Climate leadership is alive and well across the ditch

But in this week of wildfires the PM is much too busy to think about such things.

Last week, in an island nation to our east, we got a glimpse of a better future. With bipartisan support, a bill mandating dramatic action to curb carbon emissions passed the New Zealand parliament.

Three days after Donald Trump turned his back on the climate crisis by formally announcing US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, New Zealand’s Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill was voted into law.

It was welcome relief from Trump’s bad news. The US is the only nation to withdraw from the deal reached in Paris in 2015, when every developed country agreed to cut emissions and help poor countries deal with a warming climate. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all we have.

The US withdrawal is still subject to a formal 12-month cooling-off period, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of Trump’s decision. For all its many faults, the world’s most powerful democracy sets standards which others tend to follow. Its withdrawal makes progress a lot harder.

Trump’s rambling 30-minute announcement of the Paris decision said little except that he was “fighting every day for the great people of this country”. As he’s supposed to do, except that pulling out of Paris is as much a blow to his country and its people as it is to the rest of us.

He claimed, without naming sources, that the Paris Agreement would cost “close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6½ million industrial jobs”, forcing the US to cut production of resources including coal (“and I happen to love the coal mines”).

While asserting his own country was “the world’s leader in environmental protection”, Trump also said the agreement imposed “no meaningful obligation on the world’s leading polluters”, naming China and India as “leading polluters”.

[Fact check: As developing countries under UN rules, China and India don’t have to cut carbon emissions but agreed to do so on a longer timeframe when the US pledged to act. The US is a higher emitter than India, second behind China, and several times higher per person than either.]

The most important thing about Trump’s statement is what he didn’t say. His 2500-word speech contained not a single mention of the reason the treaty exists in the first place – climate change.

Contrast all that with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s address to her parliament last week. Extreme weather, ecological impacts, spread of diseases, and rising sea levels making fresh water in island nations undrinkable were indicators that “our world is warming – undeniably”, she said.

“Therefore the question for all of us is, what side of history will we choose to sit on in this moment in time? I absolutely believe and continue to stand by the statement that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time.”

The new law, which passed by 119 votes to one, will be the basis for the country’s effort to meet its Paris 2050 commitment of cutting all greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. Using a carbon price, the country aims for an 80 per cent cut in methane emitted from animals and decaying plants.

New Zealand has pledged to reach 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035, to have a “green hydrogen” plant operating next year, to stop offshore oil and gas exploration, to make low-emission vehicles cheaper, and to invest in rail, cycling and walking. It is well on the way to planting a billion trees.

The country will seek to end all tariffs on green technologies, fight to end government subsidies of fossil fuels costing $US500 billion globally, and will put $300 million into the Green Climate Fund for developing countries – contrary to Australia and the US, which have pulled out of the fund.

The Ardern government consulted extensively with Green and opposition National MPs as well as business and resource sectors, which were won over by investment prospects in a clean economy. To use our own PM’s favourite word, miracles can happen when people talk to each other.

Ardern pointedly rejected the idea that her country should act only when others do. She said that NZ food producers needed climate action because their product depended on a high level of environmental responsibility.

New Zealand has set a standard for the rest of the world, not least its next-door neighbour. With our worst East Coast wildfires in memory taking full toll in the midst of the worst drought in our history, it’s surely an example that Australia should take a good hard look at.

But this government has already declared its hand. In multilateral forums we’re a laggard, not a leader. We’re not yet following Trump, but pulling out of Paris will sound a much more harmonious chord in Canberra than Ardern’s great achievement.

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