Newsroom - Ardern and Shaw hope for bi-partisan Carbon Act

Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw are giving themselves most of their first term of Parliament to try to build a Climate Commission and a Zero Carbon Act with bi-partisan support. National is open to it. Bernard Hickey reports.

Jacinda Ardern described climate change as her generation's 'nuclear free moment' during the election campaign and she is hoping a target of New Zealand being net carbon neutral by 2050 becomes a similarly bi-partisan goal.

The early indications are the National Opposition is warming to the idea, in particular with a new climate change spokesman in Todd Muller. There have been no 'gone by lunchtime' comments yet. That's despite then-Prime Minister Bill English's declaration during the election campaign he saw no need for such an Act, commenting that voters 'don't get out of bed every morning worried about climate change.'

The Prime Minister and James Shaw yesterday announced the Government would name and start setting up an interim Climate Commission in March or April next year that would operate while the Government consulted widely and tried to win cross-party support for a Zero Carbon Act that targets net zero emissions by 2050.

They said they planned to introduce the bill into Parliament by the end of October next year and pass it during the first half of 2019. The Government had included setting a zero emissions goal and 'begin setting up the Independent Climate Commission' as one of the items in its [100 day plan.]

Asked about the long lead time to create the Commission, Ardern and Shaw said fresh macroeconomic research needed to be done and the Government wanted to consult very widely and deeply, including with the Opposition.

"There's quite a lot of economic research we have to do that relates to right across the economy. The last set of macro-economic research that we did hasn't been redone since 2013/14 and even then it was a once over lightly approach and it made a number of assumptions that were wildly incorrect, and all of that work has to be updated," Shaw told Ardern's post-cabinet news conference.

"We want to make sure that when we introduce the act that it's based on solid evidence and that we've had good consultation right across the economy, and particularly with key stake holders in business, in the unions and with communities," he said.

Interim Commission has work to do

Ardern said the interim commission would work on the policy needed to target 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 and start plans to plant one billion trees.

"It doesn't mean that all our ambition around climate change goes on hold while the legislation is being drafted. We have an ambition to move to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and all our commitments around tree planting -- all of that continues," she said.

Asked the need for a bi-partisan approach, she said: "There are two issues where I hope we're able to build consensus around goals going forward and our legislative framework on how to tackle them. The first was child poverty -- I still have ambitions that we might get cross party support on that -- and the second is climate change."

"We cannot every election cycle, every time there's a change of Government, have another conversation around climate change when it's got to be less a conversation around target setting and moving onto establishing what our action plan is and sticking to it."

Shaw also said consensus building was one of the reasons for "taking our time."

"Not only to we need that evidence base, but we want to make sure that our process is really thorough and that we've crossed all our 't's and dotted all our 'i's -- that we've included the Opposition, we've included business, we've included farmers and the agricultural communities, that we've included energy companies and the communities where they operate to make sure they feel a part of that process before we've even introduced the legislation," he said.

'Less conversation and more action'

The full Commission would look to set carbon budgets for the economy and plan to include all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, which is responsible for around half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.

"We've got a pretty steep curve if we're going to hit net zero by 2050. That's true of the whole planet. We've been talking about this for a number of decades. Everyone, not just New Zealand, but all around the world is waking up to the reality that it's time for a little less conversation and a little more action," Shaw said.

Ardern was also confident agriculture could adjust without necessarily reducing output.

"There's a lot of room for us within the agricultural frame to make a lot of technological advancements. We're seeing that even the type of feed that you use to the way you graze can make a difference to our emissions profile. The issue we have is making sure we're undertaking that research that we are at the front of the pack when we're making those advancements, which is why we've always indicated that having a comprehensive regime is one way that we can incentivise that work being undertaken," she said.

National's climate change spokesman Todd Muller was open in his first comments about supporting a Zero Carbon Act and the creation of a Climate Commission. He pointed in particular to the apparent cross-party support for Britain's Independent Climate Commission. The change in tone was noticeable from Bill English's opposition to a Commission or an Act.

"The Government has signalled it will seek Opposition feedback and support in drafting climate change legislation, which we look forward to," Muller said.

"I’m particularly interested in testing how a successful model like the UK Independent Climate Commission might work here."

“Our primary focus for the conversations ahead of us is that any transition to a low carbon economy must ensure local communities can adjust and thrive, rather than seeking accolades from the UN."

English, speaking to reporters later on the way into question time, said the new Government hadn't yet done enough work on the proposal or provided enough detail.

"They struggle with turning the slogans into reality, and it will be the same with the Climate Commission.

"They are trying to make an effort to get broad support, so we are open to the idea but we have to discuss the implications of, for instance, a carbon neutral economy by 2050. Nobody has any idea what that means for businesses, for households, for incomes. So we are open to the idea but there is a long, long way to go to discuss the reality.

"I think everybody would agree we want to do more on climate change, but there is no discussion at all about what impact that actually has. Does it mean closing our large industrial businesses that employ thousands of people, does it mean significant increases in the cost of energy for households? Those are the issues we will have to grapple with," he said.

The Nuclear Free legislation was also opposed by National at the time it was developed, but was accepted by both sides at the 1990 election. Don Brash's 'gone by lunchtime comment' was the last sign of opposition from National.

The Government will also be hoping the Independent Climate Commission develops the same level of cross-party support that the Reserve Bank Act had in its first 30 years.