Friday, October 06, 2006

Climate change symposium: stealing a march

Today I attended the Climate Change: the Policy Challenges Symposium in Wellington. I'll post on the wonkery later, but in this one I'll do the highlights: David Parker and Nick Smith.

Climate Change Minister David Parker was the first speaker, having had his talk on The way forward on climate change moved forward by six hours to pre-empt National's policy announcement later in the day. Unfortunately, the timing didn't hide the fact that it was absolutely underwhelming. I'd been expecting Parker to make use of the excellent platform provided by the policy symposium to announce some policy of his own. Instead, in keeping with the government's (too) cautious post-carbon tax approach, he "announced" a list of "strategic principles" so obvious as to be practically banal:

  1. Recognising that while action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have moderate costs, the predicted costs and risks of inaction are unacceptably high
  2. Recognising that effective international action is needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, New Zealand should help by reducing its own emissions, and by encouraging other countries to act.
  3. Recognising that New Zealand's response should maximise the economic advantages of using energy and resources more efficiently.
  4. Agreeing that our response should start with the most easily-achieved and least-cost solutions.
  5. Agreeing that a combination of sectoral and economy-wide measures, including voluntary, price-based and regulatory measures, is likely to be needed, and
  6. Agreeing that all sectors of the economy should play an equitable part in the nation's response to climate change, reflecting the fact that some sectors are able to achieve emissions reductions more easily than others. It's important to consider there are sectors in which there are few low-emissions technologies available at reasonable cost.

Or, in English, "we should do something, and it should be cheap and practical". This is the sort of thing Cabinet agrees at the earliest stages of the policy development process, before it starts looking at actual policy (or even options for actual policy). And if this is where the government is at the moment, then we're pretty much back where we were in early 2000 (and early 1998, and early 1992). In other words, nowhere.

Actually, that's not quite fair on Parker. The government does have policies(the biofuels obligation, for example), and they are clearly headed in the right direction (albeit slowly). But what they mostly have at the moment is a lot of fiddling around the edges, with little in the way of core policy to produce emissions reduction or sink absorption. It is a sign of the emptiness at the heart of government policy that a) they're forced to refer to a "12-page list of government initiatives already underway" (attached here) in the hope that the public will accept "quantity over quality"; and b) the most important announcement Parker could make today was the establishment of a "Climate Change Advisory Panel".

Which brings me to National's Nick Smith. Where Parker was tepid and underwhelming, Smith was the opposite. The National Party has had its conversion on the road to Kyoto, and they want everyone to know it. Quite apart from their credibility problem, the chutzpah is astounding. Having spent the last six years trying to deny the reality of climate change, they now admit that the case is strong, "[the] uncertainties are not an excuse for doing nothing", and that the risks must be managed. Having railed against Labour's decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, they now support participation because it is the only way to get larger countries to act. And having done everything possible to undermine the carbon tax and "fart" tax (including driving a tractor up the steps of Parliament), they are now criticising the government for abandoning those policies. About the only thing missing was the statement that Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

As for their policy, its a marvellous piece of political ju-jitsu. The ultimate destination of government policy has been fairly clear for the last six months or so: some form of limited carbon tax or pilot emissions trading scheme applying to the energy sector and possibly large industrial emitters as a precursor to full emissions trading post 2012; vehicle fuel efficiency standards or a "feebate" scheme, a biofuels obligation, a backdown on the disastrous deforestation cap, and more agricultural R&D. So, National has basically stolen those policies - and a march on the government - announcing support for energy-sector emissions trading "immediately", a feebate scheme to boost vehicle efficiency, biofuels, an end to the deforestation cap, and more agricultural R&D. About the only point of difference is that National favours gutting the RMA "to promote renewable energy". And now they're "hop[ing] the government will steal their ideas".

So now it seems that we have a convergence of climate change policy between the two main parties. Unfortunately, this means that action is probably even further away than ever. Quite apart from the fact that Labour will probably shift its policies to try and create a point of difference with National (throwing their careful process of policy development into disarray), there's also the fact that real action on climate change seems to be a line in the sand for Peter Dunne, while Winston opposes any policy which might raise electricity prices for pensioners. So even if Labour wanted to call National's bluff and use their announcement to put a limited cap and trade regime in place before the start of CP1, they probably couldn't. Which is, I suspect, National's point.


