really intriguing – and what we have to do therefore is shift the purchasing model of the fleet managers to a more whole-of-economy comparison.

And Simon Bridges, in his capacity as Minister of Transport, Energy and Associate Minister of Climate Change, has been having discussions right here in Paris with a number of major motor vehicle companies at an energy conference that is going on parallel to this one.

He is leading a work programme in the Government to look at this project and it has got a lot of buy-in from big energy companies, like MRP, Contact and others.

So I have a sense momentum is slowly building, but it’s not there yet.

So few is the number of electric vehicles on the roads in New Zealand – even though we did remove the road user charges on them for a certain period of years – that there’s no market there.

We are trying to work our way through that.

Everyone is on board now with the idea that we could leverage New Zealand’s enormous strength in renewable electricity to start to decarbonise the non-electricity side of our energy equation, which is pretty much the same thing as transport.

Renewables: our head start for decarbonisation
Renewables: our head start for decarbonisation

And how fast that goes is a really interesting question, because we’ve seen with things like smartphones how disruptive technologies can move up a parabolic curve and just destroy everything.

I guess we are just basically hoping that that’s what’s going to happen.

And looking at the international trends here, every single motor vehicle manufacturer in the world has now got a programme of electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.

The Japanese are also looking at technology using hydrogen – and intriguingly they’ve even come to New Zealand to see if they could use New Zealand’s renewable electricity to manufacture them.

But to sum this issue up, we are not prepared to drive the economy into the ground on this and see our unemployment and household costs rise.

We have taken here [a 2030 emissions reduction target] commitment of a minus 30 on a 2005 base – and this means, according the modelling that officials have given us advice on, it’s going to cost every New Zealand household $1350 dollars a year extra.

And that’s not a trivial sum for middle New Zealanders – but that’s about where we think, politically, the sweet spot lies.

But, absolutely, if we can find that there is a very intriguing shift that we see in technology, both on methane and agriculture and on electric vehicles and transport – and if that accelerates – well I think a future New Zealand government would be able to be much more bold than we feel it is prudent to be at the moment.

Our current Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is an attempt to put a finger in the air now about what the New Zealand government in 2032 is going be held to account for.

And I’ve said many times, in public, that it seems to me deeply implausible that you would have a situation where what this government decided in 2015 was going to be held to account for in 17 years.

And I think you’d have to be a bit of a pessimist to believe that in the next five, 10 or 15 years, a future New Zealand government looking at this will come to any conclusion other than we can do more.

Here at COP21 we’ve heard about the concept of introducing five-yearly reviews for emissions reduction efforts. What are your thoughts?

I’m very much in favour of them.

I have told my negotiators not to get stuck in the mud on the precise year they’d start.

We are talking about something aimed at the end of the century – so that’s not the big game – but there have to be reviews.

Because the advice we’ve got from the International Energy Agency is that these offers that have been made from these INDCs – which we’ve now got from about 180 countries covering, over 90 percent of emissions – are equal to 2.7C [of warming] by the end of the century, which is clearly not enough.

There have got to be reviews.

We’ve also heard a lot of talk around aiming for a target of limiting warming by 1.5C, rather than 2C. But Victoria University’s Professor Dave Frame says he’s worried people are seriously talking about this without first committing to a cumulative limit consistent with 2C. What do you think?

I’m well aware of Professor Frame’s concerns – and he is one of New Zealand’s leading climate change scientists, a member of the IPCC system and completely personally committed to the climate change issue.

His consistent position – and I personally find it very convincing – is that the number one issue, is in fact, CO2.

We have a problem here because the existing model that was developed in Kyoto, and which will be replicated here, is to put a whole lot of other gases together with carbon dioxide.

But his view is that while there are a variety of other objectives you could prioritise – and some of them are very worthwhile – if you are worried about global warming, it’s carbon dioxide.

And he therefore is taking a very long-term view in saying just concentrate on the realisable goal of 2C.

I don’t want to take an absolute position on this, because our Pacific Island friends are so concerned about their position – and we understand that – and we want to show a bit of flexibility.

At the end of the day, I believe we will find a solution to put some words in there that recognises that below 2C, by the end of the century, is the absolute minimum the planet can live with.

And it would be a damn sight more desirable if we got below 1.5C.

There’s a dozen different ways of expressing this but that’s where the landing zone lies.

Marshall Islands lead Pacific voice at COP21
Marshall Islands lead Pacific voice at COP21

This week, we also saw the development of a “high ambition coalition” of countries grow around a number of small nations.

The effort led by the Marshall Islands on 1.5C is something we’ve lived with politically now for about a year and a half.

So in that respect it’s not remotely a surprise and I’ve had discussions with Tony de Brum, the foreign minister, both in Paris and at the Pacific Conference we had chaired by French President Francois Hollande on exactly this issue.

But overnight, what we thought was six countries from the Pacific has grown bigger than King Kong – so I am now trying to get more information on it.

But fundamentally, we have sympathy for them.

We were at the Pacific Island forum, where Prime Minister John Key and the Australian prime minister were able to find quite a smart political solution to this – and I’m sure we can find it here.

We don’t exactly know what the scope of this is – is it broader than just a 1.5C target? Or is it about more ambition than INDCs? That would cause us problems.

But New Zealand wasn’t approached to join it?

We are trying to find out the background to that right now, but the substance of it is pretty plain.

It started from this long-standing 1.5C concern rather than locking in 2C and we’ve already indicated we are happy with that.

