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Law student sues New Zealand over climate change failings

A New Zealand law student is suing the country’s Minister for Climate Change over national emissions reduction targets.

In 2011, the Minister set an emissions reduction target of 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. But in 2015 the government, under the Paris Agreement, committed to reduce emissions by just 11% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

ClientEarth legal expert Sophie Marjanac said: “This case could be ground-breaking, because the judges might need to consider the meaning of the overarching objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is to ensure the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations on the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system”. Most importantly, they may have to pass judgment on what this means for developed countries’ emissions reductions targets. This would potentially set a global precedent and paint countries with weak targets in a very unflattering light.

New Zealand risks being exposed as having a woefully inadequate target, which is unlikely to be enough to meet the two degree temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. We are watching this case closely to see whether it could set a precedent for other developed countries, whose emissions-cutting targets also fail to meet what scientists say is required to prevent serious harm to the planet and humanity.”

Sarah Thomson claims the decisions regarding both targets were unlawful under the Act, on administrative grounds. Specifically, she alleges that, under the Climate Change Response Act 2002, the Minster was required to review the 2050 target after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th Assessment Report was released in 2014, and that both targets should be set in line with the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The law student argues that under the Convention and the Paris Agreement, developed countries must significantly reduce their emissions to keep global warming below two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is the level that scientists agree is necessary to avoid severe impacts on the environment and humanity, a fact that the Minister acknowledges in her defence.

The Minister denies that New Zealand’s target must be set at a higher level under the Act or Paris Agreement, and claims that New Zealand’s emissions reductions will have a limited impact on the global total, and the likelihood of meeting the 2 degree temperature goal. Sarah has enlisted expert evidence from former NASA scientists James Hansen and is being represented by a firm of experienced litigators. The hearing runs for three days.

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