Zero Carbon Bill and the splitting of greenhouse gas targets – expert reaction

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill, designed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to under 1.5C over the next 30 years, was introduced to Parliament yesterday.

The Government last year conducted a public consultation on how it should treat different emissions sources, either net-zero carbon dioxide only, net-zero emission for all greenhouse gases, or net-zero long-lived gases (e.g. carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide) and stabilised short-lived gases like methane.

The Bill treats emission sources differently, with carbon dioxide emissions set to net-zero by 2050 and a staggered target for biological emissions like methane, aiming for a 10% reduction by 2030 and between a 24% to 47% reduction by 2050.

Regular five-yearly “emissions budgets” will be released by the independent Climate Change Commission. This group was originally suggested by the Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment (PCE) Jan Wright in 2017.

The Science Media Centre asked several experts to comment on the announcement. 

Here are the responses –

* Professor Dave Frame, NZ Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“It’s good to see the targets go some way towards reflecting the underlying science of warming by differentiating between long- and short-lived gases. It’s also good to see in-built flexibility with the periodic revisions to the targets. I’m a bit surprised that the Government have opted for methane targets that go well beyond the level of cuts needed to stabilise temperatures, which may invite a future government to re-open the issue, but it’s important to note that the steeper end of the range of possible methane cuts would only be triggered if the rest of the world gets much more serious about climate mitigation. That’s an important caveat and I hope it doesn’t get lost in the inevitable noise from the pro- and anti-farming lobbies.

“Finally, as always, it’s also important not to make too much of targets: credibility flows outwards from actual policies, not aspirations for 2030 or 2050. It will be interesting to see what voters make of the targets, and it will also be interesting to see if the details of the policies in support of the targets can move beyond Kyoto-era thinking to incorporate some of the great work done in the last year by the Productivity Commission and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.”

No conflict of interest.

* Professor Robert McLachlan, School of Fundamental Sciences and Centre for Planetary Ecology, Massey University, comments:

“The Zero Carbon Bill sends a strong signal to New Zealand and the world that we are taking our Paris Agreement commitments seriously. Basing the emissions targets on the IPCC 1.5C report is sound and transparent.

“On the face of it, splitting off biogenic methane and not opting for ‘net zero all gasses’ looks weaker than what many people had wanted. But in other ways, this is a strong target. Importantly, biogenic methane (which includes waste as well as agriculture) does have to be reduced – by 10% over 2017-2030, and by 24-47% over 2017-2050 – and cannot be offset by planting trees. These are consistent with the 1.5C report and with the science that these gasses do not build up in the atmosphere. Steps towards meeting the 2030 target can begin immediately.

“All other gasses, principally carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, and nitrous oxides from synthetic fertilizers and animal urine, must go to zero by 2050. They can be partly offset by planting trees, but that does not avoid the need to stop burning fossil fuels.

“Robust processes have been put in place to set periodic emissions budgets (the first will cover 2022 to 2025), to determine how to meet them, and how to assess progress. Importantly, the 2050 targets are to be embodied in law and could only be changed in the future by amending the Bill.

“Many countries are in the process of setting and updating their targets, especially in light of the 1.5C target, and working out how to deal with agricultural emissions. The choices made in the Zero Carbon Bill will be a great help and inspiration to them.”

No conflict of interest.

* Dr Tony van der Weerden, Acting Science Impact Leader Climate Change, AgResearch, comments:

“The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill is a progressive piece of legislation that will ensure all sectors of New Zealand, including agriculture, play their role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For New Zealand, agriculture is a major source of national greenhouse gases, contributing 48 per cent of total emissions in 2017.

“Treating biologically-derived methane differently from other greenhouse gases (such as carbon and nitrous oxide, and fossil-based methane) is the correct decision. Biological methane is short-lived and is mainly derived from ruminant livestock. Methane is the most important agricultural greenhouse gas, and for this reason, there has been a significant investment into researching methane mitigation options for livestock farmers.

“Research has focused on developing vaccines and inhibitors for reducing enteric methane produced in the rumen of cattle, sheep and deer, identifying low methane forages and breeding low methane sheep and cattle. However, further work is required to ensure these, and other options, are effective without having unintended consequences on other parts of the farm system.

“For this reason, the Bill’s gradual reduction in methane over time will assist in providing the time and space required to develop and test practical, robust on-farm mitigation options.

