Supreme Court rules against climate change action case after commission advice to government

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Climate Change Minister James Shaw says he has always regarded the committee’s advice as “exceptionally high”.
Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

The Supreme Court has dismissed a case by a group of lawyers who argued that advice given to the government was too weak to effectively tackle climate change.

The 350-strong Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argued that the Climate Change Commission’s roadmap for reducing emissions was inconsistent with international agreements.

They hoped to force a repeat of the advice, claiming that the math was wrong and that the advice was inconsistent with the global goal of limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees.

The Supreme Court dismissed their case.

The commission’s job was to make recommendations to Climate Change Secretary James Shaw, but the government was under no obligation to follow that advice. However, it does inform about emission budgets set by the government.

Committee chairman Dr. Rod Carr said in a statement that the decision would be reviewed in detail “to understand whether there are any implications for our work program and future guidance”.

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“We stood by our advice during the legal process, claiming that claims that we are not ambitious enough are wrong and misrepresent our advice.”

Shaw said New Zealanders can now have confidence in plans to tackle climate change.

“I have always considered the advice it has given the government to be exceptionally high-quality, based on rigorous scientific and expert analysis. Today’s ruling confirms that,” Shaw said.

“Having just returned from COP27 in Egypt, where progress has been as frustratingly slow as ever, my focus is now entirely on the need for urgent domestic action to reduce emissions, contain warming and prepare for the climate effects that we cannot avoid.”

The case had revealed some potential areas of confusion in how targets were set, he said, and he would look into that.

The context

The Paris Agreement aims to tackle climate change at a global level by, among other things, aiming to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

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The New Zealand government has therefore amended the Climate Change Response Act 2002 to contribute to this global effort.

It set a net zero emissions target by 2050, introduced requirements to set budgets for domestic emissions and established the Climate Change Commission to advise the minister.

In May 2021, the committee issued its first advice.

More than 350 lawyers came together as Lawyers for Climate Action New Zealand (LCANZ) to advocate for New Zealand to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

They filed a legal action last July to get a judicial review of that advice.

The main problems of the group were:

  • The recommended emission budgets fell short of the commission’s own calculation of what was needed to limit warming to 1.5°C
  • Accounting practices were inconsistent with the Climate Change Response Act and made budgets appear more ambitious than they actually were
  • The calculations for the country’s nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement make a logical and mathematical error, underestimating the required greenhouse gas reductions
  • The commission relies on the uncertain prospect that Aotearoa New Zealand can pay other countries to cut their emissions, rather than making domestic reductions at the level necessary to meet Paris Agreement commitments
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The Court’s Findings

Supreme Court Justice Jillian Mallon found the commission “had no intention of making a direct mathematical comparison” between New Zealand’s response and the trajectories modeled by the IPCC in line with the global 1.5 degree effort.

Although the committee could have made this clearer in its advice, the minister to whom the advice was issued understood the advice well, she said.

She also found that New Zealand’s contribution to the 1.5 degree limit was “more in line with an ambition than an obligation”.

Since the committee had not been explicitly instructed to meet any target by 2030, nor to follow the IPCC’s modeled trajectories, it had not failed.

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