This article first appeared in AsiaPacific Infrastructure magazine.

2015 ended in a flurry of activity around the carbon challenge both on the global stage, with the negotiation of the Paris Agreement, and at the local level through the start of the Emissions Trading Scheme review and the release of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s long-awaited report on the domestic impact of rising seas.

These events, despite their differences in scale, have the potential to be mutually reinforcing in the New Zealand context as they underline the need for concrete action to both mitigate as well as adapt to the multifarious effects of climate change.

The Paris Agreement

It is easy to be cynical about a treaty which requires participant governments to make difficult political choices but relies on voluntary targets with no enforcement mechanism beyond a “name and shame” system for non-performance, especially given the perceived ineffectiveness of the antecedent Kyoto Protocol.

But most expert opinion is optimistic that the design of the Paris Agreement and the consensus it represents among the 195 countries at the Paris Conference will deliver positive and measurable results. The Agreement will enter into force if it is joined and ratified by at least 55 parties which together represent at least 55 percent of global emissions.

Signatories will commit to reversing the growth trajectory of global GHG emissions “as soon as possible” and to making best endeavours to keep global warming “well below” 2˚C – and, ideally, to no more than 1.5˚C.

The building blocks for this effort are:

  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) which each signatory will be required to set post ratification
  • comprehensive NDC implementation plans, including five yearly (progressively more ambitious) milestones and a five yearly “global stocktake” on progress, and
  • the development of and commitment to a specific strategy to deliver carbon neutrality in the second half of this century.

Achieving these ambitions will demand radical change as, to have even half a chance of staying below 2˚C, no more than 1.8 trillion tonnes of CO2 can be emitted into the atmosphere. On current rates, that volume will have been released before 2050.

The Parliamentary Commissioner’s report

The New Zealand sea level has risen by 170mm (plus or minus 10mm) since 1990 and is projected to rise by another 30cm by 2065. What the Commissioner has done is to quantify the impacts of rising sea levels in New Zealand’s larger coastal towns and cities (refer to table below1).

A rise of 30cm would mean that current one in a 100 year coastal floods will occur every four years at the Port of Auckland, every two years at the Port of Otago and every year at the ports of Lyttelton and Wellington.

The most severely affected urban area will be South Dunedin which is built on reclaimed wetland where the water table rises and falls with the tides and where 70 percent of the nearly 2,700 homes below 50 centimetres above the spring high tide mark are lower than half that elevation.

Miami in South Florida, which sits on porous limestone, is similarly exposed and, according to an article in the 21 December 2015 issue of The New Yorker, already has a multi-million dollar neighbourhood where the water regularly creeps under the security gates and up the driveways, licking against the chassis of Porsches and Mercedes.

Guangzhou is rated the most vulnerable city in the world to rising seas in terms of population, followed by Mumbai, Shanghai and Miami. Were Dunedin only bigger, it might have made the top ten.

Sea level rise is, of course, not the only effect of climate change to which New Zealanders will need to adapt. Other effects, projected in an assessment prepared by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor in July 2013, include:

  • an increase in average temperature of 0.9˚C by 2040 and 2.1˚C by 2090 (two thirds of the increase in global mean temperatures since pre-industrial times has occurred since 1975)
  • mean rainfall decreases in the east of the North Island and increases in the west of the South Island of up to 5 percent by 2040, and
  • more extreme floods and droughts with at least an extra two weeks of drought on average each year by 2050 for much of the North Island and the eastern South Island.

The ETS review

The Government’s first response to the exigencies created by the Paris Agreement will be focused on mitigating climate change and delivered through the review of the Emissions Trading Scheme, the discussion document for which was released in November last year.

The intended NDC New Zealand took to the Paris negotiations equates to an 11 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. The Climate Action Tracker, an internationally produced cross-country NDC comparison, has rated the proposed NDCs of the EU, the US and China as “medium”. New Zealand’s, by contrast, has been judged “inadequate”, in company with Japan, Australia and Canada.

But even to achieve that target within the limited headroom available to New Zealand, because of the lack of technological solutions to reduce agricultural emissions and because most of our energy is already from renewable sources, will require a tightening of our existing ETS policy settings – particularly the transitional arrangements introduced in 2009 after the GFC to avoid additional trauma to the economy.

The Government has been clear that agriculture will be off-limits indefinitely. But it has signalled that the “one for two” measure which allows non-forestry ETS participants to surrender only one emission unit for every two tonnes of emissions and the price cap of $25 on NZ emission units are due for the chop, and that legislation to remove them may be introduced later this year.