Facing pressure at home, New Zealand’s climate change minister steels himself for Cop26

New Zealand’s climate change minister James Shaw has revealed his official and unofficial coping mechanisms for reckoning with the country’s dismal climate record. The first is a measured speech on finding solace in making himself useful and working towards change. The second? “Whiskey," hy sê.

On the eve of the UN’s Cop26 conference in Glasgow, he may need to pick up a bottle of duty-free. Shaw admits he is embarrassed by the country’s record on emissions but says no leader can arrive at the conference holding their head high.

“I don’t think anybody should be going in there thinking that they’re some kind of rock star,” Shaw told the Guardian ahead of the climate meeting on 1 November.

New Zealand’s current position has been 30 years in the making. “In 1990 we were one of the countries that came together with everybody else and said ‘Hey, let’s start cutting greenhouse gas emissions.’ And instead, our emissions have gone up.” Now he’s tasked with turning that around.

After years of grand gestures but little action, crunchtime is approaching for New Zealand’s climate policy. Last year the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, declared a climate emergency. But that gesture has yet to bear fruit, and the country’s climate plan, due to land last month, has now been pushed out to May 2022.

In the meantime, Shaw shares the public’s despair over the state of the planet but insists there is space for hope.

“I see the same data that everybody else reads, and none of it’s good. It’s relentless … the world is just awash with bad news when it comes to climate change, punctuated with points of hope. I think that the difference between hope and hopelessness is the sense that you’re actually able to do something about it.”

As he flies to Glasgow, as well as having no emissions reduction plan to show, Shaw will be shadowed by a pile of distressing data on New Zealand’s poor track record.

While the country’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is small, its gross emissions per person are high and it is one of the world’s worst performers on emission increases. Emissions in New Zealand rose by 57% tussen 1990 en 2018 – the second-greatest increase of all industrialised countries. Vroeër die jaar, data showed New Zealand’s emissions had increased deur 2% in 2018-19.

Shaw admitted this is humiliating for a country that has for years cultivated a clean green image, but was quick to add that no country should be feeling proud of its record.

“Literally half of all of the pollution that [the world’s] put into the atmosphere, we’ve put into the atmosphere since 1990, which is the year that we decided that we were going to going stop putting pollution into the atmosphere … we put as much up into the atmosphere in the last 30 jare, since the start of the Industrial Revolution leading up to 1990. I mean that’s an appalling record.”

The Climate Action Tracker has given the country a “highly insufficient” rating, pointing out that despite net-zero emissions by 2050 being enshrined in law, the government’s policies focus too heavily on offsetting carbon overseas and through forestry, rather than addressing the root causes such as agriculture.

In 2019, Nieu-Seeland passed multi-party climate legislation, setting a net-zero-by-2050 target for CO2 emissions, and set up the Climate Change Commission to map out a pathway there. It has also stopped issuing offshore oil and gas permits, has launched a clean car rebate scheme to encourage the uptake of low- and no-emissions vehicles and has committed $1.3bn over four years to support Pacific Islands vulnerable to climate change.

Hierdie week, New Zealand became the first country in the world to pass a law forcing financial institutions to disclose, and act, on climate-related risks and opportunities.

Shaw is proud of the regulation, law and incentives brought in during the past four years to “bend the curves of our emissions in a downward manner”.

“But the lag time that it takes for the effect of those things to be felt, jy weet, we haven’t yet started to see that sustained decline in our greenhouse gas emissions … I’m proud of what we’ve done to create the framework for the transition that’s necessary, and had to happen but, when you look at our emissions, historically, it’s gone in the wrong direction.”

The emissions reduction plan – New Zealand’s key policy to combat climate change – was, by law, supposed to have been introduced by December, but in the wake of the pandemic, the government gave itself a five-month extension to better align it with 2022’s budget. Last week it released a discussion document seeking public advice on its ideas for reducing the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere. Shaw is at pains to point out the document is not the final plan and adds that when the comprehensive plan is adopted in 2022, it will drive an enormous amount of activity towards climate action in New Zealand.

The document details major tree-planting projects, a focus on lowering carbon emissions in transport, energy and industry, and banning organic material from landfill. Notably, it only touches on agriculture, despite the industry making up 48% of the country’s gross greenhouse emissions.

Greenpeace is not happy about it, saying the document does not represent a step up in climate action and is “more hot air”.

“Instead of doing what we know works to cut climate pollution from agriculture – like lowering cow stocking rates and phasing out key drivers of intensive dairying, such as synthetic nitrogen fertiliser – the government’s discussion document does little to broach the conversation on reducing agricultural emissions,” said agricultural spokesperson Christine Rose.

“The document is frankly full of meaningless waffle that won’t turn the tide on an accelerating climate crisis, and it is clearly pandering to the dairy industry.”

But the director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, David Frame, argues there is good reason for agricultural emissions being left out. Agricultural emissions are being largely dealt with in a separate policy called He Waka Eke Noa – a five-year programme working with the sector to reduce methane and build resilience.

“Separating the two and keeping the methane separate from the CO2 is a really useful thing. Otherwise, the risk is we could, jy weet, shoot a bunch of cows and then keep driving around in vehicles, and actually have our long-term climate legacy be worse.” Frame said.

He said that policy “needs to work” if New Zealand is going to get on top of its methane problem.

Frame agrees that no developed country has “much to crow about”, including New Zealand.

“For me, New Zealand’s issue is we’ve spent a little too much time circling the drain on targets, and we haven’t really done enough on policies in areas like transport.”

Shaw is tipped to unveil a new emissions reduction target, either before or during the conference, but striking a balance between a realistic goal and an ambitious one is “the fundamental conflict at the heart of working out what your NDC [nationally determined contribution] is, or should, be”.

As the minister balances the scales for New Zealand’s target, he will head to Cop26 with high hopes for stronger international commitments.

“You have seen a significant shift in the ambition that countries are treating their targets with … but at the same time there has been a fraying of the consensus that just got the Paris agreement over the line, over the course of the last two years.”

That fraying, voeg hy by, is because the developed world hasn’t delivered on its $100bn a year climate finance target – a key promise of the Paris agreement.

“In order for the consensus to be repaired, that $100bn commitment has got to be met.”

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