Guest Editorial: James Renwick

Published on: December 13, 2015

Filed Under: Commentary, COP 21, Guest Editorial

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.


James Renwick,

Professor of Physical Geography at VUW and IPCC Lead Author.

Image by Ewan Munro.

3 Responses to Guest Editorial: James Renwick

  1. ap says:

    Carbon tax, carbon credits still give the ‘haves’ allowance for carbon emissions.
    Criminalising carbon emissions, like criminalising toxic chemical pollution is a real deterrent.
    But will it be viable? Will the ‘have nots’ be able to afford that.
    Why this division of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries! There are only ‘differentials’ of all sorts among nations. Earth has to live with climate and weather impacts. And humanity has to make one world. Fraternity based cooperative development can do better than liberty based capitalism and equality based socialism in this century..

  2. Catherine Iorns says:

    Re the argument that NZ will not be able to avail itself of international carbon credits, it has been pointed out that there is provision in the Paris agreement for the development of an international trading system, plus NZ worked very hard at Paris to ensure that there would be such a system. (It championed a Declaration on international carbon markets which got support from 18 states at Paris, I recall.) So how can James say that development countries cannot use such credits?

    In answer, I agree that there is provision in the agreement for trading carbon credits but, as James points out, Art. 4.4 contains an onus on developed countries to reduce their absolute emissions; this onus is not placed on developing countries, where the exact same wording but minus the word “absolute” is used for their duties. So there must be something that the word ‘absolute’ does for developed countries that it does not do for developing.

    A good argument is that this suggests that carbon credits can’t be used INSTEAD OF absolute reductions for developed countries, while carbon markets may be available as an add-on, ADDITION TO absolute reductions. NZ is planning to use international credits instead of actual reductions in our GHG emissions. If this argument about the interpretation of Art 4.4 is correct, this means that NZ will need to change its approach and get some better absolute targets first, before it wants to avail itself of any overseas credits. Where the line will be drawn between actual reductions and credits for other countries’ reductions is yet to be decided — indeed, it may never be pinned down in future negotiations. But arguing for while counting on such rules being favourable to what NZ wants to do is ‘gaming the system’. Further, in the face of the enormity of the problem facing us, and the inequity of a developed country using up more of the global carbon budget per capita than developed countries, NZ’s approach is inequitable and thus immoral.

    It is thus interesting to speculate about the future development of the carbon market rules. By the time that the details of these carbon markets are worked out in the international system, maybe the science and the pace of climate change will have developed so far that political opinions will have moved on, with the result that the cheap credits won’t be allowed at all for us. That is clearly just speculation. And I do note that New Zealand is working very hard to maintain international trading – witness the Declaration on international markets that they got 18 countries to sign up to at the conference. But international trading is something that NZ can’t rely on, especially if it is on the basis of an interpretation of these words that relies on actions that are seen as trying to cheat and go against the aims and intention of the Agreement.

    So, overall, I think that James is right in his conclusion about what New Zealand needs to do, even if he jumps straight there without the nuanced argument in between. 🙂

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