Taking action on climate change could give New Zealand a chance to demonstrate its green clean reputation, a group of top Auckland University academics have told the Government as it sets its new climate target.
Twenty-five faculty members of the university made the call in its submission to the Government on its proposed Intended National Determined Contribution (INDC), or climate change target, ahead of global December talks in Paris in that aim to set new emissions reduction goals post-2020.
When the public submissions period closed this week, more than 10,000 had been received, while 1700 people had attended meetings around the country.
The Government, which released a discussion document addressing the goal-setting ahead of its consultation period, has a current unconditional emissions target of five per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The university researchers said that while New Zealand may be less vulnerable than some countries to the physical effects of climate change, it had more opportunities than many countries to show leadership on this issue, "and it is in our best interests to do so".
This was due to New Zealand's image on the world stage as a socially progressive nation with a "clean green environment".
"Taking leadership on this issue would enable us to demonstrate that this image reflects modern NZ and our priorities for a healthy, vibrant population and land that is well cared for," they said.
"We are also aware that climate change will have a severe impact on many of our Pacific neighbours and believe it is vital we demonstrate leadership as a relatively large South Pacific nation."
They argued that targets should be set not by would could be managed, but what must be managed if we were to take appropriate cautionary action given the scientific evidence on climate change and its relationship to greenhouse gas (GHG) production and other anthropogenic causes.
The planet would warm because of human actions, they said, and it would not wait for a transition in a non-urgent fashion that preserved all aspects of "business as usual".
"The absolute minimum target we should set is that required on a per capita basis to have a reasonable chance of avoiding warming greater than 2C."
New Zealand would need to carefully consider its built environment, transport system, dependence on dairying, and use of energy.
"We would also like to see a much greater emphasis on protecting New Zealand's biodiversity and increasing areas of native tree cover that will provide carbon sinks as well as other environmental benefits."
The researchers wanted to see a series of national discussions hosted by schools, universities, cities and other regional authorities to consider how the challenges were met.
"Businesses should be involved in these discussions as they can be leaders in new, sustainable innovations and will no doubt rise to the challenge of supporting New Zealand's identity as a leader in this field.
"It is also crucial that young people are included as they will need to manage the effects of the climate change created by the choices of today's adults."
Government's discussion document "disappointing" - commissioner
That call echoed another made by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, who in her submission made an urgent call for a national forum to tackle the issue.
New Zealand should be presenting an ambitious climate target backed by a robust plan, she said, and the country had "major opportunities" to reduce emissions through forestry, electricity and transport - "but they will not just happen of their own accord".
"This is an important time. There is a new impetus for action with the world's two largest economies - China and USA - setting ambitious targets," Dr Wright said.
"New Zealand needs to keep up."
Along with setting up a forum to develop a plan for meeting emission reduction targets, as the Land and Water Forum had done for water quality, she wanted to see the Government ensure that any carbon units purchased offshore represented real emissions reductions.
The measures currently in place for tackling climate change, she said, were inadequate.
"New Zealand's primary mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions - the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) - has been repeatedly weakened and the country's emissions continue to rise."
Dr Wright was also disappointed by the discussion document, remarking that it was "long on national circumstances, but short on ambition."
Four key messages - Victoria University academics
Academics from Victoria University too criticised the document, arguing there was a disconnect in it between the Government's suggestions and questions, and CO2 emissions projections.
"It nowhere demonstrates how it plans to achieve New Zealand's existing CO2 emission reduction targets for 2020 to 2050," the five Victoria researchers said in their submission.
They laid out four key messages to the Government.
Firstly, they said New Zealand needed to reduce its net carbon dioxide emissions rapidly and ensure these became zero during this century, in order to be consistent with the UN aim to keep the global average temperature increase to less than 2C.
They said the associated economic uncertainty had to be reduced, and called for the Government to adopt policies that would "minimise regret" in worst-case outcomes, such as the non-availability of international offset credits.
Competitiveness did not have to be threatened by a domestic carbon price, they argued, provided appropriate border adjustments were applied, as with GST.
Thirdly, they called for "transformational change and innovative leadership" from Government, if it was to address credibility during the Paris conference, and this required a co-ordinated strategy across all affected sectors.
"We propose the establishment of a carbon budget and a climate commission to address issues on a non-partisan and long-term basis."
Their fourth message recommended better pathways for change, noting there appeared "little logic" in funding further fossil fuel exploration given new opportunities outlined in the discussion document that created by a low-carbon trajectory.
"Piecemeal" policy implementation coupled with low funding had meant that plans for low-carbon initiatives around renewable energy, afforestation, and new technology uptake had not been established and there was no recognition of the timeframe required.
"We need to identify quickly the best opportunities for sector emissions reduction and prospects for upscaling, while also opening up options for new possibilities in the future."
The Environmental Defence Society meanwhile criticised the Government's submissions process altogether.
"What is happening is that there will be large numbers of submissions calling for either more or less robust targets for 2025 or 2030, depending on the interests of the submitter," chairman Gary Taylor said.
"The process has been set up to polarize submitters into taking extreme positions one way or the other."
The Ministry for the Environment is now evaluating all of the submissions, which would help it advise ministers as they considered New Zealand's new target.