Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Climate change: The PCE on a climate commission

Before she retired last year, former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright recommended that New Zealand enact a UK-style Climate Change Act, with a legislated long-term target, regular carbon budgets laying out a pathway to meet it, and independent advice and reporting on those targets by a climate commission. The new government has seized on this, and is promising to enact a Zero Carbon Act to implement it. But what would such an arrangement look like in New Zealand? A report from new PCE Simon Upton, A Zero Carbon Act for New Zealand: Revisiting 'Stepping stones to Paris and beyond', gives his views on the detail.

Firstly, Upton is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. But New Zealand is not the UK, and while all parties are in theory committed to stopping climate change, the blunt fact is that we have a less supportive environment for far-reaching change than the UK did when it enacted its legislation. In particular, the new leadership of the National Party has not yet gone on record as supporting strong action, rather than the lukewarm, farmer-protecting foot-dragging it engaged in in office. So this is likely to mean problems both in setting a long-term target, and with the shorter-term budgets.

Institutionally, Upton supports a primarily advisory body, with recommendatory and advisory functions. This seems weak, but the central problem here is one of getting future governments (e.g. a future National-ACT government in 3 - 9 year's time) to do things they do not want to do and which will hurt them politically. The way to do this is to make it institutionally unthinkable not to. It also respects a proper division of responsibility between unelected advisors telling us what we need to do and whether we are doing it hard enough, and democratically elected politicians making the actual decisions and being held accountable at the ballot box for it. While Greenpeace wants the climate change commission to have more teeth and direct executive powers to change ETS settings, what that does in practice is incentivise governments to appoint commissioners who will not exercise such powers - effectively undermining both action and the independence of advice. Its also strongly undemocratic for unelected agencies to be able to act without a democratic mandate in that manner (and the same applies to the Reserve Bank too).

There's some interesting technical suggestions in there about different targets for different gases, and for a six year budget period with an interim report to better align with New Zealand's three-year electoral cycle, and I expect these will be taken seriously by both the government and Parliament in considering the legislation when it eventually emerges.