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COP26: Could New Zealand be forced to take more climate action?


Countries have gathered to negotiate the final details of a global bid to keep the planet under 1.5-2C of warming. Olivia Wannan reports from Glasgow.

A proposed rule under negotiation at the UN climate talks could force the Government to introduce tougher carbon-cutting measures at home, or risk not meeting its pledge under the Paris Agreement.

The pledge, to roughly halve emissions by the end of the decade, requires New Zealand to prevent 149 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. It’s planning to outsource up to 102m tonnes of this total, by purchasing carbon credits from other countries.

But a proposed rule in the carbon trading negotiations would limit the number of carbon credits a country can use to meet its Paris pledge. One expert says this would be a concern for New Zealand, though the rule has a limited chance of being passed.

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At the moment, the “rulebook” for the landmark Paris Agreement is still being debated at the 26th Conference of the Parties (or COP26) climate summit in Glasgow. Currently, it contains hundreds of different suggestions for rules that are still subject to debate.

One of these may be causing a particular headache for the New Zealand team: a potential rule to limit the number of international carbon credits a country can use to meet its Paris carbon-cutting pledge (known as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC).

That’s because New Zealand has long planned to use a high proportion of carbon credits to meet its NDC out to 2030.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Climate Change Minister James Shaw plan to cut domestic carbon by 47 million tonnes by 2030, a plan based on the final budgets suggested by the Climate Change Commission and released in June.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Climate Change Minister James Shaw plan to cut domestic carbon by 47 million tonnes by 2030, a plan based on the final budgets suggested by the Climate Change Commission and released in June.

In 2015, then-Prime Minister John Key pledged to cut emissions 30 per cent by 2030. Late last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern increased this pledge to 41 per cent (by using different accounting, this also can be expressed as a 50 per cent emissions reduction). Key’s plan relied on purchasing international carbon credits for up to 80 per cent of the target, with the remainder from domestic action. Under Ardern’s budgets, carbon credits from other countries will provide up to 68 per cent of the new goal.

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, allows countries to trade carbon. It set out a broad vision: direct trading between countries under bilateral or multilateral agreements, or via an international carbon marketplace.

But New Zealand set its NDC while the exact workings of these trades had not been decided. Two previous COPs have failed to produce a consensus agreement.

There are fears that carbon trades could undermine global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas – that if managed poorly, the availability of carbon credits could even increase global emissions. This rule is intended to help address these concerns.

As well as affecting purchasing, the proposed rule would also limit the number of carbon credits a country can sell.

As it currently stands, the rule does not specify what the limit would be, but asks a UN advisory body to assess the need for a limit and choose a number. It’s possible that the body would determine that a limit is not required.

Similar caps on carbon credits have been proposed in previous negotiations, but this wording is different to suggestions floated at previous talks.

Compass Climate consultant Christina Hood​ – who has been involved with the carbon trading negotiations for a decade, even before the Paris Agreement – said the rule, if passed, could affect New Zealand’s ability to meet its NDC. She thinks the Kiwi delegates will be “keeping a close eye on” on this section of the draft text.

However, Hood believes it is unlikely to become part of the final rulebook, if an agreement comes during COP26. Delegates arguing for hard limits face “an uphill battle”, she added.

“There has been a long series of different types of limits to carbon market activities that have been discussed,” she said. “But those have all been shelved because those have been seen to be inconsistent with the way the Paris Agreement is actually structured.”

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