The view of a scientist and IPCC Lead Author
The Paris Agreement is a great achievement and the most positive thing to come out of the COP negotiations to date. The call for transparency, continual ratcheting up of emissions targets, and the provisions for climate finance are all very positive outcomes. It is great to see (in article 4) that developed countries shall undertake “economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets”. New Zealand needs to take note of the word “absolute”: overseas ‘hot-air credits’ are not allowed; instead actual emissions reductions made within NZ are required.
However, the lack of any action during the 20+ years of the COP process to date means that we are now in an urgent and very serious situation. This is still not fully addressed in the Paris Agreement. Targets remain voluntary and the required (but unspecified) actions remain daunting. The review of a 1.5°C warming limit may come too late as we are well on the way to 1.5°C with present greenhouse gas levels. Staying below 2°C warming is a big ask, but this document at least provides a framework for action. Now we just need the action – which should have begun over 20 years ago.
While the small-island states appear to have got a lot of what they wanted, there are still big gaps. For instance, there is no mention of actual targets or timelines for emissions reductions. The review of the implications of the 1.5°C limit is a nice idea, but if the world is serious about 1.5°C, then we have no time for further reviews. Global emissions would need to start coming down significantly in the next year or two. Staying “well below 2°C” warming is almost the same as aiming for 1.5°C, so there is zero room for complacency or even for consideration of what to do next. Governments need to come up with strategies over the coming 6 months to a year that will put us on a path to zero net global emissions within the next 50 years at the latest.
For New Zealand, as a developed nation that should be leading the way (as required by Article 4), we need a national-level strategy in 2016, one that will see our actual emissions reduce (rather than us buying our way out with carbon credits). A carbon tax is the obvious next step – made fiscally neutral by reductions elsewhere (e.g. GST). The move to a no-carbon economy must be facilitated ASAP. For New Zealand, the costs could actually be negative, i.e. we make money. If the move to no-carbon can be incentivised properly, New Zealand can surely move into new technologies, urban design models, and transport systems etc that lead the world. Just as we presently do with dairy farming and rugby. Being in the lead during this second industrial revolution is bound to be good for the economy.
Professor of Physical Geography at VUW and IPCC Lead Author.
Image by Ewan Munro.