3 Dec 2020

Climate Change declaration: 'It's not just symbolic declaration'

9:47 am on 3 December 2020

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says there's nothing token about the declaration of a climate emergency or the commitment for the public service to be carbon neutral in five years' time.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Parliament voted in favour of a motion declaring the climate emergency yesterday.

The dissenting voices of National and ACT accused the government of a hollow political stunt that will do nothing to reduce emissions.

National Climate Change spokesperson Stuart Smith was scathing during yesterday's debate.

"Declaring a climate emergency is nothing but virtue signalling. Symbolic gestures just don't cut it".

ACT's Simon Court shared the sentiment.

"It's simply a triumph of politics over practical solutions. Slogans over substance".

Ollie Landridge sat outside Parliament demanding this declaration for at least 100 days.

He was elated, but said New Zealand had some catching up to do.

"We don't declare an emergency without sending a fire engine, we need to really move forward fast".

Landridge said the declaration could not just be symbolic.

"It's easy to be cynical and many people are, particularly the opposition. But, look, I don't want to talk about politics because this is an existential crisis humanity, not just New Zealanders but the world and we have to act on this, we have to," he said.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw assured that this is anything but token.

"It's not just symbolic declaration in and of itself, there's a whole work programme behind it and a reorganisation of the machinery of government from ministers right through agencies to deliver on our commitments," he said.

That includes the public service - which needs to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Shaw said the public sector accounted for around 7 percent of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions.

"That's a reasonable chunk, it doesn't solve the whole problem but it does solve a measurable and significant part.

"But really it's about making sure we've got our own house in order. If we're going to require this astonishing transformation of every aspect of our economy and society, it really is important that we pull finger and lead by example", he said.

There's a strong financial incentive for government agencies, because if they don't reach the target, they have to pay to offset emissions, out of their own baseline funding.

But Shaw said offsetting would very much be a last resort.

"You can't just kind of buy your way out using forestry offsets when you should be taking action to reduce your emissions in the first place," he said.

However, the director of the Centre for Sustainability at Otago University, Janet Stephenson, suspects massive carbon offsetting will be required.

"I strongly doubt whether most government agencies, particularly the more substantial ones, are going to be able to achieve carbon neutrality in that time".

Rather than offsetting millions of dollars offshore or into short-term fixes like forestry, Stephenson wondered whether investment could be made into more innovative solutions - like retrofitting and insulating houses.

"So, if we can think quite creatively about where those offsets could be spent I think we could do a kind of double good within New Zealand by both the government showing leadership but also those offsets going into really, really positive projects," she said.

New Zealand's former Climate Change Ambassador Adrian Macey told Morning Report the declaration was a signal by government to the concerned public that their voices were being heard and a signal to private sector bodies that this is the direction being taken.

Macey said the government would be tested on its position next year when the Climate Commission gives its recommendations and that it should do all it can to avoid offsetting.

"I think it's appropriate the government signals some leadership in the public sector... but the focus should be on how the economy is going to transition to zero (carbon)."

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said the declaration was long overdue.

She said while the government is making a good start, she called on it to be bolder.

"We need tangible policies that reflect the urgency of this emergency ... and to ensure Aotearoa plays a leading role on the world stage in protecting papatūānuku and taking real climate action," she said.

James Shaw said he completely agreed, and this was just the beginning.

He said over the term there would be a very significant array of policies to bend the curve on emissions.

'It is going to take a concerted effort'

Shaw told Morning Report the commitment to have the public service be carbon neutral by 2025 will make a difference.

"It is going to take a concerted effort ... well beyond just the carbon-neutral government programme, it is all of those agencies ... whether it is tourism, heavy industry, transport, agriculture and so on."

At present public service efforts were "uneven", he said.

More government money will be needed to continue taking coal boilers out of schools, for example, and police, having recently chosen petrol Skodas for their fleet need to find a lower-emission alternative.

"I guess the job that [Police Minister Poto Williams] has got now to work with her agency to make sure the next leasing arrangement they have which kicks in about 2024/2025 is with a class of vehicle that's considerably lower in emissions.

"Ideally they would be electrics but we need to see there are vehicles on the market that fulfil the operational requirements of the police."

"They did investigate it this time round but they couldn't get a vehicle that fit within their operational requirements but we know the market is changing massively and rapidly and so by the time we get to 2025 we're quite confident we'll be able to deal with that."

Shaw said the government had been working with the agriculture sector on a farm-level measurement, management and pricing scheme for greenhouse gas emissions.

"During the course of this Parliament we are going to need to legislate to enable that system to get rolled out in 2024 and 2025."

The Climate Change Commission is due to present its first report in May, and Shaw said he had every intention of taking the advice of scientists, though decisions on the recommendations were for the Cabinet.

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