Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Planning to have a plan

Yesterday, the government announced the first stage of its new climate change policy. I've read the cabinet papers they released, and its not unfair to characterise the situation as (to paraphrase one commenter) having gone from having a policy to planning to have one. With Kyoto's first commitment period starting in less than eighteen months, this really isn't good enough.

The primary cabinet paper, Climate Change Policy: the Way Ahead, doesn't actually establish any policy, but rather sets out a work programme that will result in a policy in, oh, one or two years. That policy looks likely to be significantly weaker (and therefore less likely to result in emissions reductions) than the one the government just walked away from. For a start, the government is going to abandon its goal of setting New Zealand's emissions on a downward path by 2012 (the end of Kyoto's CP1) in favour of a "long term and strategic" approach focused on "balancing durable efforts to reduce emissions with preparations for the impacts of a more variable climate". In English, this means focusing on adaptation rather than prevention. It also means committing to meeting our Kyoto obligations by buying credits rather than through domestic action - which, given the volatility of international carbon markets, is a very risky strategy.

As an intermediate step, the paper suggests ministers consider "bold goals or objectives" that people can relate to more easily than abstract emissions reduction targets. One of the suggestions is to commit to having renewable energy targets, and the goal of having 100% renewable or carbon-neutral (non-transport) energy in the long term. I'd like to see this, but given the degree of caveating, it doesn't look like the government has any real commitment to it.

The government also seems to be moving in the direction of a narrow carbon tax on electricity generators and major industrial users - though we probably won't see anything on this for eighteen months, and given the noises coming from NZ First about "competitive" (meaning cheap) electricity prices, we may not see it at all. There's also some parts which are simply laughable, such as this:

In the longer run the most effective policy mix is likely to include mechanisms that introduce a price (cost) of greenhouse gas emissions. There would be some advantage in signalling such a mechanism sooner rather than later in order to influence the natural 30- 40 year investment cycles for equipment and infrastructure and minimise the risk of stranded assets.

The government has been signalling a price on carbon since 1995, with no discernable effect on emissions or investment behaviour. And the reason for this is that it has consistently refused to carry out its threat. In 1995, it threatened to implement a carbon tax in 1997 unless business made voluntary reductions - and then, when emissions rose, backed down. In 2002 it said "there will be a carbon tax" - and then threw the whole plan out the window. Against this backdrop, such "signals" have no credibility; business will bet that any such policy will suffer a similar fate, and invest accordingly. The only way to send a credible signal now is to actually impose a price - which the government would not and now apparently can not do.

The problem is broader than the issue of carbon taxes and economic incentives. having backed away from three sets of policies in the last ten years, the fundamental policy that the government is credibly signalling it is committed to is "doing nothing". And now, with Kyoto looming, that sustained policy of inaction is going to cost us dearly.

On the plus side, it looks like there will be action to discourage deforestation and land-use changes, and to improve the average fuel efficiency of New Zealand's cars, which is welcome. But overall, the picture is not good. We've gone from a core policy which would have had a significant effect on our emissions to relying on what should have been measures to supplement that policy - and they will not be implemented until it is far too late for them to have any effect. if this is "the way ahead", then you really have to wonder how it differs from "the way back"...


So, what's the adaptation plan for the cbds of our major cities? Would it be viable to refurbish the taller buildings to put in new doors and bridges a few stories up, or is there no way to make them stable when the ground floors are under water? Would it be cheaper to simly abandon them, and build new cbds from scratch on higher ground? Where are we going to put Wellington's new airport?

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 7/05/2006 03:12:00 PM

Accepting your characterisation of the situation for a moment, the question which then arises is: what would you do differently?

I.e. the progressive forces which wanted to deal more firmly with climate change hold a minority of seats in Parliament. The majority of MPs do not wish to pursue policies that will make a serious difference in this area.

So to generate change it isn't Labour you have to convince. It's National, or New Zealand First, or United Future.

How would you go about doing so?

