China and US reach emissions deal, NZ govt warned its policies are failing

Today’s news that the US and China have agreed a long term policy to reduce carbon emissions is being hailed as a “game-changer” in international climate negotiations. China has agreed to cap its emissions in 2030 — the first time it has committed to anything more than a reduction in the carbon intensity of its emissions, while the US will aim to cut emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, up from its current target of 17% by 2020. [BBC, Guardian, Climate Progress.] Meanwhile, NZ’s third term National government is being warned by its own civil servants that its current emissions policy settings commit the country to substantial emissions increases over the same time frame.

With the world’s two largest emitters — between them they account for 45% of total emissions — agreeing to work together for the first time, prospects for a global deal in Paris next year look brighter than before. However, the cuts on the table do not look like enough to keep the planet on a trajectory to 2 degrees of warming or less. Associate professor Peter Christoff of the University of Melbourne explains (via The Conversation):

These commitments will frame the levels of ambition required of other states at Paris next year. Climate modellers will no doubt now be rushing to determine what these new commitments, if delivered successfully, will mean for combating global warming.

The US and Chinese cuts, significant though they are, will not be enough to limit the total increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide unless other states engage in truly radical reductions.

In other words, global emissions are likely to continue to grow, probably until 2030, which will make it impossible to hold global warming below the world’s agreed limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.

In New Zealand the briefings for incoming ministers in the new government — same as the old lot, in climate relevant ministries — have been remarkably blunt in their assessment of the task the country faces.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) Briefing to Incoming Ministers (BIM)1 is blunt about the importance of dealing with climate change (pdf here):

Climate change and resource scarcity are challenging core elements of the global ecosystem. Climate change is the most urgent and far-reaching threat we face, and the current negotiations on climate change are the most important multilateral negotiation now under way. Positions taken by countries on climate change and their readiness to contribute to global solutions will increasingly define the way that others perceive them politically and economically.

The Ministry for the Environment BIM2 points out the huge gulf between fine words and inadequate policy settings:

…We have an established price on emissions and market infrastructure in place through the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), although current settings are not driving meaningful emissions reductions. In 2015 the NZ ETS is scheduled to be reviewed to assess whether the settings remain suitable for delivering on government objectives.

That ETS review will have to consider the reality shown in this graph from p22 of the MfE BIM.


The only way the government can reach its unconditional target of a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 is by using carried forward emissions reductions from the first Kyoto commitment period (even though it subsequently withdrew from CP2) and by buying emissions units from overseas. Real cuts in emissions in the following decade will require a real carbon price — not an ETS that rewards polluters for their pollution.

If NZ is to table emissions cuts that parallel those from the USA, then emissions policy settings are going to need an urgent and dramatic revamp. The good news is that the China and US initiative on emissions means that NZ’s government can no longer point to international failure to cooperate as a reason why NZ should do little or nothing.

PM John Key has said in the past that he wants NZ to be a “fast follower” of the world leaders on emissions reductions. Now is the time to show just how fast a follower he intends to be. We can only hope it’s pretty damn speedy.

  1. The incoming ministers are Murray McCulley (Foreign Affairs), and Tim Groser (Trade and Climate Change Issues), full ministerial list here. []
  2. Incoming minister is Nick Smith, same as the outgoing one. []

49 thoughts on “China and US reach emissions deal, NZ govt warned its policies are failing”

  1. Brilliant news. Particularly good to see public servants breaking cover. Unexpected to see things spelt out so bluntly from MFAT, and a softer (dare I say ‘diplomatic’?) tone from MfE. I would have expected the reverse. Come on MFE!

    Just waiting now for a brave public servant in MPI to state the obvious – that current oil and gas policy and investments are a significant diplomatic, environmental and financial risk.

  2. Thanks for highlighting this news – the best on real progress in dealing with climate in years. It’s also great to know that we still have brave public servants advising government on the need for a policy shift towards zero carbon emissions in this crucial time for NZ and our species (Earth will be fine whatever happens).

