Too far, too fast? James Shaw's climate regrets
For the first time in six years, Green Party co-leader James Shaw will not be shepherding the governments response to the climate crisis. The next climate change minister will be tasked with building a new political consensus and bridging divisions while taking the country to net-zero emissions by 2050. The October 14 election result was bittersweet for James Shaw. The Green Party that he co-leads gained five new MPs, but Labours wipe out means he will lose his climate change portfolio, and with it some of the fruits of six years of work. He first gives a circumspect response, but the dejection can be heard in his voice. In this job you have to take each three-year term as it comes and play the hand youre dealt. We live with that expectation. Still, it wasnt supposed to end this way. Shaw has since 2017 worked to set up the institutional infrastructure within which the government could respond to the climate crisis, and was behind some of the most ambitious climate policies in the world. In 2019, with support from retired National MP Todd Muller, Shaw got the Zero Carbon Act over the line a landmark piece of legislation which enshrined climate change targets into law, and established the Climate Change Commission. It was one of the major pieces of legislation that set the way forward to reduce emissions, with a goal to reduce methane by 10% by 2030. Last year, he revealed how He Waka Eke Noa would work , the culmination of nearly three years effort. In it, farmers would have until the end of 2025 before they had to pay for methane emissions from sheep and cattle. Shaw then wanted to see emissions come down within the framework which he said would have occurred during the next term, if Labour and the Greens had been able to form a government. In many ways, the work that I started in 2017 comes full circle in this next term of Parliament. I really wanted to be there to close that loop and start the next cycle and I think that would have been an appropriate moment to bow out, at the end of 2026. Now, Shaw is winding down as a caretaker minister until the next government is formed. He is waiting to see what direction the National-led government will take the countrys climate change response with its likely coalition partner, ACT, and potential partner, NZ First parties he describes as climate sceptics. He is preparing to counter this from the opposition seats. Simon Watts has been Nationals spokesperson for climate change since March, and has promised to meet the net zero 2050 target set in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, and keep the emissions trading scheme and the Climate Change Commission without decimating our most important economic sector. Shaw was heartened by these commitments and was not especially fazed by promises from ACTs David Seymour to unwind and repeal this work. I know from my own experience that if the major party you are dealing with in negotiations gives a flat no, there is not much you can do about it, Shaw said. But National Party leader Christopher Luxon has promised to cut a number of climate policies, including the clean car discount , which encourages the uptake of electric vehicles, and to restart fossil fuel exploration and extraction. He has promised to delay setting a price for methane until 2030 , five years later than Labour. Shaw predicts National wont make any progress on slowing global warming with ACT and NZ First in the next term. New Zealand was once a world leader in its climate change response, he claimed, but he sees that status slipping away. I dont know how they are going to get agreement to progress when youve got two out of three parties who are completely committed to no progress. As well as struggling with handbrakes around the Cabinet table, the next climate minister will need to ease divisions and resentment from the rural sector about the scale at which it needs to cut methane, and towards other on-farm regulations such as those to improve water quality. It was those divisions which led to the creation of the controversial farm advocacy group, Groundswell. Those same rural communities especially around Northland, East Coast, and Hawkes Bay were hit again with heavy rains and flooding during the February severe weather event, from which many are still in the midst of a colossal clean-up. Shaws tenure as climate change minister was successful when he could bridge divisions across the House. But when asked whether there was anything he wished had played out differently, he jokes, how long have you got? The most enduringly divisive aspect of the former governments climate policies was its methane reduction targets. Methane operates differently to other greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, because it only lives in the atmosphere for up to 50 years. The other greenhouse gases last in the atmosphere for centuries. It is belched out by ruminant animals such as cows, sheep, goats and deer. Agriculture, especially dairy farming, then creates the lions share of methane in New Zealand and under the Zero Carbon Act, farmers must reduce their methane by 24% to 47% below 2017 biogenic methane emissions by 2050, including a 10% reduction by 2030. It is this figure which has the rural sector up in arms. Groups, including Federated Farmers, say it is such a high target, farmers could barely operate if it was implemented. Government modelling suggested a 10% land use change on sheep and beef farms and 2% of dairy farms once the scheme to price methane emissions comes into effect. Shaw has long accepted the Zero Carbon Act as a hugely contentious piece of legislation. He apologised to Todd Muller in the House for some of the background processes while it was being negotiated, suggesting a level of breakdown. The apology came after Muller asked Shaw whether he believed he could classify good faith negotiations as silence for eight weeks, and then being handed a bill on Monday afternoon? It was in those talks that the methane target was set. Federated Farmers, the lobby group which advocates for many farmers, has challenged it ever since. They want to reduce it to, in effect, nothing, Shaw said. Politics, Shaw believes, is about choosing winners and losers always, that is the job. Many farmers believe, as a result of what they describe as unworkable regulations, that they are being picked as the losers and being asked to do more than their fair share. This, they say, is a political decision. Among those is Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford. He says most farmers agree with the direction of travel towards reducing emissions, improving water quality and biodiversity, but differ on how best to get there. The intent of some of those regulations may have been good, but the reality of the execution and implementation was nothing short of disastrous for rural communities, he said. Where Federated Farmers do have a huge issue is with the highly political methane reduction targets. We think they go further and faster than is required to stop New Zealand farmings contribution to warming. Federated Farmers and Beef and Lamb commissioned research led by Oxford University climate scientist Myles Allen, which found if other countries meet their existing emission reduction commitments, a 15% to 27% reduction in methane by 2050 would see New Zealand methane contribute no additional warming from 2020 levels. The analysis found the cooling impact of the emissions targets in the agriculture and waste sectors compensates for ongoing, additional warming caused by energy and transport emissions over this period which they noted raised concerns about fairness and equity, because carbon dioxide and nitrous dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere in a way methane does not. However, it also noted that the reduction of farming methane represents New Zealand's greatest opportunity to reduce its contribution to global warming. It noted "the New Zealand government should invest in mitigation of the agricultural sector as well, noting that it is the only sector with substantial potential to achieve additional cooling". Whether farmers are being asked to do more than their fair share is a contested idea. Either way, Shaw believes the ends justify the means. The argument could come down to how much methane the sector could feasibly cut and the moral incentives to do so, as the world warms and the country experiences more severe weather events. The question is, do you think it is a good idea to maintain the existing level of warning from methane? What they are saying is we should adopt a target that allows us to continue warming the atmosphere from the current rate of methane. My response to that is, how is that going in Hawkes Bay there? That is what the current rate of warming gets you. The next climate change minister will have to grapple with these issues while a vocal sector of the public demands urgent climate action. In any event, Shaw describes the task ahead as huge.