Editorial: New Zealand needs a climate change plan

New Zealand has the highest car ownership rate in the OECD, a new report says.

New Zealand has the highest car ownership rate in the OECD, a new report says.

OPINION: What would a serious New Zealand response to climate change look like?

That is the question now that the country has ratified the Paris climate agreement and committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It needs urgent articulation from a Government that has spent most of its time in power ignoring the problem.

Two hefty reports out this week put the choices plainly enough.

The OECD's once-a-decade take on New Zealand's environment points out that the country's emissions have risen – not fallen – in recent years. It says New Zealand is approaching the "environmental limits" of its agriculture-heavy growth model, and must make changes if it wants to curb emissions, such as bringing farming into its Emissions Trading Scheme.

Meanwhile, research commissioned by a cross-party group of MPs lays out several scenarios – from a more or less business-as-usual approach, to ambitious options that include cuts in the national dairy herd, aggressive use of emerging technologies, and extensive new forestries.

Both reports acknowledge New Zealand's special challenges: unlike most other countries, its energy sector is already largely "decarbonised" (renewable); and its large proportion of agricultural emissions are hard to cut without economic pain.

However, they do not leave the problem there, as the Government did for far too long. There are, for instance, other sectors where New Zealand is lagging. The OECD points out that transport emissions here are unusually high – with the highest car ownership rate among developed countries; an old, dirty fleet; very large public spending on roads; and unusually low petrol taxes.

What can be the justification for all of this in the age of climate change – and what is the Government doing about it?

On agriculture, the point is not to deny the difficulties but to face and mitigate them. The OECD suggests that bringing farming into the ETS – or else applying other taxes to the sector – would "provide much-needed policy certainty for the agricultural sector, encourage investment and accelerate innovation".

The Government will no doubt say it is funding research on agricultural emissions. But what about the power of incentives for farmers? A better strategy would gradually introduce farming into the scheme, with time to plan, trial new technologies – and make changes to the size of herds or land use if that is the smartest response.

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For now, it seems the Government's plan is to buy its way to its Paris targets; international carbon credits will apparently make up 80 per cent of the effort to drop emissions by 2030.

There's nothing theoretically wrong with this. If the markets are credible (which previous versions have not been), then it doesn't matter how global emissions come down. But credits carry a cost, too – likely to run to billions of dollars – and that cost will probably grow as reductions targets become deeper.

So getting our own house in order must be part of the mix too. We need a plan – and a willingness to grapple with the trade-offs involved in answering to this global crisis.

 - The Dominion Post


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