Yes. The Zero Carbon Act is based on a proven concept: the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act. Since the UK Act was created, many other countries have introduced similar laws. This includes Denmark, Finland, Mexico and Ireland, as well as states and provinces in the United States, Canada and Australia. The Swedish Government recently announced it will introduce a new law in 2017, committing Sweden to net zero emissions by 2045.

Zero carbon means “net zero carbon emissions”. This is also known as “carbon neutrality”. To achieve net zero carbon emissions, we must reduce our carbon emissions to a level that is balanced out by carbon stored in forests and other carbon sinks.

In the Zero Carbon Act, the 2050 target of achieving zero carbon only applies to long-lived greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide). These gases need to be reduced to net zero to stop global temperatures increasing. 

To limit global warming to safe levels, the world needs to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and most other greenhouse gases to net zero. The Zero Carbon Act will commit New Zealand to doing this in a timeframe consistent with the global goal of keeping warming to well below 2°C. We believe this requires a target of net zero carbon by 2050 or sooner.

Yes. The two main agricultural greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide. These gases are included in the Zero Carbon Act.

Methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas, whereas nitrous oxide is long-lived. The Act will set separate targets and pathways for long-lived and short-lived greenhouse gases.

Long-lived gases (mainly carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) must go to net zero by 2050 or sooner. Short-lived gases (mainly methane) must be significantly reduced to sustainable levels, but not zero. The Climate Commission will be asked to advise on a long-term target for short-lived gases. For more information, see The two baskets approach.

The Zero Carbon Act treats methane differently because it is a short-lived greenhouse gas.

Emissions from long-lived greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years. These emissions must go to net zero to stop global temperatures from continually rising.

Short-lived greenhouse gases are different. Methane is very potent at trapping heat, but a tonne emitted today will only stay in the atmosphere for about a decade, on average, before being converted to carbon dioxide. The temperature impact is therefore much more temporary. To stop global warming, emissions from short-lived gases must be reduced to sustainable levels, but do not need to go to zero. For more information, see The two baskets approach.

Yes. Long-haul flights and global shipping contribute large amounts of carbon emissions. The Zero Carbon Act’s targets will include New Zealand’s share of emissions from international aviation and shipping (“IAS”) by using an ‘estimate’ approach.

This is because the current international responsibility rules for IAS emissions are not settled. As an example, for an Auckland-London flight by a Chinese airline, stopping in Dubai, it is unclear what New Zealand’s share of these IAS emissions should be.

Until these rules are resolved between countries, the Zero Carbon Act will require New Zealand’s estimated share of IAS emissions to be taken into account by the Climate Commission when recommending carbon budgets, and included by the Minister when setting a carbon budget. This means carbon budgets will be set with enough headroom to ensure that New Zealand is on track to meet its zero carbon 2050 target inclusive of IAS emissions. This approach is currently working effectively under the UK Climate Change Act.

The Zero Carbon Act will create a ‘firewall’ between New Zealand’s domestic climate change action and international contributions. This means international carbon credits cannot be used to meet the Act’s domestic targets. To achieve zero carbon, we must reduce our domestic emissions. See The ‘firewall’ principle.

However, international carbon credits may be purchased by New Zealand to support climate change efforts in other countries, and to meet New Zealand’s ‘responsibility targets’ under the Paris Agreement. The Zero Carbon Act will require the Government to make transparent annual reports about the environmental integrity of its international carbon credit purchases.

No. The Zero Carbon Act is a high-level framework that sets a pathway towards zero carbon. To achieve this target, the Government will need to prepare a range of policies to reduce carbon emissions in different sectors (including the energy sector, heavy industry, and transport). This detailed sector-specific planning should be done by policy-makers and regulators, rather than prescribed in the Act’s high-level framework. The Climate Commission will provide expert advice to the Government about the emission reductions required from each sector when recommending a carbon budget.

