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Shoulda Woulda Coulda: Paris Agreement across the line – Now what?

(More on that here). 

A ‘shall’ had been included in the final draft text of Article 4, a clause recording obligations of wealthy countries to set economy-wide targets for GHG emissions reductions. It should have been ‘should’, the US team insisted. The difference was no small one. A ‘shall’ would potentially have triggered the need for the Agreement to be presented to the US Senate for approval; a ‘should’, it seems, not.

After the drama was over, US Secretary of State John Kerry told press, “When I looked at that, I said, ‘We cannot do this and we will not do this. And either it changes or President Obama and the United States will not be able to support this agreement.’”

Of course, the offending word was changed, and the rest, they say, is history. For the first time in almost 25 years of climate negotiations years, that description just might be apt. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner put it simply: “The Paris Agreement is probably the most important international agreement in history.”

Analyses of the Agreement and its implications for wealthy, developing and emerging economies are proliferating, and no doubt will continue to do so for weeks, months and years to come. The Guardian has useful overview, as does the New York Times in What Does a Climate Deal Mean for the World? From a New Zealand science perspective, reactions from experts are helpfully collected here.

On the penultimate day of the official negotiating schedule, I had a chance to catch up with two of the Green MPs who have spent the last two weeks in Paris at the talks, co-leader James Shaw, and spokeswoman on transport issues, Julie Anne Genter. 

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Alongside Labour climate change spokeswoman Megan Woods, Shaw participated in the negotiations as an observer within the official New Zealand delegation. I asked him whether he thought New Zealand has been able to play a meaningful role in the negotiations. 

A thoughtful pause. “It depends how you measure it. We certainly did in the lead-up, in the sense that the framework for [the Agreement] was essentially a proposal that came from New Zealand. Our team is very good at their job, so I think that they have probably been able to influence on the basis of their skill, but they can’t influence on the basis of power. Because, we just don’t really have any.”

“I would also argue that if New Zealand had more of a leadership position then – I have no empirical evidence for this – but I assert, that we may have had more influence, because we would have been operating from a high ground position. But we don’t have any real power.”

I asked what Shaw thought might be the implications of the (at the time of our discussion, soon to be concluded) Agreement on New Zealand domestic climate change policy.

“It does come down to how our government interprets it. But, for example, the ‘ambition’ statement – “well under 2°, aiming for 1.5°” – if you look at our INDC [New Zealand’s mitigation pledge filed with the UNFCCC before the negotiations] which puts us on a 2.7-3.5° pathway, having signed an agreement which says not only 2°C, but “well under 2°C and aiming for 1.5°C” then you would have to say that our INDC is inadequate. So, the government and I will argue about that, but what it does mean is that international organisations such as the OECD, the International Energy Agency and whoever will be able to come to New Zealand and say “[clears throat] Please New Zealand, we think that you need to up your level of ambition.”

“It looks like there will probably be an enabling of some kind of international market system which New Zealand has basically pinned all of its hopes on, and so what that means is that our domestic policy, as the government has prescribed it, will be able to play out. If that mechanism isn’t there, then we would need to rethink everything about our INDC, and how we intend to live up to our obligations.”

On the soon-to-be-reviewed New Zealand ETS, Shaw said “I’m pretty sure that the government wants to tighten the screws. I think that they have learned some lessons about what happened in the past. It’s not as much as we would like. They are not even talking about agriculture. They are just excluding it from the conversation completely.”

“The Green Party has said that [the ETS] it’s broken, and should be replaced with a very simple and straightforward carbon tax and rebate in the form of tax cuts. But I guess that depends on who wins the next election.”

Genter’s role at the Paris talks was a little different to Shaw’s – she wasn’t part of the observer contingent within the New Zealand official delegation.  “My role here has really been to hold our government to account… To be the spokesperson for the Green Party, observing want the New Zealand government was doing, feeding back to our members and constituents what our criticisms of the New Zealand government are. But also to share the stories, and the hopeful moments about the civil society actions that are happening, to inspire activists back home.”

On the anticipated substantive outcomes of the talks, Genter was a little more forthright than Shaw.

“I’d like to be optimistic and positive, because I do think we are in a better position now than we have been to get an ambitious and binding agreement, and technology advances means that it’s going to be easier than what people thought. But if we don’t have a binding agreement that limits the amount of fossil fuels that we going to use over the next few years, then we are simply not going to stop climate change. And it doesn’t seem like the 195 nations are ever going to be able to come to an agreement that is that forceful.”

I recalled that New Zealand had been given a bit of a hard time by some of the environmental groups on issues such as subsidies and New Zealand’s position in relation to the Pacific, and asked whether Genter thought those criticisms were fair.

“Yes! The National Party and their approach on climate change are really far behind most other developed nations, and we have such potential in New Zealand to be leaders on this. We already have a high level of renewable generation. We are a small country. We have every opportunity to transition to a clean economy… In the grand scheme of things, [the government has] taken us backwards in the last seven years. And what perfectly sums it up is Simon Bridges coming to Paris as Associate Climate Change Minister and with his Energy Minister hat on, meeting with a bunch of oil and gas companies. It’s just a contradiction in terms.”

“[The government] is still keen to explore, to find more fossil fuels to drill for, and they will end up inevitably burning them. I think that it’s simply not possible to continue having this policy for exploration for fossil fuels, and reconcile that with a future that does not have dangerous climate change.”

Review overview