Live from Lima: NZ's record on climate not something to be proud of

New Zealanders have a lot of things to be proud of, but unfortunately our climate change policy is not one of them. I’m here at the UN climate conference in Lima, Peru, where New Zealand is coming under serious criticism for our weak commitments and weaker results.

On Tuesday I sat through the Multilateral Assessment, a section of the negotiation process where developed countries are questioned on their policies and emission trajectories. I was pretty embarrassed by what I saw.

New Zealand faced some extremely tough questions from China, Sweden, Fiji, the EU, Portugal and South Africa. Many challenged us on why we are so off course with our emissions, yet claiming that we’re on track to meet our 2020 target of a 5% reduction on 1990 levels.

Responses from our negotiators included low-carbon sheep, slightly more efficient car tyres and our Emissions Trading Scheme, which the World Bank has shown is the least effective in the world. The overall message was that we’re on track to meet our targets, somehow, despite our emissions actually rising.

The reality, from the Ministry for the Environment's Briefing to the Incoming Ministers, is that our net greenhouse gas emissions are set to blow out by over 50% over the next decade, against our promised reductions. This is New Zealand’s growing emissions gap.

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It appears our Government's plan is to plug the gap to 2020 with particular cheap foreign carbon credits, which probably represent less actual emissions reductions than the carbon in the paper they are printed on.

There's another widening gap between “fast follower” New Zealand and the many countries making serious efforts to reduce their carbon pollution.

We ranked 43rd in the Climate Change Performance Index 2015 released on Monday here in Lima, with a 'very poor' grade on policy. And that was excluding agricultural emissions.

Results like this should worry us. We all know that our “clean, green” reputation boosts our export market and ensures that our tourism industry is a vital contributor to the economy.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs & Trade has warned the Government that “Positions taken by countries on climate change and their readiness to contribute to global solutions will increasingly define the way that others perceive them, politically and economically.”

Our current climate policy is creating yet another gap between our beneficial clean, green image and the reality.

Climate Change Minister Tim Groser is now over here in Lima too, pushing for a global climate deal which is inclusive of all countries but includes non-binding targets and an opt-in, opt-out mechanism for participating countries.

This would reflect national circumstances and could break through the current deadlocked nature of the negotiations. Still, without binding targets it could be easy for countries to ignore their commitments.

From a cynical perspective, it may seem that the Government is wanting to avoid paying any extra costs for its off-track emissions record. We’re encouraging countries to pledge big on cutting emissions while simultaneously implementing policies which are growing our own.

For our proposals to be taken seriously and not seen as self-serving, we need to get our own house in order. We need a plan to cut our emissions gap and create a successful low carbon society.

In Lima right now, Tim Groser has the perfect platform to announce a commitment by New Zealand to take new action, and add to the building positive momentum since last month’s landmark US-China climate agreement.

There are many practical things New Zealand can do to improve our emissions outlook and invest in a better future. Two examples are:

Smarter transport and cleaner cars. Continue the declining trend in how much people are driving by investing in better public transport and cycling facilities, and introduce policies to clean up our very inefficient car fleet (including accelerating uptake of electric vehicles). We think cuts in passenger transport emissions of around 20% by 2020 should be readily achievable, saving around $600 million in oil imports.

Carbon forestry. Up the carbon price to at least $15, which analysis from the Iwi Climate Change Leaders Group suggests could stimulate 100,000 hectares of tree plantings per year and remove up to 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2025 (about 40% of projected net emissions at the time). They also say this could create up to 50,000 new and permanent forestry jobs.

The only thing standing in the way of these solutions is lack of political will.

We are a proud country, but it’s hard to be proud over here when we’re obviously not pulling our weight on climate change.

Talk is cheap. Come on Tim: Cut the Gap.

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