Climate Change Minister Simon Watts says the new coalition Government is “absolutely” as serious as the previous administration in tackling climate change and simply has a different approach to meeting the emissions reduction targets.
It comes as the Government cops flak globally and from Pacific neighbours in particular for its policy to reverse a ban on offshore oil and gas exploration, a policy brought in under a Labour-led government in 2018 which included NZ First.
Watts has also defended the Government’s commitments to meeting climate change targets, despite coalition partner Act having long called for the country to withdraw from its Net Zero 2050 pledge and instead align emissions reductions with trading partners.
“For those... that are a bit concerned, they simply just need to read the coalition agreement.
“We’ve signed up to meeting those targets... We’ve got a comprehensive programme with buy-in by all of the parties.”
Watts spoke to the Herald shortly before travelling to the annual Cop28 (Conference of Parties) United Nations climate summit in Dubai.
The Government has been under pressure over its oil and gas reversal, with criticism on the world stage from Vanuatu, Palau and even Germany’s climate envoy. Before Watts even arrived in Dubai New Zealand was given the the first Fossil of the Day award at the climate conference by environmental organisations (New Zealand also received it in 2021 and 2022).
Watts said while he would be listening to concerns about the policy at the conference he believed the Government had a mandate as it had campaigned on it and taken it to the election.
In the climate context, Watts said the justification was that New Zealand would need gas for some time as a transition fuel, with industries that use coal able to switch over ahead of renewable alternatives.
Watts added the focus would be on the gas, rather than oil, aspect.
“We are on a trajectory of wanting to phase off fossil fuels. We support the global call at Cop28 around a phase-out of the use of fossil fuels.
“And for us, the ability to move off coal and on to gas for some industries, is the most pragmatic and feasible option that they face. There aren’t other options on the table today.”
Given the lag between discovery and production can take over a decade, any new fields found in the coming years would likely not be operating until the mid-2030s.
Watts said the Government’s main method of reducing emissions would be its pledge to double renewable energy in the country by 2050, largely through easing the consenting process.
New Zealand would support the global pledge at COP to the triple renewable energy, but wouldn’t commit domestically as the country already had a much higher share at 80 per cent than the global average.
“That is one of the most significant policy interventions that will enable us to decarbonise, particularly our transport, but also industrial emissions profile.”
Asked about how seriously the public could expect the Government to treat the issue given Act’s call to pull out of the Zero Carbon Act and NZ First leader Winston Peters on the election campaign questioning the science of climate change and international targets, Watts said they had all signed up to the coalition agreement that included those targets,
“The actions required to meet our targets will be different. But we are consistent in terms of our buy-in to deliver those targets.”
Watts said the Government would also be focusing on meeting most of the targets by reducing domestic emissions.
Under the Paris Agreement, which covers almost every nation on the planet, New Zealand has promised to cut emissions by 41 per cent off 2005 levels by 2030.
New Zealand plans to meet its target in two ways. First, it will do as much as it can inside the country by meeting a set of “emissions budgets”, and second through buying carbon credits from overseas.
Treasury had previously put the cost of buying these credits from overseas - and an estimated 100 million tonnes of them will be needed, at last count - at between $3.3b and more than $23b between now and 2030.
Watts said he would also be looking to continue cooperating with other countries on climate action, but could not commit to maintaining international funding at current levels.
In 2021, New Zealand announced $1.3 billion over four years to assist developing countries on climate change, with over half going to the Pacific. Already more than half of that spending has been committed to projects. About $500 million of that came from the existing aid budget but $800m was new funding.
“[At Cop] we’ll be expressing to countries that we are absolutely committed, and continue to be committed around meeting our targets,” said Watts.
“We’ve got an ambitious in [Nationally Determined Contribution] target for 2030. [As a new minister] it is about establishing those relationships, talking and working particularly with our Pacific country neighbours... and countries that we can learn from and pick up ideas around how better to deliver the outcomes around reducing domestic emissions, particularly those that have a large agricultural presence.”
Watts will be joined by Green Party climate change spokesman and former climate change minister James Shaw at the conference, continuing a tradition of the Government taking an Opposition spokesperson.
Watts said this demonstrated the country’s unique bipartisan approach to tackling climate change.