Climate change conference 2021: Jacinda Ardern on low emissions, life in 2030, and what happened to the next oil and gas ban

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called time on decades of empty climate commitments that rely on other countries to do the heavy lifting.

“It’s not enough to simply say, “We’ll wait until everyone else does their bit.” – I’ve heard that argument. We have to do ours now, lest we all end up on a steep drop to the bottom,” she said.

Ardern warned New Zealand’s historic inaction on emissions reduction means that our emissions promises needed to fulfil those pledges will also need to be “steep”.

But for all this zero carbon sabre rattling, Ardern is also optimistic that, for many New Zealanders, national emissions reduction won’t mean upending daily life – yes, New Zealand will do its bit, but for many New Zealanders that will mean watching industries decarbonise, rather than changing the way they live.

And Ardern is keen not to talk up overly drastic change in some of these industries either, saying that expanding the offshore oil and gas ban to onshore exploration – as the Government suggested it might do when it launched the offshore ban three years ago – is now unlikely, with the focus shifting to a slow “just transition” away from onshore exploration.

“No decisions have been taken there,” Ardern said.

“That was a substantial decision to take away offshore, and of course now our focus is that just transition around onshore and so that’s the next process for us,” Ardern said.

When it banned offshore oil and gas exploration in 2018,the Government said it would continue with onshore oil and gas exploration for the next three years.

Following that, it would commission a review on the future of onshore exploration.

Block offers for onshore exploration permits have continued to be issued, but MBIE confirmed that three years later, no review had commenced.

Ardern made the remarks in an extended three-part interview with the Herald, US broadcaster NBC and news agency AFP as part of Covering Climate Now, a coalition of international media reporting climate change.

She was frank, when speaking with NBC, about New Zealand’s poor record of emissions reduction, which has not seen gross emissions decline here.

“We have been amongst… many countries around the world where over the past several decades, not enough action has been taken.

“And so we are in a position now of undertaking quite a steep rise in our commitments,” Ardern said.

She was referring to New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC- the official name for our international emissions pledge.

Like many countries, New Zealand has upped its NDC in the wake of the COP 26 climate conference currently taking place in Glasgow.

The first NDC, set under the 2015 Paris agreement, was to reduce net emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 – the new pledge is to reduce those emissions by 50 per cent (because of an emissions accounting change, the comparison is more accurately increasing the 30 per cent target to a 41 per cent target).

The benchmark for both targets is the level of gross emissions in 2005 – and yes, there’s considerable debate about the merits of comparing a net goal with a gross benchmark.

The Government thinks it makes sense because 2005 was a point in the forestry cycle where gross and net emissions were roughly the same – others are less convinced, with sector groups like Lawyers for Climate Action NZsaying the accounting trick means the target is “not as good as it sounds”.

But Ardern is bullish both about the need for a bold target and the need for New Zealand to lead, rather than just follow behind.

“Our position has always been we can’t hold our heads up on the world stage and call for action unless we demonstrate that leadership ourselves,” Ardern said, saying New Zealand’s legislated 1.5 degree warming target was necessary “to ensure that our Pacific neighbours have their livelihood”.

“Climate change is in our back yard. We’re members of the Pacific. You do not have to travel far,” Ardern said.

“Indeed, you can see [it] here in New Zealand the extreme weather events that we are experiencing now, let alone what our Pacific neighbours are experiencing,” she said.

Ardern is optimistic this low carbon future looks pretty good for New Zealanders – and the transition, relatively painless. When asked how much New Zealanders would drive, fly, and farm by 2030, Ardern did not foresee any painful changes.

Instead, she suggested the cuts required to meet the 2030 pledge would happen offstage, in areas of daily life that most people will barely notice.

“Many of the things that are contributing to our emissions profile at the moment are things that at a day to day level New Zealanders may not notice as much but switching the way that we are producing goods in NZ, that we are manufacturing goods in NZ will make a significant difference,” Ardern said.

