Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser has travelled to Paris for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, or COP21, which aims to shore up global commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
In the first of a series of Q&A interviews with leading figures on climate change, he talks to science reporter Jamie Morton.
Q. On New Zealand's new target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030: this has been criticised by some quarters as "weak" and only a little stronger than the previous target for 2020. Dr Adrian Macey described it as "the minimum credible target", particularly as New Zealand had already put on the table a conditional target of 10-20% below 1990 by 2020, and already had its unconditional 5% below 1990 by 2020 target. You however have spoken of ensuring the target was achievable and avoiding "imposing unfair costs on any particular sector or group of people". Can you please elaborate a little more on this trade-off and why we couldn't set a more ambitious target?
A. New Zealand's target is a fair and ambitious contribution to the global response to climate change.
The 2030 target represents a level of cost and effort that compares favourably to most other countries, including major developed countries such the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan.
We face significant uncertainties when setting a target which will apply 15 years in the future.
Many of the easy wins available to other countries have already been taken up here, with 80 per cent of our electricity generation already produced by renewable resources. Half our emissions come from the agricultural sector, but opportunities to reduce emissions in agriculture are limited: we are reliant on future technology developments.
Recent technology developments in this space such as low emitting sheep and cattle, and methane inhibitors, have been promising, but are at a very early stage. As this technology becomes proven and is able to be deployed commercially, we can review our target to make sure it remains ambitious.
INTERACTIVE: How can your household help reduce carbon emissions?
Firstly, the New Zealand situation: what are the key drivers of emissions in this country, how do our emissions compare both on a per capita basis and as a percentage of total global emissions, and traditionally, what has been our previous approaches to reducing emissions and setting targets/commitments at previous landmark conferences like Kyoto, Doha and most recently Copenhagen?
New Zealand has a unique emissions profile, and this is recognised by our international peers. We have relatively low carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation thanks to our high level of renewable generation, and half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector.
New Zealand is a very small emitter on the global stage, contributing around 0.15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
On a per capita basis, we emitted 17.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person in 2012 (the latest year comparison figures are available).
This is lower than Australia and the United States (24.0 and 20.4 tonnes per person, respectively) but higher than the UK at 9.2 tonnes per person.
If we consider carbon dioxide (CO2) only, New Zealand emits 8.3 tonnes per annum.
This places us 20th highest amongst the countries listed in Annex 1 of the Kyoto Protocol, and below the Annex 1 average.
Our small share of global emissions does not mean that we should do nothing to address climate change.
Rather it underlines the importance of getting major emitters such as China, the United States, India and European Union to take action.
This is why the Government has prioritised the negotiation of an effective global agreement with broad participation as part of our response to climate change.
I was involved in setting New Zealand's emissions reduction targets for 2020 and 2050. As with our 2030 target, we had to consider what represents our fair share to global action.
Q. Is it realistic that it that the target we set can be achieved and, if so, how? How much of what we can do relies on other countries?
A. New Zealand can meet the target, but it will not be easy.
Achieving the target will require a combination of domestic emissions reductions, forestry offsets and purchasing international emissions reductions.
This target will require a significant increase in effort from our previous undertakings.
The modelling that officials completed as part of the evidence supporting the new target was conservative in its assumptions for technology developments.
This means we are not reliant on any technological "silver bullets" being developed.
I am encouraged by recent developments in areas such as battery storage, electric vehicles and agriculture.
New Zealand is at the leading edge of research into technologies to reduce emissions from agriculture, having founded the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases.
We are now starting to see some promising results from research in this area in New Zealand - such as the low-emitting sheep and cattle and methane inhibitors mentioned earlier - with new technologies and solutions being developed that may have a significant impact on agricultural emissions in the future.
It will be some time however before these new technologies are proven and commercially viable.
Q. What proportion of nations are taking to Paris commitments that largely rely on or are structured around carbon trading? Given criticism of the inefficiency of this system, is it somewhat a gamble that we should be basing emissions reductions goals off them?
A. A significant number of countries (around 80 of 146) have submitted targets that indicate an interest in using carbon market mechanisms.
This includes both developed and developing countries.
There is also a strong commitment to, and acknowledgement of, the importance of carbon markets in delivering an effective global response to climate change from a number of countries and organisations, such as the World Bank.
We need to take on board the lessons learned from past experiences with international carbon trading. New Zealand is working in international climate change negotiations to ensure that carbon markets will be governed by robust principles and rules to ensure their environmental integrity.
Q. At Paris, what do you expect our negotiating team will be doing each day? What will they be striving for and what will be the biggest challenges facing them in the negotiating rooms? What role will you yourself as Minister be having?
A. The New Zealand team will be actively involved in negotiations across the range of topics, from climate finance and carbon markets, to agriculture, land-use, and the legal form of the new agreement.
They'll be striving to conclude a durable and effective climate change agreement that reflects New Zealand's interests.
At this stage in the negotiations, it is important the political will for the Paris meeting to deliver an effective agreement that can attract broad participation is reflected in Parties' willingness to find convergence on issues.
Parties need to be willing to move off entrenched positions and begin to consider compromise proposals.
The New Zealand delegation will actively and constructively consider potential 'landing zones'.
But the task of reaching agreement at the negotiator level will be much more difficult if other delegations do not show this flexibility.
I will be attending the negotiations as head of the New Zealand delegation.
This entails regular meetings with the negotiators, liaison with my counterparts from other delegations, leading New Zealand's outreach on priority issues and delivering formal statements of New Zealand's position.
At the end of the first week of the meeting the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (the ADP) will wrap up and the negotiations will resume at Ministerial level.
Q. Are there any particular areas where you see New Zealand and New Zealand-led policy making any meaningful difference at COP21?
