Government lawyers question court's ability to rule on climate change case

Sarah Thomson is taking Environment Minister Paula Bennett to court over an alleged failure to set and monitor targets ...
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Sarah Thomson is taking Environment Minister Paula Bennett to court over an alleged failure to set and monitor targets on climate change.

Government lawyers have questioned the High Court's ability to rule on climate change emission targets, in a case brought by a law student.

Sarah Thomson, of Waikato University, brought the lawsuit against Environment Minister Paula Bennett over allegedly inadequate climate change action.

But Government lawyer Peter Gunn, in the High Court at Wellington on Tuesday, questioned whether a judicial review was practical given the complex economic, social, and political factors that contributed to emissions targets.

Thomson and lawyer Davey Salmon arrive at the High Court in Wellington for the second day of proceedings.
GED CANN/ FAIRFAX NZ

Thomson and lawyer Davey Salmon arrive at the High Court in Wellington for the second day of proceedings.

He said understanding the scientific background to the targets might also be a hurdle beyond the scope of the court.

READ MORE:
Law student Sarah Thomson takes Govt to court over climate change
First-of-its-kind case as student takes Government to court

Gunn described many of the requirements under the Paris Agreement as "high-flown, abstract consideration" that were difficult to put into any legal construct.

Environment Minister Paula Bennett is the subject of Thomson suit, for her alleged failure to set emissions targets that ...

Environment Minister Paula Bennett is the subject of Thomson suit, for her alleged failure to set emissions targets that reflect the science of climate change.

Speaking for Thomson on Monday, lawyer Davey Salmon said a judicial review was the public's only chance to scrutinise emission targets, with no upper house of Parliament, or constitution, to fall back on.

Gunn worked to debunk some of the accusations laid down by Salmon on Monday. 

These included criticism of over-reliance on not-yet-invented technologies in order to achieve targets.

Sarah Thomson arriving at the High Court on Monday with her legal team Davey Salmon, left, and Michael Heard.
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Sarah Thomson arriving at the High Court on Monday with her legal team Davey Salmon, left, and Michael Heard.

Gunn said such technologies were not the "Star Wars" stuff that Thomson's team had made them out to be, and pointed to an affidavit from former environment minister Tim Groser​, which described methane vaccines currently under development.

Ad Feedback

"They may reduce the emissions from the country's cattle, your honour. Those are not Star Wars technologies," Gunn said.

When asked for other examples of emerging technologies by Justice Jillian Mallon, Gunn pointed to research into the breeding of low-emission cows, and development of new feeds, none of which were commercially available as yet.

Salmon accused the Government on Monday of being unwilling to touch the "sacred cow" of dairying, despite its high emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas estimated to be between 20 and 25 times more powerful in contributing to global warming than carbon dioxide.

Dairy contributed about 48 per cent of New Zealand's emissions, but Gunn defended New Zealand's agricultural sector, describing it as one of the most efficient on the planet.

He argued that, if New Zealand were to move away from dairy, the demand would remain, incentivising less efficient producers in other countries to fill the gap.

"That doesn't help the global outcome we are all striving for," Gunn said.

New Zealand's reliance on buying carbon credits from abroad to achieve up to 80 per cent of its emission reduction goals was also defended.

Reading from the submission of David Frame, the Government's science expert in the case, Gunn said relying purely on domestic reductions was inefficient, when cheaper reductions could be had elsewhere. 

"The climate doesn't care about the location of mitigation," Gunn said.

Gunn was not able to provide a list countries from which New Zealand bought carbon credits, but agreed with the judge's summation that traders were not necessarily negative emitters, but were instead countries projected to have emissions that contributed to less than a two-degree temperature increase.

The Paris Agreement required countries to carry out mitigation of their own as well, Gunn said, which New Zealand was doing.

Regarding the allegation that the Government had failed to take the most recent science into account when re-evaluating targets, Gunn questioned the practicality of resetting targets every time new research was published.

Thomson, 26, said outside court that it seemed the Government was trying to justify itself during the second day of proceedings.

"It felt like the Government has been undressed in front of us a bit, and its whole decision-making process exposed.

"It feels surreal, watching a case which touches upon the future of humanity being argued right in front of me."

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback