Climate Change Minister James Shaw is in Poland for preliminary talks around deciding the rules for meeting Paris Agreement obligations to reduce global greenhouse gases. It comes ahead of the 24th Conference of Parties summit in Krakow in December, which will mark three years since nations came together in Paris to create a landmark accord to limit global warming to 2C. While New Zealand's agenda is now much more ambitious, there is concern whether the global effort – particularly following US President Donald Trump's decision to pull his country out of the accord. But, with a recent report warning the world had little more than a decade to achieve the Paris Agreement's most ambitious aspiration, the talks couldn't be more critical. Shaw talked to Herald science reporter Jamie Morton from Krakow.
You're in Poland for talks ahead of December's 24th Conference of the Parties in Katowice. What's ultimately going to come out of COP24?
The Paris Agreement is a remarkably short agreement for such an all-encompassing, agreement between every country on Earth.
That's because it's largely principles-based, focusing on the "what" more than the "how".
This next meeting, COP24, is intended to develop the "how", known as the Paris Rulebook.
It should take many of the things agreed in Paris and provide a bit more specificity as to what countries are and aren't allowed to do, individually or between them, in fulfilling their obligations.
I recall talking to you in Paris at COP21, which resulted in the accord. There was plenty of optimism about then – do you feel more gloomy about the global situation now?
Yes and no.
Remember that before the Paris Agreement the mood was very gloomy – there was very little hope that the world would come to an agreement on how to save itself.
But it did. And that changed everything.
It was an enormous signal to countries and to business that things were moving.
Of course, there have been backward steps as well as progress – President Trump's signalling an intention to withdraw the US from Paris is challenging for a global agreement.
But I do take hope from what's going on at the sub-national level of the US, with the Paris Agreement being upheld by individual cities and states that collectively add up to about 60 per cent of US GDP – it's a very powerful group and they're making great headway.
How much has that US withdrawal set the wider process back?
The US withdrawal has made things more difficult.
But every other country in the world is getting on with it.
I'm optimistic that the US will re-join at some point, I just don't know when or what the circumstances will be at the time.
The Paris conference also threw up the surprise move to pursue an aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5C, on the back of pressure from a Pacific-led coalition. Given the findings of the IPCC's landmark report into that target found we had little more than a decade to effectively halve our emissions – and some saying it's unrealistic and that we need to battle toward the agreement's ultimate 2C target instead – do you think this goal was ever possible?
If we're serious about saving low-lying island states in the Pacific, or even many of our own coastal homes and towns, we have to give it our best shot.
The recent IPCC report showed just how hard it's going to be, but it also showed we can still do it.
A big focus of New Zealand at previous conferences has been carbon trading, obviously due to our emissions profile and ability to make deep reductions. At Paris we happened to be the only developed country that built its pledge entirely around carbon trading and emissions accounting, and we pushed for free access to international carbon markets, along with detailed guidelines around land use. Is our international focus still going to be targeted here – or would you like to broaden it somewhat?
I would like to broaden it out in a number of ways, but the most significant, I think, is the work that [Environment Minister] David Parker and I are doing to integrate the climate change and trade agendas.
Every country on Earth is facing basically the same set of challenges, but our individual national circumstances mean we face those challenges in different ways – so co-operation between countries makes total sense.
For example, New Zealand wants to swap out our car fleet for EVs, but we don't make cars.
On the other hand, we are getting very good at low-emissions agriculture.
Making low-emissions technologies the centrepiece of future trade deals works for everyone.
New Zealand came in for some heavy criticism at Paris, and we had the dubious honour of being the first country to receive the Climate Action Network International's "Fossil of the Day" award for our stance. Would you like to think we'll have a better rep at Katowice?
New Zealand's reputation has shifted quite remarkably in a short period of time – we are rapidly becoming one of the leading lights in the international effort against climate change.
This is down to a number of factors – our commitment to a zero-carbon economy by 2050, the Pacific reset, and the Prime Minister's focus on keeping the world's attention on climate change.
You've had the chance to review 15,000 submissions on the proposed Zero Carbon Act. An overwhelming majority of those favoured reducing all greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050. Will we likely see that carried through into the bill?
We're still working through the shape of the bill.
I can't comment on it until it's agreed and been through Cabinet.
What else did you take out of the feedback?
I know a lot of people are cynical about government consultation exercises, but I can honestly say that the final Bill will be much improved for having been through consultation.
I read a sampling of some of the longer submissions from key organisations, such as Generation Zero, Business New Zealand, a few Iwi, and Wise Response, amongst others.
Every one of them contained the germ of an idea that I think will be reflected in the final bill.
How much of a headache has methane been to grapple with, in terms of deciding how to factor it into the bill, or bringing agricultural methane emissions into the Emissions Trading Scheme? You'd be aware some respected researchers have raised concerns with the way we've long accounted for methane emissions, and whether their impact could be over-stated in tough policy. On the other hand, recently-released science has suggested holding the line on current methane emissions isn't an option, and we'd need to make cuts over the next few decades just to keep them at today's levels.
We're taking advice from the Interim Climate Change Committee on the role that methane and other agricultural emissions play in the ETS.
A lot of people confuse the target in the Zero Carbon Bill with the ETS. The ETS is only a mechanism by which to achieve our targets. There are other mechanisms that we could use as well.
There is plenty of very healthy debate about the role of methane in the climate system.
There are a lot of factors to take into account, and which need to be balanced against
I think we're going to land in a pretty good place, although I doubt anyone will be completely happy with it.
Even with the grim warnings that came with this month's IPCC report; hundreds of millions of people displaced, hundreds of thousands of species lost; extreme weather and the like – do you worry that Kiwis are still disconnected to climate change? That we find it too big, or even too boring?
Public opinion surveys done this year have all confirmed that New Zealanders are concerned about climate change and that we want our country to lead the way and do our bit – but we also are deeply sceptical about whether the rest of the world will do its bit.
We have to read a very careful line between, on the one hand, facing the facts that the world has left this very late, that the challenge is immense and that the consequences of failure are catastrophic; and on the other hand, that we have it within our grasp to fix this and that, in fact, things are starting to move very rapidly.
I don't want to be Pollyanna here, but once we pass the Zero Carbon Bill I think there will be a great unleashing of investment and innovation in New Zealand and that'll create new industries, jobs and opportunities.
President Kennedy said of the moon programme, "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard".
I find the climate change challenge galvanising, not disempowering.