Amicus Curiae: Are New Zealand’s Climate Change Dedications Just Hot Air?

Content Contributor, Chris Ryan

The emissions trading scheme (ETS) is the mechanism by which New Zealand plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The ETS assumes that placing a price on greenhouse gas emissions creates a financial incentive for businesses and consumers to pursue more environmentally sustainable behaviour. Under the ETS, greenhouse gas emitters are required to buy New Zealand Units (NZUs) or international emission reduction units (ERUs) with the price of both determined by the market. Emitters are required to surrender NZUs or ERUs to the government to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Emitters can buy NZUs from businesses, such as the owners of forested land, who absorb greenhouse gases and are granted NZUs by the government. Controversially, agriculture is not included in the ETS. New Zealand is obliged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as a result of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement (both international treaties which commit various States – including New Zealand – to reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of keeping global temperature increases below 2°C).

Scandal! New Zealand ‘cheats’ the ETS?

The alleged revelation of the Morgan Foundation report was that New Zealand used ERUs with low environmental integrity to meet our Kyoto Protocol obligations. A New Zealand Kyoto obligation report from December 2015 showed that our Government held ERUs from Ukraine and Russia, where 89% and 82% of credits lacked environmental credibility as they came from projects which had not actually contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These ERUs were used to meet New Zealand’s 2008-2020 Kyoto Protocol targets. While this was technically within the rules of the Kyoto Protocol, it was almost certainly inconsistent with its intent. In the meantime, New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 21% between 1990 and 2013, far cry from the 5% reduction by 2020 sought under the Kyoto Protocol.

However, for many the Morgan Report was not a surprise. In 2003, New Zealand Herald economics reporter Brian Fellow argued that the success government carbon credit grants to emitters who made significant emission reductions, would depend on the number of ERUs released from countries in the former Soviet Union who had excess units as a result of Kyoto Protocol allocations.

Wait! So we knew we were ‘cheating’ but ignored it until now? Why?

Some have argued that the Morgan Report made headlines where previous reports of the same content did not because of the Morgan Report’s “racy packaging”. This is illustrated by its aggressive title: “Climate Cheats: How New Zealand is cheating on our climate change commitments, and what we can do to set it right”. The depiction of climate science as ‘racy’ seems to be a necessary, but worrying component, in the process for climate science getting media coverage. The Morgan Foundation report got far more media attention than a more mundanely titled Royal Society report, which provides more insight into the application of climate science into a New Zealand context and is likely to be far more important in shaping domestic climate policy.

Yet this is indicative of problems in the reporting of climate change issues in New Zealand. Where the Morgan Report scandalised previously acknowledged problems in the ETS, the Royal Society’s report provided new information about the likely consequences for climate change in New Zealand, including that:

  • At least another 30cm rise in sea level is virtually guaranteed this century, which would lead to a ‘1 in 100 year’ flooding event occurring once every year or so in many coastal regions.
  • A number of regions will see double to quadruple the number of days per year above 25°C by 2100.
  • Climate change will increase the stress on many already stressed endemic ecosystems with up to 70 species of native plants at risk of extinction by 2100.

While this report received some news coverage, it was far less than the coverage the Morgan Report received a few days earlier. Yet the messages in the Royal Society report have real significance for the current and future lives of New Zealanders. An increased risk of flooding could come with significant costs, for example, large floods in 2004 had an estimated cost of $380 million. It is worrying that environmental science must first use scandalising and anti-government messages, such as those in the Morgan Report’s executive summary, before it gets media attention.

“The Government’s plan … was released late last year. Underlying this plan is a shocking truth: New Zealand has been a willing participant in a wholesale climate fraud”.

Presenting climate science in this way makes it subject to politically motivated contestation. In 2011 Prime Minister John Key called research which suggested New Zealand’s freshwater river systems were not 100% pure, an opinion to which there would be a “counterview”. Furthermore, during the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, Key asserted that in his opinion climate change would not be as severe as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted. While climate science is contested due to the complexity of the systems studied, the evidence that is published is subject to peer review processes meaning it isn’t mere ‘opinion’. This hinders the communication of environmental science because scientists might be less willing to publish research in, or speak to the media if they risk having their research labelled as inaccurate by the Prime Minister.

What does this mean for environmental policy?

When scientific facts are presented as being tied to politics, or are contested, it makes it far harder for the public to evaluate the science and decide what they want the policy outcomes to be. This means that policy outcomes are more likely to be partisan. For example, research in Canada suggests that those who are concerned about climate change want climate treated as a matter of politics rather than as an issue of science, the environment, or technology. This reflects both the politicisation of climate science and the need for journalists of all types (rather than just the ‘environment reporter’) to deal with climate change science.

Furthermore, the politicisation of climate science leads to policies which seek to address climate change being reduced, resulting in a failure to combat the actual causes of climate change. New Zealand’s ETS is largely unchanging since its introduction in 2008, meaning that agriculture, the source of 48% of New Zealand’s emissions, is not included. Similarly, New Zealand’s 2030 emissions target is 11% below 1990 levels by 2030, decidedly less ambitious than the 40% reduction targeted by the EU. This reflects a public unwillingness to force governmental environmental action, perhaps as a result of the science on the impacts of climate change getting insufficient media coverage, as well as a lack of awareness about the potential impacts of climate change.

The outcomes of this political and public inertia are likely significant. Last week, five Pacific islands were being reported as disappearing between 2014 and 2016 due to rising sea levels. In fact, it is 99% certain, just five months in, that 2016 will be the hottest year on record. The impacts of climate change will also likely harm already vulnerable or marginalised groups who have the least capacity to move out of certain areas, or to deal with the consequences of an increased risk of drought, flooding or fire.

The public interest in accurate and extensive reporting of climate science is immense given the severity of the possible impacts of climate change. It appears to be an unfortunate truth that the apparent need to scandalise and the politicisation of climate science means the media reporting of climate change science is lacklustre. Consequently, the media has an obligation to ensure that the public is well informed about climate science and its implications, in order to ensure public debate about the best way to address this challenge.

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