New Zealand Declares Climate Change Emergency

New Zealand has officially declared a climate emergency. The government additionally launched an initiative that calls for the public sector to become carbon-neutral by 2025. Governing agencies will be required to measure and report emissions, and pay to offset carbon emissions that cannot be cut. The program is funded by approximately CDN$182 million, to finance the replacement of coal boilers and purchase electric or hybrid vehicles. The decisions were reached in parliament on Wednesday, December 3rd, following an hour of debate. Although a state of emergency is typically only enacted during natural disasters, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the burden the next generation faces as a result of climate change, and should it go unaddressed, climate change disasters will increase.   

The declaration of a climate emergency and the carbon-neutral initiative reflect New Zealand’s commitment to minimizing global warming. Ardern aims to rebuild the nation’s economy, negatively impacted by COVID-19, “in a sustainable way, with a focus on carbon neutrality.” She stated in parliament that it is necessary to “act with urgency,” as New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity continues to decline due to climate change. Further, as stated in parliament, global warming will have a particularly “volatile and extreme” impact on the island nation’s weather, “[on] the wellbeing of New Zealanders, on our primary industries, water availability, and public health through flooding, sea-level rise and wildfire.” However, critics emphasize the symbolic nature of the declaration. According to opposition lawmaker David Seymour, “Today’s performance from the government was a triumph of politics over practical solutions, and of slogans over substance.” Yet, the declaration remains a step in the right direction, and inherently superior to inaction.

It is necessary to note that the climate emergency declaration was not unanimous. The final vote in parliament was 76-43. The split is reflective of party lines. The motion, backed by the Labour Party, was supported by the Green and Māori Parties. Conversely, both the National and ACT parties opposed the declaration. Criticisms of the declaration are valid; passed without any “newly assigned” statutory powers or money, it could be difficult to conceptualize how the climate change emergency will affect change. However, conservative critiques are often made in bad faith. Further various environmental proposals have been put forth, a fact often minimized by conservative commentators. For example, Ardern previously announced plans to plant a billion trees and phase out offshore oil and gas exploration. International organizations received the declared climate emergency with cautious optimism. Greenpeace “welcomed” the declaration, but encouraged the government to follow through with action.

New Zealand effectively joined 32 other nations in declaring a climate emergency. New Zealand is now among Canada, Japan, France, and Britain following their declaration. The nation previously signed the Paris Agreement, which aims to strengthen international responses to climate change and curb global temperature rise. Further, New Zealand is one of the few nations to pass a zero carbon emission aim in law. In addition to the recent initiative, which targets 2025 as the date the public sector will be carbon neutral, the Zero Carbon Act was passed in 2019. The Act aims to create a carbon-free nation by 2050. The primary source of CO2 emissions in New Zealand is road transport, although most greenhouse gases are produced by the agricultural industry.

The climate emergency declaration was based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings. According to the Panel, in order to avoid the 1.5 C rise in temperature, carbon emissions need to fall by approximately 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2023. The carbon-neutral initiatives New Zealand has put forth ultimately represent a small step towards the lofty goal but requires national cooperation to see it implemented and put into action.