Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is copping criticism for not attending this year’s major United Nations climate change conference, meaning she has not attended one in her five years in office.
National Party climate change spokesman Scott Simpson says it reflects a “lack of action” on climate change and not wanting to be held accountable on the world stage. He said former prime minister John Key had attended the UN summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and Paris in 2015.
But Ardern has hit back, saying it is not routine for prime ministers to attend, and some experts have backed her up saying while “disappointing” this year, in particular, was not the most critical for her to attend.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw meanwhile will leave for Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, next Friday to attend this year’s COP, short for Conference of the Parties, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference.
He’ll be joined in the New Zealand delegation by Simpson - it is a convention for Opposition spokespeople to be invited by the Government, reflecting the bipartisan approach.
Before they arrive is the World Leaders Summit early next week, which will be attended by many European leaders and US President Joe Biden. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will also attend after a massive backlash for initially deciding not to go.
However, leaders of some of the biggest emitters will not be present, including China, India and Russia.
Simpson said it was “strange” Ardern was not attending given how much “talk” there was on climate change. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Ardern had dubbed the issue New Zealand’s “nuclear-free moment”.
Ardern would have now missed the major conferences in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022. The 2020 event in Glasgow was postponed due to Covid-19.
“The talk doesn’t match the reality,” Simpson said.
Simpson said there had been little progress here on climate action and accused the Prime Minister of hiding away from any criticism.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Ardern, who will be present at the Labour Party conference in Auckland this weekend, was attending the upcoming APEC and East Asia Summit meetings in November and it “would not have been possible to include COP in Egypt in that travel”.
He said internationally this year Ardern had raised climate change in her speech to the United Nations, at the Pacific Islands Forum and in her White House meeting with Biden.
He added New Zealand prime ministers have not “routinely attended COP meetings” and this time Shaw would be representing the country.
University of Canterbury professor of political science Bronwyn Hayward said it was “disappointing but not surprising” Ardern was not attending.
Leaders generally wanted to attend events aligned with success or major achievements, she said.
This COP meeting, meanwhile, was largely about implementing current goals and targets, which was more important for climate change and agricultural ministers, she said.
With Canadian and Australian leaders also not attending there was less pressure from countries “we compare ourselves to”.
“If one of those went all three would be morally obliged to go.”
Hayward said it would still have been a good opportunity for Ardern to use her global profile to add leadership to this conference, which was at risk of losing momentum due to major world events including Russia’s war on Ukraine and tensions between China and the United States.
Attending would also have been a chance to build on New Zealand’s “good news story” and reputation around addressing agricultural methane emissions, especially the recent work through He Waka Eke Noa and emissions pricing. More so it would have been a good opportunity for Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor to attend, she said.
“Ireland already has a methane target and the Netherlands will soon. Europe is shifting that way and there is a lot of focus on what New Zealand is doing.”
Hayward said while Key had attended two COP meetings, in 2009 he only did so reluctantly after international and domestic pressure.
Key later quipped: “Copenhagen was a long way to go for 24 hours - a long way for a bacon sandwich.”
Then in 2015 was the landmark conference that culminated in the Paris Agreement.
It is understood Ardern had mooted attending COP in Glasgow, which ironed out details in the Paris Agreement and saw many countries up their emissions pledges. It was ultimately decided against, with controversy even around Shaw attending due to limited MIQ spaces.
Hayward said former Labour prime minister Helen Clark had not attended one conference in her nine years as leader, despite some major work on climate change.
Ardern also had a pandemic in her way of attending in prior years with the 2020 event postponed, Hayward said.