Stuff - Zero carbon: Policy meets science

Written by Will Harvie

ANALYSIS: There's no quibbling about climate change in the coalition Government's Zero Carbon bill.

It accepts that climate change is underway, it is primarily caused by humans, action needs to be taken soon, and lays out options and likely costs for the way forward.

Climate change science has finally been met with climate change policy.

Some might consider it to an all-too-rare example of politicians heeding scientists.

At a recent public consultation meeting on the bill in Christchurch, no opposition was voiced.  

Well, some thought the bill didn't go far enough or fast enough.

Listening to the public comment on an issue as settled yet contentious as climate change can be fraught.

One attendee was given the microphone and announced she was an academic geologist.

The room of about 75 people stirred uncomfortably. 

Geologists are among the most persistent and sometimes effective critics of climate change science because their expertise can stretch back hundreds of millions of years. It's not hard to find a geologist in New Zealand who claims global cooling is a bigger threat than warming.

But this geologist supported the bill.

Not long afterward, a dairy farmer got the mic and the room stirred.

He was keen on reducing carbon, was planting a 1000 trees a year and ran his farm partly on solar power.

If the science of climate change is settled, numerous aspects of the policy response remain murky – which is why the coalition Government is consulting the public.

For example, economics.

If "no further climate action is taken", the per household national income will increase by about 55 per cent by 2050, models show.

If the the bill passes as roughly signalled, per household national income will increase by about 40 per cent, the same models show. 

That's a significant loss of economic activity and many have pointed out that New Zealand's contribution to greenhouse gases is less than 2 per cent of global emissions.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has other goals for 2050, including the massively ambitious predator-free campaign.

Clean water is also on the agenda for 2040-50, although these goals may be adjusted by the current Government.

The country will also plans to plant 1 billion trees by 2027 and will need to keep planting at a high rate to meet it's commitments under the Paris Agreement and the Zero Carbon bill.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw has ready answers for this confluence of ambitions.

There are "synergies" between them, he says.

Killing predators should lead to more native bush and forest. Planted trees will clean rivers and waterways, while also sequestering carbon.  

"I think they interact with each other and one challenge for government is ensuring that it does interact," Shaw said in an interview before the Christchurch consultation event. 

It means not tackling each initiative individually but finding the "co-benefits", he said.

There's another aspect of co-benefits. Predator-free, tree planting, clean water and zero carbon will occur much more in rural areas than urban areas.

Agriculture contributed about 49 per cent of the nation's emissions in 2016, for example. 

The Zero Carbon bill proposes to lower this substantially, albeit by different means. Farmers face the biggest changes to their ways under the Zero Carbon programme.

And yes, our cities dirty our rivers and waterways.

There must be changes in the cities too.