20 Sep 2023

New Zealand not alone in failing to meet climate challenge - UN

5:19 pm on 20 September 2023
United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan. Flags of All Nations Waving in Front of the Building. New York City, USA

The United Nations in New York. Photo: 123RF

A progress report from the United Nations shows many countries, including New Zealand, are falling behind on tackling climate change.

It has been almost eight years since 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement and promised to cut their emissions.

The United Nations measured their progress in its latest report, part of an overall 'global stocktake' that will form the basis of the COP28 summit later this year.

University of Canterbury political science professor Bronwyn Hayward said the results were mixed.

"This is telling us how the world is progressing, which is not well," she said.

"Not as absolutely terrible as it could be, but we're still heading for a 2.5C warmer world."

She said New Zealand was no exception.

"Overall, New Zealand isn't tracking well. Making it happen takes government stepping up and constantly raising their aspirations and actually changing their actions."

New Zealand had aspirations, she said, but not enough action.

Ralph Sims, professor emeritus of sustainable energy and climate mitigation at Massey University, agreed.

"New Zealand has a target to reduce emissions by 50 percent in the next seven years, which is going to be a huge challenge because we've only just really bent the curve," he said.

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims. Photo: Supplied

"The annual emissions have only just gone down over the past year."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw admitted the government's response was slow. "We have a long way to go and it's going to be very, very tight," he said.

But he said the country was now moving at a steady pace. "We think the [October to December] quarter of last year may have had our lowest emissions this century," he said.

"It's taken a hell of a long time to get to that point, and we need to maintain that momentum every single year until we reach net zero."

James Shaw and Peeni Henare speak to media about the ETS review

James Shaw. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Though many countries were behind schedule, they had made a notable difference.

"The global stocktake has shown us that if we hadn't had that agreement back in 2015, we would've been much closer to 5C of warming," Bronwyn Hayward said.

"At the moment we're looking at about 2.5C, which is still way too high but significantly less than the catastrophic amount it could've been."

Hayward said political developments over the past eight years had pulled leaders' attention away from climate change.

"The US pulled out of the Paris Agreement, then they came back," she said. "The UK was really leading the charge, now they've pulled back and they're dealing with their own internal economic issues."

Shaw said the agriculture industry, the biggest contributor to New Zealand's emissions footprint, was a major roadblock.

"We have these very powerful industries that have the ability to swing the political system in their favour and slow down progress."

Sims said some farmers were making an effort to reduce emissions, but they were a minority.

"There are some leading farmers who have changed their methods and are getting similar productivity with fewer animals, and they're moving in the right direction. The trouble of course is that 95 percent are yet to follow."

He said any solution to climate change would require heavy involvement from the food sector.

"Food supply is about a quarter of overall greenhouse gas emissions globally. Therefore we can't reduce emissions enough to stay below 1.5C unless the food sector is a key part of it."

Sims said the upcoming election could be a turning point for New Zealand's climate response.

"Some policies that some parties have put forward are saying, 'Oh well, we'll put it off,' whereas we need the total opposite.

"We need an education campaign similar to what we had for Covid-19, showing how people can reduce their emissions and get the benefits: reducing food waste saves money, reducing congestion saves time, etcetera."

The UN's global stocktake would come to a head later this year when world leaders met in Dubai for COP28. Hayward was worried it would not go well.

"I think COP28 is going to be really ugly, to be honest," she said. "There's already questions over the leadership of COP, there's worries that the fossil fuel industry has far too much influence. It's going to be very difficult to broker a diplomatic solution."

Shaw agreed, expecting this year's summit would be a challenge.

"There is a real battle being fought in conference rooms and zoom calls around the world.

"Battle lines are being drawn, because we are moving towards the end of the fossil fuel era but those fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel countries are putting up a hell of a fight."

COP28 will run from the 30 November to 12 December.

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