China and US reach emissions deal, NZ govt warned its policies are failing

By Gareth Renowden 13/11/2014


Today’s news that the US and China have agreed a long term policy to reduce carbon emissions is being hailed as a “game-changer” in international climate negotiations. China has agreed to cap its emissions in 2030 — the first time it has committed to anything more than a reduction in the carbon intensity of its emissions, while the US will aim to cut emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, up from its current target of 17% by 2020. [BBC, Guardian, Climate Progress.] Meanwhile, NZ’s third term National government is being warned by its own civil servants that its current emissions policy settings commit the country to substantial emissions increases over the same time frame.

With the world’s two largest emitters — between them they account for 45% of total emissions — agreeing to work together for the first time, prospects for a global deal in Paris next year look brighter than before. However, the cuts on the table do not look like enough to keep the planet on a trajectory to 2 degrees of warming or less. Associate professor Peter Christoff of the University of Melbourne explains (via The Conversation):

These commitments will frame the levels of ambition required of other states at Paris next year. Climate modellers will no doubt now be rushing to determine what these new commitments, if delivered successfully, will mean for combating global warming.

The US and Chinese cuts, significant though they are, will not be enough to limit the total increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide unless other states engage in truly radical reductions.

In other words, global emissions are likely to continue to grow, probably until 2030, which will make it impossible to hold global warming below the world’s agreed limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.

In New Zealand the briefings for incoming ministers in the new government — same as the old lot, in climate relevant ministries — have been remarkably blunt in their assessment of the task the country faces.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) Briefing to Incoming Ministers (BIM)1 is blunt about the importance of dealing with climate change (pdf here):

Climate change and resource scarcity are challenging core elements of the global ecosystem. Climate change is the most urgent and far-reaching threat we face, and the current negotiations on climate change are the most important multilateral negotiation now under way. Positions taken by countries on climate change and their readiness to contribute to global solutions will increasingly define the way that others perceive them politically and economically.

The Ministry for the Environment BIM2 points out the huge gulf between fine words and inadequate policy settings:

…We have an established price on emissions and market infrastructure in place through the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), although current settings are not driving meaningful emissions reductions. In 2015 the NZ ETS is scheduled to be reviewed to assess whether the settings remain suitable for delivering on government objectives.

That ETS review will have to consider the reality shown in this graph from p22 of the MfE BIM.

NZemissionsMFEbriefing

The only way the government can reach its unconditional target of a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 is by using carried forward emissions reductions from the first Kyoto commitment period (even though it subsequently withdrew from CP2) and by buying emissions units from overseas. Real cuts in emissions in the following decade will require a real carbon price — not an ETS that rewards polluters for their pollution.

If NZ is to table emissions cuts that parallel those from the USA, then emissions policy settings are going to need an urgent and dramatic revamp. The good news is that the China and US initiative on emissions means that NZ’s government can no longer point to international failure to cooperate as a reason why NZ should do little or nothing.

PM John Key has said in the past that he wants NZ to be a “fast follower” of the world leaders on emissions reductions. Now is the time to show just how fast a follower he intends to be. We can only hope it’s pretty damn speedy.

  1. The incoming ministers are Murray McCulley (Foreign Affairs), and Tim Groser (Trade and Climate Change Issues), full ministerial list here.
  2. Incoming minister is Nick Smith, same as the outgoing one.