Posted by Jordan : 7/05/2006 04:20:00 PM

The adaptation plan is likely to revolve around bailing out farmers for the damage caused by the increased incidence of droughts and flooding - which is ironic, given that their vastly disproportionate emissions and outright opposition to any preventative measures have been our primary contribution to the problem.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/05/2006 04:21:00 PM

Neh. Requiring farmers to pay for emissions is stupid - In large part, the amount of methane producing farm animals on the planet is approximately equivalent to the amount of methane producing herd animals we've wiped out in the past few hundred years to replace their territory with domesticated grazing animals. Equal sum game.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 7/05/2006 04:43:00 PM

Jordan: I would have used the opportunity that existed five or even two years ago to implement credible policy then, rather than dragging my feet and then blaming everybody else now.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/05/2006 04:50:00 PM

Weekend Viking: Nice special pleading. But it doesn't change the fact that farmers emit (not just methane, but also CO2 from land clearance and N2O from overstocked cows and overuse of fertiliser). Those emissions affect the global climate and impose costs on others. And it is the farmers who should be paying those costs - not the rest of us.

What you're effectively asking people to do is subsidise farmers to pollute. And I don't see why we should do that at all.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/05/2006 05:04:00 PM

I/S: It's not going to make a jot of difference who pays who what, because the major damage, if any, is already done, and the corruption inherent in human government will see that the major polluters don't stop. NZ is so small that even if we ran a perfectly tight ship, (functionally Impossible), we would make utterly no difference to the bulk of global climate emissions, because we are only a few hundred thousand to a couple of million tonnes of gas emission. South America, with its Iberian derived ultra-corrupt institutions, will never do anything serious about emissions. North America with its corporate republic will find ways to exempt all major corporations, or horse trade it away. Asia, India, Africa and the Middle east will ignore it, and Europe will bureaucratise itself into EU indecision.

In other words, it's ultimately futile.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 7/05/2006 05:42:00 PM

So we're fucked. I predict our grandchildren will spit on our graves. Or at least on the ocean that swamps them.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/05/2006 06:29:00 PM

I understand countries like the EU countries are lying about their emissions (I think I read it in new scientist). And if they lie what can we expect of China (and their massive unexplained fluctuations).

> So, what's the adaptation plan for the cbds of our major cities?

1) Probably build a dam. But you don’t need a plan because worst case - a building can be built and destroyed in a year. You could push the building uphill faster than the water is going to rise.

> In large part, the amount of methane producing farm animals on the planet is approximately equivalent to the amount of methane producing herd animals we've wiped out

there were no herd animals in NZ so I’m not sure we can use that argument.

> In other words, it's ultimately futile.

As it is, maybe. Unless it is backed with threat of force.

Posted by Genius : 7/06/2006 07:37:00 AM

A dam? Great, till the next earthquake or tsunami. One building can be built in a year, but an entire city? Even if we had the resources, how much would it cost? We don't know how fast ocean levels will rise.

Labour should at least try to put through serious policies, and make it a real mainstream political issue. If the other parties block the legislation, the voters can take that in to account at the next election. New Zealand can't prevent climate change on its own, but if nothing else it could set a good example for the rest of the world.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 7/06/2006 11:59:00 AM

"So to generate change it isn't Labour you have to convince. It's National, or New Zealand First, or United Future."

No, it's Labour we have to convince. Labour has admitted that they had the numbers to pass the Carbon Tax (with the Greens and the Maori Party) but they chose not to do it. It's the Labour party that doesn't have the balls to deal with the problem and yet they continually try to blame the numbers in parliament.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/06/2006 12:41:00 PM

WV: while the time-lag involved in climate change means that we're already committed to at least half a degree of warming, one thing the IPCC is very clear on is that things will be much worse if we continue to emit. And that's the primary purpose of curbing emissions now - to try and ensure that the consequences are something we can kidof live with, rather than something really, really bad.

As for NZ's effects, I agree, we're tiny and that this problem will only be solved (or ameliorated, or whatever) by concerted global action. But if we want that global action, we have to do our bit. I share your cynicism about the willingness of politicians and business interests to do what is required, but we have to at least try.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/06/2006 12:56:00 PM


Nice try on the herd animals front.

