Acting at the eleventh hour

It  is called the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act and more popularly known as the Zero Carbon Act. But it could also have been called the Last Chance Act or the Eleventh Hour Act.

Wildfire smoke - whether from Australia or Te Papanui - turned the light over Otago a shade of warning in the days after New Zealand's politicians lined up behind James Shaw's legislation last week.

Shaw himself, in speaking to the Bill, noted how late in the game we are.

It is far from the first time climate change has been on the agenda in Wellington. Jim Bolger's government in the 1990s came close to introducing a carbon tax that might have shifted the New Zealand economy to a lower carbon trajectory much sooner. But Bolger was rolled and politics as usual resumed.

Then, in its dying days in 2008, the Fifth Labour Government introduced the emissions trading scheme, only to see it become a vehicle for trading in "hot air'' credits from Eastern Europe under the John Key administration.

Through all that time, New Zealand's gross greenhouse gas emissions grew, up 19.6% between 1990 and 2016.

In the meantime, the scientific community's warnings have only become more urgent.

In October last year, we were told we had just 12 years left to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% in order to give us a chance of avoiding hothouse-Earth runaway warming.

In the absence of any commensurate response, 11,000 scientists issued a warning last week that we face "untold suffering due to the climate crisis'' unless there are major transformations to society.

Others are warning of a "new denial'', as outright rejection of global warming becomes impossible to maintain. Erstwhile sceptics' tactics have shifted to emphasising individual behaviour change - fly a little less, eat a little less meat - as a diversion from more thorough-going reform.

So to the Zero Carbon Act, and the big question: is this the game-changer?

There is reason to hope.

The Act establishes the Climate Change Commission, an independent body, to advise governments on how to make New Zealand net carbon zero by 2050. It is expected to be up and running by the end of the year.

Governments must use its advice on five-year rolling emission budgets to formulate action plans.

It is a process, based on a successful UK example, that holds promise.

The Interim Climate Change Committee, set up by the Government to begin the commission's work, has already demonstrated a willingness to address the fundamental drivers of emissions in our economy.

Changes made to the Act during the select committee stage provide further confidence it is up to the task. There is to be a balanced approach between planting trees to offset emissions and the business of actually cutting emissions, across the likes of the transport and energy sectors. That approach hints at the prospect of a just transition, where contributions are shared across all sectors, across urban and rural. Emissions budgets will reference the need to contribute to global efforts to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5degC. We will be required to do our bit. And legal enforceability has been improved, so if necessary, the courts will get to rule if decision-makers do not appear to be taking the Act into account.

However, there remains cause for concern.

During the final debate in Parliament, the opinion was expressed that efforts to curb emissions should not run ahead of what the New Zealand electorate is comfortable with. National Party leader Simon Bridges flagged his intention to pull some of the Act's teeth.

The scientists say we need "unprecedented'' action to address climate change. The Zero Carbon Act appears capable of providing that.

But the question remains, will our politicians hold their nerve sufficiently to do what is required?



My preference is to have a 21st century rail network around the South Island. Hopping on a train to Timaru and be there in an hour will link and open up the main centres and enable the growth of satelite towns and affordable housing. Now is the time for vision and to spend the money and move away from cars and planes. We are 30 years behind some European countries in our long term strategic planning. The 3 year election cycle is too short, make it 4 or 5 years so more long term policy can happen.

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