New Zealand climate policy needs more 'bite' - environmental watchdog

Simon Upton.
Simon Upton. Photo credit: Newshub.

New Zealand is playing catch-up on climate change - and it's time for action, the new environmental watchdog says.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has released his first report since he started in the job, and it looks at how the UK's independent Climate Commission and Climate Act can be tailored to work in New Zealand.

The UK system sets out carbon budgets and clearly-defined targets, and a transparent process that requires governments to meet them.

He says New Zealand has a history of developing strong policy tools to reduce emissions, but fails to "deploy them in a way that will bite".

"There's been a lot of chopping and changing and it's gone on for a very long time.

"We got a ETS in place in 2008 then we had the Global Financial Crisis so ambitions were dialled back."

But he says New Zealand is now ready to make change and he stressed that plans to reduce emissions need to be long-term so that industries have time to prepare.

"What has to change is the way in which we're investing in infrastructure and our businesses.

"That takes time, and I think the long-term approach to successive carbon budgets is the best way of allaying those concerns about short-term shocks."

Nitrous oxide and methane from agriculture make up 50 percent of New Zealand's emissions, and Mr Upton says the appropriate long-run treatment of these requires urgent attention.

He says this presents New Zealand with an opportunity.

"When it comes to fossil fuel, you wouldn't expect New Zealand to be the technology leader on electric vehicles or the technology leader on power stations.

"But when it comes to agriculture we are a world leader.

"We've already done a lot of research, we are looking for solutions - so doing that and being seen to apply them to ourselves is vital if we are to apply that leadership role, and get others to take an interest in that issue."

Mr Upton says there may be a silver lining in being early adopters of strong policy to reduce agriculture emissions if technologies or new business models emerge that we can use to commercial advantage globally.

"If we sit back, it will overwhelm us on its terms. If we meet the challenge, we can extract advantages from it."

Co-director of the Otago Energy Research Centre, Professor Ivan Diaz-Rainey, says compared to Scandinavian countries, New Zealand climate policy is weak.

He says policies must target specific sectors, in areas like New Zealand's vehicle fleet and agriculture, and policy-makers must be bold.

"There are times for government to be hands-off and let markets get on with it, for sure - but when radical change is need, government needs to be active and willing to step in when markets fail."