“The gradual transition over several years to minimise the economic impact on the rural sector is a prudent step. Many farmers want to do their bit to reduce emissions, but the nation’s economic well-being is equally important. Regular review of the target by the Climate Change Commission will provide opportunity to assess the risk of economic impact on the rural sector while trying to meet the Bill’s target. We see this as a pragmatic approach, and a critical role of the Climate Change Commission.”

No conflict of interest.

* Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward, political scientist, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The announcement today of draft Carbon Zero legislation is both hopeful and troubling. At one level it is hopeful because all parties have already expressed support for this legislation and we need cross parliamentary agreement for effective climate action. On the other hand, the legislation sets a low bar, particularly over methane emissions in the near term, so low that we have to ask, is this what it takes to get a cross party agreement? Are we so timid that we can’t envisage much beyond very modest steps?

“And yet, even with modest near term methane targets, it is also likely New Zealand will struggle to meet the ambitions of this legislation. We have done very little to incentivise any real shifts in our national behaviours around climate gas emissions – businesses need clear goals and incentives to reduce carbon and other green-house gas emissions in production processes – and legislation is needed to set a framework for the real action which comes next.

“To concentrate on the positives, the bill articulates a previously signalled intention that New Zealand will commit to reducing carbon to net zero by 2050, the reduction in methane at 10 per cent of the emission rate of 2017, however is at the lowest end of the recommendation of the Parliamentary Commissioner (10 to 22 percent below 2016 levels by 2050) and below the target of the IPCC 1.5 report, which called for ‘deep reductions’ in methane globally at a rate of 35 per cent by 2050 relative to the rates of emission in 2010.

“Part of that call for global reductions in methane was a recognition that methane is a fierce short-lived, heat-trapping gas, there is an assumption in my view that cutting methane may ‘buy time’ for the more significant long term emission cuts we need globally in carbon. If we are not cutting methane at rates needed on global average, as fair minded global citizens we do need to cut carbon harder. In the future, as more research comes out about the full impact and scale of global methane emissions, we may need to revisit this modest target much more ambitiously.

“The Bill itself introduces requirements for climate adaptation and risk planning at the national level that are long overdue, but again the devil will be in the detail of what comes next, and each next step will be fraught as parliaments of the future will struggle with issues including how to support national insurance, fund managed retreat, or enforce national climate planning regulations.

“The Bill establishes an independent Climate Commission and it is good to see the commission will be driven by research, not by industry stakeholders. However, from my perspective, it is disappointing that the Commission will not be reporting to Parliament as a whole, and instead to a Minister. The new Commission’s going to face a very difficult task because unlike the UK Committee on Climate Change, which started much earlier, there are not many ways to make easy wins. So we need a fearless, frank body that can publish reports on time and offer information freely to Parliament as a whole, responsible to the Speaker preferably, not to a Minister and Cabinet who may require ‘massaging the text’ or ‘delays’ in release for any number of political or policy reasons. These delays and need for text approvals may potentially get in the way of the Commission being seen as a truly independent body serving all of parliament, rather than a Government of the day.

“To make legislation work effectively everyone also needs to feel that we are all doing our fair share. New Zealand is well positioned to make an energy transition away from oil and fossil fuels. But this requires whole of government commitments and will impact on everyday life and business from public transport, to investments, long haul tourism, city infrastructure and construction – such as shifting construction patterns or changing city layouts.

“So if I was really frank, as a personal reflection, I find it a bit depressing to see the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) described as our ‘key’ policy approach. The ETS is one tool, but we all also need many tools and incentives to make real cuts in our emissions. We are going to struggle as it is to meet the targets we have set as a nation so we need the whole of government to help us to make the head-shift we all need to make as individuals, companies, or agencies, away from relying on fossil fuels. This requires us to incentivise everyone from business and city councils, farmers and employers, families and marae, to make sustainable low carbon shifts in everyday life.

“I worry that setting the ETS as our policy centre-piece is not enough on its own to get us to net-zero carbon by 2050 and it risks sending the signal that if it’s all a bit hard, we can just pay someone else to make the cuts for us.

“All that said, politics is the art of the possible. For the last 30 years we have taken no real action on climate change. This Bill matters as it is the first step in a new era of transition it should move quickly through parliament and be approved as legislation so that we can get on with the much harder work of making the real changes within this framework, changes that will make a real difference for the future.”

