28 Mar 2023

Assessing Labour's record on climate action

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 March 2023

The world's been given yet another stark warning about the state of the climate - is New Zealand doing enough to bring its emissions down? The Detail takes a closer look at Labour's record on climate change.

Wellington Climate Strike 3 March

Climate strikers in Wellington earlier this month Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

During the 2017 election campaign, then-Labour leader Jacinda Ardern made a bold statement: "We will take climate change seriously. This is my generation's nuclear free moment". 

But almost six years later, has Labour's action on climate change while in government lived up to those words?

"I don't think that the action we've seen from the government over the past two terms, or over any term of parliament ever, has been consistent with Jacinda Ardern's proclamation," Newsroom senior political reporter Marc Daalder says.

"If you think about the radical and drastic action that we took in relation to nuclear free, we haven't seen that on climate change and there's still a lot more to go before you can reach that level of dedication." 

Despite that assessment, Daalder says there have been some successes, like the Zero Carbon Act.

"It's pretty clearly a really fundamental part of how we do climate policy in New Zealand now," he says.

"Before then, we had one target, which was our target under the Paris Agreement, but we didn't have a way to achieve that. Now the Zero Carbon Act gives us carbon budgets that step down to an eventual 2050 goal of net zero [carbon dioxide] emissions."

The government's also set up the Climate Change Commission, introduced an emissions reduction plan and a national adaption plan, and made changes to the emissions trading scheme.

Daalder says it's significant that in 2020, the government put a cap on the number of units available in the scheme - they used to be unlimited and now they're not, thereby reducing emissions.

But the Labour government has most recently courted controversy with its policy reprioritisations. Several of the policies turfed out, as Labour sets its sights on the cost of living, had a climate change focus: the biofuel mandate, the clean car upgrade scheme and the social car leasing scheme.

Meanwhile, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned - yet again - that time is ticking when it comes to taking action on climate change.

Is New Zealand pulling its weight?

Climate scientist Professor James Renwick says while Aotearoa has achieved a lot at the policy level, it's a different story when it comes to action on the ground.

"We haven't seen emissions of greenhouse gases reduce at all in this country and in fact, carbon dioxide, which is the most important greenhouse gas, emissions of that have gone up quite a lot in the last 20 or 30 years," he says.

"A lot of that is from you and me driving our cars - the transport sector has really blossomed since the early 1990s and we're emitting heaps more carbon dioxide." 

Daalder says a more reliable public transport network could be good for both the climate and cost of living, but it could take a while to implement.

"Making a more reliable public transport system - that takes a real long time ... it takes a while to really reach the scale where the emissions reductions are significant as, say the sort of stuff you're going to get out of the biofuel mandate. So on the list of policies that can really reduce emissions sharply in the short term, I don't see that many options that also address cost of living concerns."

Get a better picture of Labour's performance in the climate space by listening to the full episode.

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