Idiot, I read the Herald article you linked to that you believe shows National as "trying to deny the reality of climate change". But what I found was this -

"National leader Don Brash wants to be convinced that:

* Global warning is occurring.
* Warming is being caused by human activity and, specifically, the increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
* Reducing emissions at enormous cost is in some sense a sacrifice commensurate to the potential gain."

Now I don't think wanting evidence is equivalent to denial. You might feel that at the time of this statement there was sufficient evidence but that does not make someone a denier if they disgreed. Those in denial are the ones that will not accept any evidence and there are enough of those on the Right.

And now National does believe there is evidence - which suggests that the above statements were made in good faith. So maybe in return one should accept them in good faith rather than charactersing this as "denial".

The debate now between the Left and Right is of working out the best ways of dealing with the problem. I don't think anyone is expecting agreement across the poltical spectrum but a start to reasoned debate would be to accept that those with different solutions are well intentioned. One could, for example, be against Kyoto but for other methods of dealing with global warming.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/07/2006 08:40:00 AM

Neil: Firstly, given the scientific consensus on the issue, Brash's position is clearly one of denial. Secondly, he was quizzed about his position at yesterday's policy launch, and refused to admit that climate change was happening. His position (as opposed to his party's) seems to be that the primary risk to be managed is the political risk of New Zealand being seen to go back on its word - something which would undermine our entire mana-based foreign policy.

As for Kyoto, everyone now accepts that its not going away, that new emissions targets will be set for post 2012, and that we will sign up for them. Both parties have also indicated interest in joining the AP6 (something I will blog about later) - but as a supplement rather than an alternative to Kyoto and the UNFCCC. Neither wants to shift us into the US-Australian denialist camp.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/07/2006 10:20:00 AM

Given that National's obdurate climate change denial has been the main reason why the carbon tax was scrapped, and why only the most timid measures have been contemplated as politically possible...their current flip-flop on environmental policy should be prefixed with a big fat humble apology in big black letters.

Until then, it should be viewed as cynical window-dressing.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/07/2006 01:36:00 PM

What I am interested in here is whether, if National is now on board with a carbon tax, it'll become reality. Even if Labour is obligated to vote against it because of its agreement with UF, if NZF could be brought on board the numbers look like they might be there to pass it regardless. That might even be enough on its own to bring Dunne around.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/07/2006 02:36:00 PM

Thanks for this post, and the links - great summary of where we're at politically.

2 points...
(1) does anyone have a link to Nick Smith's speech??

(2) if National have strongly put themselves out there as being all for action on climate change, and if they 'propose' some serious price based measures in response, I would have thought this would be a perfect time for Labour to introduce legislation imposing those measures, and ask for cross-party support. That way they can slam National (call them flip floppers, etc, etc, and seriously damage their environmental credentials they so desperately seek right now) if they can't get National's votes on this. Turning down cross party consensus on something important like this would be an ugly look, especially after the recent bouts of political petulance and bickering.

ie, stuff Dunny and Winston, lay down a challenge to National to support in Parliament the very principles they themselves are proposing - ie action now, and market based measures.

(Maybe I've misread you...was your position about Dunny and Winston hamstringing things to do with the fact they could withdraw confidence and supply support in future, rather than the fact they might not vote for a new carbon tax or whatever, were it to be put to Parliament right now?)

Clearly we won't get a carbon tax slammed on straight away, but Labour could put all the serious, necessary, legislation through Parliament over 2007 and early 2008, with the actual implementation of the measures not taking place until sometime during or at the end of CP1.

That would take away any wind in National's sails, at least on climate change, by election 2008. As long as they haven't actually resigned themselves to losing that election, Labour should consider whether they stand a snowball's chance in hell (surely an apt metaphor) of even being competitive if they haven't put through major policy on climate change before then.

This is because, at the current rate of accumulation of evidence and increasing public concern about climate change, by mid 2008 surely this will be the numero uno election issue...

