Motu researchers, Senior Fellow Suzi Kerr and Policy Fellow, Catherine Leining react to the IPCC's Special Report - on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.
The report clearly reiterates the compelling need for action on climate. That action will involve fundamental changes to our economy and society as we move to a low emissions society. Society is already changing at an unprecedented speed – the critical thing is directing that change toward low emissions. There are no economically viable, environmentally safe options for large scale carbon capture and storage, and the ability of forests to absorb carbon is ultimately limited by the amount of land. We can’t rely on carbon sequestration in the long term. We need to be imagining and implementing new carbon-free ways to meet each of our needs and desires. That goal is clear - and the sooner we get there the better.
With current agricultural systems we cannot get nitrous oxide down to zero – even organic farms emit nitrous oxide. Permanent forests that continue to sequester for a long time might need to offset that until we find another solution. It isn’t essential to get methane emissions to zero to stabilise climate because its direct effects are largely gone within decades, but given that the climate will be much warmer than we would like for the foreseeable future, reducing a powerful greenhouse gas like methane as much as we can will be enormously beneficial. The farmers and other landowners who manage and care for our land are already looking for opportunities to contribute through their roles as stewards. They need our support as they create a new vision for their land and communities.
Getting to a low emission future in New Zealand will involve the Emissions Trading System which creates a price signal to facilitate change and a pathway to ensure we are on track. The system will however allow ambitious reductions only if people respond to the price signals and the challenge. A wide range of policies will be needed to ease what in many cases will be structural changes in sectors. Ultimately emissions reduction comes only through concrete actions by government, the private sector and individuals. We can all bring different strengths and abilities to tackle different aspects of the challenge.
Every country in the world needs to undergo a low emissions transition. That includes the poorest countries and those struggling with internal conflict and other challenges. As well as accelerating our own transition to set a credible example and show that it can be done, New Zealand needs to find ways to help other countries that otherwise would transition very slowly.
For the past decade, we have kept hitting the ‘snooze’ button on serious climate action. The latest IPCC report is a serious wake-up call about the environmental, social and economic costs of low and slow ambition. We do not face a simple binary choice between 1.5 or 2 degrees C when the world is on track for neither target and already experiencing serious climate change impacts. One clear finding from the report is that significant and accelerated emission reductions are needed across the economy, including methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture.
One clear implication is that we will need a predictable and responsive policy framework for adjusting our course, speed and distribution of costs as we progress. Policy uncertainty is toxic for low-emission investment. For New Zealand, effective emission pricing must be a key part – but not the only part – of that framework. We also need policies to support those sectors and communities who will find it most difficult to adjust, as well as durable processes and institutions for cross-sector engagement and independent advice. Above all, we will need to sustain social and cross-party consensus on how much we stand to gain, and how we choose to spread the costs, from bolder, faster action.
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