Conflict of interest: Dr Hayward was the only New Zealand lead author to the IPCC Special report on 1.5 degrees C, global warming and is a coordinating lead author leading the next Assessment for IPCC on how world cities can respond to a changing climate for 2021. Here she makes a personal reflection.

* Associate Professor Ivan Diaz-Rainey, Climate and Energy Finance Group, University of Otago, comments:

“The Government has put forward its long-awaited Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill. As advised by the PCE, the Government has finally decided to differentiate methane and carbon emissions. This is – as per my previous comments (see SMC and The Conversation) – consistent with science (as nicely summarised by the recent PCE report) but should also increase the chances of the Bill passing through Parliament.

“The Bill sets a 10% reduction target for biological methane emissions by 2030. This is important as it suggests agriculture will also have to seek to reduce methane emissions – how these reductions will be achieved will be interesting.

“Will farmers be able to do this via offsets as suggested by the PCE? As such there is potential devil in the detail. If 100% offsets against forestry are allowed for methane it would allow a continued push towards farming intensification. This is clearly undesirable from a climate perspective. I suspect this sort of detail will be debated intensely in Parliament. Also depending on progress and scientific advances, there is a range of further reductions of between 24% to 47% by 2050. Carbon emissions are targeted to be zero by 2050.

“All-in-all, it is great that the Bill is now out there for discussion and we have a ‘split gas’ approach. But there are important details that will be debated and that will ultimately determine how much agriculture will be made to work on methane emissions reductions. The rest of the economy, for sure, will have to work hard, so a 100% offset option for methane would be unfair.

What we need now are policies. Policies that will start putting PV on rooftops despite the howls of protest from the large ‘gentailors’; policies making new homes passive homes; policies ensuring more of us drive EVs and that we don’t import petrol and diesel vehicles that the rest of the world is offloading because they are switching to EVs. The Bill provides a structure for allocating emissions budgets which is very important, but without associated policies those budgets will be embarrassing fictions in the years to come.”

No conflict of interest.

* Catherine Leining, Policy Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, comments:

“The Government is heeding the stark warning in the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5C and putting New Zealand on an ambitious pathway toward net zero emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases and substantial reductions in methane from agriculture and waste by 2050. The Zero Carbon Amendment Bill breaks important new ground.

“First, the Bill aligns the Climate Change Response Act with the more ambitious of the Paris Agreement’s two temperature goals. Both targets lie within the IPCC’s ranges for 1.5C. While the targets can be revised in the future, specific criteria suggest this will be an exception rather than the rule.

“Second, emission reduction targets are split into two baskets: (1) biogenic methane from agriculture and waste, and (2) all other GHGs. The methane target is 10% below 2017 levels by 2030 and 24-47% below 2017 levels by 2050. For reference, methane emissions declined 2.5% over 2007-2017. The methane target stands alone; it can’t be met with domestic removals from forestry and other sectors.

“Third, the Bill makes the targets legally binding and mandates five-year emission budgets, plans, and reviews for meeting them. A target without a pathway and accountability is just a number. The Bill’s approach should ensure the targets translate into real mitigation action. The emission budgets set on a rolling basis over time will enable flexibility over the rate of domestic transformation and New Zealand’s cumulative contribution to global warming.

“Fourth, while overseas mitigation can count toward meeting the targets, the amount will be limited to place the clear focus on ambitious domestic mitigation. If overseas mitigation can count toward the methane target, will a ‘same gas’ requirement apply?

“Fifth, the Bill establishes an independent Climate Change Commission to provide advice while the Government retains decision-making authority. This will enable democratic accountability for decisions which must combine technical with political considerations.

“Sixth, the Bill launches a new process for assessing adaptation risks and responding to them.

“The Bill creates a much-needed framework for guiding future decisions on emission caps and price management mechanisms under the NZ ETS. It will not constrain New Zealand’s contribution to global mitigation through its international targets, which could involve higher levels of overseas mitigation. It strengthens provisions relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, particularly with regard to appointments to the Climate Change Commission and consideration of impacts of emission reduction and adaptation plans on Māori and iwi. With enduring cross-party and public support, this Bill may finally light the fire under New Zealand’s mitigation action.”

No conflict of interest.

* Professor Tim Payn, Chair of Sustainable Forestry, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology and Scion, comments:

“In addition to the commitment to a net zero carbon approach, it is good to see adaptation planning included in the Bill.

