Thursday, February 02, 2012

Climate change: Cross-purposes

The government dumped its Briefings to Incoming Ministers today, and I've spent the last few hours skimming a few of them. As someone interested in the sustainability of my future, I was particularly interested in the energy and environment BIMs; unfortunately, what they show is that the government is working at cross-purposes in this area.

First, here's the Ministry for the Environment [PDF], with a clear idea of what we need to do:

The Government, therefore, needs a mix of policies that demonstrate credible action in the short term and position New Zealand well to deliver the substantial emissions reductions needed in the longer term. A smooth transition to a low carbon economy will be needed, with the emphasis being on options that enable New Zealand to produce more with fewer emissions, generate co-benefits and gain competitive advantage.
And then there's the Ministry of Economic Development's briefing for the Energy and Resources portfolio [PDF]. Its chief priority?
Encouraging investment in the Crown’s petroleum and mineral resources
Yes, while MfE is talking about the need to move to a low-carbon equality, MED is pushing for more oil, more gas, more coal, promising self-sufficiency and mega-profits if we subsidise foreign oil explorers more. As for the government's target of 90% renewable electricity generation by 2030, they have this to say:
The Ministry’s view is that commercial enterprises are best placed to identify the lowest cost generation mix, the government’s role is to ensure there are no undue barriers to invest in generation of any type, and environmental effects are priced wherever possible. The relative economics of generation types is dictated by exchange rates (a higher exchange rate favours high capital cost options such as wind), emissions price (a high emission price favours renewables) and input resource availability and price (the availability and price of gas has a major bearing on gas plant economics).
"Leave it to the market", in other words. Unfortunately, according to their own projections [XLS], the market is not going to deliver. The reference scenario in the latest New Zealand's Energy Outlook shows us achieving just 81% renewables by 2030, thanks to new builds of gas, oil, and even coal generation.

A competent Ministry would highlight this discrepancy, and present options for resolving it. A government which cared about the target would demand they did so. Instead, MED's "leave it to the market" approach puts us on the path to failure.

But its worse than that - because while they're ignoring renewables, MED is also talking up new non-renewable generation:

New Zealand also has significant non-renewable resources which could be developed. As well as traditional oil, gas and coal, there are emerging new technologies – such as underground coal gasification, coal seam gas and methane hydrates – which open up new future opportunities. Supporting technologies such as carbon capture and storage will in time make it possible to develop some of our resources that are not currently environmentally or economically viable.
They don't go into any further detail on this, but it displays the mindset at work. MED doesn't care about climate change. They don't care about sustainability. All they care about is digging things up and burning them - and the cheaper, the better.

This sort of disconnect between goal and implementation will doom our climate change policy to failure. It is the government's job to do something about it, to ensure that their departments are working to achieve their goals, rather than to thwart them. The question now is whether they will, or whether they're happy for this subtle sabotage of their own stated policies.