What do other countries think of our climate stance here?

It depends – if you ask professional negotiators, they think New Zealand has made a huge contribution and that includes the United States and China.

If you ask youth groups and green groups, you’ll get a different answer.

Our climate change ambassador here, Jo Tyndall, has signalled that we’re not likely to get what we were specifically after with this deal – which is detailed principles and guidelines around land use, free access to carbon markets. If that turns out to be the case, is that going to a big problem for New Zealand?

No, I don’t think so.

One of the reasons I’m very optimistic we are going to get this deal done is precisely because we are not going to settle all the details.

And some of the details, particularly with respect to land use, land use change and forestry – and that means agriculture as well – we are not going to settle those details.

And I’m not sure that I want them to be settled here – we need a lot more science and a lot more work done on this.

But the main thing is we don’t get an agreement here that stops New Zealand developing rational policies that look after both the environment and the economy – and I’m very optimistic we’ll get that.

So do we need some kind of morsel in the agreement that can help take us forward?

Exactly – and my negotiators are reasonably comfortable with the direction of travel here.

And access to free carbon markets?

It’s exactly in the same box.

So unless you are prepared to drive the economy into a hole so New Zealand can put up a big bold number without getting access to markets – and we are not prepared to do that as a Government – we’ve got to have the safety valve of being able to buy mitigation from countries which do have these opportunities.

At the end of day, from a purely climate change point of view, it doesn’t make any difference where the mitigation occurs.

I’ve used the analogy when I was a part of a panel yesterday that most of the people who have arrived here at this conference did so in a bus, or in a car, and that would have added up some minute amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The reality is that if I was at home in New Zealand and drove my car to work, there would be exactly the same climate change effect.

France’s emissions wouldn’t have gone up by my minute amount of carbon dioxide – New Zealand’s would have – but actually, climate change doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

So if we paid the French to reduce theirs because we think we can’t do much about ours and they can – lower abatement costs – that’s actually good for the environment.

Now, it ain’t as simple as that, because there is a lot of legitimate concern about the use of markets and the lack of environmental integrity around some of these units.

Because, if I’m paying you, country X, taxpayers’ money to reduce your emissions and you are cheating, either by giving fictional data or even worse, scams, not only is that doing nothing whatsoever for the global climate, but you would see as soon as these scams become public, public support for using New Zealand taxpayer money would evaporate.

So what we are trying to do – and very successfully at the moment – is build up a coalition of countries large and small.

We don’t need a whole lot on board and we are working our way through a process which will provide a work programme for developing carbon markets on the back of the Paris agreement, assuming we get it.

All we need now is to be sure we are not stopped from doing this.

Thousands of cities and companies have stepped forward to pledge their own climate action. What dynamic will this bring to the global effort?

I’ve often said that this is a very refined thing, these international, multi-lateral negotiations you’re seeing here.

And if you’ve seen it for the first time, you must feel staggered by what you see.

There are 40,000 people here.

But it’s not the whole game.

You shouldn’t judge mankind’s response to climate change just by what’s going on in Paris here today.

You should be looking at all manner of different things, including, most important of all, the technology which is moving alongside and consistent with what we are trying to politically achieve here.

But it’s not just about federal governments – other besides them absolutely can play a major goal.

In the case of COP, there’s still the responsibility of governments at the end of the day to take the economy-wide target.

But if cities can in a sensible way, without screwing up their own economic development, take climate change policy friendly policies on then I can’t see anything other than positive flying from it.

Cities are doing their own bit to reduce emissions
Cities are doing their own bit to reduce emissions

What’s your gut-feeling about striking a deal here in Paris?

I absolutely have a gut feeling about it and that’s why I’m optimistic.

I will be gobsmacked if we fail because of that.

You’re leaving your positions of Minister of Climate Change Issues and Trade next week ahead of your new role as New Zealand’s ambassador to the US. Do you leave with any regrets in these portfolios?  

Only an idiot and Edith Piaf, who famously said “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Regret Nothing) can say they never have regrets.

So yes, I have regrets in leaving.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every minute of political life, goodness me no, but I’ve really enjoyed the responsibilities in trade and climate change and, partly by luck, the change comes at an obvious break point in terms of my responsibility.

So in terms of trade, we’ve got [the Korea free trade agreement] over the line – it was formally announced yesterday that it’s coming into force – and most importantly of all, the Trans-Pacific Partnership into line.

It’s time to move on, and the next generation can do the iteration of trade agreements.

With respect to climate change – and I’m assuming my optimism will not be misplaced – when we get this long term comprehensive agreement in place in Paris, then it’s the start of a new era.

So it’s kind of satisfying bookend to a political career.

I’m also very, very proud of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and that’s starting to get traction.

Nobody else was doing anything about agriculture – so I proposed it, obviously with the backing of Cabinet, back in Poland in 2008, and it’s going like a train.

There’s also the fossil fuels subsidies reform.

I’m extremely disappointed at the political reaction of some people who focused on an obscure interpretation of some obscure New Zealand policy and attacked this initiative that New Zealand led.

I’ve done in a lot in this space and it’s time to move on.

I spent over 10 years in politics, which is nearly a quarter of a professional life time.

It doesn’t feel like that.

And now I’m very excited by trying to contribute to New Zealand-US relations.

*Jamie Morton travelled to Paris with support from the Morgan Foundation and the NZ Science Media Centre.