“New Zealand will see increasing impacts from storms and other extreme weather-related events, such as drought or fire, under climate change. These will be especially important for the primary sector. Soil erosion and land degradation are one key issue affecting productivity and our wider environment.

“Designing new mosaics of land use to minimise these risks and impacts are one adaptation approach – trees will play a major role here to both minimise degradation and store carbon.”

Conflict of interest statement: None: I undertake research on climate change issues related mainly to forestry through Scion and Toi Ohomai.

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull, Radiocarbon Research Leader, GNS Science, comments:

“The Government’s Zero Carbon Bill is underpinned by strong science, which is an encouraging step to ensure that policy decisions are consistent with our scientific knowledge of how our carbon emissions and offsets actually impact greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

“The two-basket approach, whereby short-lived gases such as methane are treated separately to long-lived gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, is one product of the strong scientific input into this Bill. This approach is essential to ensuring that targeted and appropriate mitigation strategies can be applied to each of New Zealand’s varied emission source sectors.

“New Zealand has a real capability to substantially reduce our net carbon dioxide emissions right away with existing technology, such as increased renewable electricity generation, transition to electric vehicles and forestry offsets. The two basket approach will allow New Zealand to focus on these as we continue to develop methods to sensibly reduce methane emissions.

“The new CarbonWatch-NZ research programme (an MBIE Endeavour-funded programme involving NIWA, GNS Science, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, and the University of Waikato) is using atmospheric observations and modelling of carbon dioxide, methane and isotopes to provide detailed information about New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the specific sources that produce them. This will allow government and other stakeholders to better evaluate the effectiveness of the Zero Carbon Bill and other policy actions. It will also allow us to demonstrate to the world that New Zealand is meeting our Paris Agreement commitments.”

No conflict of interest.

* Dr Judy Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow, NZ Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

 “Excellent outcome on adaptation. This will provide the much needed impetus for the country to get with the adaptation remit. We have no time to lose planning to reduce risk and avoid further exposures as the impacts get worse.

“Having an institution of state dedicated to this important task will get us better prepared.”

Conflict of interest statement: I was the Co Chair of the Climate Change Technical Working Group 2016 to 2018 that recommended to the Government a national risk assessment, a national adaptation plan and an independent monitoring and reporting process through a Climate Commission like agency.

* Professor Susan Krumdieck, Energy Transition Engineering, University of Canterbury, comments:

“On one hand – setting of targets is seen as a big step for governments. Setting a target, especially if it is a future target with lots of wiggle room, like ‘reduce emissions’ or ’24-47% reduction in methane below 2017 levels by 2050…’ is a feel-good thing to do. It fits a sound byte, and positions the politician in a safe zone of caring, but not specifically doing.

“Requiring the government to develop policies is also not really doing anything except requiring somebody at some time in the future to think about doing something. I can’t ever forget in 2000 the road show that Energy and Climate Minister Peet Hodgson did to discuss whether NZ should have a carbon tax or an ETS. Ten years later a very weak and nearly ten years on, an ineffectual ETS and impressive growth of emissions are the result.

“Be Calm and Carry on – the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill will not change your life.

“Of course, it is better that our government is doing something rather than nothing. But setting targets didn’t work when NZ ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, and there is nothing new to make target setting work this time.

“Engineering has a solid responsibility for either directly causing or facilitating nearly all of the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation that scientists warn us is putting the future of humanity and one million other species in peril. There is a future out there where all of the things that needed changing to downshift emissions got done. That future exists because all fields of engineering evolved, and discovered a way to change the parameters of their work to involve seeking, exploring and innovating downshift in the systems they work on. Engineering fields are continuously evolving. Most of the time, this looks like a new field emerging to deliver a new product to the market, like aerospace, automotive, robotics, communications, computers…

“But for the last 100 years, there has also been another kind of evolution in engineering, in response to disasters – failures of our own making. The sinking of the Titanic led to huge changes in maritime engineering. The Love Canal disaster led to chemical waste management engineering. The depletion of the ozone layer led to the big changes in refrigeration and chemical process engineering. AND the regulations and policies to require changes happened AFTER the engineering changes.

“If climate change and biodiversity collapse are not the biggest manmade disasters yet, then maybe I am wrong about Transition Engineering being an emergent response in the fields. But if I am right, then there is a chance that the future we would want to send our kids to exists.”

No conflict of interest.

Source:  Science Media Centre

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog

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