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NZ climate change response needs tools that 'bite', Upton says

Wednesday 7th March 2018

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Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton says New Zealand's legislative response to climate change needs broad, cross-party support to deploy the country's sophisticated tools so they actually "bite". 

"The whole point is to do something that has a very long-term reach. It has to be durable and people really have to buy into it," he said. The goal is to last across "parliaments and indeed generations."

Upton emphasised the need for action as "New Zealand's policy record on climate change reads very much as one of developing sophisticated policy tools but not being prepared to deploy them in a way that will 'bite'."  

It's time to be "break out of the stop-go, on-again, off-again approach" to tackling the problem,  he said. 

While he supported the 'all sectors, all gases' principle underpinning New Zealand's emissions trading scheme, Upton said policymakers should be open to targeting different gases at different rates, with nitrous oxide from agriculture a longer lasting and more important gas than methane, which is short-lived despite being a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Upton, who took over from Jan Wright in October, said he supported her recommendation New Zealand adopt a UK-style independent Climate Commission. "The UK's approach stood out as being the one that was most likely to lock-in a stable, long-term path to lower emissions," he said.   

The UK Climate Change Act enacted a long-term emissions reduction target and then elaborated a process under which a succession of progressively lower carbon budgets are set to put the economy on a path to meet that target. 

New Zealand's current coalition government has said it will look to set up such a body and pass a Zero Carbon Act. 

Upton's report includes nine recommendations aimed at advising the government on how to replicate the model here, including setting up the Climate Commission. 

Under his recommendation, the commission would be an advisory body to create so-called carbon budgets, or specific targets geared toward reaching the 2050 zero emissions target that New Zealand is committed to. Its responsibilities would be clearly set out in the act but its role is not policy making, said Upton. "It is for the government of the day to come up with the policies that are needed to get us there."

The budgets are a critical tool to give investors and businesses a predictable emissions pathway, he said. Reducing carbon emissions is an economic structural adjustment rather than merely an environmental challenge, as it will require significant investment and different business models. 

If you want to talk about long-term investment "you need a stable, predictable framework," he said. Eliminating fossil fuels or trying to get to zero emissions in land transport "won't happen if the people who need to invest in the infrastructure don't have any confidence that that's where we are going to go," he said. 

As a result, he proposes that the Climate Commission recommend six-year budgets with a review at the half-way point given that New Zealand's government terms are for three years. 

While widespread political support is essential, he also said there is a need for immediate action as the commission will need to recommend the first two budgets - taking New Zealand to 2030 - fairly quickly.  "The first two will need to reverse the trend of the last 20 years while the third budget: that will provide the first opportunity to propose a really ambitious reduction. The size of the budgets is going to have to shrink, " he said. 

Upton said the calibre of the appointees to the commission is critical and they need to be "experts as opposed to stakeholders" and that the Zero Carbon Act should specify the expertise required and include a process that ensures some level of cross-party consensus. 

He also recommended climate change adaptation be included in the Zero Carbon Act, which would create a process to carry out regular risk assessments and planning. 

The report was fairly well received by different sectors.

Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull said introducing a Zero Carbon Act and a UK-style Climate Commission will require care to ensure they are suitable for New Zealand, and that the commissioner’s recommendations provide sensible and pragmatic options around introducing emissions reduction targets in a staged manner.

However, he stressed that it's critical local government be involved in any conversations and decisions about the pace of adaptation and has a role in determining what agency or mechanism is adopted to carry out that work.

Opposition National Party climate change spokesperson Todd Muller said: "National is up for the conversation about the steps we can take as a country to transition to a lower carbon economy".

"We believe it is possible to drive environmental improvements while continuing economic growth, but we need to make sure we get the balance right." 

Acting minister for climate change Julie Anne Genter said that "we, as the Green Party support partner of the Labour-led coalition Government agree that there needs to be thorough debate to reach a durable structure for New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act." 

While the recommendations make reference to adaptation, the Insurance Council of New Zealand voiced concern that it had taken a back seat to carbon budgets. 

"It is disappointing more prominence has not been given to how New Zealand will adapt to climate change impacts, because no matter how successful New Zealand is in achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets, we will still have to deal with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events," ICNZ chief executive Tim Grafton said.

Last year, extreme weather events caused more than 25,000 claims from homes and businesses at a total cost of over $240 million in insured losses, he added. 

(BusinessDesk)

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