Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Climate change: why the Greens should support the ETS

Parliament is in recess at the moment, so things have been quiet. But they're about to get very noisy indeed. The House reconvenes on Tuesday, and by that time, the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill will be back from committee. In accordance with Standing orders, it will lie on the table for three days, but in around two weeks time, the government will try and pass it through its committee stage. And by then, the Greens will have had to have made a decision on whether to back it.

I am hoping they will ultimately decide to support it. I know the proposed ETS is ugly. I know it is flawed. I know it gives handouts to polluters and doesn't do nearly enough to curb emissions in CP1. And despite all that, I think the Greens should grit their teeth and support it (while of course pressing for as many positive changes as they can). Why? Because for all its flaws, the ETS will still have a significant positive effect on the environment, and even in the worst case will significantly reduce our emissions below business-as-usual.

How significant an effect? Last month, I hacked the government's ETS allocation plan out of Budget data. This led to an estimate for its post-2013 annual allocation (excluding forestry) of around 65 MTCO2-e a year. This could change; a future National government could be less willing to reduce emissions or more generous to polluters. But its difficult to see it being much more than 75 MTCO2-e a year.

Compare this with New Zealand's projected emissions from our Fourth National Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to that, gross emissions are expected to rise, from 82.4 MTCO2-e in 2010, to 91.2 MTCO2-e in 2020. So even in the worst case, with a cap of 75 MTCO2-e, just having that cap in place the ETS will prevent 100 MTCO2-e of emissions over 8 years. That's 100 million reasons for the Greens to support it.

That's the worst case: a generous cap, and no reduction in it. But as I've also pointed out, the real way the ETS will produce emissions reductions is by progressively lowering the cap. And that's the real reason why the Greens should be supporting it. We may have an uncommitted government now, and be looking at a worse one in the near future, but the commitment of a government to action can be negotiated through the coalition process. So once the ETS is in place, the Greens can use future elections to drive further emissions reductions and set us on a steeper downward path. It's a long game, but one which offers a real hope of success. But we won't get to play it unless the Greens help put the initial framework in place now.

This is the most important piece of environmental legislation for a decade. It will make a real difference to our emissions, even under a National government. In the past, the Greens have always voted for an improvement, no matter how slight, while of course fighting like hell to make a bigger difference. I hope they'll continue that tradition now.