Monday, September 24, 2007

Climate change: a legacy of failure

Also on Agenda yesterday morning, Bill English attempted to boost his party's climate change credentials by pointing out that National hadn't always been a party of climate change deniers, and had supported emissions trading last time it was in government:

Well with climate change National has quite a long history involved with this going right back to the early 90s when Simon Upton was part of negotiating Kyoto, there was a great deal of scepticism in National once Kyoto got up and running, once the government ratified it, but in the late 90s a National Cabinet actually made a choice between emissions trading and carbon tax and chose emissions trading, so that choice has now survived the scrutiny of the cabinets of two different governments so it wasn’t quite as big a leap as I think was portrayed for National to support.
This is true, but its not the full story. National initially supported very strong action on climate change, promising to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2000 in November 1990, shortly after assuming office. However, they took no concrete action to achieve that goal, and dropped it in 1994. Around the same time, they proposed a voluntary aprroach to emissions reduction, challenging businesses to reduce emissions or face a carbon tax. But when the voluntary reductions predictably failed to materialise, they backed away from that too, and allowed emissions to continue to grow. Finally, after a few more years of doing nothing, they proposed an emissions trading regime in January 1999. This would have been an extremely robust regime, including all gases and all sources, kicking in from around 2005 - 2006 in order to allow it time to settle down before Kyoto's first commitment period began (it would likely have been preceeded by a carbon tax as an interim measure). But in the leadup to the 1999 election, the National Cabinet put it on hold indefinitely. But again, when push came to shove, they just weren't willing to act, and instead favoured the interests of polluters and emitters and the arguments of Deniers.

National's real legacy on climate change then is a legacy of failure. One consequence of this continued inaction was that New Zealand's net emissions rose by 14.66% by the time National left office (it would have been higher, if not for the recession their economic policies caused in 1998 - 99). Another is that emissions have continued to rise since then. Emissions reduction policies have long lag times, and early action curbs emissions growth by affecting long-term investment decisions. The failure to implement policy in the 90's is a significant factor in our continued emissions growth today.

Bill English was partly responsible for that failure, having been in Cabinet since 1996 and in a senior role since 1997, so I'm quite surprised he's willing to try and claim it now. But I suppose he's relying on short political memories and the media not asking him why if National were such strong advocates of action on climate change, there was none. The answer of course is that (with the honourable exceptions of Nick Smith and Simon Upton) they were not strong advocates. Instead, they were a party of climate change deniers - a position which Bill English supports to this day.