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Broader review powers eyed for Climate Change Commission

Monday 21st October 2019

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Risks around the government’s one billion trees programme appear to have prompted lawmakers to give the soon-to-be-formed Climate Change Commission greater power to recommend changes to the country’s long-term emissions targets and the carbon budgets to achieve them.

Parliament’s environment select committee has recommended a series of changes to the government’s zero-carbon bill, including widening the scope for the new body to revisit the time needed to meet the net-zero 2050 target, or the level of emission reductions required by then.

The original legislation – the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill – already gave the commission the power to revisit targets in the event of “significant change” in seven areas, including scientific understanding of climate change, the country’s economic circumstances, technological developments or issues of intergenerational equity.

The committee’s latest recommendations would allow the commission to also act if it believed such a significant change was “likely to occur.” The committee also added two further grounds for reviewing the targets of how they are met: significant change in the principal risks and uncertainties associated with emissions reductions, or in social, cultural, environmental and ecological circumstances.

“Empowering the commission to consider the form of the target would be a useful way of providing flexibility to ensure that the target remains fit for purpose over time,” the committee says in its final report on the bill.

“A number of submitters have raised concerns about the use of forestry offsets and the negative effects this could have on sectors and communities. Our amendment would allow the commission to consider this and other matters relevant to the target as part of its target reviews.”

The government’s plan for the country to plant a billion trees during the next decade is a core, but contentious part of its climate change strategy.

Few believe the extra 50,000 hectares of forest planting required annually is achievable and many are concerned it will spread beyond the marginal and erosion-prone land intended. Some relatively high value farms have already been sold for conversion to forestry, renewing concerns about depopulation of some rural areas.

The commission, to be chaired by economist Rod Carr, is tasked with advising future governments on a series of multi-year emissions budgets to help get the country to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The legislation also seeks a 10 percent reduction – from 2017 levels - in biogenic methane emissions by 2030 and a 24-47 percent reduction by 2050.

Those methane targets were hotly disputed by the opposition National Party which argued they were for the commission to set. While methane vaccines and methane-inhibiting feed supplements are being developed, there are real doubts that that scale of reduction can be met.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told journalists today that sticking with the 24-47 percent range on methane struck the right balance.

The range was based on the evidence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and provided the commission some certainty around the parameters it would be working within, she said.

In their minority report, National MPs on the committee reiterated their calls for the commission to set the methane targets, and sought greater emphasis on technology and research to find new ways of reducing emissions.

While the government members of the committee were happy to provide the commission some more flexibility on the overall targets and how they should be met, they wanted greater emphasis on emission budgets being met through domestic reductions as far as possible.

In recommending “an appropriate limit” on offshore mitigations that can be used to meet an emissions budget, the commission must also now explain the circumstances that justify that.

“Offshore mitigation would be used only if there was a significant change of circumstance. This change would need to be one the affects the considerations on which the budget was based, and affects the ability to meet the emission budget domestically,” the committee said.  


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