Kennedy Graham

In preparation for Doha: Assessing New Zealand on Climate Change

by Kennedy Graham

With the 18th UN climate change conference under way, every country will have its climate change policy under scrutiny.  This blog sets out where New Zealand stands.

Four criteria are relevant to assessing a country’s performance.

  1. How has it done with emissions record from 1990 to 2012?
  2. What targets has it announced for 2020 and 2050 and what is their status?
  3. How is it approaching the ‘transition period’ (2013-20)?
  4. What pathway has it devised to attain the targets?

Let’s measure.

  1. 1.     The Record: 1990 – 2012

The year 1990 is the baseline for all countries’ records.  The 1992 Framework Convention required the developed countries (the North) to ‘take the lead’ with ‘immediate action’ in reducing emissions, and aim to return to 1990 levels by 2000.  New Zealand failed to do this.

The Kyoto Protocol (signed ‘97, in force ’05) imposes a legally-binding obligation on 37 countries to reduce their total net emissions (gross emissions + or – net emissions from land use and forestry) by a specified percentage, off their 1990 level, in the 5-year period 2008-12.

New Zealand’s 5-year amount is 309.6 m. tonnes.  Our projected net amount for 2008-12 will be below this limit by some 23 m. tonnes.  But this is because of high forest plantings 10 to 20 to years ago having an effect on carbon absorption during this period, which is at its peak in that five-year period.  Both before 2008 and after 2012 the situation is different.

From 1990 to 2010, NZ’s gross emissions (all gases) grew by 20%, from 60 m.t. to 72 m.t., the 5th worst Kyoto country with reduction obligations.  Net emissions grew by 59% (from 32 m.t. to 52 m.t.), the very worst performance of all.

Our methane emissions (mainly from agriculture) grew by 4%, 6th worst.  Our nitrous oxide (mainly agriculture) grew by 26%, 2nd worst.

Amazingly, our net carbon emissions (including land use and forestry) has deteriorated from being a net absorber of carbon in 1990 (2 m.t.) to a net emitter in 2020 (13 m.t.).

The conclusion is clear from the UN compilation ((FCCC/SBI/2012/31) that New Zealand has perhaps the worst track record of all (developed) Kyoto-obligated countries.

  1. 2.     The Targets: 2020 – ‘50

The IPCC in 2007 identified a scenario of 450 ppmv of GHG atmospheric concentration, associated with a 2°C temperature rise (from pre-industrial level), as the limit for avoiding dangerous climate change (the stated objective of the 1992 Framework Convention).  Governments adopted that at its 16th annual climate change conference at Cancun in 2010.

To stay below the ‘danger threshold’, the IPCC calculated that emission reductions by 2020 (off 1990 levels) by the developed countries would need to be within the range of 25% to 40%, and 80% to 95% by 2050.  That, too, was acknowledged by governments at Cancun.

The EU has pledged 20% unconditional for 2020, and 30% if others front up.  So has Norway and Switzerland.

The UK Parliament has bound itself by statute to 80% cut by 2050, with a consequent 34% by 2020.

New Zealand has unilaterally pledged 15% (range 10-20%) for 2020 and 50% by 2050.

The World Bank has just released a report concluding that, on the basis of such voluntary pledges of this kind, the world is heading for a 4°C temperature rise.  That takes us into a potentially catastrophic zone of climate change – within one generation.

  1. 3.     The Transition Period

The good news is that the distinction between North (developed countries) and South (developing countries), laid down in the ’92 Framework Convention, is now being merged into one global community of states, in the negotiations for the 2020 global agreement.

The bad news is that, with respect to the ‘transition period’ (2013-20), the North is now fundamentally split between those favouring the ‘Kyoto route’ and those favouring the ‘Convention route’.  EU, Norway, Switzerland and Australia are opting for the former; New Zealand, along with US, Canada and Japan are opting for the latter.

The difference is that the Kyoto route is a legally-binding multilateral agreement for a 2nd commitment period.  The Convention route is a potpourri of unilateral, non-binding pledges.  The NZ Minister (Groser) describes it as ‘politically-binding’, claiming there is no discernible difference with Kyoto, and deriding those with an ‘obsession’ with Kyoto.

  1. The distinction is qualitative.  Which is why we have treaties.  A legally-binding obligation carries penalties, financial (as in Kyoto’s 1st commitment period) or otherwise.  A political route does not.  Canada welched on its Kyoto-1 commitment (2008-12) when it became clear it would incur a financial penalty, and withdrew.  Is that the basis on which this NZ Government made the decision?
  1. 4.     The Pathway

The EU has led the way with carbon budgets and national allocation plans for its members.  The UK has bound itself by statute to a series of five-yearly carbon budgets (starting with 2008-12; then 2013-17, and so on.

New Zealand has an emaciated emissions trading scheme that is now so weakened that it encourages emissions, with no discernible pathway for arriving at its weak 2020 and 2050 targets.

New Zealand goes to the 18th UN climate change conference in Doha with perhaps the worst credentials of developed Kyoto states.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Kennedy Graham on Thu, November 29th, 2012   

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