Bryce Edwards: The Watered-down Zero Carbon Bill

Bryce Edwards: The Watered-down Zero Carbon Bill

James Shaw rates his Zero Carbon Bill as seven or eight out of ten. And former Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman – now with Greenpeace – rates it zero out of ten. Either way, it’s clear that the new legislation isn’t really the crucial planet-saving bill that many were hoping for. And it certainly doesn’t seem to match up to Jacinda Ardern’s claim that her government regards the climate change crisis as her generation’s nuclear-free moment.

The press release from Greenpeace really was quite stunning in its scathing critique of the Government – see: Toothless Zero Carbon Bill has bark but no bite. To quote Norman: “What we’ve got here is a reasonably ambitious piece of legislation that’s then had the teeth ripped out of it. There’s bark, but there’s no bite.” And ultimately, the bill “is watered-down medicine that lacks the potency to cure the actual ailment we have”.

Norman went on to criticise more about the bill, on various broadcasters, even saying that it amounted to “virtue signalling” as it would do nothing to fight climate change, only make the Government look like they were taking action.

One of Norman’s main criticisms is that the bill establishes targets for emission reductions that are “unenforceable”. He told TVNZ’s Breakfast: “They’ve made it very clear – it’s like saying the speed limit is 50km/h, then the next line says that no one is allowed to enforce the speed limit. The next part is you can go get a declaration, it’s called, but a declaration has no weight – you can’t force the Government to do anything” – see: Climate change amendment bill ‘unenforceable, problematic’ – says Greenpeace New Zealand leader.

In this interview, Norman also calls on the public to pressure the Government to do more: “That people power element is essential and people shouldn’t think that somehow, this, the Government now has this under control… They’ve been calling it climate action – it’s not. Action will only happen now if people really mobilise and put pressure on politicians.”

Norman also says: “The Bill sends some good signals, until you get to the section at the end that negates everything else you’ve just read. This section states there is no remedy or relief for failure to meet the 2050 target, meaning there’s no legal compulsion for anyone to take any notice.” See also: Greenpeace Executive Director rates Zero Carbon Bill 0 of 10.

Others have also criticised the new legislation for setting up a Climate Commission that recommends necessary actions, but has no power.

According to Gordon Campbell the bill has “been reduced to a shadow of what the Greens originally envisaged”, and the lack of independence for the Commission is big problem: “Crucially, these are to be aspirational targets and recommendations only. The Commission lacks the policies to help achieve them, the powers to enforce them, the penalties to punish non-compliance, and the independence to over-ride the opposition from competing interests. Instead of reporting to Parliament, the Commission will report to the government of the day, who will be free to spin or muzzle its findings as it sees fit” – see: Token moves on climate change.

Blogger No Right Turn is also critical of the bill, and not only for the problem with the enforceability of the targets, but because setting the carbon neutral goal for 2050 is too unambitious in light of the crisis we are in: “2050 looked great as a target year a decade ago, but it may now be too late. I suspect that we’re going to have to increase our ambition and bring forward the target year for net-zero in the medium term” – see: Climate Change: The Zero Carbon Bill.

Other climate commentators have criticised the lack of ambition in the targets and processes involved. For example, Bronwyn Hayward, who was New Zealand’s lead author on last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, is reported as approving of the overall framework of the bill, but being unhappy about the new Commission reporting to the Government of the day rather than Parliament as a whole: “We all know that when you’re reporting to a government of the day your report can be, the text can be massaged, the release can be delayed which all gets in the way of what we actually need which is a fearless commission” – see Kate Gudsell’s Climate change plan: ‘Setting the bar so low’.

As to why the Government “had to set the bar so low”, Hayward suggests it was “in order to get everybody on board”. This has been a common theme in the commentary about the new bill. For example, although Gordon Campbell points the finger at New Zealand First for watering down the bill, he thinks that it’s a result of the consensus political process and “the path of moderation has ended up pleasing virtually no-one”.

Clearly, the Government and the Greens have put a high priority on “consensus” in drawing up the Zero Carbon Bill. James Shaw, in particular, wanted to put together a law that had as much buy-in as possible from political parties and relevant organisations.

For one of the best discussions of this prioritisation of consensus, see Toby Manhire’s interview with the Climate Change Minister, in which Shaw explains that he went to great lengths to consult and find consensus, saying “I’ve bent over backwards, and some people argue forwards too, to get them on board” – see: James Shaw and the zero hour.

