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March 5, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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42 Below and Rising: Kiwi Responses to Climate Change

Twenty one years ago, at the imaginatively named International Conference on the Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts, 89 scientists from 23 countries quietly met in Villach, Austria, and declared that in the next century humanity could experience a rise in global mean temperatures unprecedented in the history of the species. The scientists called for consideration of a global convention to tackle this issue and argued that it was necessary for greenhouse gas emissions to be drastically reduced. Furthermore, they predicted that the world’s ability to cope with the far-reaching changes in climate would be profoundly affected by the policies of the world’s governments.

The US government responded with alarm, concerned that the climate change issue was being led by a group of scientists not controlled by the government. The Republican administration, led by Ronald Reagan, lobbied for the creation of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was finally established by the UN General Assembly in 1988. The rationale behind the IPCC was to put scientists back into the cages of government control that they had momentarily escaped from at Villach. Since then, the US administration has put great effort into undermining the reports of the IPCC.

Prior to the 1992 Earth Summit, the Global Climate Coalition, a coalition of 50 US trade associations and private companies representing coal, gas, oil, automobile and chemical companies, with the help of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, spent millions of dollars campaigning to convince the public and governments that global warming was not a real threat. The Global Climate Coalition and other industry interests successfully lobbied the US government to avoid mandatory emission controls becoming adopted at the Earth Summit. The Framework Climate Convention was weakened to suit However, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. It aimed to avoid dangerous human interference with the Earth’s climate system. New Zealand was one of the 180 countries that signed and ratified this convention, thereby agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, the majority of these countries, including New Zealand, made little progress towards achieving this goal, and emissions steadily increased across the globe.

In response to this lack of progress, the flexibly designed framework was renegotiated. In 1997, the international community realised that the objectives of this framework would not be met through voluntarily reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Legally binding emission reduction targets were now required. A subsequent UNFCCC was held in Kyoto, Japan to discuss a treaty to reduce mandatory greenhouse gas emissions.

The outcomes of the conference were disappointing but not surprising, given the high level of industry opposition. The Kyoto protocol was developed, yet the greenhouse gas emission targets which it outlines are far less than the 15% below 1990 levels lobbied for by the European Union. In fact, the average target level agreed to was a much-watered down target of merely 5% below 1990 levels, to be achieved by developed countries by the first commitment period of 2008-2012. New Zealand was granted a target of merely returning to 1990 emission levels. However, there has been a 21.2 percent rise in New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.

In 1998 the National-led government (under the then Minister for the Environment, Simon Upton) signed the Kyoto Protocol. National’s defeat in the 1999 elections saw the Labour-led government ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. The Kyoto Protocol finally came into force in February 2005, after Russia ratified it in 2004. The Protocol covers 169 countries, but unfortunately neither the USA nor Australia, two of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, is a signatory.

The Labour Government announced its intention to implement a carbon tax in 2002. A carbon tax is a tax on sources that emit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. Any money raised from a pollution tax could be used to invest in new technology, such as discovering ways to reduce methane emissions from agriculture.

An emissions price of NZ$15 per tonne of CO2-equivalent was proposed. The planned tax was scheduled to take effect from April 2007, and applied across most economic sectors. However, an exemption for methane emissions from farming was put in place and provisions for special exemptions for carbon intensive companies if they adopted the world’s best practice standard emissions levels.

However, in December 2005, Michael Cullen, with recommendations from a Treasury report and influence from big business, sank the carbon tax. Labour stated that they were forced into this action due to their coalition agreement with United Future and New Zealand First. In truth the Treasury had already signalled its disapproval of the carbon tax even before any coalition talks took place. Labour could have implemented the carbon tax with the support of the Greens and the Maori Party.

New Zealand currently has no policy to deal with its Kyoto Protocol commitment of returning to 1990 emissions levels. While New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions in a global context are small (0.2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions), on a per-person basis, our level of emissions ranks us one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gases in the world.

If New Zealand is to protect its own economic, trade and environmental interests, we need to be seen to be doing our share in responding to climate change. The costs of inaction on climate change are far higher than the costs of taking action, and all sectors will need to contribute. So, what are some of the options for New Zealand? What will the different parties bring to the table when negotiating climate change policy?

Unlike most developed nations, New Zealand produces significant levels of non-CO2 emissions. New Zealand’s largest greenhouse gas emission is methane, due to the country having a large agricultural sector, yet a fairly low usage of fossil fuels for electricity generation.

Agricultural emissions make up close to half the country’s total emissions. Basically, there are two options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first is to change farming practices; the other is to reduce animal numbers. Either option or a combination of the two methods could guide a sufficient climate change policy.

There has been much resistance from Federated Farmers of New Zealand (FFNZ) against any attempts to define an agricultural climate change policy. They have been very successful, to the extent that farmers are essentially exempt from participating in the implementation of Kyoto obligations. This means that nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions would not be accounted for. Reductions would have to be made in the area of carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon dioxide accounts for almost 40% percent of New Zealand’s total emissions. Most of this comes form the transport sector. Domestic transport contributes 42% of New Zealand’s total CO2 emissions, and accounts for 40% of the country’s total energy use. For New Zealand to reduce transport emissions, there must be cuts in private car usage, tighter vehicle exhaust emission standards, and increased investments in public transport.

In 2003, the Vehicle Emissions Policy initiatives were established. In the same year, the Minister of Transport signed the Land Transport Vehicle Exhaust Emission Rule 2003, which required vehicles entering the country to be manufactured to acceptable emissions standard. In 2004, the Ministry of Transport released a document proposing a vehicle exhaust emissions screening programme; designed to target polluting vehicles. Although this was an opportunity for the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it was discarded in 2005.

