NZ: COP21 – seemingly bold announcements end with a Fossil of the Day award

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has been roundly criticised by environment and sustainability groups back home for his COP21 performance, particularly for advocating for non-binding emissions reductions targets, and calling for a fossil fuel subsidy phase out while continuing to subsidise fossil fuel exploration and development activities in NZ.

On day one of COP21, Mr Key presented UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres with a communiqué from the Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform signed by almost 40 nations calling for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.

The FFSR is an international coalition of non-G20 nations including Costa Rica, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. Nations that have signed the group’s communiqué include France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Samoa, the United Kingdom, the USA and Uruguay. Australia declined to sign.

A number of NZ businesses and business organisations have also endorsed the phase out call, including Business New Zealand, the New Zealand Shippers Council, the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and Mighty River Power and Fonterra. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development also supports the communiqué.

In a statement to the FFSR, NZ’s Sustainable Business Council said, “New Zealand businesses have a strategic interest in mitigating climate change and making sure businesses and communities are resilient.

“Ensuring the true cost of fossil fuels – economic, environmental and social – are visible to the market will assist the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

SBC also said that any change should be introduced in a “measured and consistent way” so that businesses can plan and adapt accordingly.

Mr Key said the phase out was vital for reducing emissions, with research showing it could lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by up to 10 per cent.

There are also cost savings to be achieved through a phase out. The International Energy Agency estimates worldwide fossil fuel subsidies in 2013 amounted to $548 billion, based on the gap between what consumers pay and the actual cost of supply.

“Removing these subsidies will free up that money so it can be spent on policies which actually improve wellbeing such as low-carbon energy, health or education,” Mr Key said.

“It makes no sense to be calling for emissions reductions on one hand, while subsidising emissions on the other.”

However, according to Greenpeace NZ and other environmental and sustainability groups, that is exactly what the NZ government continues to do. This gained NZ the “Fossil of the Day Award” jointly with Belgium on day one of the conference.

The New Zealand Youth Delegation said it welcomed the NZ PM’s comments on fossil fuel subsidy reform as a necessary first step towards the phase out, but wanted him to live up to the rhetoric.

“We applaud the Prime Minister’s new found commitment on New Zealand being a leader on fossil fuel subsidy reform but ask him to apply this commitment to eliminating all tax breaks, industry support and other subsidies for the oil, gas and fossil fuel industry in New Zealand,” NZYD spokesperson Francisco Hernandez said.

“With his government spending nearly $84.92 million on fossil fuel subsidies and almost 20 times as much supporting fossil fuel industry promotion compared to renewable energy promotion, New Zealand needs to clean house and stop being hypocritical.”

A coalition of international NGOs, Climate Action International, who awarded the Fossil of the Day Award, said the country’s fossil fuel production subsidies have actually been increasing seven-fold since Key’s election in 2008.

Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Dr Russel Norman said Mr Key’s contribution at the first day of the climate conference was “nothing but empty words”.

“Although our government may claim otherwise, on our home turf we have been subsidising the oil industry to the tune of $46 million a year. Even worse, [the national government] is now refusing to reveal just how big these tax breaks and subsidies currently are,” Dr Norman said.

Last week, five Greenpeace activists occupied the government-owned and publicly funded climate and ocean research boat, Tangaroa, just before it was due to head out to sea to undertake oil surveying for Chevron.

Dr Norman said the science ship should be doing vital environmental work, but has been refitted at a cost of $24 million to equip it for oil and gas exploration.

“There’s something really wrong with this picture, and now these contradictions between what our government says and does are being highlighted on the world stage,” Dr Norman said.

Dr Norman said that while French President François Hollande in his opening speech called for any agreement reached on emissions reductions to be binding, the NZ government is proposing the targets should not be legally binding.

“We have one of the weakest climate action plans and poorest pollution reduction records of all the developed nations attending the talks in Paris,” Dr Norman said.

“Our government is such a negative force at these talks that it would be better if it wasn’t there.”

In his speech Mr Key said NZ had set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is a significant increase on the government’s current target of five percent below 1990 emission levels by 2020, he said.

“We wanted to ensure our target was achievable and didn’t impose unfair costs on any particular sector or group,” Mr Key said.

One positive announcement made by the PM on Day One of COP21 was that NZ will provide up to $200 million for climate-related support over the next four years, the majority to benefit Pacific nations.

“New Zealand has been at the forefront of efforts to shift the Pacific from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable electricity. This work to address energy insecurity and build resilience will continue as we step up our support for climate change adaptation,” Mr Key said.

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