From humble beginnings to a key Government pledge: The journey of the Zero Carbon Act

Back in 2016, 'Zero Carbon Act' was a working title adopted by a small group of young campaigners who, by their own telling, naively decided it was time to write New Zealand a climate law.

Now, a Zero Carbon Bill will shortly be introduced to Parliament, the campaigners are three years the wiser, and their call has gained some unlikely allies along the way.

James Young-Drew, Generation Zero's Zero Carbon Act policy lead, fondly remembers the day it all started, at a meeting in Wellington's Enigma Café.

He says the need for the group to go out on a limb had been brewing for a while.

"The name Generation Zero reflects the fact that we believe we're the generation that needs to achieve Zero Carbon within our lifetime.

"By 2016, given that our overarching reason for being was to get Aotearoa to Zero Carbon, we did some soul searching and decided that the most impactful thing we could do was to design a law to do just that."

Mr Young-Drew led a thorough policy development process for a climate law blueprint, based on the UK's 2008 Climate change Act.

"We brought together a policy reference group which had climate scientists, lawyers and public policy experts on it. We talked in detail about whether this was a good idea and what the law might optimally look like in a New Zealand context."

The process was entirely volunteer-driven.

"We've had a team of incredibly dedicated volunteers exploring policy issues and writing policy documents, and that's involved countless hours on Skype.

“It's the commitment, day on day, that this is something our generation really is concerned about.

“We've created a solution which is really well-researched and that means it's worth them spending their time on."

The bike tour

Young people didn't have to be policy wonks to get involved and, once the blueprint existed, the next job was to tell as many people as possible about it.

Mr Young-Drew says doing so via a bike tour was his campaign highlight.

He was one of five cyclists to wend their way from Auckland to Wellington over 12 days.

"On our journey, we met with members of Parliament and local councillors. We stayed at all sorts of places including farms and marae. We spoke to hundreds of people about the Zero Carbon Act and why it's so important."

The tour was rewarding, and Mr Young-Drew came away convinced that the need for policy certainty to tackle climate change was something New Zealanders from all walks of life sought.

"What surprised us was how much agreement there was."

Among unlikely campaign allies is New Zealand fuel company Z Energy.

Gerri Ward, Z Sustainability and Community Manager, says Z is “ready and waiting” for climate change policy.

"We will only be able to reduce emissions in all sectors if we have coherent, predictable government policies that match the new global ambition," she told Newshub.

"Meaningful, long-term policy certainty will aid in informing business decisions that would make commercial and environmental sense.

“In a nutshell, the consequences of climate change are one of the biggest long-term risks facing New Zealand businesses, and inaction is not a reliable risk management strategy."

When will the Bill be introduced?

Despite the widespread agreement for the principle, the devil is in the detail.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw says the Zero Carbon Bill negotiations are ongoing but that the Bill should be introduced in the first half of the Parliamentary sitting year.

"The balance between urgency on climate action and establishing a law which is enduring is about ensuring negotiations are held in a spirit of good faith, which has been the case," he said.

"It’s important to stay focused and work through the very complex range of issues which have wide implications for New Zealand communities and our economy - so that action doesn’t become a political football."

Generation Zero is in full agreement on that point.

Backing for the Bill

Lisa McLaren, Zero Carbon Act national convenor, says a highlight for her was securing the support of the youth wings of Labour, NZ First, the Greens and National months before the 2017 General Election.

"It was a bit of a turning point for the campaign, that this could actually be quite a mainstream, well-supported piece of law, because all these different youth groups were calling for it."

In July that year, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright released a report which recommended a very similar law.

"There has been a lot of debate around what our targets should be," Dr Wright said at the time in a statement.

"But I’m much more interested in how we are actually going to achieve them."

Once established, the coalition Government came on board, the Green Party obliged to renege on its earlier goal to see a bill introduced within the first 100 days.

Instead, the Government would announce a consultation period for mid 2018, which garnered more than 15,000 submissions and showed widespread support for key parts of the Bill.

Meanwhile, Generation Zero and World Wildlife fund New Zealand jointly delivered an open letter to Minister Shaw, signed by more than 200 businesses, community organisations and leaders.

Those signatories included six city mayors, Meridian Energy, the New Zealand Green Building Council and social enterprise experts the Ākina Foundation.

Signatories lent their support to government for building the "architecture for a fair, equitable, just transition to a safe climate future for all New Zealanders."

It's February 2019. Backing for the Zero Carbon Bill is widespread and the ball is in the Government's court.

Ms McLaren says there's still more work to do to bring rural communities in particular on board.

"I want to make sure all our rural communities are set up to succeed during this transition to a low emission economy ... I also want the rural community to realise that they have many parts to play in the much needed plan to reduce our countries greenhouse gas levels,"she said.

"I hope they come to the table with innovation and creativity, rather than resentment and narrow-mindedness that we have seen from many to date."

Above all, Generation Zero is focused on ensuring it's ready to analyse the Zero Carbon Bill.

Its three must-haves for the new law are an ambitious zero carbon target, commitment to honouring Te Tiriti in policy negotiation and implementation, and a domestic transitions pathway that ditches international carbon credits entirely.

What 2019 will hold precisely, Ms McLaren says, depends mainly on what's in the Government's draft bill.

But one thing is clear: the young campaigners' sense of purpose from climate justice activism is unwavering.

"Being an activist gives you the highest highs and the lowest lows you ever experience,"  Mr Young-Drew says.

“Identifying as an activist means you are dissatisfied with the state of the world. You think it can be improved in lots of ways, and that can be honestly very depressing at times.

“But on the other hand, engaging in activism and feeling like in some small way you are contributing to making the world a better place, is an indescribable feeling that keeps you going."