Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Honesty needed in climate targets

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NZ’s climate policy should look at the practical reality the world faces, not what we wish would happen in a perfect world, Federated Farmers says.
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By Paul Melville, Federated Farmers GM policy and advocacy

Earlier this year James Shaw, the former Minister for Climate Change, stepped down from the co-leadership of the Green Party after almost a decade in the role. 

While reflecting on his achievements in Government, Shaw was asked if he thought the global goal of limiting temperature change to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels was still possible. 

“I think we’ve probably already passed that threshold, and I’m queasy about saying that because I don’t want people to lose hope or to give up, because in my mind that is a reason to double down rather than walk away.”

To put the scale of the challenge in context, to achieve the 1.5C goal, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to have halved between when the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 and 2030.

If we were to be ‘on track’ to meet that target, the world would have needed to have seen emissions peak and begin to fall, ideally by 25%, by now. Instead, emissions have increased since 2015. 

When New Zealand signed up to the Paris Agreement, the National Government of the time adopted an ambitious target of a 30% emissions reduction by 2030.

Not content with that level of ambition, in 2021 Shaw increased this target to be a 50% reduction by 2030. Yet, so far, our gross national emissions have fallen a paltry 6% – and 2030 is now less than six years away. 

What this means is Shaw’s assessment is likely spot on: the world isn’t on track to meet a 1.5C target and New Zealand is part of the problem.

We clearly aren’t on course to achieve our Paris commitments – and this is confirmed in papers Shaw took to Cabinet in July last year – but we’re not alone. 

Countries all around the world are expecting to fall short of emissions reductions they’ve pledged to make under the Paris Agreement. 

The unfortunate reality here is that ‘emissions reduction targets’ and ‘emissions reductions’ are two very different things. 

I’m firmly of the view that if we continue to increase our level of ambition before we’ve seen any meaningful emissions reductions, people will begin to disengage with the process. This is entirely counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve. 

Many people may not be aware the Paris Agreement doesn’t actually include a 1.5C target.

When the agreement was signed, world leaders knew a 1.5C target would be unachievable, but the pressure from green groups and environmental NGOs was immense. 

In the end a compromise was reached: the target was for temperatures to be limited to ‘well below 2C’ while ‘pursuing efforts’ to limit warming to 1.5C.

Unfortunately, before the ink had even dried, those same green groups were already mischaracterising the agreement by repeating the 1.5C target enough times that it became the truth – despite what the actual text of the agreement says. 

That mischaracterisation has had a significant impact on New Zealand’s climate policy and law. Even the Climate Change Response Act, also known as the Zero Carbon Act, has adopted a 1.5C target – and our carbon budgets must be set along the same lines.

All of this matters. 

Since 2019 farmers have been required to reduce their biogenic methane emissions by 10% by 2030 – but since that target was set, biogenic methane emissions have fallen a mere 1%. What should we make of this?

In the coming years, the world will have to come to terms with the reality that the Paris Agreement targets are not being met – just like those set at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009. 

Should New Zealand continue striving for an unattainable target, or should we instead be committing to rational, achievable and science-based action on climate? 

The National-led Government have committed to reviewing our methane target to be in line with the principle of no further warming – and Federated Farmers supports this approach.


In Focus Podcast: Federated Farmers GM policy and advocacy Paul Melville talks to Bryan about whether the aspirational climate targets we have in place are causing people to disengage as we struggle to meet them.


Research commissioned by Oxford University found Kiwi farmers would need to reduce their methane 27% by 2050 under a 1.5C pathway but only 15% under a pathway more similar to a 2C warming.

While we’d all prefer the world could solve the challenge of climate change, whether through strong political action or rapid technological advancement, we also need to be realistic. 

New Zealand’s climate policy should look at the practical reality the world faces, and our politicians should be making decisions based on what is going to happen in the real world, not what we wish would happen in a perfect world. 

While we are reviewing our methane targets, perhaps we should also be reviewing the targets in the Zero Carbon Act and our broader commitments under the Paris Agreement – with some honest reflections this time around. 

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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