A week after the US took the first steps to leave the Paris Agreement, New Zealand passed a bill to drastically cut greenhouse gases by 2050 and achieve carbon neutrality. Nevertheless, the move was questioned by civil society for not being in line with the world’s climate emergency.
The Zero Carbon Bill was introduced by New Zealand's Parliament and was passed 119 votes to 1, demonstrating cross-party support to climate protection. This was welcomed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said legislators have progressed on their climate discussions.
"We have to start moving beyond targets. We have to start moving beyond aspiration. We have to start moving beyond statements of hope and deliver signs of action. That is what this government is doing and proudly so," Ardern said. "We have made a choice that I am proud of and that will leave a legacy.”
The new law mandates that all greenhouse gases except methane be reduced to "net zero” by 2050. Governments will have to come up with plans to meet "steppingstone" targets on the way there, with the emissions trading scheme as the main enforcement mechanism.
In the case of methane, New Zealand’s goal is to reduce emissions by 10% below 2017 levels by 2030 and then by 24%-47% by 2050. This can be explained by methane being the main source of emissions in the country, accounting for 48% of all of its emissions in 2017.
Being less ambitious on methane means New Zealand could achieve carbon neutrality goals much easier. Compared to other greenhouse gases, methane can be more difficult to deal with. For example, it traps about 30 times as much heat in the atmosphere as CO2 does.
Not considering methane, New Zealand is in line to achieve carbon neutrality in other sectors. Up to 80% of the electricity in the country comes from renewables, a share likely to grow as the country abandons fossil fuels. Plus, the government is moving towards a transition to electric vehicles.
Extinction Rebellion Ōtautahi spokesman Rowan Brook said the 2050 target "doesn't reflect the fact that we are in an ecological emergency” and asked the government to move the date for 2025. "How can it be 2050 to be zero carbon when the conservative UN gave us 12 years to avoid catastrophe?” he added.
Meanwhile, the local nature advocacy organization Forest & Bird said in a statement that the approval of the bill was an important first step but claimed challenges remain.
"Now we need concrete, urgent, climate action to save our most vulnerable native species and restore native ecosystems," Chief Executive Kevin Hague said in a statement. "Increased fires, storms, and sea-level rise could push our many endangered species over the edge."
There is also the issue that "net zero" is not the same as zero. Simply put, this doesn't mean that New Zealand will have zero carbon emissions, but that all carbon emissions they do produce will be offset by other sustainable practices (most importantly, forestry), in a way that their net impact is zero. While offsets are imperfect and can be quite challenging to implement efficiently, they are still preferable to no action.
This law is drafted in a way that compels future governments to set five-yearly "emissions budgets" that decrease over time until 2050.
With the exception of China, the US and India, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, many countries have made commitments to eliminate carbon emissions. Nevertheless, they are still challenged by scientists and environmentalists for a lack of ambition. This law has also received some criticism for not being ambitious enough -- 2050 is a long time away, and climate change is taking its toll right now.
Sweden pledged to eliminate emissions by 2045, while Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, and the UK, among other European countries, have also set their targets for 2050.