Politicians told to sit down and cap the carbon

The UK system sets five-yearly "carbon budgets" which act as stepping stones down to an emissions target. Source: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

New Zealand's politicians have been told they need to stop putting off the inevitable and reach a cross-party agreement on more effective and legally binding ways to tackle climate change.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has recommended New Zealand pass new climate change laws similar to those in the UK, which put greenhouse gas emissions targets into law and set "carbon budgets" to cap emissions. But her suggestions were met with little enthusiasm by climate change minister Paula Bennett.

Commissioner recommends we move to UK model

In the UK, a set amount of greenhouse gas emissions is permitted for each five-year period (known as the "carbon budget" for that period). The permitted amounts get smaller and smaller over time, acting as "stepping stones" down to an ambitious emissions target.

These "budgets" are set 12 years ahead - "far enough ahead to help businesses plan and close enough that there is a reasonable sense of what's going to be technically and economically feasible," Wright said.

She warned that New Zealand was not going to be able to meet its current targets with just its Emissions Trading Scheme (which does not cap emissions and has allowed unrestricted purchase of carbon units – the right to emit carbon - from other countries). Under the Paris agreement, New Zealand has committed to cutting its net emissions to 30 percent below 2005 gross levels. It has also set its own '50 by 50' target of getting net emissions to 50 percent below 1990 gross emissions by 2050.

Her report shows that between 1990 and 2015, New Zealand's net emissions rose by 64 percent, while the UK's fell by 30 percent.

"The ETS itself is not enough, we need other tools as well," Wright said. "In particular, we need a way of dealing with climate change that doesn't wax and wane with political will and flip and flop with changes in government.

"The great thing about the UK climate change act is that it takes a lot of the politics, and therefore the short-term thinking, out of climate change."

Wright also called for the establishment of a Climate Change Commission, an independent expert advisory body to give advice to the government - "advice that is open and transparent and published where everyone can see it, no need to go through the OIA to get it, no redactions". She described the UK version of this, the Committee on Climate Change, as "a high-powered analytical machine".

The UK has already met two of its carbon budgets as it works on hitting its 2050 target of an 80 percent cut in emissions from 1990 levels.

"They are on track for a third," Wright said. "The fourth will be a greater challenge for them I think because they coming up, if you like, to some of the 'high hanging fruit' now."

She conceded that our emissions profile was very different from that of the UK, where eight percent of emissions are from agriculture compared to 48 percent in New Zealand, and where early gains could be made by eliminating fossil fuels for electricity generation.

"But we have some advantages too, we can't just bleat about how hard this is for us. Here's one of our advantages: geothermal Power. And this one: we have we have best wind in the world, I was told that by a Danish engineer at the top of a wind generator," she said.

Bennett not buying it - yet

Speaking to reporters on her way into question time following the release of the report, Bennett said she saw no urgency for legally binding carbon budgets.

"We've got them [carbon targets] gazetted so to be fair they are quite locked in. I don't think it's kind of necessary at the moment," she said.

"I think we really clear on what those targets are, we've gazetted them, we are heading towards them, there is no chances of them going down and we've been really clear about that. So, yeah, not so much of that at the moment."

Bennett was also not keen on the recommendation of a Climate Change Commission.

"We have been doing a lot of work around climate change. It doesn't sit in one agency, it's right across the board, we want to see everything from transport to agricultural changes through to energy use and everything else. I think the fact that it is coordinated through a minister – myself - and it comes together like that, actually does work," she said.

"We are very different from the UK, obviously, both in our emissions profile and in what we use and how we use it, and our projections further out. So I don't think that actually setting up an independent climate change body would work for us at the moment, but I certainly think it might be something worth looking at in the future."

Asked if it was appropriate that our per capita emissions were higher than the UK's, Bennett said: "No, but we've got a completely different emissions profile, so you can't really compare apples with apples."

Can they work together?

The UK law was passed in 2008 in their House of Commons with 463 ayes and only three noes.

Both Labour and The Greens said they backed Wright's recommendations. Greens climate change spokesperson Kennedy Graham said cross-party support for climate change was a priority, and he told the press conference at the report's release that people could feel "reassured" about the level of cross-party agreement on the issue.

But Bennett again was less positive, although she said she supported the work of cross-party climate change working group GLOBE-NZ.

"I do think there is space for there to be cross-party work done, and that is why I supported the work of GLOBE. I like that there are members from all of the parties on it and that they are taking it really seriously," she said.

"I think it could lead there, we are just not at that stage right now I think for us to be doing that. I don't think there would be enough agreement across the house on where that would land, so I think there's a bit more ground work that would need to be done first."

Industry looking for certainty and opportunity

Industry may be a bit more enthusiastic about the Commissioner's recommendations and the certainty they would bring.

Wright said companies spoken to by the Commission's researchers wanted predictability.

"They need to plan ahead to figure out how they will manage the risks and take up the opportunities better low carbon economy will provide. But to take these opportunities they need the confidence to invest. A carbon budget goes a long way to providing that, with a set of stepping stones towards the Paris target and beyond," she said.

The need for certainty and predictability was echoed by DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle.

"We recognise the dairy sector's responsibility to contribute to reduction targets, but we are currently operating within an environment that provides no clear pathway for dairy to move towards a low emission future," Mackle said.

"The setting of carbon budgets for five year periods would allow the dairy sector and farmers to plan over the longer term how they will reduce their emissions. However, this is a complex challenge which requires a well thought out approach."

Local Government New Zealand also said it welcomed the Commissioner's recommendations.

"Our emissions continue to rise and as a country we need to take some significant strides forward on climate change," said LGNZ President Dave Cull.

"Unless we put in place some mutually agreed targets and agreed actions and hold ourselves to them we won't start to see results."

Both Federated Farmers, which also gave "qualified support" to the idea of a Climate Change Commission, and the Insurance Council called for more work to be done on adapting to the effects of climate change.

The Insurance Council wants an additional independent expert group set up to provide advice on how to adapt to climate change, and a law requiring it to make five-early assessments of progress made on adaptation.