    Our KICKSTARTER campaign to get “THIN ICE – the Inside Story of Climate Science” on US Public TV” (see Gareth’s Nov 10 post) is now even more timely and now looks achievable. 40% to find in the next 10 days. Help us by donating at .

    I was also delighted to see my University announce last week it was divesting itself of fossil fuel investments.

  3. [Bryan, your comments are not welcome here unless and until you and your fellow NZ CSET trustees pay up the NZ$90,000 costs ordered against you. The NZ taxpayer deserves no less. GR]

  4. Whilst the rightwing echo-chamber in the US was initially flummoxed by the US – China emissions agreement, it seems to be regrouping around the “War on Coal” trope.

    It will be interesting to see if the local denierati follow this line – what say you, Andy?

    It’s long been conservatives’ favorite argument against climate action: China’s not going to do anything, so why should we bother trying? With Tuesday’s announcement that the U.S. and China have reached a historic deal to cut carbon emissions, their tune has changed.

    It was only the previous evening that Fox News guest Charles Krauthammer said Obama should push for a climate agreement with China, that “if we get one with China we have something real.” That echoed Krauthammer’s comments last week that “if he gets an agreement with China, which he won’t, but that’s the one area it would be historic.” Since that’s become a reality, Fox News wasn’t sure what to say Wednesday morning…

    An America’s Newsroom segment that aired later on Wednesday, led with the title “CLIMATE DEAL WITH CHINA BLASTED AS ‘WAR ON COAL’” and then proceeded to blast the deal as a war on coal. Varney said the fact that China’s carbon emissions wouldn’t peak until 2030 meant that the deal was not just lopsided, but “a total cave on the part of President Obama.”

    1. China is in a good position to reduce emissions by cutting back on the one coal fired power station it deploys every week.

      The U.S. has already reduced emissions markedly thanks to shale gas.

      I’m not quite sure how NZ will achieve any significant reductions
      We only have one coal generator unit at Huntly
      Most of our electricity is hydroelectric

      1. Oh well, we should just not bother then, eh? I’m sure our trade partners won’t mind at all if we do nothing while they make cutbacks – can’t see that having any effect on our trade balance. Happy days.

        1. I think you are being rather negative.
          We can do lots to achieve the targets.
          For example, shut down the entire agricultural sector, euthanize people over the age of 60 , implement a one child policy, ban all air flights, etc…
          Implementing all these might go some way to meeting our obligations

          What are we waiting for?

            1. An endless stream of meaningless targets, acronyms, graphs, etc that means nothing to anyone

              We need to take action, reduce carbon, transition to a low carbon economy blah blah blah

              Give me some actual things that exist outside of the bubble of the green blob, something that people can actually relate to

            2. No wonder Andy’s so bitter; I would be too, if I were as trapped on the wrong side of history as he is.

              He also can’t be looking forward to, one day, having to answer his children’s question “So, why didn’t you care about us, Dad?”

            3. No Andy, I can not think of anything anymore that YOU could possibly positively relate to when it comes to building the post carbon society. (With the exception perhaps of Thorium nuclear power, which, as we speak, is still pretty much a theoretical exercise).

            4. I came across two interesting technologies this week, both developed by friends and their families.

              (1) Hydrogen fuel cell CHP
              (2) Geothermal energy in Scotland

              But then I don’t have any contribution to make to society, according to Thomas

              It’s a wicket problem

            5. The contributions you make at this blog are full of straw and cynical rhetoric. (a.k. lets euthanize those over 60…) Perhaps that is the reason you are not taken serious by anybody.

