Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Climate change: gutting the ETS

Morning Report yesterday had an election debate on the environment, energy, and climate change, featuring David Parker (Labour), Nick Smith (National), Russel Norman (Greens) and Angeline Greensill (Maori Party). Overall it was the usual zoo, with Parker and Smith competing to see who could shout each other down the most often. But buried in amongst the noise, there is some signal. In particular, Nick Smith was forced to finally give some answers about what National plans to do to the ETS.

Those answers are not very encouraging. Firstly, National would remove the so-called "deforestation penalty" (otherwise known as "making forest-owners pay the full cost of their activities") by allowing forest owners to offset deforestation by planting trees elsewhere. While environmentally defensible (give or take issues of land quality etc), it ignores the fact that the Kyoto Protocol does not recognise such offsets (mainly because it is focused on natural forests, not plantations), and so they will result in a carbon liability to the government. The net result will be that the taxpayer will be effectively subsidising environmentally destructive dairy conversions to the tune of a couple of hundred million dollars a year - something which makes neither financial nor environmental sense.

Worse, National would also give industrial polluters a free ride, by shifting to intensity-based targets rather than emissions caps. As I've pointed out before, these are an illusion; intensity targets provide an illusion of progress, while allowing actual emissions - the thing we are meant to be paying attention to - to increase. And that is exactly what happened when National tried using such targets in the 90's. Large polluters gladly signed up to National's Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements, pledging to improve efficiency and follow "industry best practice", and they did just that. But overall emissions continued to rise; the intensity targets did nothing. The policy was a bad joke then; now its not even that. Instead, its simply a last-ditch attempt by a party which does not care to turn back the clock and excuse and subsidise pollution, and I'm surprised Smith can advance it with a straight face.

Finally, they would also relax the already insanely generous phase out period for the ETS's free allocation, meaning even more corporate welfare for polluters, and even more foot-dragging.

Overall, National's plan is clearly to gut the ETS, and to do its best to do nothing for another three years while the planet burns. This is not a policy either we or the planet can afford. But it is a perfect example of how deceitful and two-faced National is on the environment, promising to improve things, while actually planning to do exactly the opposite.