James Shaw urges world leaders at COP26 to act 'right now' on climate but back in NZ students sue over oil and gas permits

Climate Change Minister James Shaw has urged world leaders in Glasgow to act "right now" to reduce emissions, but back home in New Zealand students are taking legal action over oil and gas permits issued by the Government. 

In his speech at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Shaw spoke directly to COP26 President Alok Sharma, telling him that New Zealand has "taken some significant strides towards our zero carbon future". 

"Mr President, since 1990, the year the world collectively decided we needed to start reducing emissions, the world has roughly doubled the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution," Shaw said. 

"Political leaders at the time knew what was unfolding. They had a chance to stop it. But they didn't. And so, it falls to us. Right here. Right now."

But on the day Shaw delivered his remarks, new Stats NZ data showed greenhouse gas emissions rose by 4.8 percent in the three months to June, following a 1.4 percent increase in the months prior. 

The largest industry contributors to the increase were electricity, gas, water, and waste services up 16 percent. Transport, postal, and warehousing were up 19 percent, while agriculture, forestry, and fishing were up 0.9 percent.

"The electricity, gas, water, and waste services industry reached a record quarterly level of 2927 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, up 412 kilotonnes on the March 2021 quarter," said environmental economic accounts manager Stephen Oakley.

"This is mainly due to a large increase in coal use for electricity generation."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw speaking at COP26 in Glasgow.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw speaking at COP26 in Glasgow. Photo credit: Newshub

And while it may come as a surprise to some that coal use has increased six months after the Government declared a climate emergency, Energy Minister Megan Woods is being sued for continuing to issue oil and gas permits. 

The Government banned offshore oil and gas exploration permits in 2018, but a year later 62 percent more coal was burned to generate electricity. Coal accounted for more than 10 percent of electricity in the first three months of this year.

Since the oil and gas ban only applied to offshore exploration, two new onshore exploration permits were issued in June this year by Woods, at sites in Taranaki. 

A group of students have filed a lawsuit at Wellington's High Court against Woods over her decision to grant the permits, according to The Guardian. They say it's inconsistent with the Government's legal obligations under the Zero Carbon Act and Paris Agreement. 

The Zero Carbon Act commits New Zealand to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and reducing methane emissions by between 24-47 percent by 2050. New Zealand is also committed to limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels under the Paris Agreement. 

But Climate Action Tracker rates New Zealand as "highly insufficient", because short-term policies "cannot yet keep up" with its ambitions. 

"Aotearoa New Zealand's current approach to climate action is embarrassing," Phoebe Nikolau, a member of the Students for Climate Solutions group, told The Guardian

Energy Minister Megan Woods.
Energy Minister Megan Woods. Photo credit: Newshub

The Government agreed in July 2018 to see out three offers for onshore blocks in Taranaki in 2018, 2019 and 2020. In terms of onshore gas exploration after 2020, no decisions have been made. 

"As the matter is before the courts it would be inappropriate for me to comment, but these decisions should come as no surprise as they were announced in 2018 as part of our world leading ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration," Woods told Newshub.

"In terms of the future of onshore gas exploration there are a range of factors that will have to be considered and will need to be part of our broader work on our energy strategy, emissions reductions, and carbon budgets."

Shaw noted in his speech that 10 days ago, he and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern "made a commitment that the climate pollution that New Zealand is responsible for in the year 2030 will be half what it is today". 

But the commitment, adjusting New Zealand's Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) from a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 to a 50 percent reduction, was described as "clever accounting" by several scientists and environmentalists.

Ardern said the new target "represents our fair share" on the global stage. But an Oxfam report last year found that to meet its fair share, New Zealand's target needed to be between 80-133 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The Climate Change Minister said he hoped to "raise the bar for our NDC again in the future".

The Government will release its first Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of May next year in line with Budget 2022.