              And yes, Geothermal is cool. An MIT study a while back indicated that we may be able to generate all of humanities electricity in principle from deep well geothermal heat.
              Hydrogen as we know is not an energy source but a storage medium and not a very efficient at that. However if we find a highly efficient way of electrolytic splitting of water, we could build an ammonia fuel society. This is one of these possibilities that could get us of fossil fuels for transport use.
              See Andy, we might not need to euthanize people to get off the Carbon train.
              And we just mentioned two technologies…

            6. I was pointing out the Ceres technology out of interest as it was developed by the father of an old school friend

              Interesting that you focus on the stock value rather than the potential promise of the technology. Sounds awfully capitalist of you … 🙂

            1. Goodness, Heartland has nothing better to offer than a total inversion of the truth. What a wired and wicket set of people must be driving this? This is at the same level of total Orwellian inversion as the propaganda of the dictatorship Orwell depicted so aptly in his 1984 vision. I guess the mental disconnect must have exceeded the pain threshold for these people. Lost for an exit strategy from their loosing battle they double down and double down again….. loosers.

            2. People who deny reality and those who can’t read past a typo… Remember, this is my second language. 😉

            3. What is a “wired and wicket” set of people?

              Andy, the NZCSET trustees, Cameron Slater and Philip Smith would qualify as a “wierd and wicked set of people”, in anyone’s book.

              Please post in German in future, so Thomas can poke fun at you.

  5. There’s a good reason why the Chinese leadership want to promote renewable energy: for their own political survival.

    The pollution clouding Chinese cities is a political danger to the regime. China’s President Xi Jinping has agreed to cap emissions and move 20% of the country’s energy consumption to alternative fuels by 2030, not to please the international community or to pull a fast one on Americans, but to avoid a revolt in his own smog-choked country. It’s called self-interest.

    Meanwhile, the Mad Monk,Tony Abbott, is facing a potential PR disaster in Brisbane…

  6. Gareth what most people have missed in these briefings was what I thought the most telling of them all: Treasury’s briefing to the incoming Climate Change Minister.

    It sets out all the reasons for New Zealand’s recalcitrance on climate change, most of all the costs.

    some excerpts:

    First, setting out why New Zealand’s “bottom up” approach is best:

    “This may mean that the level of action is less than is required to limit global warming to two degrees, but negotiators have chosen to prioritise participation at this point in time.”

    The Graphic on page 8 is a classic. Clearly shows that our emissions are ballooning, but also shows why NZ’s proposal on how the entire globe should tackle climate change is based on our own inability to deal with the issue, and minimises our own costs.

    It seems that Tim Groser is working on a new target, possibly to go to Cabinet this month, but whether the public will be consulted over our new target is yet to be determined. Treasury seems a bit ho hum over this bit.

    Anyway, worth a read.

    1. Why are NZ emissions “ballooning”.?

      Which industry sectors are contributing?

      We haven’t built any new thermal power stations in years, cars are becoming more efficient.

      Unless we can identify the sectors at fault we can’t do much about it.

  7. Thanks for the article. The China / USA emissions deal is a step in the right direction, and is to be welcomed.

    Given John Key has promised NZ will be a fast follower, he will have to reassess NZ’s progress, and our ETS. Currently our system is generating more emissions rather than less emissions.

    The ETS has major problems. Firstly the current settings are very weak. This has been well discussed by people like Brian Fallow in the Herald. There is also the carbon credits issue.

    Secondly the ETS cannot resolve all problems yet it is the only thing the government has. Even if the ETS creates pressure to innovate, it does not resolve all issues. Like most market mechanisms, it has limitations.

    For example one of the problems is people wont buy electric cars until they are more cost effective, and there is a recharging network. But there will be no big drop in prices or recharging network until people by the cars. On that basis the government could try some incentive scheme to buy these cars. It would be justifiable as a way to get the market moving.

    Thirdly the ETS has a subtle problem about identifying costs of emissions reductions. The scheme is about quantities, and doesn’t really estimate costs longer term. The government is possibly also nervous about identifying costs and risking unpopularity. But without specific costs of reducing emissions, people are confused, and fearful about costs anyway. Obviously any costs are an estimate but you have to start somewhere.

