• Peter Whitmore is an executive member of Engineers for Social Responsibility

It is very encouraging that in her final report as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright recommended we follow the lead set by the UK with its 2008 Climate Change Act. This is the same initiative that youth-led organisation Generation Zero is also promoting with its proposed Zero Carbon Act.

The UK Act, which received wide cross-party support, sets a legally binding target to reduce emissions to at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, backed up by carbon budgets that put legal limits on the amount of greenhouse gas the UK can emit over five-year periods. It also established an independent expert body to advise the Government on climate change matters.

This legislation is, no doubt, one of the reasons the UK's net emissions fell 38 per cent between 1990 and 2015 while New Zealand's climbed 64 per cent over the same period.

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Here net emissions refers to the total or gross emissions, less off-setting credits, which in our case relate mainly to carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere by trees.

There are also some other issues that arise from the Wright report. When setting emissions targets, our Government has been comparing gross emissions at the start of the period with net emissions at the future target date, though this never seems to be clearly explained.

The gross-net mix-up of measurement methods is both confusing and misleading. It produces more ambitious-sounding reduction targets, but it is effectively comparing apples with oranges.

In her report, for the first time in any official document I have seen, Wright presents our Paris target for 2030 on a net-net basis. Rather than being 11 per cent below the 1990 level, as our Paris submission says, our 2030 target is actually 67 per cent above the 1990 level on a net-net basis. Based on the most recent available data, it is even above our current emissions level.

So the true picture of what we are committing to is completely different from what the gross-net figures suggest. We need to move on from this wonky accounting and start presenting consistent, meaningful figures both to international organisations and the New Zealand public.

This brings us to our Paris target. Scientists have told us we need to rapidly reduce emissions in order to preserve a liveable planet. That is why the Paris Agreement was reached, that is presumably why New Zealand signed on, and that is why the international objective is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the end of this century, and a lot earlier if possible.

It is clear from the above that New Zealand's current Paris commitment is pathetically feeble. We are not actually undertaking to make any reduction in our emissions by 2030, even compared to today's levels.

When the then Climate Change Issues Minister Tim Groser announced our Paris target in July 2015, he said that since almost 80 per cent of our electricity already comes from renewable resources we have few opportunities right now to reduce emissions. But as the Wright report indicates, we have the potential to go way beyond that, with great resources of renewable energy like wind, geothermal and solar power.

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We even have the potential to produce enough electricity to power our transport sector which currently accounts for around 20 per cent of our emissions. This would also have the benefit of rapidly reducing the over $7 billion we currently spend annually on importing fossil fuels.

How could we do this? To address essentially the same issue, in 1991 the German Government introduced legislation that gave producers of electricity from renewable resources the right to sell into the grid at a reasonable price and to receive preference over electricity generated by other means. If we followed this example we would move rapidly towards electricity generated virtually 100 per cent from renewables, even as demand grew.

So in retrospect, our Paris target has not been set based on a robust review of what is actually possible and how New Zealand can start rapidly moving towards a state of carbon neutrality. It needs to be revised and re-submitted.

Climate change is too critical an issue for any further delay of effective action to address it. Let's hope, for the sake of our young people and future generations, that the incoming government takes climate change and Jan Wright's report seriously, and that it enacts the required legislation and takes the other necessary steps to allow us to start making major reductions in our emissions.