Insight: Our Aotearoa climate action journey

Our Chief Executive, Jo Hendy, shares her insights on 30+ years of climate action highs and lows, and how that brought us to our first advice.

On 31 May 2021, He Pou a Rangi Climate Change Commission delivered its first advice to the Government. It was less than 18 months since the Commission was established.  

The result of just 18 months of work? Definitely not. 

It has been 33 years since the International Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988; 24 years since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted; 13 years since Aotearoa implemented its Emissions Trading Scheme; six years since the Paris Agreement. 

For me it’s 20 years since I began my career in climate action with Motu Economic Research, followed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.  

Like many others in climate action, I began my career with hope and optimism. 

As a teenager I had watched as the Berlin Wall come down and Germany reunified in 1989. In the same year, the world agreed to collectively ban the use of ozone-depleting substances through the Montreal Protocol. We saw the Cold War end in 1991, and progress on nuclear disarmament. It felt like a time of great progress, with the calls of global leaders and international movements being heard.  

To me it signalled that when we act against these collective threats, we can solve the world’s biggest challenges – we could do the same for climate change.  

And in the late 90s and early 2000s, the effort for global climate action began to gain momentum. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, committing governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our government signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and in 2002 the Climate Change Response Act established a registry for Kyoto Units. In 2008, after a few false starts, the Emissions Trading Scheme passed into law. 

But then momentum stalled. The Global Financial Crisis hit, and international debate became increasingly polarised and politicised. 

In Aotearoa, in the face of the GFC, we saw the Emissions Trading Scheme dialled back – agriculture was exempted and the phase out of free allocations to industry was put on hold indefinitely. Work on climate policy stopped. Government, and government agencies, stopped talking about it. And so did media. 

For those of us working in climate action, the challenge was no longer about how to respond to the looming crisis, but how to get people to care. For many of my own generation and older, the impacts of climate change felt too far away – “Not in our lifetime.”   

So it fell to the next generation to acknowledge the threat and reignite action. 

Soon after unsuccessful climate talks in Cancun Mexico in 2010, Generation Zero was born in Aotearoa. Dissatisfied with global leaders’ lack of action, they set out to be the voice of those who will inherit the future—and to use that voice to demand action. They consulted, researched, petitioned, campaigned, and drafted their own Carbon Zero Bill.  

The Young Nats, Young Labour, Young Greens, Young Māori Party, and Young New Zealand First joined the call, putting their support behind the Zero Carbon Bill and the apolitical approach to climate solutions advocated by Generation Zero. 

Many others across Aotearoa, in businesses, politics, and NGOs, stood alongside Generation Zero — turning the national conversation from “should we act on climate change?” to “how do we act on climate change?” 

The United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015 provided another turning point. Nearly 200 countries, including Aotearoa, acknowledged the need to take collective action to reduce greenhouse gases. After decades of international climate change conferences, there was a change from debating what was fair, to each country saying what it could do.  

In April 2016, newly appointed Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett travelled to New York to sign the Paris Agreement, committing New Zealand to playing its part in keeping global temperature rise well below 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. She also tightened features of the Emissions Trading Scheme, set up working groups, and together with the Ministers of Finance and Economic Development initiated an inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the challenges of, and opportunities for reducing New Zealand’s emissions. 

A group of 35 MPs from across Parliament worked together to commission a report into long-term low emission pathways to net zero. It was an unprecedented, non-partisan approach that delivered a shared report on pathways, which Parliament could debate with greater clarity than ever before. 

In 2017, the new Government signalled its intent to pass a Zero Carbon Act. The Interim Climate Change Committee (ICCC) was established to prepare for the passing of the bill and to lay the foundations for the new Commission, and many of the Commission’s current team, including myself, were recruited to join the ICCC. 

In keeping with the tumultuous past for climate action in Aotearoa, it was not plain sailing for the legislation – driven by the desire to maintain cross-party consensus, and the negotiations needed as a result. But finally, on 14 November 2019 (six months later than anticipated) Members of Parliament from across the different political parties voted to pass the Zero Carbon Act without dissention. 

It was the culmination of the efforts of many people, and a time of huge hope and expectation. For the Climate Change Commission, it was now time to deliver on those hopes and expectations.  

We had to hit the ground running. At the same time as developing our first advice, we were building the new Commission from the ground up, defining our role and expectations, establishing our structure, setting operating budgets, building the team, establishing external relationships, engaging with New Zealanders.  

We needed to deliver our first advice in the first half of 2021 — allowing time for the Government to review the advice and deliver the country’s first Emissions Reduction Plan before the start of the first emissions budget period in 2022. 

And here we now are. Our advice has been delivered and Aotearoa is in the process of putting together its first Emissions Reduction Plan. We wait with anticipation to see the Government’s plan, and then it will be all eyes forward from November.  

For those of us who have worked for so long for climate action, it feels like a pinnacle achievement – not of 18 months, but of many years. And not just by the Commission’s team, but through a collective effort by people across Aotearoa and the globe. 

Now we need the same coordinated action across Aotearoa to deliver on our country’s first Emissions Reduction Plan. We owe it to everyone who has done the mahi to get us here, to ourselves, and to future generations.