Updated: NZ climate proposal supported by US – experts respond

The ‘New Zealand proposal’ – an outline for reaching a climate agreement at negotiations in Paris next year – has this week received backing from the head of US climate negotiations.

The proposal, submitted to the UN by New Zealand officials in March, offers an outline for drafting climate negotiations ahead of a meetings to take place in Lima this December and Paris in 2015.

Speaking at Yale University on Tuesday, top US climate negotiator Todd Stern indicated that the proposal was a positive approach:

“We think the most interesting proposal on the table is New Zealand’s, under which there would be a legally binding obligation to submit a ‘schedule’ for reducing emissions, plus various legally binding provisions for accounting, reporting, review, periodic updating of the schedules, etc. But the content of the schedule itself would not be legally binding at an international level.”

Stern’s full speech transcript is available here, and examples of overseas coverage include the LA Times and Reuters.

The New Zealand submission emphasizes that a common set of rules is necessary for a durable and universally applicable agreement, but explains that some flexibility must be built into the agreement to allow for differentiation and opting out of, or into, the agreed rules.

The full proposal from New Zealand is available here (press release here).

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).


NEW COMMENT: Dr Jim Salinger, Climate Researcher and Visiting Scientist at the Institute of Biometeorology, National Research Council, Italy, comments:

“Although this is a noble initiative and I would welcome it, New Zealand must also first put it’s house in order and lead by example by already agreeing to legally binding scheme of robust mandatory cuts in the country’s own emissions and a timetable. After all, without a base to lead off, such a proposal will look facile and self serving. Stern’s recommendations of ‘legally binding obligation to submit a schedule and various legally binding provisions for accounting, reporting, review and periodic updates’ are very sensible, allowing for full transparency of the process”

Prof David Frame, Director of the Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“Three things matter for an effective climate deal: participation, compliance and stringency. The New Zealand proposal would be a big help in improving the situation regarding participation, and the accounting and review provisions would position the international community well to move on compliance as things firm up in the future. Given that participation and compliance were the main problems with the Kyoto Protocol, addressing these aspects of climate policy is of crucial importance. So I think we should see this as an encouraging development since, if accepted, it would establish the precedent of all countries making contributions to addressing climate change.

“Presumably this initiative will be unpopular with those – such as Greenpeace, Oxfam and other European NGOs – wedded to stringent but narrow Kyoto-style approaches, but I think negotiators have learned from those failures. If we’re to have any hope of getting anywhere near our collective aspirations for keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius, we need to see some constructive broadening of participation in climate mitigation policy. In that sense this is an idea well worth testing in the forthcoming negotiations.

“In many ways this proposal has a very New Zealand flavour – as other policies (such as tax policies) show we have a generic preference for broad participation and strong compliance, rather than emphasising stringency for some while allowing exceptions for others. So it’s both a pretty constructive suggestion, and it’s quite consistent with the way we usually approach policy.”

Ralph Sims, Professor of Sustainable Energy at Massey University, Centre for Energy Research, comments:

“The need to include all countries in the forthcoming international climate change mitigation agreement is well agreed. (The Kyoto Protocol now includes developed countries that account for only around 13% of the total annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions). New Zealand has proposed a relatively simple approach to the UNFCCC in that all countries will be obliged to make cuts in their emissions but their target reductions and means of achieving them will be determined nationally and therefore depend on each country’s specific circumstances.

“Such a flexible approach could be the key to gaining agreement in the complex negotiation process and is probably a major reason why there has been early support shown for New Zealand’s proposal by the USA and others. The risks are that

a) when accumulated, the total individual “voluntary” emission reduction targets are unlikely to be sufficient to constrain global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Centigrade, and

b) that without an agreed standard and transparent method for every country to apply when measuring, monitoring and reporting on its GHG emissions reductions regularly, there can be no guarantees that their targets are actually being met. Under the present system, GHG reduction claims by some countries are infrequent, cannot be accurately verified, and a recent analysis of national and international energy and greenhouse gas databases has identified significant anomalies between them due to the various assessment methods used.

“For New Zealand to be recognised for initiating this proposal is commendable, but to give us international credibility, we will first need to get our own house in order.  Our 6th National Communication to the UNFCCC in December 2013 showed that by the end of 2012, our gross GHG emissions had risen by 22.8% since 1990. This growth has been partly offset by our forest plantations absorbing CO2 as the trees grow, but this is unlikely to continue into the next decade when harvest rates increase.

“Also, our stated target to reduce emissions by 5% below 1990 levels by 2020 is relatively modest and will be hard to meet since there are few mitigation policies in place (for example, paying 22 cents to the emissions trading scheme when purchasing $100 worth of petrol is hardly likely to change driver behaviour or vehicle choice in order to reduce carbon footprints).

“The Minister’s statement in the foreword to the National Communication that ‘The emissions reduction opportunities available to other nations through conversion to renewables, mass public transport and energy efficiency in industry have already been done or have far less scope in New Zealand’ is misleading and certainly will not help give us any credence in the climate change mitigation community. 

“In the 2014 Climate Change Performance Index New Zealand has dropped to 42nd place out of the 61 countries ranked, with our “Climate Policy” category listed as ‘very poor’ along with Turkey and Canada. How this might hinder New Zealand in further negotiating the worthy mitigation proposal for all countries to commit to reductions will remain to be seen at the UNFCCC negotiations in Lima next month.”