NZ: pushing the world to go beyond 2 degrees

By Cindy Baxter 05/12/2014


head-in-the-sandNew Zealand is coming under increasing scrutiny in Lima, not least because it’s our turn to be reviewed by the UNFCCC process.

Early next week our representatives will have to defend our position and our lack of action to 190 governments in our first “multilateral assessment.”

Already, there have been some tough questions, coming especially from the EU and China. New Zealand’s answered them, but will have to more to defend itself than these carefully fudged answers.

Our negotiators have been trying to promote our position around the meeting, including a botched attempt in a science discussion yesterday, when they were interrupted halfway through a blatant PR presentation. They were told to get back to the issue at hand (science, not promotion of a country’s so-called “efforts”), after a number of governments objected to our highjacking the agenda.

Right now, our ballooning emissions are on track to be at least 36% above 1990 levels – instead of the 5% below 1990 that we’ve promised, and they’re going to continue going up. In short, we’re in trouble. And we’re going to get hammered for this next week.

But let’s turn for a minute to our efforts to actually solving this problem at the global level.

At the centre of NZ’s proposal for the Paris agreement is the notion that while elements of the global deal should be legally binding, targets for cutting emissions should not be legally binding.

Everyone should just add up what they feel like doing, put them in a schedule, and the sum total should be the agreed global target. And the national targets should not be legally binding.

This proposal drew praise from Obama’s climate envoy Todd Stern a few weeks back, and the idea is also supported by a band of the most recalcitrant countries on climate change: Australia (where “coal is good for humanity”) and Canada, home of the tarsands, who have, like NZ, walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other hand, the EU, in their first press conference in Lima this week, were unequivocal in their opposition to the idea. Elina Bardram, head of the EU delegation told reporters that:

 “The EU is of the mind that legally binding mitigation targets are the only way to provide the necessary long-term signal, the necessary confidence to the investors … and provide credibility in the low carbon transition worldwide.”

This is the EU’s negotiating position on a global deal. The EU is one of the few who have actually put a target on the table – with a cut of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, so they are backing this with action at home.

But here’s a funny thing about New Zealand’s proposal.

NZ’s “unconditional” target is to cut emissions by 5% by 2020 (below 1990). We have spelled out a specific set of conditions under which we’d improve this to 10% – or even 20%, although these two improved targets tend to cause hysterical laughter if one looks at our emissions projections.

Nick Smith told the UNFCCC on 31 January 2010 that, among other conditions, this agreement must:

“…[set] the world on a pathway to limit temperature rise to not more than 2˚C.”

That seems reasonable, right? On the face of it, it looks like NZ’s keen to keep to this globally agreed temperature limit (even though we know 2˚C of warming will wreak a fair level of havoc on the planet).

However, there appears to be a discrepancy between our conditions – and what we’re actually proposing for a Paris agreement. And this discrepancy has been pointed out by none other than the New Zealand Treasury.

Treasury’s advice to the incoming Climate Minister in November went to great lengths to explain our proposal, explaining in detail how we should only do our “fair share” – a line that is Tim Groser’s mantra, yada yada yada. But even Treasury admits:

“This may mean that the level of action is less than is required to limit global warming to two degrees, but negotiators have chosen to prioritise participation at this point in time.”

So let me get this right:

We are holding out on increasing our international commitment to climate action because we want to see a strong 2020 agreement that keeps the world on a below 2˚C pathway.

Yet even Treasury says our proposal for the Paris agreement will not achieve this.  Have our negotiators had a brainfade? Did they forget what they agreed just a few short years ago?

Or do they have instructions to do their best to avoid a 2˚C pathway so that we don’t have to increase our target?   Perhaps next week’s questioning could focus on this issue. I look forward to the event.

But one thing is clear: our Government has its head firmly planted in the sand on climate change, as activists across the country will be pointing out on Sunday.