This might have led to what Shaw acknowledges are “imperfections” in the legislation, but he justifies the approach like this: “It’s important because it reduces the chances that a future government will come in and biff it out. I mean, they could. But generally what happens is if a party votes for legislation when they’re in opposition they will uphold it when they’re in government.”

Furthermore, Shaw says that environmental groups backed this approach: “I’ve said to them: tell me what is more important. Do you want this thing to last for 30 years or do you want it to be perfect? And what they’ve said is that they need it to last for 30 years, because there’s no point in having a perfect piece of legislation that get thrown out three or six or nine years down the track. If you think about that 30-year target, it’s got to survive three or four governments in that time.”

In this interview, Shaw has high praise for the National Party for how they engaged in the process: “Look, they’ve operated in a way that has been unusually nonpartisan. They really have. We’ve been talking to them for just under a year. They’ve had plenty of opportunity to give us a good kicking, to really blow it up politically, or make hay out of it. They’ve chosen not to do so. So they have engaged in really good faith. There are certainly elements of the bill that are directly due to things they’ve proposed to us.”

And in terms of the controversial new target whereby methane gases will need to be reduced by ten per cent by 2030, Shaw suggests that this could still be moderated over the next few months if it helps get the National Party onboard. But there would inevitably be a trade-off: “you could have a lower methane target, but that means you’d have to have a steeper long-lived gases target – get to net zero in, say, 2040 or 2030”.

For another very good discussion of both the Greens’ attempt to find consensus, and also the possibility of bringing National into the multi-party consensus on the legislation, see Thomas Coughlan’s Zero Carbon Bill lives or dies on politics. According to Coughlan, the success or otherwise of this bill will be very telling for the New Zealand political system: “If the bill succeeds, it will vindicate the ability of our complicated, imperfect democracy to solve the great problems of our age… If it fails, it will prove the opposite: that our democracy isn’t up to handling the great problems of our age.”

The problem is, “When your starting point is bringing in as many cooks as possible, you’ll inevitably spoil the broth. The Government’s next big problem also has a British precedent [of Brexit], and that is the danger that in trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one”.

Now the pressure will be on National to support the bill. They want the Government to drop the detailed methane targets and instead leave the target-setting to the new Climate Commission. Commenting on this, political journalist Richard Harman says: “whether the Government would be prepared to accommodate that now would seem highly unlikely. And that could be a deal breaker” – see: Why is James Shaw apologising to Todd Muller over climate change?.

It therefore seems unlikely that a cross-party consensus will eventuate. But, in reality the Government appeared to give up on that some weeks ago, with Shaw apparently having to pull out of continued talks with National’s climate spokesperson, Todd Muller – which Shaw publicly apologised for last week. It seems that New Zealand First has played a significant role in recent changes to the process and substance of the bill. Although Harman reports that New Zealand First contacts “have been briefing journalists warning that they would have to agree to stricter methane targets than they would like because of the big win they had over capital gains tax”.

Given that consensus hasn’t worked out, and given that the Greens didn’t get what they wanted from the bill, Simon Wilson ponders who was to blame in his column, High stakes and the Greens’ game (paywalled). Wilson seems to think that it was Labour rather than New Zealand First who have stymied the bill being more progressive.

Wilson almost rules out New Zealand First and National as being responsible for ruining the consensus: “So why did that consensus fail? Blame the usual suspects, NZ First? Their rhetoric is all about their being the farmers’ friend, which makes them unlikely promoters of a methane target higher than farmers wanted. Was it National, slyly deciding to stay out of the deal, whatever it proposed? That also seems unlikely: Shaw and National’s climate change spokesperson Todd Muller have forged a close working relationship they both say is based on trust.”

Instead, it seems that Labour might be responsible: “So was it NZ First after all, playing dark and dirty with a Greens initiative because that’s what they always do? Or did Labour shaft the consensus? There’s a logic to that. Labour always needs issues that define it as being different from National, and consensus doesn’t matter if your opponents are going to accept your reforms later anyway.”

Finally, according to economist Rod Oram, this bill was always destined to be a problem because all political parties are hostage to conservative forces who don’t want to see real action on climate change. He says that the Zero Carbon Bill “is by far the most important Act our Parliament will ever pass” but that it isn’t the best legislation that could have been produced. Therefore, “time is very short to get a very direct message to all parties: a significant number of voters want a far more effective Climate Act than this Bill offers. If that means taking to the streets, let’s do it” – see: Time to shout for a better climate law.