NZ in Durban: delegation gone mad? Or just business as usual?

By Cindy Baxter 05/12/2011


It’s getting embarrassing here in Durban. I’ve had a veritable flood of people come up to me in recent days saying things like “what the hell is your government doing?”

The NZ Government has been pretty bad in these negotiations over the last few years, but things appear to have taken a turn for the worse, in multiple directions.  I’m wondering what’s going on.

Let’s take the “easy” one first.  Kyoto.

With Canada, Japan and Russia on their way out of the Kyoto Protocol, there are a lot of discussions on how one could carry it forward without them.

One possible solution is the idea of “provisionally” implementing a new commitment period, from 2013-2017. This would mean that it wouldn’t legally “come into force” but parties to the Protocol could agree the new rules, and implement it anyway, if they all agreed to do so.

This can happen under the “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” (1969), that NZ has signed up to. Not so, says the NZ delegation. This would be a breach of the constitution.

But a quick look on the MFAT website makes me think they are being a bit daft.  Maybe they were too busy to read the MFAT document: “International Treaty Making: Guidance for government agencies on practice and procedures for concluding international treaties and arrangements” written in August 2011. That’s – erm – about four months ago.

This guidance, presumably for delegations like this one in Durban, spells out the rules of the Vienna Convention, ie, that: “Provisional entry into force of a treaty may also occur when a number of parties to a treaty that has not yet entered into force decide to apply the treaty as if it had entered into force.”

This is precisely what is being proposed.    Indeed, we have done this with a number of international treaties already.   But is NZ just looking for excuses to get out of Kyoto?  Meanwhile I’m off to the printer to get the delegation a few copies.

The “honest, guv” emissions trading regime

Next up, emissions trading. Personally, I don’t think that emissions trading are a proper way to stop climate change.

Doing something to stop climate change somewhere else in exchange for doing nothing at home seems like a weird way to go about things, when we all know that ultimately we should cut our own emissions and be done with it.

It has always seemed a bit cheaty to me and I know I campaigned hard to stop it from happening way back in the day when Kyoto was being negotiated. But setting that aside for a minute, let’s look at the proposal our Government is trying to push here in Durban.

Under the “flexible mechanisms” for emissions trading, NZ is proposing that the rules – erm – have no rules. The environmental groups were onto this, and NZ won its first “fossil of the day” (2nd place) on Friday.

“They want to be able to use any market mechanisms they wish with absolutely no oversight or international review. There would be no way to ensure that the units from one mechanism have not been sold two or three times to another such mechanism. This would likely unleash a wild west carbon market with double or triple counting of offsets and a likely increase of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.” I’m calling it the “honest, guv” rules – ie you just have to believe what we say.  I’m sorry, but that’s just nuts, especially from a Government that doesn’t seem to like cutting emissions very much.

The “I’m alright jack” rules on forests

Let’s now turn to the forests. NZ has always been pretty bad in the conversations here about Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation REDD.

That’s the stuff that deals with the emissions from deforestation. First I might remind you that in NZ we have protected our forests.  Long, hard battles have been fought – and were resoundingly won with the historic NZ Forest Accord that banned the cutting of native forests on private land. Our native forests are protected – and so they should be. But not everyone is in the same boat.

But when it comes to the REDD discussions, NZ’s perspective is taken purely from the point of view of our pine plantations. They’ve long been a point of contention between forest owners and government. NZ has always pushed hard to get everyone to accept our “special circumstances”.  But in Kyoto, someone has special circumstances for almost everything – and that would make for extremely messy international agreements.

The problem is that the forest nations, like Brazil, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, have beautiful old growth forests that MUST be protected, not only for climate reasons, but also for the biodiversity and indigenous peoples who live in them. So it’s important to get the international rules right for these forests, the lungs of the earth.

So it is with the “reference” levels in REDD.  These are like a baseline from which to measure emissions from deforestation.  NZ has proposed that instead of looking at historical behaviour, (our proven rate of deforestation), the rules are based around “projected reference levels” – what we think we might do in the future.

It’s all incredibly complicated, but essentially the NZ delegation is being very creative in trying to invent new ways of getting more Kyoto credits for our plantations so that we don’t have to cut emissions elsewhere. That’s all very well for us, but if you put this regime onto, say, the Amazon, it is unlikely to stop them slowing the rate of deforestation there, which is one thing we need to do to save the planet.

Hot air

You just can’t make this stuff up.  The rest of the world is trying to come up with a way to deal with the Russia “hot air” problem but NZ is terrified that the solution on the table means we might lose some of our own little stash of hot air that we got from Kyoto’s loopholes around accounting for land use change and forestry. Heaven help us if we have to actually cut emissions instead of carrying over credits that we shouldn’t have in the first place.

I am still struggling to come up with an answer on what the hell “my” government is doing.   Nick Smith was coming, now he’s not.  Brendan Burns, sorta understandably, isn’t coming as planned, as he doesn’t know if he’s got a seat in Christchurch Central.   Tim Groser is apparently coming this week, but my hopes aren’t high that he’ll change much.  Is the delegation running loose while their bosses are in turmoil back home?

But what I do know is that these people are definitely not representing my views, nor considering our Pacific Island state neighbours.   Cheating and lying doesn’t stop climate change.

Or perhaps they’re too busy representing Business NZ and the Forest Owners Association, both of whom have a representative on the official NZ delegation?

ps the timezones are almost 12 hrs difference to NZ so I won’t be replying to comments in a hurry.