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Climate change action a winner in coalition deal

Climate change action has emerged as a winner in deals just signed between Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First.

The parties have agreed to introduce a new Zero Carbon Act and launch a new independent Climate Commission, based on previous recommendations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

But there was a question mark still over whether agriculture – which contributed nearly half of New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions – would be brought into our Emissions Trading Scheme.

If the new commission determined that it should be, the sector would get free allocation of carbon credits covering 95 per cent of emissions upon entry.

But all resulting revenue would be recycled back into agriculture in order to encourage agricultural innovation, mitigation and additional planting of forestry.

The Government’s vehicle fleet – “where practicable” – would become emissions-free by 2025-26.

Climate change, and working toward a new goal of a net zero emission economy by 2050, was one of the key areas of confidence and supply agreed with the Greens, which would manage the portfolio.

That deal also included a comprehensive set of new environmental, social and economic sustainability indicators, a new cross-agency climate change board of public sector CEOs, and a pledge to slash congestion and carbon emissions by “substantially increasing” investment in safe walking and cycling, frequent and affordable passenger transport, rail, and sea freight.

Agriculture, which contributes half of our gross greenhouse gas emissions, won't be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme - yet. Photo / File.

Agriculture, which contributes half of our gross greenhouse gas emissions, won’t be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme – yet. Photo / File.

The new government would investigate a “Green Transport Card” as part of work to reduce the cost of public transport, prioritising people in low income households and people on a benefit.

National Land Transport Fund spending would be reprioritised to increase the investment in rail infrastructure in cities and regions, and cycling and walking.

The new Climate Commission would be tasked to plan the transition to 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035 – which included geothermal energy – in a normal hydrological year.

The agreement also allowed the Greens to press toward the Green Investment Fund it had campaigned on, which aimed to stimulate up to $1 billion of new investment in low carbon industries by 2020 and would be kicked-off with a $100m injection.

Solar panels on schools would further be explored, while “assistance” would be offered to the agricultural sector to slash biological emissions, improve water quality, and shift to more diverse and sustainable land use including more forestry.

Elsewhere in environment agreements between Labour and New Zealand First was a “significant” increase in funding for the Department of Conservation, a new tyre stewardship fund, work to get the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill across the line and more support for the National Science Challenges, including for piloting alternatives to 1080 and countering myrtle rust and kauri dieback.

There would be no resource rentals for water in this term, as had been signalled, but there would be a new royalty on exports of bottled water, along with “higher” water quality standards for urban and rural using measurements that took into account seasonal differences.

Federated Farmers president Katie Milne said farmers were concerned about being absorbed into the ETS.

“There is concern that if this should happen New Zealand will become less competitive with other food producing nations.

“Our farmers are currently very efficient and pay for energy CO2 emissions on coal fuel and electricity like all Kiwis.

“And while no other nation has agriculture in an ETS, it will make for an uneven playing field and make us less competitive.”

The farming lobby also appealed to the new government not to close the door to new irrigation schemes.

‘We need a huge upscale’

Law student Sarah Thomson, who notably sued the previous government over what she argued was a lack of action on climate change, said she was encouraged by the fresh start on the issue.

“We need a huge upscale in our approach to climate change and it’s good that we are seeing the new Government focusing on climate change and bringing in the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Commission,” she said.

Law student Sarah Thomson - who sued the last government over climate change - is hopeful of meaningful action on the issue under New Zealand's new leadership. Photo / Peter Drury

Law student Sarah Thomson – who sued the last government over climate change – is hopeful of meaningful action on the issue under New Zealand’s new leadership. Photo / Peter Drury

“But what I think is really important is that we are getting tangible policies to actually reduce emissions.

“Under the old government, we have been relying basically on buying credits to meet the targets we already have – and I think we need to have policies for actual reductions in emissions, and quickly.”

Thomson said the support Kiwis had shown for her case in the High Court – a judgment is still to be made – showed that people wanted action.

Environment group WWF-New Zealand has also welcomed the change.

“What’s crucial now is that the new Government works to secure bipartisan support for this new climate law – to create an expert, non-partisan Climate Commission, to set a science-based target of net zero emissions by 2050, and to give Aotearoa a plan to get there,” chief executive Livia Esterhazy said.

“Business as usual isn’t an option.”

National had campaigned to continue New Zealand’s Paris Agreement pledge to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels; to review and improve the Emissions Trading Scheme; to fund agricultural greenhouse gas research; increase the amount of electricity that comes from renewable energy from 80 per cent currently to 90 per cent; to spend $2b on public transport and to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.

New Zealand and climate change

Under present projections, the sea level around New Zealand is expected to rise between 30cm and 100cm this century, while temperatures could also increase by several degrees by 2100.

• Climate change would bring more floods (about two-thirds of Kiwis live in areas prone to flooding); make our freshwater problems worse and put more pressure on rivers and lakes; acidify our oceans; put even more species at risk and bring problems from the rest of the world.

• Climate change is also expected to result in more large storms compounding the effects of sea level rise.

• New Zealand, which reported a 23 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2014, has pledged to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.