'We' have buried our heads in the sand for a long time, but I can't see that continuing for 2 more years from now. There will surely be a 'tipping point' (another apt metaphor) soon where it becomes fashionable to care about climate change, the way, say Live Aid managed to get the attention of the cerebrally challenged last year. (okay, 2 weeks after the concert 'we' forgot about it, because that problem isn't in our face yet, but climate change is unlikely to disappear from the news...unless we have a few steady mild global weather years in a row)

Finally, if the evidence and concern does keep mounting up, by 2008 climate change might be one of those 'crucial' issues that persuade people to stick with the incumbent at election, Labour could paint Nats as extremely unreliable on climate change, and not worth the risk. If all the chunky legislation has been passed, voters aren't likely to pick a party with a package of 'tinkering only' policies. Especially if there is something of a panic atmosphere in the air. humble opinion is that this is a damn golden chance for Labour to get out of jail free... Put the serious legislation to Parliament and hope that a few timely hurricanes happen somewhere else.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/07/2006 06:20:00 PM

United Future's support agreement called for the withdrawl of the carbon tax, which is the problem. I suppose, strictly, it only required it to be "reconsidered", so Dunne might agree to cede on that given the 86%+ majority it'd have with National on board.

Pushing forward with some real policy would definitely be a win for Labour no matter what (unless they lost confidence). It'd really be somewhat of a win for National to get it done, too, since realistically they probably want it off the agenda for 2008.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/07/2006 08:25:00 PM

Anon2: Smith's speech isn't up yet, but should be on Scoop in a day or so. It was basically a regurgitation of pages 4 - 5 of the BlueGreen discussion paper, though.

I agree, Labour should call National's bluff and introduce pilot emissions trading legislation ASAP. But my worry is that NZ First and particularly Peter Dunne would regard it as a violation of their confidence and supply agreement (an example of "definition creep") and withdraw confidence, rather than merely voting against it. I also think there will be a significant point of difference on allocation and distribution; National's plan is to cap and require offsets for future growth, which effectively grandparents current emissions and allows generators to capture the rents from the new value of carbon, thereby making windfall profits (as they did in the EU). While I haven't heard anything, I suspect the government may be keener on aucioning, which sends those rents to the government, and allows them to be used directly for the public benefit (and ideally recycled to fund other emissions reduction schemes).

If we want a limited emissions trading regime to have an effect, the sooner we start the better. One of the key purposes of such a regime is to affect longterm investments which will affect our emissions profile for the next fifty years or more. If we'd had such a system in place ten years ago (or even the system of mandatory offsets which briefly held sway following the Stratford power station decision), we wouldn't be nearly so badly off now. And with Genesis and Contact eyeing up a new LPG port, and Mighty River getting into coal at Marsden B, its important that those players face the full costs of their activities as quickly as possible.

I think we're at the tipping point already, thanks in no small part to Al Gore's movie, but at the same time I don't think climate change will be a major election issue compared to thinks like jobs and taxes and the health system. But it might contribute to people's overall judgement of the parties, and will certainly affect the Green vote.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/08/2006 11:23:00 AM

Anon3: you're right that the confidence and supply agreement only required the carbon tax to be reviewed - but there's been some definition creep since it was dumped, and Dunne now opposes any revival even though Labour has the numbers to introduce it. He is relatively reasonable, and might reassess his position now National has signalled that it will act, but he hasn't said anything yet.

(Maybe I should play at journalist and ask him?)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/08/2006 11:27:00 AM

Of course, if Labour and National do end up with very similar policies on climate change you'd expect the necessary legislation pass quite overwhelmingly - between them they have 75% of the votes, so it's not as though the minor parties could do anything other that call them names.

I expect that instead we will see a round of "Judean People's Liberation Front" vs "People's Liberation Front of Judea" games.

Posted by Moz : 10/08/2006 11:18:00 PM

I was at the launch of National's Bluegreen paper, and Brash did not deny that climate change was happening, he said the science is conflicting, but the weight of it was behind climate change being a reality. He said the party's proposals are like an insurance policy.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/09/2006 12:55:00 PM

News: well, he certainly didn't sound very convinced when interviewed by One News on the subject - in fact, he avoided the question entirely, by referring to the policy as "insurance". (Video accessible from here). hardly in keeping with his "honest Don" image, is it?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/09/2006 01:45:00 PM

"(Maybe I should play at journalist and ask him?)"

You absolutely should! I'll enjoy reading how he justifies a(nother) flip flop.

Posted by llew : 10/09/2006 02:58:00 PM

Llew: I'm waiting on his PPS to return my phone call at the moment. But maybe some real journalists will get in on the act as well...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/09/2006 03:08:00 PM

"Brash's position is clearly one of denial" - any evidence?

Did he refuse to admit climate change is happening?

I watched the video you linked to with Brash saying "insurance". You didn't quote what he said directly before this.

In a debate about science I'm not sure of the value of misrepresenting other peoples' opinions.

Posted by Neil Morrison : 10/09/2006 03:15:00 PM