Landmark climate change bill goes to Parliament

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said this bill would deliver a future for children striking for climate change.
HENRY COOKE/STUFF
Climate Change Minister James Shaw said this bill would deliver a future for children striking for climate change.

The Government's flagship climate change policy will treat biological methane far more softly than all other greenhouse gas emissions - but still mandates a large reduction.

Governments will be mandated to reduce biological methane by at least 10 per cent by 2030 and between 24 and 47 per cent by 2050. All other emissions would be reduced to "net zero" by 2050 to limit global warming increases to 1.5C.

Despite the softer approach to methane, which mainly comes from agriculture, the Government has not managed to win the full support of the National Party, although the party is supportive of the main structure of the bill.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said that this bill was "our plan to safeguard the future" for the schoolkids who have walked out of school to protest climate change.

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He said the bill represented "the best possible political consensus across New Zealand about how we get to that goal".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the bill balanced the need to respond to climate change while not unfairly punishing agriculture.

"New Zealand is a food-producing nation. We have to become a sustainable food-production nation," Ardern said.

HOW IT WORKS

The bill would set greenhouse gas emissions targets into law and force future governments to come up with plans to meet "stepping stone" targets on the way there, with an endpoint target of net zero long-lived emissions in 2050 and a large reduction in biological methane emissions - somewhere between a "provisional range" of 24 per cent and 47 per cent in gross reductions. The main enforcement mechanism each Government has is envisioned to be the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Biological methane emissions, which largely come from livestock belching, would need to be reduced by 10 per cent by 2030 from 2017 levels. The "provisional range" will be reviewed by the independent Climate Change Commission, which this bill sets up, in 2024.

All other greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide from power production and transport - would need to be reduced to "net zero" - meaning offsetting methods like forestry will be key.

COLLETTE DEVLIN/Stuff
Greens co-leader James Shaw addresses climate change protesters at Parliament, a day after he was attacked.

The difference in targets for the emissions speaks to both the scientific properties of methane and the political difficulty of meddling with the agricultural sector, which releases the vast majority of methane emissions.

While methane is much more damaging than carbon on a per-tonne basis it decays a lot faster - in around a decade - meaning if emissions are kept stable the warming effect of the methane will not increase.

Agriculture is New Zealand's largest emitting industry, contributing 48.1 per cent of damaging emissions. Biological methane makes up about 35 per cent in itself, with the rest coming from nitrous oxide.

Greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of human-influenced climate change, which is set to cause massive economic and ecological harm to the globe over coming decades.

The proposed law is based on the United Kingdom's Climate Change Act.

It would compel future governments to set five-yearly "emissions budgets" that decrease over time until the endpoint target in 2050, as well as plans to meet the targets. Three of these would be in place at any one time - one for the immediate five years, then the next five years, then the next five years after that.

The independent Climate Change Commission would advise the Government on what these targets should be and how exactly governments should meet them. It would not have any independent power on its own. It's understood NZ First was particularly uncomfortable with talk about giving the commission Reserve Bank-like powers to set the emissions targets itself.

Governments will also be required to set a plan for how they will respond to the various effects of climate change, including an increase in extreme weather events, droughts, fires, and sea-level rise.

NATIONAL SUPPORT STRUCTURE BUT NOT METHANE TARGET

Shaw has been negotiating with National for months to get bipartisan support. There has also been some negotiation within the Government, as NZ First had slowed the bill.

National leader Simon Bridges said the party was supportive of the general structure of the bill and of taking politics out of climate change, but had serious reservations about the methane target itself.

"While we have found common ground on the Commission's form and function, the net-zero target for long lived gases, and the separate treatment of methane, we have serious reservations about the expected rate of reduction for methane," Bridges said.

"New Zealand has been a global leader in sustainable agricultural production. For this leadership to be enhanced the sector must continue to embrace change, but this target goes beyond credible scientific recommendations."

"We have signalled to the Government in earlier discussions that it is exactly the sort of decision a newly formed Climate Commission should advise Parliament on, rather than politicians cherry picking numbers. Waiting five years to finally assess whether it's fit for purpose is not acceptable."

ACT will oppose the Zero Carbon Bill.

NZ First leader Winston Peters welcomed the bill.

"This process began when the last National Government signed the country up to the Paris Agreement. From the beginning of this government, New Zealand First has had the agriculture sector's interests at heart. New Zealand has an internationally unique methane profile given our sheep and dairy farming sector," Peters said.

"We are committed to assisting the industry through that transition with discounted emissions costs, better tools and knowledge to help them manage emissions and other environmental factors, as well as increased investment in research and development on ways to reduce emissions."

"In negotiations, New Zealand First sought to balance the interests of the agricultural sector and the need for the government to take strong action and show leadership on climate change."

Shaw said New Zealanders had made it clear they wanted leadership and consensus on climate change legislation.

He urged people to engage with the Zero Carbon Bill as it passes through Parliament, and have their say in the select committee process.

"All of us have a part to play our part in helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limiting global temperature increases.

"That includes New Zealanders making their contribution to see the Zero Carbon Bill become law by the end of this year."

Stuff revealed a breakthrough last week, with a deal struck over a negotiated "split gas" target, which would see methane treated differently from other long-lived gases, like carbon.

The Government expects to have the bill passed into law by the end of the year. It is set down for its first reading in late-May.

WHAT THE BILL DOES:

  • Sets a target of net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050, except for biological methane (cows belching).
  • Sets a separate target for biological methane - a ten per cent gross reduction on 2017 levels by 2030 and a provisional target of between 24 and 47 per cent in gross reductions by 2050.
  • Sets up the independent Climate Change Commission to advise the Government on targets.
  • Compels Governments to set five-yearly "emissions budgets" that gradually reduce to meet the 2050 target, alongside plans on how it will meet them.
  • Compels Governments to publish plans on how it will deal with the effects of climate change - increased extreme weather, droughts, fires, and sea level rise.

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Climate Change Minister James Shaw has introduced the Zero Carbon Bill.
ROSA WOODS/STUFF
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has introduced the Zero Carbon Bill.

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