The Sustainability Council's Simon Terry has a piece in the Listener this week on the failure of New Zealand climate change policy [PDF]. While the thrust of the article is a call for our major polluters - farmers - to pay the full cost of their emissions rather than dumping it on the taxpayer, a significant portion of it explores the history of the 2005 Kyoto shock, when we discovered that we would miss our Kyoto target by 36.2 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent. After exploring government cabinet papers, Terry blames two things for this. The first was an over-estimate of our baseline, which saw our Kyoto assigned amount shrink by 15% in 2001. The second was government policy failure:
the government programmes supposed to reduce total emissions by 10% turned out on closer examination to be worth 0%... the inconvenient truth was that all the announced steps the Environment Ministry had for the past three years sworn were going to make a meaningful difference to New Zealand's emissions were assessed to have no measurable effect.
The programmes in question were those of EECA and the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, which were expected to save 21 MTCO2-e over the first Commitment Period. And the reason for this total failure seems to have been systematic underfunding by the government. A 2002 cabinet paper [PDF] noted that in order to deliver the projected reductions from energy efficiency,
EECA estimates additional funding increasing from $4.6 m per annum to $25.7m in 2006/07 will be required. $4.6m is being sought in the 2002-3 budget to commence funding of this work." (p. 11).
Actual funding lagged well behind this. According to the 2002 estimate of appropriation for Vote: Energy Efficiency and Conservation [PDF], EECA's budget increased by just over $1 million between 2002 and 2003 - a quarter of what was needed. In 2003 [PDF] it was raised to $13 million, and in 2006 [PDF] it was at $21.1 million, just over half of what was believed to be necessary. In short, the government banked on emissions reductions - but then did nothing to bring them about.
But that's not the whole story. There's a second major failure Terry doesn't notice: bad data on forest plantings leading to a false sense of security about our net position. All through the 90's, and right up until 2005 policy was founded on the belief that there would be more than enough trees to counter any rise in emissions, and that therefore there was no hurry to impose real policies to reduce emissions. This belief was founded on projections of high forest planting rates extending well into the future. And those projections were systematically wrong.
The table below compiles data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's 2005 National Exotic Forest Description [PDF], and the Ministry for the Environment's 1994 [PDF], 1997 [PDF] and 2001 [PDF] national communications under the UNFCCC. All figures are in hectares.
It should be clear from the above that the New Zealand government has been basing its climate change policy on bad data from the beginning. This has, to use Terry's words, undermined minister's ability to make appropriate policy and blown away much of the lead time we had to make changes. Instead, we spent a decade sitting on our thumbs, secure in the belief that the problem was already solved (while of course taking no steps to ensure it would be).
Someone at MAF needs to be held accountable for this. Unfortunately, given the timespan involved, the people responsible have almost certainly left to become consultants.