Immediately after the global climate change conference in Durban, John Key said he thought New Zealand would be part of the Kyoto Protocol's second commitment period. Twelve months on, there has been a change of heart. The Government will not sign up for fresh commitments under the protocol system from next year. Instead, it will hitch its wagon to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The switch neatly encapsulated the essence of this country's record on climate change. Repeatedly, a commendable instinct has been superseded by a surrender to timidity.
The Government says its latest decision aligns New Zealand's efforts with nations that, collectively, are responsible for 85 per cent of global emissions. These include the United States, Japan, China, India and Russia. But they do not include Australia or any nations in Europe, which, with New Zealand, have the world's only national-level carbon pricing schemes.
It is a moot point whether abandoning the Kyoto path will inhibit this country's access to the international carbon markets after 2015 when nations with obligations under the first commitment period square accounts with each other. Climate Change Minister Tim Groser thinks not, but concedes there is a risk access will be denied. That threat, he says, is outweighed by the inadvisability of locking New Zealand into another binding commitment, probably until 2020.
The present situation is uncertain. The rift between developed and developing nations on how to extend or replace the protocol has not been healed. A reluctance of larger non-European members of the Kyoto club to sign up for a second commitment period if it continues to exclude the world's biggest and fastest-growing emitters has led to the UN Framework. This incorporates a mandate to negotiate by 2015 a comprehensive global agreement "with legal force" to begin, if ratified, in 2020. It would apply to all parties, developed and developing.
But progressing this will be hard and probably inconclusive, not least because of the distraction of the global recession. That is emphasised by the Green Party, which says siding with it means committing to hot air at talks but not to legally binding measures to reduce emissions. The only real certainty lies with a Kyoto commitment.
The Greens also say taking the UN pathway undermines any international credibility this country ever had on climate change. But that evaporated a while ago, especially with the emissions trading scheme dilution. It will not be rescued even if, as pledged, the Government sets a firm target for emission levels in 2020. The enduring harm, and potential damage to this country's clean green image, will spring from Australia not only catching New Zealand but surpassing it in its climate change response.
The Kyoto Protocol's standing is more than symbolic. It may enshrine an outdated division of the world into developed and developing countries. But its commitments represent the only concrete actions taken so far by the international community to address climate change. The absence of major emitters does not invalidate this.
The UN Framework involves nothing more than an agreement to try to reach an agreement. In time, and after a period of transition, it may become the accepted global response. If so, the current fragmentation will, thankfully, end. But that is all up in the air. Until now, New Zealand has chosen to link itself with an approach that has achieved something of merit. It is odd to be leaping off that ship into a less certain future.
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