She pointed to the Government’s decarbonisation fund, which matches private investment with public money to help heavy industry decarbonise. The first two rounds of that funding are set to reduce gross long-lived emissions by 14-18 per cent in the 2022-2025 period that makes up New Zealand’s first climate budget.

But, back to trains, planes, and cows – well, maybe not planes and cows, which Ardern chose not to discuss when asked, but trains.

“Let’s talk about transport, because we know that is a big contributor to New Zealand’s emissions profile,” said Ardern.

(Agriculture is actually a far larger part of the country’s emissions profile, comprising nearly half of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than double the emissions of transport which counts for 21 per cent.)

“One of the challenges that we have is, of course, for most countries switching to public transport is something that is ingrained in many large city centres,” Ardern said.

“In New Zealand not everywhere is public transport going to make that difference [but] where it can we have invested an extra 40 per cent into public transport.”

But petrolheads, be not afraid – Ardern has no designs on making driving more difficult in parts of the country where alternatives are impossible.

“We know we are a country that is dominated by private vehicle use – in those places where we can switch up to give options, we will, and we are.

“But in the rest of the country, that’s where the clean car standard and those EV incentives make all the difference.”

This suggests the Government’s loved and loathed clean car standard (better known as a “feebate”) EV policy, isn’t actually targeted at the big, public transport-rich cities, where it appears to be most popular, but towards rural towns, where the policy sparked the massive Groundswell protests.

She’s hopeful that, over time, the policy means a large, thriving second-hand EV market that helps more people make the transition to cleaner cars.

One policy, currently being consulted on, is for a vehicle scrappage scheme, that would pay people on low-incomes to ditch high-emissions cars and opt for something cleaner.

Ardern pointedly didn’t answer the question about flying, and only later came back to say that New Zealand was developing a world-first agricultural emissions pricing scheme.

“We’re working with our agriculture sector to incentivise behaviour change – we are in fact the only country in the world that has made a commitment to price and reduce agricultural emissions,” Ardern said.

The policy as announced would mean farmers would only pay a fraction of the cost of those emissions once the pricing scheme is developed.

This isn’t quite as egregious as it sounds – some “trade-exposed” industries have their emissions priced but are not required to pay the full cost of those emissions, as it would make them less internationally competitive.

The Government has only recently begun winding back those subsidies, many of which will continue phasing out into the 2040s.

Emissions pricing touches on another vexed part of the Government’s climate change pledge.Two thirds of emissions reductions to meet the 2030 pledge will come from offshore offsets: yet-to-be agreed schemes that will allow New Zealand to pay for emissions reduction schemes that will count towards our own emissions goals or an international carbon scheme.

But that will come at a cost: between $900 million and $1.5 billion a year – a bill that will be picked up by general taxpayers to subsidise the pollution of some of our dirtiest industries.

Ardern won’t be drawn on whether those responsible for that pollution should more directly contribute to the cost of mitigating it (some, polluters will pay via the ETS).

“Of course you can already see within our climate architecture in New Zealand that those basic [polluter pays] principles apply,” Ardern said.

She’s currently committed to introducing no taxes that aren’t already detailed in Labour’s manifesto – something she appears to be keen not to shift from.

Ardern sees the cost of those offsets as a rod for her own back – which will encourage the Government to front up with money and schemes to reduce emissions domestically.

“That bill really incentivises us to invest very, very heavily in domestic reduction, because that’s the ultimate goal.

“You don’t want a situation where every country around the world is simply purchasing or contributing to that reduction through offshore; you want to see that domestic reduction,” Ardern said.

If it all sounds a bit pain-free for an allegedly ambitious plan to tackle the world’s most pressing issue, that’s because it’s meant to.

Two of Ardern’s abiding political memories are watching painful 1980s reforms wreck lives and livelihoods in her youth – reforms where the cure was, at least initially, worse than the disease.

Her second memory was watching gains of the Clark Government (which she briefly served as a staffer) slowly whittled away by the Key Government that followed. This memory has coloured her desire to seek bipartisan consensus on everything from child poverty, to climate change, to the recent housing deal.

This change is meant to come with little pain and broad consensus – the real question is whether it will be enough.

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