6 Sep 2023

Next prime minister must lead emissions cuts: Simon Upton report

2:01 pm on 6 September 2023
Simon Upton

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton Photo: [https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/35725837402flickr]

Parliament's top environment advisor is challenging whoever is the next prime minister to follow Jacinda Ardern's lead and take charge of the plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton reviewed the country's first plan for cutting planet-heating gases (called the Emissions Reduction Plan) and found Ardern's decision to chair the group leading the efforts was pivotal.

Under the Zero Carbon Act, whichever party is in charge has to come up with a plan to reduce emissions from cars, factories, farming, waste, electricity and other sources by meeting a series of five-yearly greenhouse gas budgets. "This is not an optional thing," Upton said.

The goal is getting New Zealand to net zero emissions by 2050.

While every government will have its own approach, Upton's review found Ardern's ability to use prime ministerial "heft and weight" was crucial during the first plan's writing.

"Only the prime minister can really call the shots... across multiple agencies," Upton told journalists at a briefing ahead of the release on Wednesday.

"Whoever aspires to be prime minister has got to be willing to get across this."

Delivery of the climate plan was delayed by Covid-19. But the review found progress was also hindered by the failure of some government agencies to allocate enough people and resources to the job. While the transport ministry made detailed calculations of the climate benefits of different policies, for example, others did not.

"Some ministries had done their research and were ahead of the game. Others were playing catch up all the way through," Upton said.

"Ministries knew this was coming, an Act was passed. It wasn't as if it was a surprise."

Before embarking on writing plan number two, Upton recommended the next government think through its stance on questions such as how much work should be done by carbon pricing versus regulation and subsidies, how much New Zealand should rely on forestry or carbon-cutting projects overseas to mop up emissions, and how much action should be done in the next few years versus starting long-term projects.

There would be trade-offs between how much to use the carbon price under the Emissions Trading Scheme (which affects petrol and electricity bills) versus incentives and regulation.

Pine trees are harvested on a hillside in southern Hawke's Bay

Simon Upton said New Zealand needed to consider how much the country should rely on forestry to mop up emissions. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Once those questions were answered, officials would be better placed to go away and crunch the numbers to reveal the likely impacts on household bills, business costs and other aspects of life before Cabinet made its final decisions, the review concluded.

"What we had first time around was a lack of coherence at the front end and so officials going in all sorts of different directions trying to pull stuff together," Upton said.

"It's important we acknowledge this is a costly transition, but we want it to be the least cost possible," he said.

Despite identifying room for improvement when it came to implementation, Upton praised the Zero Carbon Act as a "very good piece of legislation" that was intended to take the politics out of getting New Zealand's greenhouse gases down.

He did not want to imply the plan was bad - but it could be made easier next time, he said.

"There was always going to be an element of learning by doing," he said.

The emissions plan process will be repeated many times, by many different governments between now and 2050.

Independent advisors at the Climate Change Commission will give the incoming government advice on the next set of emissions budgets after the October election, by the end of 2023.

The government will then have a year to pull together the country's second Emissions Reduction Plan.

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