The Government's decision last week not to sign up to the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol has left New Zealand's credibility on climate policy in tatters on the global stage.
The Kyoto Protocol is the only existing legally binding international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Having a credible club of countries make binding commitments to reduce emissions is an important part of building the trust necessary to create a new global deal to come into force after 2020. Yet just hours after the heavily coal dependent Australia publicly committed to joining Kyoto phase two, "clean green" New Zealand announced it would not.
While extremely disappointing, the announcement on Kyoto is not surprising in light of recent policy decisions. It closely follows the gutting of the ETS and the cancellation of the biofuel and solar hot water grant schemes. Last year the Government even refused to make good on a promise made at the 2010 UN climate summit to create a low carbon development plan, while countries such as Brazil, China, South Africa and the UK are just getting on with it. This is all symptomatic of the Government's general unwillingness to implement policies to reduce emissions.
So how will other countries view this latest snub to climate action? Well, it's unlikely we'll win any new friends by refusing to join phase two of Kyoto. Other countries that have also decided not to join won't give us a round of applause. Yet the 27 members of the EU plus the 10 other countries, including Australia, that have signed up will hardly look favourably upon New Zealand from now on.
The impact on New Zealand's international reputation is not the most damaging aspect of our Government's approach to climate policy. The downsides we will feel most keenly are the missed economic opportunity that lies in being ahead of the pack in the low carbon race, and the cost of having to take more drastic action later.
The current Government seems to view the pursuit of a low carbon economy as optional, or at least as something that can simply be put off. Yet even a cursory glance at the climate science tells us we have to act - and fast. And a cursory glance at the economics tells us the sooner we act, the easier the transition will be.
New Zealand has real potential to create an economy and society where we can prosper while not undermining the long-term health of the environment. We have the possibility of a country with 100 per cent renewable electricity, producing sustainable biofuels that power industry, freight and the aviation that brings in tourists. A country that champions sustainable forms of land use, including agriculture, and a country that exports its know-how and technology, as well as value-added products from the land and sea. Yet, despite this potential, our Government sees a healthy environment not as an integral part of our lives that critically underpins our future prosperity, but as a cost that has to be balanced against the need to pursue environmentally damaging economic activity. This perception of environmental protection as a threat to, rather than an opportunity for, our economy has led the Government to steadily dismantle domestic climate policy over the past few years.
Last week, the Government began to lay its cards on the table for the international community to see. By deciding not to make a legally binding emissions reduction commitment in Kyoto, this Government has sent a signal to the rest of the world that it's not serious about climate action. Within the next month or so, the Government will set its voluntary target which, in all likelihood, will be so low as to require no action to reduce New Zealand's emissions before 2020.
Like a school kid who gets away without doing their homework, should we view avoiding taking action to reduce emissions as some kind of victory? No, we should see it as shooting ourselves in the foot and, more importantly, missing an opportunity.
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Peter Hardstaff is climate change programme manager, WWF-New Zealand.
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