NZ on path to fail emissions targets after 30 years of climate change inaction - expert

The Detail for RNZ 

New Zealand's now seen three decades of rising emissions.

But 30 years ago, we were almost carbon neutral for carbon dioxide. We had a chance to turn it all around, but political mistakes, missed opportunities, and creeping climate scepticism, meant we've missed the boat.

Here's just one grim statistic: on a per capita basis, our gross carbon emissions are more than twice the global average.

Science journalist Veronika Meduna has written a feature for North & South magazine on our recent history of climate change, looking at the policies and politicians involved, and why we veered away from schemes that could have made a difference.

Today she talks to The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly about how our past missteps have formed our future.

"You immediately think that, if we had done something stronger then or during the 90s, that first decade, we could easily be in a very different place now," she says.

Instead we are on a path where we will fail to meet our domestic targets and fulfill our international obligations to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Meduna talked to scientists, business leaders and politicians, who took themselves back 30 years to the early days of climate change warnings.

Nobody said 'no' to an interview and no one expressed regret for the decisions they made or their attitudes to climate change.

"And in fact I don't think anybody is now denying that climate change is happening, and that it is an important issue.

"The disagreement is in the way, or how, we should deal with it - and there the ideological divide remains."

Simon Upton, National's environment minister from the early 1990s and now Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, has had a strong turnaround on his thinking on the use of offsets.

"Perhaps not a regret," says Meduna, "because at the time that's how the thinking was, but a clear change in position."

At the time it was generally thought that because of the way international agreements on climate change worked, New Zealand was doing well – but really, that was some good luck working in our favour.

"It was not that we had no emissions, it was just that we had a good mix of emissions and the balancing (or off-setting) from forestry," she says.

The calculations involved didn't really give us much incentive to mitigate our emissions. We also had the ability to spend billions of dollars paying other countries for cutting their emissions as a price of our failure to reduce ours.

On top of that, early political will to make changes bumped up against the lobbying of the Business Round Table, which spun the polarising and politicising view that not only wasn't climate a big deal, but that a bit of global warming might actually be good for New Zealand's agricultural and horticultural industries.

Deregulation, privatisation and a strong belief in market forces held sway, and we didn't do much about making cities liveable without cars, for example.

"All of this kind of thinking was just not happening," she says. In today's podcast she discusses our climate past, and tells us about the frustration of some climate scientists who've spent their whole life seeing the issue discussed, with very little progress made.