Do we need a climate law to bring the future into focus?

Paul YoungEnvironment

Last week saw the launch of a bold new idea for climate change action: a law to get New Zealand to zero carbon by 2050 or sooner.

Youth-led organisation Generation Zero has published a blueprint for a Zero Carbon Act, and is calling for cross-party support for the idea. This call is supported by several other organisations including Forest & Bird, WWF-New Zealand and Oxfam New Zealand. (Disclosure: I contributed to the project in my personal capacity.)

What would this Zero Carbon Act do, and why is it an idea New Zealand should consider?

Overcoming policy myopia

The essence of the Zero Carbon Act is to overcome ‘policy myopia’. Short-termism has ruled in New Zealand’s climate change response to date. This has led to looming problems which have now begun to bite.

We told this story through our Climate Cheats report series last year. By choosing to rely on a combination of cheap and environmentally worthless foreign carbon credits and forestry accounting games, our governments have avoided real action. Our carbon pollution has continued to climb. As a result, our 2030 target for emissions reductions is much harder to meet than if we had got started a decade ago.

In his book Safeguarding the Future released last month, Professor Jonathan Boston discusses the “presentism bias” that extends to a whole range of other policy areas beyond climate change. It is embedded into the very DNA of our political system.

To overcome this bias, it isn’t enough just to tinker with a few policies. If we value the future we are leaving to the next generation, we need new institutions, governance models and political norms that dictate a long-term view. As an example, Professor Boston highlights the UK’s Climate Change Act – the legal framework on which the Zero Carbon Act is based.

Planning for the future today

The Zero Carbon Act proposal has three key elements to bind future governments to long-term thinking and planning.

  • First, it would lock in a legally binding long-term zero carbon target (see endnote for discussion on this).
  • Second, it would set up an independent Climate Commission to give expert advice on how New Zealand can meet that target, and monitor progress.
  • Third, it would create a series of five-year ‘carbon budgets’ on a pathway to the zero carbon target, and require governments to make policy plans to meet these budgets.

A framework like this recognises that different governments will always have different preferences about how to reduce New Zealand’s emissions. The proposed Act doesn’t prescribe any particular policies (e.g. taxes or regulations). Rather, it embodies the idea that we need to agree as a society on the outcomes we should aim for on climate change, on the need for a plan, and on a good process to guide us.

In other words, it won’t tell governments what to think or do, but it will change the way that they think. The Climate Commission will lay out what the transition looks like in practical terms and help develop key milestones and progress measures (for example, the rate of uptake of electric vehicles). The Government will need to design policy plans consistent with meeting the long-term goal, in way that is fair and cost-effective.

Case in point

A good example of why we need a law like this is the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport Funding, which is currently being updated. This policy statement sets out how the land transport budget will be spent (how much on roads, public transport, etc.) for the next three years, and indicatively for the whole next decade.

Given that transport is the single largest contributor to New Zealand’s CO2 emissions, you might expect this to be one of the considerations in how we spend our transport dollars. You would be wrong. The draft document makes only the most fleeting reference to climate change, and doesn’t even mention the Government’s 2030 emissions target. This is a clear case of how the government is failing to plan (and thereby planning to fail).

Getting to zero

So how do we get there? The recent Net Zero in New Zealand report maps out some potential pathways. The ‘Innovative NZ’ and ‘Resourceful NZ’ scenarios in the report both achieve net zero emissions of long-lived gases (see the endnote) before 2050. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring what the transition to zero carbon looks like sector by sector in a series of blogs.

Making it law

Ultimately, the laws we have tell us what we hold important as a society.

We already have a law to ensure governments have a plan to balance the books over the long-term (the Fiscal Responsibility Act). In similar fashion, the Zero Carbon Act would ensure governments have a plan to reduce New Zealand’s carbon pollution in line with global climate change goals.

Is the latter any less important? I could go into detail on how climate change impacts pose significant fiscal risks that could make balancing the books much harder in the future. Instead, let me just finish by saying this: if the world collectively fails to get its act together on climate change, government debt levels will likely be among the least of our worries.

You can read more about the Zero Carbon Act blueprint and sign a petition to the next Parliament at 


Endnote: Dealing with the methane issue

Time to get a bit technical. In my blog post last month on the Net Zero in New Zealand report I explained why getting CO2 emissions to zero (net) is necessary to stop the planet warming. I also discussed how this isn’t the case for short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane. In a significant change from the UK’s Act – and the prevailing international convention – the proposed Zero Carbon Act would treat long-lived and short-lived greenhouse gases differently by setting separate targets. This is known in the scientific literature as the ‘two baskets approach’.

Nitrous oxide (produced mainly from livestock urine and fertiliser use) is long-lived, and would be grouped with CO2 in the zero net emissions by 2050 target. This target is clear because the whole world needs to get to zero carbon by around 2050 for a high chance of keeping global warming below two degrees (the internationally agreed goal).

Methane emissions (mainly from cow and sheep burps) would need sustained reductions by 2050, but not to zero. It is far more difficult to determine an appropriate target for New Zealand’s methane emissions consistent with the global temperature goal. Generation Zero proposes that the Climate Commission should deal with this once established, and advise on an appropriate long-term target to put into law. Given that the aim is to give long-term certainty, it’s vital to have firm evidence and broad consensus behind the long-term targets.

Back to “Planning for the future today” section


I helped to start Generation Zero back in 2011, and have been voluntarily involved in the development of the Zero Carbon Act blueprint in my personal capacity. The idea broadly aligns with what the Morgan Foundation has advocated for on climate change for the last several years.

Do we need a climate law to bring the future into focus? was last modified: April 20th, 2017 by Paul Young
About the Author

Paul Young

Paul Young joined the Morgan Foundation in 2015. Paul has an academic background in physics and maths, and graduated with a Master's degree from University of Otago where he researched ocean wave power. He is one of the founders of Generation Zero - a Kiwi youth organisation that advocates for action on climate change. He is passionate about the role New Zealand can play in leading the way to a thriving zero carbon future. Paul conducts research for the Morgan Foundation on climate change and other issues, and writes the occasional blog post.