Accountability is an important part of New Zealand’s climate change response. Accountability promotes certainty and action. Under the Zero Carbon Act, the Minister will be legally required to meet targets and complete other duties. This means the Minister can be held to account in court.
What are the Minister’s legal responsibilities?
The Minister’s main legal duties in the Zero Carbon Act are to meet targets and prepare a plan. These duties are listed in more detail here:
Set targets: The Minister must set five year emission targets (‘carbon budgets’) which are consistnt with the long-term targets.
Prepare policy plans – The Minister must:
- Prepare policies that will reduce emissions and meet the targets.
- Prepare a National Climate Risk Assessment and an Adaptation Programme.
Meet the targets: The Minister is responsible for meeting carbon budgets and the long-term targets by carrying out the policy plan.
Act with integrity: The Minister must meet the targets and prepare plans in a way which gives effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and other Zero Carbon Act principles.
Be transparent: The Minister must comply with the Act’s transparency duties. These include releasing annual emissions statements, responding to the Climate Commission’s advice, and reporting on New Zealand’s international contributions.
Holding the Minister to account
If the Minister breaches a legal duty in the Zero Carbon Act, any New Zealand citizen will be able to hold them to account through a process called judicial review.
Judicial review is when a court reviews an act of government, such as a decision by a Minister. If the decision is found to be in breach of the law, the court can make orders to remedy the situation. The Zero Carbon Act will clearly describe who can bring a judicial review claim against the Government, and what orders a court can make.
Climate change is the biggest issue facing current and future generations. If not addressed, the effects of climate change will impact all New Zealanders. In these circumstances, it is appropriate that every New Zealand citizen can take the Government to court and enforce the legal requirements of the Zero Carbon Act. This right is known as ‘open standing’.
If a judicial review is successful, the Zero Carbon Act will allow a court to make orders including:
- A declaration: The court can formally declare that the Minister breached their legal duty under the Zero Carbon Act.
- Rejecting the decision: The court can rule that the Minister’s decision is in breach of the Zero Carbon Act and needs to be made again.
- Ordering the Minister to act: The court can order the Minister to make a decision, or do an action, to meet the legal duties in the Zero Carbon Act.
These are powerful orders. For example, if the Minister sets a carbon budget which is inconsistent with the Act’s zero carbon 2050 target, the court can rule that this decision is invalid and needs to be made again. Similarly, if the Minister fails to prepare a policy plan to meet a future carbon budget, the court can order the Minister to introduce policies which will put New Zealand back on track towards a zero carbon future.
The Zero Carbon Act will not prescribe how the Government must meet its targets, or which specific policies must be used. The court similarly cannot order the Government to introduce a particular policy. It may only order the Government to fulfil its legal duties under the Act by setting budgets and making a plan.
Transparency and political accountability
Legal accountability is not the only form of accountability. New Zealanders can also hold politicians to account by voting them out of government.
The Zero Carbon Act’s accountability framework is closely related to the Act’s transparency requirements. Transparency creates legal and political accountability by promoting public engagement and democratic oversight. Transparency allows New Zealanders to understand what the Government doing about climate change, and vote accordingly.