Tuesday, 1 December 2015

How much effort should New Zealand make on climate change?


By Catherine Leining

From 30 November to 11 December 2015, governments will meet in Paris to resolve the framework for a new international climate change agreement to take effect from 2020.  New Zealand is bringing to the table an emission reduction pledge - or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) - of 11% below 1990 emissions, or 30% below 2005 emissions, by 2030, conditional on rules for forestry accounting and use of carbon markets.


As New Zealand shapes its contribution to global mitigation, it needs to consider five factors: 

  • setting targets top-down versus bottom up; 
  • choosing the balance between domestic and global contributions; 
  • assessing fairness; 
  • assessing costs; and 
  • creating a domestic pathway toward zero-net emissions. 

In this post I will examine the first factor.

Top-down versus bottom-up targets


Countries face a gap between what the science is telling us we need to do, and what we feel we are capable of doing within current technological, economic and social constraints. We don't yet know how we will bridge that gap and yet countries are being asked to commit to doing it. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches for bridging that gap are useful as reference points but, in my view, both have limitations alongside their strengths.

The top-down approach helps us understand the size of the challenge and systematically analyse distributional implications using different criteria. Where things get tricky is translating the concept of fair ambition into a formula and assumptions that everyone can agree upon. 

Here are some of the shortcomings of this approach:

  • Surrendering to a formula is perceived as a threat to national sovereignty.
  • The lack of transparency in a complex model means that some people are skeptical of the results.
  • The underlying principle involves dividing up the global emission budget into entitlements using criteria such as population, historical responsibility, emissions profile and capacity to pay, and the selection and weighting of criteria are subjective. This means the outcome inevitably doesn't feel fair to somebody.
  • The model doesn't guarantee that national welfare will be protected. Suggesting that NZ should shift from per capita gross emissions of roughly 17 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person in 2012 to something like 3.5 tonnes per person in 2030 feels like we are being asked to commit to a starvation diet. Hopefully this will not be the case; as new technologies become available then that per capita target may actually reflect fantastic lifestyles with abundant low-emission energy and food. But it feels hard to bet on that today.
  • The outcome doesn't necessarily resonate with the individuals and businesses who will be taking the actions and bearing the costs. "Those weren't MY historical emissions, it's not MY wealth that has accumulated and MY emission needs are different from others' needs."

An alternative is the bottom-up approach. This is very useful in identifying specific mitigation opportunities and assessing their costs and benefits. However, the bottom-up approach is constrained by what countries feel they can and are willing to do today while safeguarding national welfare and this locks us into incremental change that does not take us collectively where we need to go.

Countries and researchers have struggled for decades to create formulas for fair and effective burden sharing of emission reduction budgets and this hasn't delivered a politically acceptable outcome. It is useful to do the exercise but we should not rely on it to resolve the political impasse.


Personally, I would like to explore ways to change the focus from negotiation of fair emission budgets to negotiation of collaborative pathways to decarbonisation that support human development. This would look more like opportunity sharing rather than burden sharing. We could move from win/lose competition for national development rights and compensation for past wrongs toward practical collaboration and resource sharing to develop and deploy technology breakthroughs that will improve welfare globally.

Perhaps we can apply three complementary dynamics to shift us toward zero-net emissions: pushing mitigation action from the bottom and pulling it from the top while being drawn forward by emerging technologies and opportunities.

Check out Sharing the Global Climate Finance Effort from Asia and the Pacific Policy Society for more ideas.

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