Over the past two weeks, something extraordinary has happened; the Government has handed the torch of leadership on climate change to Greenpeace.  

At a series of public meetings to discuss what emission reduction target New Zealand should set, people from all walks of life have promoted a target of 40% by 2020.  

The Government, represented by Climate Change Minister Nick Smith, has inaccurately branded the 40% by 2020 target a “Greenpeace” target, despite the fact he knows it’s a target put forward by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists and supported by more than half the countries involved in international climate negotiations.  Countries like China are adamant developed countries must commit to that target if developing countries are to agree to a global deal in Copenhagen in December.


And it is the target supported by business leaders such as National Party supporter Geoff Ross, Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall, and all those who see opportunity where others see only risk. Even the oil company Gull has come out in the last week in favour of letting science dictate the target, saying: “the environmental, social and economic costs of inaction around climate change far outweigh the economic costs some have suggested from making deep and rapid cuts that are necessary”.

The Minister has demanded honesty around the costs of such a target. We’d like some honesty too.  New Zealand’s biggest climate polluters, the Greenhouse Policy Coalition and others like Roger Kerr have misused an Infometrics report to scare us into thinking our economy will be doomed if we commit to 40 per cent by 2020. The costs cited in that report come from an economic model that assumes New Zealand adopts little or none of the technology currently available to reduce emissions.  It even ignores known profitable ways of reducing emissions in the agriculture and energy sectors. Overseas cost estimates of action to reduce emissions are considerably cheaper than the costs being bandied about by New Zealand’s big polluters. The Infometrics analysis also fails to factor in the benefits of taking action, such as more efficient farms and businesses. As well, it ignores the danger of losing our clean green brand, the value of which we consistently underestimate.

The Government has challenged Greenpeace to show how the target can be achieved. Never mind that Greenpeace did not ask for the privilege of running the country last November.   Don’t get me wrong, we are willing to help.  But it’s the Government that has a small army of advisors, economists and policy experts and it’s these people who should be working out how to meet the target.

Our first piece of advice to the Government is "change your attitude”.  The Minister has been unrelentingly pessimistic about New Zealand’s ability to achieve the reductions needed, citing past failures to meet targets as a reason not to set ambitious ones this time round, basically using failure as a stick. Imagine if the All Blacks said “we haven't done well the last few games; better not aim high with this one".

In the past New Zealand’s set targets but done bugger all to try and meet them.  That’s why our emissions have gone up 22%. In 2007 Greenpeace released an Energy Revolution Report containing myriad suggestions for reducing emissions; the Government is doing almost none of it.  Last year Greenpeace released another report on how to improve the emissions trading scheme in 2008; the Government is ignoring this too.

There is a lot of information out there for a Government willing to try: UK treasury economist Sir Nicholas Stern’s assessments; the McKinsey analysis (sponsored by Shell and a few other unlikely suspects) and the work of Australian CSIRO policy economist Dr Hatfield Dodds, to name a few.  They all show the significant benefits and modest costs of moving to a low carbon economy. 

A cold, hard look at current science shows that 40% reductions by developed countries, significant shifts from business-as-usual by developing countries and an end to deforestation are needed by 2020 to give the world even a 50/50 chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. Other countries get this (though the New Zealand Government rarely mentions them). Scotland’s now offered 42% by 2020, Germany 40% and the UK has domestic legislation that says it must reduce 80% by 2050 and 34% by 2020.  

It won’t be easy, but being the best we can be never is. Greenpeace’s Sign On campaign has shown that New Zealanders will support the Government if it chooses to lead. We pride ourselves on being a number 8 wire country; we’re “can doers”. We have done things in the past that no one ever dreamed possible. We have the nous, much of the technology and just…just enough time. All that’s missing is the political will.
- Bunny McDiarmid

This is an opinion piece written by Greenpeace NZ executive director Bunny Mcdiarmid and published in the Dominion Post on Friday July 17th.