The Zero Carbon Act

John Lang

On 8th of November 2016 the World Meteorological Organization first demonstrated that global temperatures surpassed 1°C above earth’s pre-industrial average for an entire year. Believer in climate change or not, the scale of the job in front of our policy-makers is unprecedented.

The good news for New Zealand is that, almost ten years after the United Kingdom saw cross-party support for the 2008 Climate Change Act, a similar proposal by Generation Zero for a Zero Carbon Act has forged cross-party agreement. The bad news? This is among New Zealand’s youth parties – not yet where it counts. Showing adults the way, New Zealand’s youth – including the Young Nats – have pushed partisan politics aside and propped their support behind the Zero Carbon Act.


The Zero Carbon Act

Modelled on the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act—which has a target of at least 80% emissions reductions by 2050the Zero Carbon Act would commit New Zealand to a 100% emissions-reduction target to 2050, ensuring we are carbon neutral by 2050. This is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 2015 goal of “achieving a balance between anthropogenic [human] emissions by sources and removals by sinks [e.g. forests] of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.

In a nutshell, the Act requires a long-term target to be met through New Zealand meeting five-yearly interim carbon budgets (or “stepping stone” targets) set by its government—irrespective of who that is at the time. It will also require government to have a plan. In the words of Generation Zero, the Acts’ designers: “It sets out a legally-mandated outcome and process, without prescribing specific policies. It combines long-term clarity on policy direction with flexibility in its delivery.”

Flexibility is key. In an international energy market where China is showing signs of ditching coal, where Norwegian, French, British and Indian legislatures are preparing moratoriums on internal-combustion transport, where 90% of new power generation in Europe in 2015 was from renewables, and where it is predicted that $7 trillion of global energy investment to 2040 will be funnelled into new wind and solar plants, countries have options, and they’re exploring them. If the Zero Carbon Act comes into force, it will bring accountability to New Zealand meeting its international responsibility, but at the same time, would allow its parties to decide on the details. That way, whatever the measure, whether an augmented Emissions Trading Scheme (Labour, The Opportunities Party), a carbon tax and dividend (Greens) or a business-as-usual approach (National), government will be held responsible for future irresponsibility.

Other countries have gone down this route: In June 2017, Sweden passed their Climate Act, pledging to reach net-zero in 2045. The same month, Norway pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030.


It’s Time For New Zealand to Act

  1. We must depoliticise climate change now

Most of the country’s parties support the Zero Carbon Act: Labour, the Greens, The Opportunities Party and even New Zealand First but not the largest party, National. As New Zealand’s outgoing Parliamentary Commissioner on the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, stressed recently in her department’s report on climate change, we only have one planet: “Climate change is the ultimate intergenerational issue, and governments change”.

As such, ensuring societal progression on the world’s most “wicked” problem depends on New Zealand—as well as every other country (and companies)—removing climate policy from the fluctuating whims of its future politicians (and CEOs). New Zealand’s next election will be in 2020 but as many in the climate community explain, there’s only “three years to safeguard our climate”. Initiatives such as Mission2020Action2020 are rightly putting all their energy into bending the curve of emissions now where, “the pre-2020 period will define the post-2020 reality”.


  1. Aotearoa’s Inconvenient Truth

In the year that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel is making waves, it’s time for the world to face up to Aotearoa’s Inconvenient Truth. Between 1990 and 2015, New Zealand’s net emissions increased by 64%, whereas the United Kingdom’s net emissions fell by 38%.


Net GHG emissions between 1990-2015 in NZ and the UK (Credit: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment p. 21 Figure 4.1)


There are historical reasons for NZ screaming upwards (and the UK hurtling downwards) such as population growth, less low-hanging fruit (such as fewer coal-fired power plants that can be decommissioned) and an increase in our dairy herd – but to put it politely, these are not future excuses.


  1. New Zealand requires long-term predictability

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, recognises the changing nature of climate policy but advances the need—where possible—for devices that are “agnostic” to temperamental mood swings: “Climate Policy is going to adjust, it is going to be made, it is going to be unmade, it is going to be expanded, contracted, toughened, softened in various jurisdictions at various times around the world. It’s going to change. And that’s part of the issue. This is agnostic, neutral to whatever policies are out there.”

Although his focus is the need for corporate reporting on climate change to address the risks posed by “the tragedy of the horizon”, Carney could just as easily be referring to countries’ long-term legislative endeavours.


  1. Prosperity for all

New Zealand is WEIRD. Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Its cities consistently feature in the top five places on the planet to live. Its institutions are still young and malleable to modernity. Prosperity brings responsibility though.

Climate change will devastate many of the world’s developing countries (before it devastates its developed ones), including many of the Pacific Islands north of New Zealand, such as Fiji, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Unable to invest in the infrastructure and resources required to prepare for rising sea levels and storms on steroids—such as what hurricane Irma and Harvey just unleashed on the Caribbean—developing country citizens will be consigned to clean up the mess catastrophes cause. That, or move. New Zealand can help lead the world to mitigate the worst—and it should.


  1. New Zealand can pack political punch

Just as smaller, nimbler and more innovative firms will drive the energy transition, smaller countries—such as Costa Rica—will lead the policy transition. Costa Rica is small, yet just a few years ago, it formalised its intention to become carbon neutral as early as 2021. A country of net forest loss to net forest gain, Costa Rica produced 98.1% of its energy from renewables in 2016, and while it only takes up 0.03% of the world’s landmass, it now contains 5% of the earth’s biodiversity.

New Zealand has a history of being nimble and innovative. We don’t need to be followers; we can be leaders in this space. Carbon neutrality is an immense challenge, but since when have New Zealanders not been up for a challenge? Before legislating, the incoming parliament must ask “do these policies benefit the world?” and act accordingly.


This paper is an abridged and edited version of a longer piece at e-nvironmentalist: link here


Categories: Climate change
John Lang
About the author

John Lang

New Zealander John Lang is a UCL masters student in London, studying for an LLM in environmental law and policy. Also a part-time business consultant, his interests traverse earth science, psychology, politics and doughnut economics. John ‘found’ the issue of climate change when he was travelling, and soon became “a prisoner of what he knows”. Now dedicated to communicating his knowledge to the world (via the e-nvironmentalist), John hopes to contribute internationally before bringing that experience to bear in New Zealand.