Climate Change

New Zealand’s new climate change law: Inadequate and not really net zero

Jacinda Arden's law explicitly excludes biogenic methane emissions from net zero target, subjecting the gas to mere 24-47% cuts below 2017 levels by 2050

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Friday 08 November 2019

New Zealand, that tiny nation of five million people is being lauded yet again. This time, it’s for passing a law that seemingly seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, a move in which it followed Britain and Sweden, among other countries.

As a concept, “net zero by 2050” stems from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) special report on 1.5 degree Celsius warming, which indicated that the world as a whole needed to have net zero emissions (that means any emission would have to be matched by carbon sequestered from the air) by 2050 to have a 66 per cent chance of limiting global mean temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. 

While the world as a whole need to reach net zero emissions by 2050, developed countries need to do it sooner, considering their high historic emissions, high current per capita emissions and high capacity to act, invest early and thus bring down technology costs for developing countries.

Thus while groups such as Extinction Rebellion demand the UK commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2025, the British Labour Party has committed to a 2030 date, albeit subject to a “just transition for workers” caveat which may enable the party to keep the promise out of its manifesto for the coming election.

This indicates that mainstream progressive parties are beginning to acknowledge the urgency; thus the 2050 cut off can no longer be considered ambitious. Indeed a key consideration while passing the British net zero law was an estimate by the official climate advice body that suggested that the costs of a net zero by 2050 target would be within the cost envelope of the UK’s existing long term targets due to falling technology prices.

But the larger issue with the New Zealand law goes beyond the many problems common to all “net zero by 2050” legislations. The new law explicitly excludes biogenic methane emissions from the net zero target, subjecting the gas to mere 24-47 per cent cuts below 2017 levels by 2050. 

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of over 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Globally, methane accounted for 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. But New Zealand’s large livestock sector means that methane emissions from ruminant animals accounted for 34 per cent of its 2017 emissions, making it the largest contributor to the country’s greenhouse emissions; a status held in most developed countries by the power, transport or industry sectors.

Indeed, New Zealand is the world’s largest per capita methane emitter, with the country emitting six times the global average

The exclusion of biogenic methane, its largest sectoral emitter, means that the New Zealand law is far from one that will put the country on track to net zero.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the ambition represented by the new law is likely lower than the EU’s long term pledge of 80-95 per cent emission reduction over 1990 levels by 2050; a pledge considered inadequate by some EU members who are pushing for bloc-wide wide net zero law.

Beyond the numbers, as a rich country with high methane emissions, New Zealand could potentially be a global model for emission mitigation in the livestock sector and the present law betrays that hope. 

The inadequate and misleading future goal set by the law may also be seen in light of New Zealand’s present performance on climate action. Climate Action Tracker rates the country’s efforts as “Insufficient” to limit warming to 2 degrees. Not only do its current international pledges fall short of the country’s fair share, but projections indicate that even these inadequate targets may not be met. 

Like any other enhancement in climate ambition, New Zealand’s new law must be celebrated. But this must be with the admission that the law’s level of ambition is far from “net zero by 2050” and that the “net zero by 2050” ambition is in itself grossly inadequate to prevent a climate catastrophe. 

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