A. New Zealand has contributed a number of significant ideas to the negotiations:
The legal form of the agreement (this is the one referred to as the "New Zealand proposal" even though we have made several proposals), suggests that the domestic political obstacles some countries may face in ratifying an agreement that creates emission reduction targets that are binding under international law can be avoided by placing the targets outside the agreement itself.
If the agreement is legally binding, and it contains legally binding obligations on Parties to have targets, and to participate in processes to demonstrate meeting them, then we can achieve both participation by those countries and a good environmental result.
Bounded flexibility is another New Zealand idea, drawn from our experience in the WTO.
The point of this is that the agreement sets up the parameters such as a requirement to cover all key emissions (the boundaries) within which Parties can nationally determine their mitigation (flexibility), or creates a set of options from which Parties can select, say transparency processes, that best fit their national capacity and circumstances.
Enabling Parties to set their own targets within agreed boundaries means they are much more likely to implement them.
Q. In terms of the big picture: who do you see as the big players, why, and how much depends on them to come away with a robust agreement? Can we expect to see competing blocks or alliances of nations form? Is it true a small nation like New Zealand at such a large summit is rendered insignificant by the disproportionate power of these nations?
A. Clearly the big players in an agreement to reduce global emissions are the big emitters.
Being responsible for only 0.15 per cent of global emissions, New Zealand is not one of these.
But it is not the case that the big emitters operate as a bloc in these negotiations. Far from it.
The major division is, and for a long time has been, between developed countries (specifically those listed in Annex I of the Framework Convention, the members of the OECD back in 1992) and others.
The spectrum on non-Annex I countries is very broad these days.
This group includes several of the world's largest emitters (like China and India), some of the world's wealthiest countries, many of the world's largest producers of fossil fuels, and some of the poorest and most vulnerable to climate change.
Some of them want to see an ambitious, effective agreement that locks in all major emitters to deep emission reductions.
Some would like to hang on to the old framework where the burden falls only on developed countries.
New Zealand works to find alliances on our priority issues with a broad range of countries.
For the past several years I have attended as an observer the Major Economies Forum on Climate Change and have had very good dialogue with the key movers in this negotiation.
Q. The other major goal of Paris is to secure an annually-funded $100 billion fund to help developing nations. Do you see this being achieved?
A. Climate finance is one of the keys to unlocking progress in Paris. It is important to clarify some misunderstandings around what is likely.
The goal is to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020, and a report prepared by the OECD and Climate Policy Institute, using very conservative methodology, shows we're well on track to achieving that goal with US $62 billion mobilised in 2014.
This makes me very confident that by 2020 that number will exceed $100 billion.
The deliverable for Paris in not $100 billion in 2015, but there are likely to be announcements made to shore up confidence that the target will be reached. We're on track, but still have a way to go.
Q. Further to the last question, you've said that if mitigation can't be broadened outside Annex 1 countries (developed countries) to developing nations, then developed nations are wasting their time with their own climate change efforts. Can you elaborate?
A. Annex 1 countries now represent only 39 per cent of world gross emissions and their share is falling.
While acknowledging that developed countries must lead the way on reducing emissions, realistically the world cannot solve this problem until all major emitters, including those outside Annex 1, also take action.
The INDCs that have been submitted on behalf of 155 countries show that mitigation is broadening outside Annex I countries.
A very large number of developing nations have shown their willingness to play their part.
Some have tabled highly ambitious targets.
And the wealth of climate finance that is now flowing will enable them to do even more.
Q. What influence on commitment-setting has there been from expected advances in future technology that would significantly reduce emissions? Has there been an over-reliance from many nations on waiting for this technology to eventuate?
A. No, countries have come forward with their best estimations of what they will be able to achieve by 2025 or 2030.
Some, like New Zealand, have noted the availability of technology makes a difference to the pace of transformation to a low-emissions domestic economy.
But it is obvious that new mitigation technology is going to be the game changer in the global response to climate change.
Q. Generally, what do you anticipate will be the biggest stumbling blocks at Paris to limiting temperature rise to 2C this century? From attending previous conferences, are you at all cynical about getting a good outcome?
A. No, I'm not cynical.
It is going to be a tough negotiation, we are talking about making big changes to the global economy and everyone has a lot at stake. But this is a very different meeting to the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.
Political momentum behind a successful new agreement is very strong. Civil society buy-in to a successful new agreement is very strong. We already have more than 150 INDCs on the table.
The French are very skilled diplomats, and I'm confident they'll lead us to a good result.
One mistake we might make is getting too fixed on the idea that the Paris agreement is going to deliver a 2C limit to temperature rise on day one.
It won't do that.
It will start us on a journey of regular revisions of emission reduction targets, greening investment and collaboration in innovation and dissemination of technology that will enable deeper and deeper reductions over time.
Q. Much has been made of what this conference means for the fate of the planet. Is this really our last chance to achieve a 2C limit before it's too late? Or, as you have pointed out previously, is it a mistake to view mitigation efforts solely against UNFCCC negotiations like Paris?
A. The conference in Paris this December will be a key moment globally in achieving a comprehensive and effective global agreement.
We must look to secure an agreement that facilitates greater ambition from countries over time, allowing momentum to build to ensure we keep within the 2C limit. I am confident that a deal will be secured in Paris.
It is important to remember that the formal negotiations under the UNFCCC are only one part of the solution to address climate change.
In the past year we have seen positive developments on a number of fronts.
This includes a growing number of countries (including India, Morocco, and Ethiopia) looking to reform and remove subsidies on fossil fuels; promising developments in low-carbon technology and uptake beyond what many analysts had projected; and growing political momentum through the commitments made by major emitters such as the United States, China, India and Brazil.