The Zero Carbon Act will also set different targets for long-lived (mainly carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) and short-lived greenhouse gases (mainly methane), under the two baskets approach. New Zealand’s methane emissions are mostly from agriculture. In practical terms, the separate targets for short-lived greenhouse gases will apply mostly to the agricultural sector.

No. The Zero Carbon Act will require the Government to set targets, and prepare a plan to meet these targets. The plan must be consistent with the principles of the Zero Carbon Act, including Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But the Government is otherwise free to choose which policies it will use to meet the targets.

The Act sets out outcomes and process. It sits above particular policy instruments, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme. It combines long-term clarity on policy direction with flexibility in its delivery.

Yes, but only in limited circumstances. The long-term target can be only changed by the Government following “significant developments” in climate science, or international law. A carbon budget may only be changed following “significant changes” to the factors on which the budget was originally set.

There are further safeguards. In both situations, the Government must request advice from the Climate Commission about the proposed change. If the Government makes a change against the Commission’s advice, they must provide a statement justifying their reasons. Finally, Parliament must approve the change by formally passing a motion.

Under the Zero Carbon Act, the Minister must ensure that carbon budgets are met. This is a legal duty. If the Government exceeds a carbon budget, the Minister can be held to account in court.

The court may officially declare that the Minister breached their duty, and order the Minister to comply with the Zero Carbon Act. For example, the court might order the Minister to introduce a policy plan to put New Zealand back on track towards zero carbon by 2050. For more information, see Accountability.

The Act is structured to keep New Zealand’s zero carbon transition on track. In particular, carbon budgets must be set 12 years in advance, policy plans must be prepared 10 years in advance, and the Climate Commission will publish reports about the Government’s progress every year. This means that problems can be identified and addressed before the Government exceeds a carbon budget.

The Minister for Climate Change Issues has legal duties under the Zero Carbon Act. These duties include setting targets, making plans, and meeting the targets. The Minister can be held accountable if he or she breaches these duties.

All references to “Minister” under the Zero Carbon Act means the Minister for Climate Change Issues.

The Zero Carbon Act will honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and give effect to meaningful partnership between iwi and the Crown. All targets and plans set under the Zero Carbon Act must be consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The Climate Commission will also be required to have expertise in these matters, and must build meaningful partnership with iwi.

For more information, see Purpose and principles of the Zero Carbon Act.

The transition to zero carbon will disrupt some industries, particularly coal, oil and gas. ‘Fair transition’ refers to the importance of undertaking this transition in a way which minimises hardship to the workers and communities that rely on these industries.

The Zero Carbon Act will ensure a fair transition for New Zealand workers in affected industries. For example, the Act will require the Minister to take into account employment issues when setting carbon budgets, and to prepare policy plans which are consistent with the principle of fair transition. The Climate Commission will also have expertise in industry policy and labour markets, allowing it to provide advice on this issue.

Low-lying Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate impacts. The Zero Carbon Act will require the Government to prepare transparent annual reports about New Zealand’s climate contributions to other countries, such as climate finance and adaptation assistance. The Act will also recognise New Zealand’s responsibility to support our Pacific neighbours, and especially people relocating because of climate impacts, in a way that acknowledges their sovereignty and right of self-determination.

Yes, we already have a Climate Change Response Act. This sets out New Zealand’s targets under the Kyoto Protocol, and includes rules for our Emissions Trading Scheme. To give effect to the Zero Carbon Act, the targets in the Climate Change Response Act will need to be removed. The Climate Change Response Act might continue to exist as an ETS rulebook.  

The Zero Carbon Act’s high-level framework will operate above other laws relevant to climate change. For example, the Zero Carbon Act’s Adaptation Programme might be implemented through the Resource Management Act and the Local Government Act.

Generally speaking, New Zealand’s law in other areas illustrates the importance of transparency, accountability, independent advisory bodies, and clear targets and objectives. But so far, the Government has failed to apply these principles to domestic climate change action. The Zero Carbon Act will fill this legislative gap.