Thursday, September 16, 2021

Climate Change: An excuse, not a justification

Yesterday the government announced plans to delay its key Emissions Reduction Plan - currently due by law by 31 December - until next year. Its "justification"?

Shaw said consultations on the plan would begin in early October.

"It is only right to make sure everyone has the chance to contribute without the additional challenge of keeping people safe while the country is at different alert levels, especially those in Auckland who are still at level 4," he said.

"It also allows the Government to align the final plan with Budget 2022, so people can see how its delivery will be supported through Government investment."

Which probably sounds great it you ignore the fact that they've been "consulting" on this plan in one form or another since February (having already got an extension), and if you don't know how budget processes work. As someone who knows just enough to get myself into trouble, I don't think this stacks up at all.

Shaw's indicative timeline is "consultations begin in October". Allowing a month for consultations takes us to November. Another month for the answers to be read, collated, and summarised, and Shaw will be responding to them after December. That's a bare-bones, box-ticking timeline. In practice, this is going to have a lot of submissions, and a longer consultation deadline. As an indication, the Climate Commission's consultation earlier this year (on exactly this topic) started on 1 February and produced a decision on 31 May, so four months. Which would mean Shaw will be announcing a decision at the end of January / early February.

What's the budget timeline? Treasury has an overall guide here: the "strategic phase", where agencies prepare budget bids, runs from June to December. The "decision phase", where Treasury says no to those bids, runs from January to April. There's also a detailed timeline for the 2019 budget here (p6), which gives a deadline of 14 December for all initiatives, with the Minister of Finance assessing them from mid-February though to the end of March, when the Cabinet process takes over. There is a process for late bids, which must be pre-approved by the Minister of Finance, but Treasury will be institutionally hostile to these for "bypass[ing] good process".

So how does Shaw's indicated timeline fit with this? It doesn't. Even a short consultation leaves him no time to prepare or change budget bids in response. A long consultation gives very little time for assessment before he starts running into Cabinet deadlines. Either way, its going to mean the decisions will effectively have been made before the consultation begins, making it effectively meaningless. "Consultation" is an excuse, not a justification for delay.

So what timeline does fit with getting emissions reduction policies properly into the budget? The current one. Shaw was originally planning to publish the plan well in advance of the deadline, which would mean plenty of time for budget bids. It would also mean a transparent process, where everyone could see what had been recommended, and assess subsequent budgets against those recommendations. The new timeline cloaks all that under budget secrecy. Whether this bodes well for policy is left as an exercise for the reader.