COMMENT:

Before it became a day of horror and heartbreak, last Friday was for a few hours a day of hope.

Hope that the schoolchildren marching to protest endless procrastination on climate change, and kicking off a wave of similar strikes around the world, might shame (or scare) political leaders into action on the great issue of our day and age.

Maybe some were just happy to have a day off school. But the vast majority of the kids marching down Wellington's Lambton Quay looked very much in earnest to me.

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They might not have a subtle appreciation of the free rider problems that bedevil the geopolitics of climate change.

But they do know that rendering the planet inhospitable to ourselves as a species is a stupid and wicked thing to do.

And that we are doing it to them. Their placards as they marched by reminded us, one way or another, of the old saying that we don't inherit the earth from our forebears, we borrow it from our children.

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Well, the children were out in force last Friday and they are not happy. MPs should take note. Many of them will be old enough to vote in the next general election.

Here we are, 27 years after the Rio Earth Summit, 21 years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed, more than three years after the Paris Agreement — years of increasingly stark and strident warnings from the scientists — with precious little to show for it.

In New Zealand, both major parties have little to be proud of. The previous Labour Government finally got a carbon pricing mechanism into the statute books in the last few weeks of its ninth year in power, only for National to eviscerate it and spend another nine years doing five-eighths of not very much at all about the issue, other than funding some research into the agricultural gases.

Central to the current Government's climate policy is its plan for a Zero Carbon Act which would set a statutory target of net zero emissions by 2050, with a mechanism to set a series of medium-term carbon budgets to get us to that goal.

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It would also establish an independent and expert Climate Change Commission, to monitor progress towards the goal and advise on policy measures to achieve it, with ultimate decisions made, of course, by the Government of the day.

It is nine months since the consultation document on this plan was released. It has yet to give birth to an actual bill.

Florence Patel-Gaunt, of Havelock North Primary School, makes her point at last week's climate strike. Photo, Paul Taylor.
Florence Patel-Gaunt, of Havelock North Primary School, makes her point at last week's climate strike. Photo, Paul Taylor.

To be any use at depoliticising climate policy, in the way monetary policy was 30 years ago, a Zero Carbon Act would require cross-party support. Climate Change Minister James Shaw has admitted the necessary consensus is proving harder to achieve than he had thought.

The leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, has said National wants assurances that the process of appointments to the commission is bipartisan, and that it will have to give appropriate consideration to economic as well as environmental impacts in giving its advice.

For "economic impact" read "impact on pastoral farming", which is the source of nearly half the country's greenhouse gas emissions but also, last year for example, of 42 per cent of its export income.

Three possible ways of defining the statutory objective of net zero emissions by 2050 are offered in the consultation document. The one that looks to have the best chance of garnering crucial cross-party support is "Net zero emissions of long-lived gases (mainly CO2 and nitrous oxide) by 2050 and stabilised flows of the short-lived gas, methane". It does not indicate at what level the flow of methane would be stabilised.

As MPs grapple with this, they will not be short of expert advice. They will soon receive a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, titled Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The next great landscape transformation? on the treatment of biological emissions and sinks.

The Interim Climate Change Commission, set up as a precursor to the climate commission, is due to report next month on how agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions could be included in the emissions trading scheme. The coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First includes a provision that if agriculture is to be included in the ETS, there will initially be a free allocation of 95 per cent — that is, only 5 per cent of those emissions will incur a carbon price — and that revenues from this source will be recycled to encourage agricultural innovation and planting of forests.

There is no shortage of guidance about what can be done. What seems to be lacking is the political will, across the Parliament, to do it.

The interim committee is also due to report next month on planning for transition to 100 per cent renewable electricity generation by 2035.

These reports will add to an already formidable stack of advice on how to curb, or offset, emissions.

There is the work of the Biological Emissions Reference Group, in which industry bodies were heavily represented, whose report last December found that "[If] there was widespread adoption of currently available mitigation options (mainly farm management practices) an up to about 10 per cent reduction in absolute biological emissions from pasture-based livestock is possible." But it warned that farmers' ability to implement such practices varies widely, and while some might achieve such reductions without significant negative impacts on profitability, for others the impact could be large. Cuts of more than 10 per cent would require a mix of on-farm mitigation and land-use change.

The Productivity Commission's inquiry into transitioning to a low-emissions economy, which wrapped up last August, concluded that a comprehensive and durable policy framework, along the lines envisaged for the Zero Carbon Act, was needed together with some form of emissions pricing for methane and a lot more investment in low-emissions innovation and technology.

MPs also have research commissioned by GLOBE-NZ, the cross-party grouping of MPs broadly progressive on climate change.

And there is the steady stream of work from the think tank Motu, most recently on carbon farming.

So there is no shortage of guidance about what can be done. What seems to be lacking is the political will, across the Parliament, to do it.

Clearly, when contemplating legislation as load-bearing as a Zero Carbon Act they need to get it right.

But they also need to get it done. As last Friday's striking school kids attested, time is not on our side.