But being a NZ dairy farmer doesn't make you an automatic inheritor of free greenhouse gas emission trading rights once-owned by medeival North American Bison.

Your claim is that NZ's farmers greenhouse emissions don't count because they are simply replacing greenhouse gas emissions that would once have come from herds of North American Bison.

I could counter with an argument that Wellington motorists's emissions don't count because they are simply replacing greenhouse gas emissions that would once have come from herds of North American Bison. Or that the emissions of methane from hydro dams in tropical countries don't count because they are simply replacing greenhouse gas emissions that would once have come from herds of North American Bison.

Your "oh, but they're all ruminants" argument cuts no ice.

commie mutant,

It's not going to be like that.

Worst likely case is a seven metre rise in the next 100 years - an extremely expensive dike around Wellington's CBD would suffice. CBDs are very expensive per square metre, and so worth defending with expensive levees. It's the vast miles of beachfront that don't have a few hundred million dollars worth of buildings behind them that will be hit badly. We'd lose the Chocolate Fish, and the link to Petone would get tenuous.

But Wellington's CBD is not in the poo the way Christchurch's eastern suburbs are.

Posted by Icehawk : 7/06/2006 04:45:00 PM

Icehawk: not to mention the road to Eastborne, and probably the cafe that used to be known as Chocolate Dayz...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/06/2006 05:24:00 PM

I/S - that's too cute, sorry. Given where we are now, what would you do? Counter to what the others have said, there are not the numbers in place now.

I think that the release from the minister indicates neither the government nor the officials know what to do next.

So - I ask you again. What would you do? Why?

Posted by Jordan : 7/06/2006 06:06:00 PM

I agre with you that somthing should be done but at the same time think your sound a bit funny getting scared about sea that will rise by, let us say, 3cm per year (marginal difference), and would require you to add height and strengthen a dam by that amount.
Effectively what you have is a 99 year lease on certain property if a business can't get a 99 year plan in action it deserves to drown even a home-owner should be able to deal with that - just a house with depreciation and many lucky people could then all of a sudden afford a house by the sea!
they could also of course "reclaim" the land in the same way they could reclaim it now.
it devalues it a bit but you would hardly notice.

Posted by Genius : 7/06/2006 06:39:00 PM

Jordan, here's a short list - emmissions taxes, rebates for solar water heating (widescale as opposed to the pathetic efforts currently in place), changes to the building act to ensure new buildings are as energy efficient as is practical (and having the added bonus of warmer houses, better health outcomes and less demand for new power generation), requiring all rental housing to have at least basic insulation, stopping all current generation from coal and phasing out the use of our dwindling and valuable gas reserves, a moratorium on new roads construction (unless justified by serious safety issues), major investments in public transport, recycling schemes to divert methane causing waste from ladfills.

I'm no expert on the matter, but there are a lot of things that the Govt can do that don't require too much thinking about.

Jordan, David Parker did sound confused about what the Govt can do the other day, so perhaps I could suggest a conversation with Jeanette Fitzsimons? (she's actually very nice)

Tony Milne and others talk (very sincerely) about unity with the Greens, but this kind of nonsense undermines any faith left, and keeps open that huge rift, keeps activists angry.

And in case anyone forgets, climate change is very much a human rights issue:

Posted by Anonymous : 7/06/2006 08:06:00 PM

The question regarding climate change is if some country lies about their figures and burns coal or rejects the treaty and produced massive amounts of energy - will we be wiling to kill thousands of people to stop them? hundreds of thousands? millions?

the problem being that it takes one free riding state to screw up the whole planet's plan - and they could theoretically live "high on the hog" using a massive amount of almost free energy. (and as we save more carbon fuel we drive down the price of the fuel and up the value of the energy produced)

Unless technology does the kyoto savings for us (in which case our efforts are a bit academic). Maybe that is what the US government argument is based on...

Posted by Genius : 7/06/2006 10:45:00 PM