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New NZ climate change target 'inadequate', relies on 'creative accounting', says global watchdog

Monday 13th July 2015

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New Zealand's proposal to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 is "inadequate" and can be achieved without the country taking any action to contain a growing level of emissions over the next 15 years, says the Carbon Action Tracker initiative, a Berlin based initiative involving four non-government climate change research agencies.

“New Zealand’s climate target shows it’s far from doing its ‘fair share,’ and is anything but ambitious,” said Bill Hare, chief executive and senior scientist at Climate Analytics, one of the CAT contributor organisations.

“While most other governments intend cutting emissions, New Zealand appears to be increasing emissions, and hiding this through creative accounting. It may not have to take any action at all to meet either its 2020 or 2030 targets.”

The CAT analysis is published this morning after last week's submission of a new greenhouse gas emissions reduction target tabled at the United Nations last week by Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser ahead of a global summit in Paris in December, where a new global compact on climate change action to replace the now defunct Kyoto Protocol appears likely.

The Climate Action Tracker is an analysis undertaken by four independent European research organisations - Climate Analytics, Ecofys, NewClimate Institute and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research - and seeks to measure the comparative fairness of governmental climate action efforts.

The new analysis follows comments last week by Massey University climate change expert, Professor Ralph Sims, who said the new target was in fact weaker than the existing official target of a 5 percent cut in emissions, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020.

Groser said last week that "while New Zealand’s emissions are small on a global scale, we are keen to make a fair and ambitious contribution to the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and void the most harmful effects of climate change."

However, the CAT analysis says New Zealand will only achieve its new 2030 target by using carbon credits generated by plantation forestry carried over from the past and that these credits are so large they would cancel out a projected 32 percent increase in carbon emissions by 2030.

By that time, New Zealand's carbon emissions per head of population would surpass emissions per head in the US by 2025 because New Zealanders' emissions are expected to remain static at around 17 metric tonnes of carbon annually, whereas carbon emissions are "decreasing steadily" in the US.

“New Zealand’s climate policy is projected to head in the opposite direction from the world’s biggest emitters such as China, the United States and the European Union. It has taken little or no action on climate change since 2008 – except for watering down its ETS, and we can find no evidence of any policies that would change this,” Professor Kornelis Blok of Ecofys said in the CAT statement.

New Zealand's intention to use carbon credits, mostly from forestry plantation carbon 'sinks' carried over from the past was also dubious, he said. Such a carry-over is only permitted if a country is part of the so-called 'second commitment period' from 2012 to 2020 under the Kyoto Protocol. The first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol ran from 2008 to 2012 and involved mainly developed economies, excluding the US.  

China and the US, the world's two largest emitters, are seeking a replacement to the Kyoto rules in Paris and New Zealand is backing that approach while hoping to continue using Kyoto compliant rules governing land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) in the new deal.

"New Zealand has not agreed to accept a legally binding commitment for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, yet it appears to be planning to apply accounting rules that carry over surplus units from the first commitment period," said Blok.  "This is something that is available to countries with commitments under the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, but not those without a commitment, like New Zealand. The legal basis upon which New Zealand is seeking to rely upon these accounting rules is therefore unclear."

Dr Louise Jeffery from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said “accounting credits claimed by New Zealand to meet its 2020 target could see emissions, excluding forestry, increase without constraint to 32 percent above 1990 levels by 2020, rather than decreasing to 5 percent below 1990 as stated in the government’s original unconditional pledge.”

That raised the question of what New Zealand's pledge would look like if the preferred forestry rules were not adopted.

The New Zealand target was also inconsistent with a non-binding target to cut emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and would require a commitment to cut emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

"New Zealand’s 'inadequate' rating indicates that its commitment is not in line with any interpretations of a 'fair' approach" to limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, said Hare. "If most other countries were to follow New Zealand’s approach, global warming would exceed 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, a world that would see oceans acidifying, coral reefs dissolving, sea levels rising rapidly, and more than 40 percent species extinction."

Elaborating on US versus New Zealand emissions trends, CAT said: "Trends in per capita emissions are a crude, but nevertheless effective, indicator of fair burden sharing and equity in the longer term. New Zealand, historically, has had lower per capita emissions than the United States, due in part to a high proportion of hydroelectricity in its primary energy supply.

"With the United States in the process of implementing policies aimed at meeting its 2020 and 2025 targets ... per capita emissions are expected to continue to decline significantly, building upon a trend in reducing per capita emissions that began in about 2005.

"New Zealand ... indicates a parallel declining trend in per capita emissions until 2020 and a slower decline between 2020-2030. Moreover, while the US policies are projected to lead to real reductions in GHG emissions, excluding LULUCF and declining per capita emissions of these gases, New Zealand's policies are not."


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