Fair is fair. It seems simple enough – we know what fairness looks like when we see it. If we do something that harms others, we should put it right, even if it costs us to do so. Most New Zealanders would agree.
Somehow we forget this sense of fair play when it comes to polluting our atmosphere. Climate change is a great injustice.
Collectively, we have contributed around three quarters of the world’s greenhouse gases from human sources into the atmosphere.
The injustice is that 1 billion of the world’s poorest people are suffering most from unpredictable seasons, crop failures and worsening weather-related disasters. They are responsible for just 3 per cent of global emissions, but are bearing the brunt of our pollution.
The victims are fragile Pacific island communities struggling to survive while the seas gradually rise and the storms become more intense.
They are also the Bangladeshi woman carrying her children away from rising floodwaters, the Rwandan farmer trying to eke out a living from parched soils and the Indonesian girl struck by dengue fever.
There is now a high level of consensus around a goal of keeping global temperature rises to less than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels (2°C).
It provides a basis for an agreement to be forged in December at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.
In 2007, the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in their fourth assessment report that the industrialised countries would need to reduce their emissions by 2020 to 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels in order to have an even chance of keeping temperature rise below 2°C.
An even chance is not good odds for those whose lives may be devastated by climate change. In addition, current peer-reviewed science indicates that climate change is occurring faster than predicted in 2007, with more severe impacts.
Therefore, Oxfam, together with a large number of New Zealanders, is calling for the Government to support a target for the industrialised countries at the top of the IPCC range.
This means that New Zealand should submit a target of a 40 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.
This is a target for the group of all industrialised countries. Using criteria of past emissions and current income levels, Oxfam calculates that New Zealand’s fair share of meeting this cumulative target should be just above the 40 per cent average for industrialised countries as a whole.
The government appears to be preparing a justification to support a target well below the target demanded by science or by our moral responsibility.
But the modelling assumes no changes in technology, no business response and unrealistically high carbon prices.
The use of this modelling seems like a case of ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’, used to justify a pre-determined position. The model does not provide a credible cost estimate and it is clear that there are lower cost ways to reduce our emissions.
We have already seen that tree planting has cancelled out the supposedly high costs of complying with the Kyoto Protocol.
There is another way of looking at the decision. We need to take into account the costs of setting too low a target. These include not only the impacts of climate change on our coastlines and agriculture, but also the cost to our trading sector.
We are putting our huge asset – our ‘clean green brand’ – at risk by being one of the climate change pariahs in negotiations.
In fact, the eminent British economist Lord Stern points out that the costs of inaction are far higher than the costs of taking on the targets that science demands. This is particularly the case for New Zealand.
The potential damage to our image from dragging our feet on climate change is enormous, as is the cost to our businesses if they fall behind international standards of good practice.
In the end, climate change is not just about costs to business – it affects people and our fragile planet. Therefore we have a choice. We can adopt our fair share of responsibility and help keep climate change below dangerous thresholds.
Or we can miss this historic opportunity for economic transformation and condemn millions of vulnerable people. We need to think of others as well as ourselves when it comes to climate change. It’s only fair.
Editor's Note: This article was originally printed in The Press, August 8, 2009 by Oxfam New Zealand Executive Director-Barry Coates.
More cool stuff on Celsias: