20 years on, NZ’s Rio response inadequate: WWF

By Bryan Walker 30/05/2012

PandalogoThe WWF report this week on how New Zealand has handled its responsibilities since the first Earth Summit 20 years ago is damning on the matter of greenhouse gas emissions. We have failed to measure up to our undertakings given back in 1992 and again in 2002. New Zealand signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on the first day of the that Rio meeting, and subsequently ratified it. We committed in Article 4 to:

“Adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change, by limiting its anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing its greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs. These policies and measures will demonstrate that developed countries are taking the lead.”

The WWF report points out that nothing happened here for the next fourteen years and the country’s greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase. They flattened off after 2007, but that was mainly due to a major drought affecting agriculture and then the subsequent recession. The report considers the Emissions Trading Scheme enacted in 2008 and weakened in 2009 has had limited impact on emissions.

We have clearly failed to set emissions on a downward trajectory.

Transport is selected as an obvious example of New Zealand’s lack of action. At the 2002 Earth Summit, along with other governments we undertook to:

“Implement transport strategies for sustainable development…so as to improve the affordability, efficiency and convenience of transportation, as well as improving urban air quality and health, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

But since the 2002 commitment transport emissions have continued to rise, except during the recent oil spike, and are projected to continue climbing between now and 2020. Emissions have also increased in the agriculture and industry sectors. They rose dramatically in the electricity sector for some years due to an increase in coal and gas-fired generation, but have now dropped back closer to the 1992 level, albeit still 7.5 per cent higher.

The report sees no relief in the projections for emissions forward to 2020. The Government’s own projections show a modest increase in gross emissions during these years, and a larger increase in net emissions (which include forestry and other land use changes). Net emissions are bound to fluctuate over time due to the structure of New Zealand’s plantation forests estate and the report sees gross emissions as the figure we should pay most attention to. It is the gross emissions figure which tells us whether or not we are making the transition to a low carbon economy across the different sectors of energy, transport, industry and agriculture.

The projection of a modest increase in gross emissions looks highly optimistic anyway. Current policy directions don’t support it, the report points out, evidencing plans to expand oil drilling, a major road building programme, facilitating the expansion of dairy farming and encouraging the exploitation of lignite, the dirtiest form of coal. Indeed the proposed industrial facilities to convert lignite into urea and diesel could alone increase New Zealand’s gross emissions by 10 per cent beyond the projection.

The report is suspicious of the Government’s position on carbon accounting. WWF’s analysis strongly suggests that the intention is to create a system of calculating emissions reduction commitments up to 2020 that will enable New Zealand to continue with business as usual – which means steadily rising emissions rather than emissions reductions.

It’s a dismal picture the report paints, suggesting that the Government in fact has no intention of making good on its promises of twenty years ago, thus both contributing to the climate crisis and also damaging the economy by not pursuing low carbon development.

There’s little likelihood that the Government will be moved by WWF’s analysis. The Minister for the Environment Amy Adams claims New Zealand has reason to be proud of its record on the environmental issues raised at Rio:

“I think in terms of other countries and the work that we have done … we can hold our heads very high.”

Pesky organisations like WWF are selling the country short:

“The work isn’t done, we still have more to do, but there are always going to be groups that want to go around bringing down New Zealand’s reputation and I think that’s unfortunate.”

Ministerial bluster is no substitute for the truth of the matter. The accusation that WWF wants to bring down New Zealand’s reputation is contemptible. Government gives no sign that it is serious about emissions reduction. It says it accepts the science, but its efforts, such as they are, appear to be confined to offsetting emissions by tree planting, a good thing in its own right but a temporary expedient in terms of fighting climate change. There can be no substitute for gross emissions reduction. The Government will no doubt trumpet that we have met our Kyoto obligation on net emissions, but that is a smoke and mirrors illusion: our emissions are considerably higher than they were in 1990.

Dr James Renwick, principal climate scientist, NIWA, offers straight talk in his comment on the report for the Science Media Centre:

“The report notes, quite rightly, that New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have climbed significantly since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. Like most nations on earth, we have talked the talk but we have yet to really walk the walk. Instead of tackling the problem, we have squandered the last 20 years and are now in a very difficult position, as a global community. To have any chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees (as promised in Copenhagen and elsewhere), developed countries need to achieve 50% reductions in emissions this decade, and 80-90% by 2050.

“New Zealand is better placed than most countries to achieve this, which represents a massive opportunity for New Zealand businesses and industry. Failure to act is likely to commit the globe to a climate not seen for millions of years, with grave consequences for global food production and economic stability.”

The climate change section of the report ends by urging the Government to develop a low carbon development plan.  Along with other nations we made a commitment at Cancun to draw up such a plan, but WWF says we have since reneged on it, claiming it was not a binding promise. The report points to other countries which have moved ahead in developing their strategies and plans for achieving low carbon economies, including Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Scotland, South Africa and the UK. Whether such plans survive such pressures as the excitements of natural gas fracking remains to be seen. According to George Monbiot the UK has already abandoned its coal and gas emission targets. (Denied by Secretary of State Edward Davey.)

Nevertheless making a plan at least forces a government to work out what a realistic process of reduction would involve, which is presumably why the New Zealand Government doesn’t want to do it. It would show up the inadequacy of our response to date and make it more difficult for the Government to fall back on propagandist assurances. All the more reason to undertake the preparation of a plan. It could bring some clarity and honesty into a currently murky scene.