The beginning of the end of the climate change debate
By Richard Harman (author)
It may be one of the great paradoxes of this Parliamentary term that what has up until now been one of politics’ most divisive issues seems to be headed for a widespread consensual bi-partisan resolution.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw said last night that he now has 14,746 submissions on the “Net Zero” proposal which would reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions to a net zero by 2050.
Now the Ministry for the Environment will start analysing the submissions.
"That's expected to take about a month," he told POLITIK last night.
“In parallel, I am going to start talking to the other political parties in Parliament about what their thoughts are and see how much alignment we have got on the different components of the (Net Zero) Bill.
“As those two processes converge on each other we will get to go to Cabinet with a set of drafting instructions for the Bill.”
What is remarkable about all this is that Shaw is fully expecting support from National.
And he will get it. Up to a point. That much has been promised both by Leader, Simon Bridges, and Climate Change spokesperson, Todd Muller.
The sticking point for the Nats will be agriculture and in particular the growing view within the agriculture sector that methane gas be excluded from the net-zero equation because it is a short-lived gas in the atmosphere.
“I have to say that the weight of public opinion, from what we have seen, is not with carbon dioxide only,” Shaw told NBR yesterday.
The consultation document did, however, offer two other options
One simply called for the stabilisation of methane emissions by 2050; the other called for all gases to be net zero by 2050.
However, Shaw said it could be possible to have a stabilised flow of methane within a net zero target.
“The question is how much do you offset.”
Federated Farmers Climate Change spokesperson, Andrew Hoggard, speaking a month ago, said it was a positive that Shaw's consultation document recognised that methane from livestock was a recycling, not accumulating, greenhouse gas.
“Methane has a half-life of around 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years," he said.
“The alternatives the Ministry has called for feedback on include the valid and practical option of stabilising emissions of short-lived gases, including methane, while pushing for long-lived net-zero gases, including nitrous oxide, by 2050," Andrew said.
“Keep in mind that since 1990 the amount of methane produced by New Zealand agricultural livestock has only increased by 4-5%, but carbon dioxide from transport has risen by 82%.”
Nevertheless, Shaw is optimistic that he will be able to get a cross-party consensus to take to Cabinet.
His approach has raised the eyebrows of some political cynics since it seems he is almost reticent about branding the whole process as a Green Party initiative.
“The outcome is the most important thing,” he told POLITIK.
“The whole point of the legislation is to try and take the politics out of the climate change debate, to rise above the partisanship.
“And I think we have to conduct the process of putting this Bill together in that spirit.
“I’ve never been one for party partisanship.
“I just think we can’t take the risk of party politics causing the defeat of the Bill.”
Shaw can draw on Globe New Zealand, a cross-party working group of MPs that involves MPs from all parties.
Chaired last year by the Green MP, Kennedy Graham, it commissioned a report from a British economic consultancy, Vivid, on how New Zealand might respond to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Globe is currently chaired by National MP Stuart Smith.
National's climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller, had signalled last December that it was in the process of changing its policy on climate change.
They had a long discussion on the issue at the Blue Greens conference in April, and then Leader Simon Bridges took those discussions around both the caucus and the party which led up to a keynote address to the Agriculture Field Days early last month.
“National recognises the importance to New Zealanders – present and future – of addressing climate change, and playing our part in the global response,” he said.
“We’ve made good progress recently, but we need to do more.
“Since 2008 our greenhouse gas emissions fell, despite a growing economy and growing population.
“That is a big deal. In the previous 18 years emissions increased by 25 per cent.
“But we now need to wrestle them down further.”
That is what makes Shaw optimistic that he can get a cross-party consensus.
And as if to offer a hint that bi-partisanship might work, National's Mental Health spokesperson Matt Doocey this week proposed a cross-party investigation into mental health which the Greens’ Chloe Swarbrick promptly supported.
In his statement announcing his offer, Doocey cited the climate change process as an influence.
Shaw believes that attitudes to climate change have changed.
“From doing the consultation meetings, I feel that the country has come together on a consensus, maybe on a deeply held consensus but a broad consensus in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”
Shaw appears to have read the public mood well.
A poll for the insurer, IAG, published at the weekend, showed that 79 per cent of New Zealanders believed the approach to climate change should be non-partisan and pragmatic.
Those polled thought New Zealanders needed to work together to fight climate change, with 65 per cent thinking the Government has a responsibility to take action. 25 per cent say the Government is most responsible.
79 per cent believed New Zealand needs to start now, 64 per cent believed we needed to meet or exceed our international commitments, and 78 per cent said we should act even if other countries don’t.