Another way New Zealand can deal with its greenhouse gas emissions is to enter an emissions trading scheme. Emissions trading is a regulatory system in which businesses and other organisations would need to report emissions and to hold or purchase an equivalent number of emissions units. The units would be tradable, and those who emit greenhouse gases could decide on how much to reduce and how many units to purchase. Such emissions trading schemes have been used in Europe.

The European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is the largest multi-national greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme in the world. Under the scheme, each participating country has a National Allocation Plan (NAP) specifying caps on greenhouse gas emissions for business. Each facility gets a maximum amount of emission “allowances”. To comply, businesses can either reduce their emissions or purchase allowances from facilities with an excess of these. This scheme has been hailed a positive step in meeting Europe’s Kyoto obligations, yet, in reality, problems have occurred. Nations have allocated more permits to pollute than required. This has resulted in carbon prices falling as low as eight euros per tonne. This means that it has been cheaper for firms to buy spare permits than pay a 40-euro penalty, or take steps to reduce their emissions.

Offsets are another method of combatting climate change. Carbon offsetting reduces the net greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of another party or increasing carbon dioxide absorption of an external source. Tree planting is the most common example of offsetting. However, a common criticism of offsetting is that it is a short-term solution – it does not deal with the real problem. Long-term solutions must include reductions in fossil fuel usage, with gradual phasing out. Close to ninety percent of the world’s economy is based on fossil fuel, alternative technology is needed to replace fossil fuel usage.

Although Labour has been in power since 1999, and ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, it has only drafted climate change policy, such as the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, and is now in the stages of public consultation. This inaction of the past seven years means that New Zealand will not meets its obligations under Kyoto without having to buy carbon credits on the international market, which will cost the taxpayer far more than if Labour had kept the carbon tax.

Helen Clark has signalled her desire for all government departments to become carbon neutral – meaning that emissions would be balanced out by offsets and wants to introduce biofuels into the New Zealand market. But her target of only 3.4 percent of total petrol and diesel consumption being replaced by biofuels by 2012, is too little and far too late to help meet Kyoto commitments. Ideally, it would be a great idea for New Zealand to head towards carbon neutrality, but Labour’s past suggests that they are not capable of achieving this goal.

When the National Party was in power last decade, it was far more progressive, due to its former Minister for the Environment, Simon Upton. Then they went into a state of denial of climate change, and have only recently emerged back into acceptance. Last year they released their Blue-Green Environmental report, but this doesn’t have a lot of its own ideas beyond an unspecified emissions trading scheme and giving carbon credits to foresters.

The Green Party has been pushing the climate change agenda for years. Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons is a recognised expert in the field of climate change policy. Last year the Greens released Turn Down the Heat, a guide for the country to use to meet its Kyoto commitments. This is evidence that the Greens have the most comprehensive understanding of the issue in comparison to the other parties in parliament. Nonetheless the Greens fail to offer any realistic solutions in dealing with the agricultural sector.

United Future has in the past lacked any understanding of the issue. In fact, the party released a press release early last year welcoming the formation of New Zealand’s very own climate sceptics, the Climate Science Coalition, an organisation that misleads the public about climate change. United Future recently released a climate change policy package, but lacks any original ideas. The party still opposes the carbon tax although it does support emissions trading and increases in forested areas. It is still not fully committed to the Kyoto protocol and also believes that we should withdraw from Kyoto after 2012 if the USA and Australia haven’t accepted obligations by then.

New Zealand First acknowledges anthropogenic climate change, but believes that planting trees will be sufficient to combat this issue and has been consistently opposed to any carbon tax.

The Maori Party understands the importance of climate change. It realises that climate change is not solely about changing energy generation, but also about changing consumerist behaviour to a more sustainable manner. However, as it is still a fledging party, it still has not developed any climate change policies but when it does, it will most likely have strong policy to combat and mitigate climate change, based on a Maori worldview.

The ACT Party clearly cannot comprehend the issue. The party still does not accept that climate change is caused by human activity. Luckily for the country, their opinion is insignificant, as they have no major say in the direction of the government’s climate change policies.

The IPCC is releasing its Fourth Assessment Report ‘Climate Change 2007’ over the course of the year. The report is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific consensus in history, it will advise that: climate change is real; is caused by human activity; and is threatening the planet in ways we can only begin to imagine. The scientists have spoken, the evidence is convincing.

Government response has varied from country to country. While some progressive countries have implemented climate change policies such as introducing carbon taxes, engaging in carbon trading schemes, and heavily investing in renewable energy sources, since the first IPCC report was released 16 years ago, other countries have wasted time arguing whether or not climate change is happening, the causes, and how to address the issue. New Zealand is behind the game in many respects. When the government finally releases climate change policy, it will need cross-party consensus to be effective, informed and provide the country with opportunities to mitigate and combat the effects of the world’s changing climate.

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  1. climate kiwi | May 13, 2008
  1. Tushara says:

    Okay, just a minor point, but just a small correction to this article. I said that the US and Australia did not sign to Kyoto. They had signed it, but did not ratify it. Okay, I know thats a small correction, but at least the truth is out there.

  2. Mike Frew says:

    Nice work Tush
    The ag. issue is the big one. Our ag. industry (with the possible and significant exception of fertiliser) is about as lean as it can be. While we’re still on the path of gdp measures of performance there’s no real possibility of a decrease in animal numbers. So ag. is the one sector where technology gains will far outweigh further efficiencies.
    Cheers
    Mike

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