The Coalition Government has some huge gaps in its safety net when it comes to our environment

If the now-revealed benchmark act of this Coalition Government – the zero carbon bill – marks this generation's "nuclear moment", then as a defence against the rockets that are already flying it will not stop half the bombs from falling.

Not that any act of Parliament would do that completely at this late stage of the climate and ecological crisis we are in.

But as a declaration of intent to avert catastrophe it is ambivalent in its approach and lax in its timeframes. In short, there are some large strategic holes in the proposed safety net.

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True, much of the detail is robust, including most of the powers and processes of the Climate Change Commission charged with doing the bulk of the work to achieve the aims of the legislation.

But process may be the winner at the expense of achievement, especially in regard to the over-arching targets for the year 2050.

Given New Zealand's emissions profile is markedly different from other "developed" nations because half of our emissions are from agriculture, it was probably inevitable a "two-baskets" approach – separating out biogenic methane emissions from all other greenhouse gases – would be adopted.

This has the advantage of providing a ready marker for how agriculture is responding to the challenge.

Fine. But to give farmers 30 years to achieve only a minimum 24 per cent methane reduction is, in effect, business as usual. Because that sort of reduction is broadly achievable using mitigation methods that already exist and could, with will, be universal within a decade.

Bruce Bisset
Bruce Bisset

So this is not a recipe for the sort of "transformative" culture that has to be adopted by industry in countries where power generation, oil and gas, chemicals and heavy manufacturing are the bulk emitters.

Even accepting different treatment of agriculture because it is a food source, such low targets imply there'll be no great advances in reduction methodology in the next three decades. Ludicrous, surely.

Where it hurts is at the pointy end: in 2050, when all other emissions must be net carbon zero.

Why continue to decouple methane when considering overall emissions? It's the combined target in 2050 that should be net carbon zero.

Certainly if other emitters had to reduce below net zero to offset methane, that might force faster wholesale changes on the agricultural sector. Equably farmers, like everyone else, have to accept paying a reasonably hefty price to achieve a net carbon zero economy.

There are also three major procedural failings in the bill. First, that three five-year emissions budgets are set at the start, but the commission must wait til those have all passed (2036) before conducting its first review of the 2050 targets. This is an inexplicable recipe for failure from compounded error; the first review should start after the first period (2026).

Second, the bill labels emissions targets and budgets "permissive", not prescriptive, so no one in governance is actually obliged to take them into account. This lets every government department and civil servant off the hook; again, a built-in recipe for failure.

Third, the minister has powers to require information from the full gamut of public and Crown-owned entities and "lifeline" utilities to assess how they are responding to the act – but there are no such requirements for private companies. Surely capturing what measures all larger (say, over 100 employees) private sector companies are taking is essential data?

There are other lesser lapses in timeframes and requirements that together add up to a rather slipshod hit-and-miss draft. It needs serious tightening to stand any chance of achieving even the aims stated, let alone something more meaningful.


Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. Views expressed are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's.