New Zealand’s coalition government under Jacinda Ardern has made dealing with climate change one of its highest priorities. It is planning dramatic new legislation and to the surprise of many observers, no doubt including some watching from Canberra, there is a high degree of cross party support and national consensus. While the issue helped to bring down Prime Ministers in Australia, across the Tasman it is stimulating deep thought about innovative legislation.
New Zealand has been a slow starter in meeting climate change commitments and it doesn’t have a coordinated plan to deal with future climate change. That was before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern famously said climate change is “my generation’s nuclear free moment”. It was a reference to New Zealand’s courageous world leading nuclear free legislation.
Some tough moves to tackle climate change have already been made. Earlier this year the New Zealand government announced a ban on new oil exploration licences. When the 22 existing licences expire during the next 30 years there will be no more exploration in New Zealand or in its Exclusive Economic Zone, the fourth largest EEZ on the planet.
Now a Zero Carbon Act is being promoted and will begin re-shaping the New Zealand economy from around July next year until zero carbon emissions are reached in 2050. It was inspired by measures in place in Britain but aims to go further. Ardern said the Zero Carbon Act would include an “all gases, all sectors” emissions trading scheme. One of the remarkable aspects of this project is that there is general support for it by most of the parties and sectors that will be affected. It is a welcome change from the disagreements over climate change issues in Australia and in the recent past in New Zealand.
Consensus is needed because to be effective the policy needs to be stable, coherent and followed by successive governments over several decades. The process began in recent years under the former National Party government and in last year’s election campaign the Labour Party outlined the shape of its proposed legislation. It aims to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 and build the country’s resilience to the effects of climate change.
To oversee the process an independent Climate Change Commission will be created to set emissions targets and determine how they can be met while still allowing the economy to grow. It hasn’t yet been decided what powers the Commission will have. Perhaps it could compel successive governments to meet the targets it will set.
The Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who is also the Green Party leader, said a strong 2050 emissions reduction target would give New Zealand a moral mandate to encourage other bigger countries to do more. Shaw said the Zero Carbon Act will provide New Zealand with an opportunity to upgrade its economy, to develop new technologies and make it more resilient to climate change. It could lead to employment in new industries. More investment and new technologies will be needed in areas like forestry, alternative energy, electricity generation, transport and most challenging of all, in agriculture. New Zealand businesses could find ways to lead the world in these areas.
An interim Climate Change Committee was established in April to consider matters such as whether agriculture might enter the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZETS) and how to reach 100 percent renewable electricity generation by 2035. The Interim Committee will hand over its work and analysis to the Climate Change Commission once it is formed next year.
The work on emissions from agriculture is the area where the biggest problems and opportunities exist. If agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are included under the Emissions Trading Scheme New Zealand would be the first country in the world to do so. As a major producer of agricultural products from cows and sheep New Zealand is also a major producer of the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide.
Tackling this problem in New Zealand is politically and technically difficult. Any action that taxes farmers or affects their large contribution to New Zealand’s export income has been considered political suicide. That is why it is remarkable that the Zero Carbon plan which contemplates such a move has general support from both major parties and farmers. The Opposition National Party leader Simon Bridges said “we will be signing up, we will be working hard on an independent Climate Change Commission that is non-political and that is an enduring framework for how we approach and get advice for future governments on climate change.” However he stopped short of supporting any action that would force farmers to pay for their emissions.
An influential Farming Leaders’ Group including the heads of many major farming groups wrote a joint editorial with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. They wrote “The farming sector and Government are committed to working together to achieve net zero emissions from agri-food production by 2050”. The issue of agricultural emissions is both politically and technically complicated but it is one of New Zealand’s largest contributors to greenhouse gases and contradicts the “100% Pure” and “Clean Green” slogans used to promote New Zealand.
Much of New Zealand’s air pollution is the result of a growing enthusiasm for dairy farming. The high global price of milk and a firm market for sheep products have encouraged increased stocking rates and liberal applications of fertiliser. There are more cows than people and four sheep for every human in New Zealand. Both sheep and cows are ruminants eating grass to produce milk and meat but also producing methane gas. Sheep can produce up to 30 litres of methane per day and dairy cows up to 200 litres. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions mainly from agriculture make up about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is potent. Its global warming potential is estimated at about 28 times that of C02. Nitrous oxide is produced by soil microbes acting on fertilisers and by some other means. The US Environmental Protection Agency says nitrous oxide is a global warming gas that is three hundred times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
If the policy of “polluters must pay” is to apply then farmers and countries dependent on farming have a massive greenhouse gas problem. Part of the answer is forestry which is a major part of the New Zealand economy and planting more trees can off-set some agricultural emissions.
The government’s determined effort to find solutions has attracted wide interest. In six weeks of consultations the government received 14,500 submissions. During the rest of this year the government is considering the submissions and drafting its Zero Carbon Bill. After select committee hearings early next year the Government aims to have a new Zero Carbon Act in law about the middle of 2019.
The New Zealand government under Jacinda Ardern is seeking to rediscover New Zealand’s ability to create progressive, innovative legislation and to lead the world in cracking the climate change conundrum.
Max Hayton is a former political reporter and foreign editor in New Zealand.