    The costs of reducing emissions are likely less than the scaremongers claim. Look at the costs of electric cars, and adding additional low emissions generating capacity, and you are probably not talking more than a couple of percent of gdp. Things like the Stern Report estimate costs at about 2% of global gdp, but we need more detail about impacts on individuals and NZs gdp. The scaremongers will scaremonger, but we need something specific. Having good information is everything in this world. An evaluation also has to consider the costs of doing nothing and the risks of dangerous levels of climate change.

  8. Characteristically weak effort from Treasury: 1) We have a carbon price of 20 cents per tonne. 2) Our emissions are predicted to grow strongly. 3) Because our emissions are expected to grow strongly we need a soft target.

    See where this is going…?

  9. Amazing day in Brisbane at the moment…Barack Obama ‘shirt-fronted’ Abbott on climate policy at his lecture at UQ calling on the audience to speak out against current Australian climate policy – to which treasurer Joe Hockey is in total denial. Obama pointed out that Australia was hurting under global warming with extreme heatwaves and disappearing coral off the Great Barrier Reef.

    Meanwhile the climate is also conspiring at G20 with one of the warmest November days ever of 40 C + in Brisbane…..somehow there are strong messages there!!

  10. I am currently in Australia watching the G20 on TV and Obama has certainly shown Abbott’s crowd up as a bunch of clowns. Abbott and Hockey were consistently saying that climate change was not on the agenda and a minor or none existent issue and Obama put it at the top of the list. The Europeans who at 700 million people are twice the size of the USA also had it at the top of the list. Abbott and Hockey looked like a couple of country bumpkins.

  11. New Zealand is in a different category to the rest of the world in that we produce about 8 tons per capita.of emissions, the same as Europe, compared to the USA and Australia at 20 tons. Unlike other countries we do not use coal for electricity so ours comes from transport and cattle. We are not going to give up farming cattle so that only leaves transport. This is why I keep banging on about electric transport.

  12. Chris Hope, from Cambridge Judge Business School, ( ‘Keeping an Eye on Climate Policy’ ),ran the numbers on the U.S. China deal and came up with a one percent chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming. However, in the discussion following his posting he acknowledged that he had assumed Chinese emissions would peak at 6 tons per capita by 2030, when they’re already at 7 tons and rising fast. Recalculating for 10 tons by 2030, and with optimistic assumptions for other countries, he found a 0.3 percent probability.
    It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the best efforts our current world leadership can manage to reduce emissions will fall far short of what the science shows is needed. I expect it will become equally obvious, given time, that the climate effects of this failure will be unacceptable, and that deliberate geoengineering ( as opposed to the massive, random and unintentional geoengineering practiced now ) will be tried. Let’s hope it works.

  13. Bob…you have it correct. I will clip the ABC’s summation….but Abbott and Hockey looked total clowns. Mercury reached 39 C also.

    G20 measures to address climate change

    Mr Abbott said the leaders agreed to work together to develop better approaches to promote energy efficiency.

    According to the draft communique, climate change was to be mentioned in a paragraph in the final document, although there had been a push by Europe and the United States for it to be a bigger focus.

    “The G20 energy efficiency action plan identifies six areas where increased global action will have real benefits for all,” Mr Abbott said.

    [I’m] sure different people had different emphases but all of us want to take strong and effective action against climate change, and all of us want to do that in ways which build our growth and particularly strengthen our employment
    Prime Minister Tony Abbott

    “Our actions will support sustainable development, economic growth and certainty for business and investment and, of course, we will all work constructively towards the climate change conference in Paris next year.”

    Mr Abbott denied reports he did not want leaders to discuss climate change and had a robust exchange with US president Barack Obama on the issue.

    “It’s certainly been a very harmonious, constructive and collegial process and not only was the communique drafting process constructive and collegial but the discussion in the room today was very constructive and collegial,” Mr Abbott said.

