Climate News

New Zealand’s Revised NDC Punts on Ambition

Photo: Prachatai

New Zealand submitted its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement this April, joining a handful of nations that have done so. The nation maintains the same commitment to the 2030 climate targets set forth in its original NDC, but holds off on more ambitious targets until it receives advice from its newly established Climate Change Commission.  

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Climate Change Minister James Shaw, New Zealand has gained international recognition for its climate leadership following the passage of the Zero Carbon Act in 2019 — the second in the world. The law seeks to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions other than biogenic methane to zero by 2050.

It is critical that once its domestic policy framework has been established, New Zealand must follow through with a better NDC.  

Per Capita Emissions Remain High

With a population of just under 5 million people, New Zealand only accounts for 0.17 percent of  global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But in terms of per capita emissions, New Zealand has an outsized footprint of 17.5 Mt CO2e, the sixth highest among Annex I (industrialized) nations. Greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand increased by 24 percent between 1990 and 2018.

While total emissions remains high, about 84 percent of New Zealand’s electricity comes from renewables, principally geothermal and hydro power. Renewables make up roughly 40 percent of the nation’s energy matrix, with oil, gas and coal rounding out the rest. 

New Zealand’s agricultural sector is a major greenhouse gas emitter and responsible for nearly half of its total emissions. Methane emissions from sheep and cattle raising are the driving force behind these emissions.  The reliance on carbon-intensive practices has often led to a contentious relationship between farmers and environmentalists.

A Mixed Climate Record

New Zealand has a long and complicated track record when it comes to domestic and international climate governance.

In 2016, the country submitted its first NDC under the leadership of Prime Minister John Key and the center-right National Party. Its unconditional target of a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 from its 2005 levels was labeled as “insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker. 

This modest goal is misleading since the 2030 target refers to net emissions, which are gross emissions minus carbon sequestered by forests. But the base year 2005 refers to gross emissions.  New Zealand’s NDC target is actually a 10 percent increase when just net emissions are used.

Following the 2017 election and the return of the center-left Labour Party to power, New Zealand has taken a much more aggressive approach on environmental issues.  Under the leadership of Ardern and Shaw, co-leader of the country’s Green Party, New Zealand stopped granting new offshore oil and gas exploration permits, banned single-use plastic shopping bags, and, perhaps most notably, passed the Zero Carbon Act.

Shaw introduced the Act in May 2019 with support from environmental groups such as Generation Zero, WWF-New Zealand, Forest & Bird, Oxfam New Zealand and ActionStation. The law, which aims for net zero emissions by 2050, was passed with near-unanimous support from Parliament in 2019.  While the Act gets New Zealand closer to the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement and is a promising step forward, some argue it may not be enough.  

“New Zealand’s 2050 target is therefore consistent with a 1.5°C future, but only if every other country in the world decarbonizes at exactly the same rate as New Zealand,” said David Tong, Senior Campaigner at Oil Change International.  “We can’t expect all of these countries to decarbonize at exactly the same rate. As well as being at odds with what’s possible, it’s at odds with the Paris Agreement, which says that decarbonization will be on the basis of equity and on the basis of common but differentiated responsibilities.”

The bottom line, he said: 

“New Zealand can’t expect all countries to cut emissions at the same rate as us, a rich, industrialized, Anglo-world settler-colonialist nation.”

A major concern about the Zero Carbon Act is its relatively weak targets on methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide. The law sets a target to reduce methane emissions by 10 percent from its 2017 levels by 2030, and a 24 to 47 percent reduction by 2050. This is particularly worrisome because methane is responsible for 42 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

A Delay in Climate Target

The structure of the Zero Carbon Act made it difficult for New Zealand to submit a more ambitious NDC in 2020.  The act sets up a framework of five-year emissions budgets that are set to start being adopted next year.  While the hope is that 2020 will be a landmark year for global climate ambition and enhancing NDCs, New Zealand was not in an ideal position to deliver updated targets.  

“This is not what I expected, but ultimately it is possibly better than what I expected,” said Tong.  “For New Zealand’s government to enhance its 2030 target this year would be to set an international target before it had done the domestic policy work to get there, and that would have been at odds with the framework of the Zero Carbon Act.”

Instead, New Zealand is awaiting advice from its domestic Climate Change Commission that was formed in 2019 and expects to receive this feedback in early 2021.  Once it has received this information and established the necessary domestic policy framework, the country will be in a better position to deliver internationally. 

A COVID-19 Green Stimulus Package

New Zealand has also been under the international spotlight for its effective response to the COVID-19 crisis.  Shortly after the virus was detected, the country closed its borders, imposed strict lockdown measures and has been aggressive in testing and contact tracing as it tries to stamp out the virus.  Ardern has shown unusual leadership over the last few months encouraging her citizens to “be strong and be kind” and take care of one another during this uncertain time.  

New Zealand’s response to the pandemic is an encouraging sign as to how it might handle the climate crisis in the coming years.

“The Ministry of Health has pivoted very quickly from what was a pandemic response designed effectively to manage the common flow to a new elimination strategy based on scientific advice,” said Tong. “That shows that governments can turn quickly in strategy when needed and where the scientific advice is taken on board quickly.”

Shaw’s Green Party has also been adamant in calling for climate-friendly, post-COVID stimulus investment. The party has been pushing for a massive intercity rail infrastructure project, as well as a $1 billion stimulus investment in “nature-based jobs” to help its economy rebuild while transitioning to a low-carbon future.

“It is a time for governments, regions, and cities around the world to mobilise and deploy resources to tackle the climate crisis at the same time as rebuilding their economies, all whilst creating high value green jobs,” said Shaw, in an op-ed to the Guardian.

The leadership New Zealand has shown in recent months during the pandemic in many ways mirrors the leadership it has shown on climate in recent years.  The current administration has taken important steps for transitioning to a more sustainable future, but the country must deliver more robust commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Categories: Climate News

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