Political will for climate ambition, but what about action?

There is broad political consensus for the Government’s framework to reduce emissions, but will that actually translate into emissions reductions? Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: Labour, the Greens, National and Te Pāti Māori all support the Government’s sinking lid on emissions or want it strengthened even further.

The parties issued their positions during a special parliamentary debate on Thursday morning, leaving ACT as the lone faction to say the proposed emissions budgets go too far.

It was a moment of cross-partisan unity reminiscent of the passage of the Zero Carbon Act in 2019. That too had the support of all of the parties in Parliament bar ACT, whose leader and then-sole MP David Seymour missed the vote. So while the foundational legislation for New Zealand’s 30-plus year decarbonisation quest technically passed unanimously, the first steps on that journey were still opposed by 10 MPs’ votes.

Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw said the cross-partisan spirit was even stronger on Thursday than in 2019.

“I think that today there was a strong sense – in fact, perhaps even a stronger sense than when we passed the Zero Carbon Bill – that the system that we designed to last beyond Parliaments, beyond governments and actually over several generations is being upheld. “

It’s clear that, no matter which of the major parties is in charge, future New Zealand governments are committed to ambitious climate targets. The question that remains, however, is whether that will flow through into ambitious climate action.

Both the Labour-Greens Government and the National Party have their own credibility gaps to deal with on climate change. The release of the Emissions Reduction Plan next week will offer them the first opportunity to start to seal those gaps – but it will take years, if not decades, to see through the process of aligning parties’ big talk on climate with big action.

Luxon’s captain’s calls

National’s credibility gap is simple: Is the ambitious position put forward by deputy leader Nicola Willis and climate spokesperson Scott Simpson on Thursday something that enjoys the unshakeable support of the party’s current and future caucuses?

After all, the same group of MPs less than a year ago put forward a very different position on climate change.

Former climate spokesperson Stuart Smith spent months attempting to undermine the commission’s work, demanding it release the source code for its models and saying no genuine consultation was possible without the base code. In the end, just two people downloaded the code when it became available.

Smith also dismissed the commission’s recommendations as “radical measures” and said National would rely almost solely on the Emissions Trading Scheme to reduce emissions. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a 4000-page report on the worsening impacts of climate change, Smith said it was a reason to oppose the Government’s electric vehicle subsidies.

Both Smith and National’s agriculture spokesperson Barbara Kuriger, who endorsed the emissions budgets on Thursday, said in October that they opposed the Government’s updated emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement. Kuriger said it would cripple New Zealand’s economy.

Then Judith Collins was ousted by an angry National Party caucus in November in favor of new leader Chris Luxon. It is telling that one of Luxon’s first reversals of a Collins policy position in any portfolio was the decision to support the new Paris target, which he made in mid-April. Another indicative moment came on Monday, when Luxon made a captain’s call to support the Government’s new emissions budgets without consulting the entire National caucus.

Still, voters could be forgiven for having their doubts that the Luxon position on climate change will win out within National’s caucus and membership. Kuriger and other National MPs still have close ties to the Agriculture Group Groundswell, which is almost uniformly opposed to climate policies of any kind.

It’s not hard to imagine yet another u-turn within National against climate action in the next few years. While Luxon could somewhat cement his platform by releasing his own achievable climate plans come next year’s election, only time will truly tell whether National has abandoned the days of climate delay for good.

Ambition is not action

Even if it can convince the electorate of its bona fide intention to back ambitious climate targets, National will still share the same credibility concern as the current Government: Does a commitment to net zero emissions in 2050, the 2030 Paris target and the sinking lid emissions budgets necessarily mean these goals will be achieved?

The Climate Change Commission’s draft report more than a year ago laid out an ambitious, transformational plan to achieve the budgets, putting New Zealand well on the way to its 2050 targets. Its final advice dialed back on the policy prescriptions, partly in response to the attacks from Smith and others. But looking under the hood of its work, many of the same policy suggestions still anchor its demonstration path to slashing emissions in the next 13 years.

These include controversial but ambitious policies like a ban on new gas infrastructure in homes by 2025 and a ban on the import of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035.

The Government is not bound to follow the Commission’s exact recommendations and neither is the Opposition. In fact, the Commission, Government and Opposition could all produce radically different plans to achieve the budgets.

“While we agree with the goal, we will not always agree on the path. We have choices about how we reduce our emissions, and some choices will be better than others,” Willis said during the special debate in Parliament.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Shaw said this was a perfectly functional way of disagreeing in a democracy around climate policy.

“National did of course preserve the policy space to be able to argue the toss on individual policies as to how we would get there. That is what a democratic system is supposed to do,” he said. “It absolutely helps to depoliticise it. Everybody acknowledges that we might have different ideas about how to get where we need to get to, but we have the same idea about where to get to.”

But each of those different paths still has to credibly achieve the emissions budgets. If you’re allowing new fossil gas infrastructure to be built, where will you reduce emissions to a greater degree to account for the added burden from heating and cooking? And what will you do to support homeowners who have put money into what may well be a stranded asset in a decade’s time?

If every party is truly committed to the same goal, climate policy becomes a game of trade-offs. Every decision to allow emissions from one sector or source must be accompanied by a corresponding reduction elsewhere.

If parties’ climate plans don’t incorporate those trade-offs but merely allow greater emissions without greater action elsewhere, they are not credible plans.

Monday, when Shaw releases the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, will be the first chance to test the Government’s credibility on climate. But, as with National’s journey to cement its internal consensus on climate ambition, there’s still a long way to go from here.

The plan must be funded – Shaw indicated to Newsroom earlier this week that not every provision in the plan will be resourced in the current budget – and implemented. It must be monitored to make sure each policy is achieving the emissions reductions it was meant to. And it must be improved as new actions become possible or as the next, more ambitious budget period comes into focus.

Monday is the conclusion of a long sojourn to create a binding framework for climate action in New Zealand.

But it is also the start of a new, far longer quest to decarbonise the country in what the Climate Change Commission said last year would be a “transformational and lasting change across society and the economy”.

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