    “[I’m] sure different people had different emphases but all of us want to take strong and effective action against climate change, and all of us want to do that in ways which build our growth and particularly strengthen our employment because that in the end is what it’s all about.”

    Mr Abbott said there were also a number of other important international issues dealt with by leaders.

  14. Abbott and Hockey will try to make light of this but they have been shown to be completely out of touch with world affairs. He stood in front of a room full of the worlds most powerful leaders , most of whom take climate change very seriously and bragged about scrapping one of the worlds most effective carbon trading schemes. He also bragged about stopping illegal immigrants in one of the most disgraceful programs in the world. The United Nations are watching Australia very closely over a number of transgressions which are not normal for the Australian people.

    1. Presumably stopping illegal immigrants is within the jurisdiction of a sovereign state, and is of no concern of the UN.

      Having a policy on refugees is a different matter, however.

      1. But putting them in overseas concentration camps is not an approved system. Ironical if you look at the millions of people who live to the North of Australia tens of millions are going to be displaced by a one metre sea level rise and one of the biggest polluting nations on the planet will have caused it. When those people are looking for a home and food for their families the ‘lucky country’ will be a destination of choice. It will make the current immigration problem look like a school outing. .

      2. You need to brush up on the UNHCR andy
        “The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.”
        Australia signed the Declaration in 1954 – without Reservation.
        The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
        How do you know that all those asylum seekers being turned back by Australia are not of that category?

        1. I’m not quite sure why I need to brush up on anything. Bob B used the term “illegal immigrant”, and I was pointing out that “refugee” might be more appropriate

          As a first child of a war refugee myself, I have some opinions on the topic.

          1. The correct term for the boat people is “asylum seeker”. By refusing to let them land, Australia is denying its obligations under the UNHCR. These people may, or may not, be then classified as refugee depending upon their individual circumstance. My daughter was employed for a time at the NZ refugee Centre in Mangare and also in assessing status of those seeking asylum in NZ. NZ has – its own “boat people” . These however arrive by aircraft and present themselves at the border seeking asylum.

  15. Funnily enough you didn’t actually have to be in Brisbane to follow the G20. For my sins, I spent half of yesterday afternoon watching the press conferences on the G20 livestream.

    What strikes me about Abbott is that while he got rolled on G20 climate language, it didn’t commit him to anything. And I don’t think he really cares. In his final press conference, he insisted that 1.3 billion poor in the developing world need Australian coal. This despite several reports released over the last two weeks showing that the economics of coal and grid distribution do not stack up, and will not help any poor person in the developing world.

    Abbott, extraordinarily, used his speech on the international stage to brag about getting rid of the carbon tax, to defend his budget and to talk about stopping the boats, all of which are entirely domestic issues. Weird. He told the G20 leaders that he was behind coal and went on to defend that position publicly later.

    He’s running an entirely domestic agenda and doesn’t give a toss about the international climate debate, which is something we’ll see in Lima and Paris, unfortunately. Key will love this.

    While the US/China announcement was a gamechanger in international perception, it doesn’t actually do that much to keep warming below 2degC, and NZ’s “bottom up” non legally binding approach has already been praised by the US climate envoy, Todd Stern.

  16. And looks like NZ Herald has modified its stance and is critical of NZ’s current position…see:

    Editorial: Quit cooling our heels on climate action

    During the global financial crisis, there was a ready excuse for countries to do nothing. An environmental catastrophe seemed to be something that could be tackled sometime in the future. But improved economic circumstances and successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have wrought a substantial change of attitude.

    Australia’s embarrassment carries a message for this country. New Zealand has relinquished international credibility by diluting its emissions trading scheme and hopping on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now, however, the excuses for doing very little are evaporating.

    The Government should be demonstrating a far greater urge to be part of the solution, not an increasingly isolated slow coach.

Leave a Reply