Thursday, May 09, 2019

Climate Change: The fudge is not going to survive reality

Yesterday the government announced its Zero Carbon Bill, which would establish a framework for long-term emissions reductions. The most controversial aspect of the Bill is its agricultural targets: for the first time, farmers will face an explicit responsibility to clean up their act and reduce methane (and that, sadly, is too much for traditional farming groups, who think that New Zealand should continue to carry them and subsidise their emissions and pay to clean up the mess they cause because they're "the backbone of the country mate" or some such bullshit. More like the infected gut wound which will kill us slowly and painfully...)

But while the interim target of a 10% reduction in methane by 2030 is solid, the longer-term target is a fudge, designed to be set by a review in 2024. And its clear that some in Labour aren't committed to the deep reductions we will need to beat this. Here's what their Agriculture Minister had to say on Radio New Zealand this morning [Audio; quote starts at 3m]:

[Agriculture Minister] Damien O'Connor says there's a good chance that the final methane targets will be lower in the end than those announced by the government yesterday. Now he's referring to those plans to cut emissions provisionally from 24% to 47% by 2050. Damien O'Connor says final policy might ultimately fall well short of the government's top of the range figure. And that will be after analysis by the Climate Change Commission.

"The initial target of a 10% reduction by 2030 is just a continuation of the status quo, that is the efficiencies that have been gained across the agricultural sector and I believe is quite achievable. The issue of the target that has been announced is at either end of the scale. And 47% is clearly a figure that many might be concerned about. In my view the Commission will look at what is necessary to reach the goals. And I don't think that that figure will be at the high end at all, and I think that the farming sector as its shown in the past is innovative enough to make the changes required to meet our international obligations. Clearly there's a lot of work going on into science and technical solutions. If we apply those I'm sure that we can very easily meet the targets, particularly in the lower end of that target range".

O'Connor's probably right about the interim target (Synlait plans to not just meet it, but make a 30% cut by 2028). But if he thinks that in five years time the science is going to show that we need to cut emissions less rather than more, he is dreaming. Its a classic case of self-delusion to avoid the inconvenient truth that his industry has no future unless it changes radically. The good news is that he is one of Labour's dinosaurs; he is over 60 and has been in Parliament for 25 years. He is unlikely to still be around in 2024 when the target is chosen. The bad news is that the National Party is full of people like him - deluded old farmers desperate to deny reality - and they may well be in government then. Unless Labour gets a third term with the Greens, we may end up with a weak methane target. which case a future government will just need to strengthen it. Because while this law is meant to provide a lasting framework, the crisis is moving so fast that it has probably already been overtaken. The IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report is due in 2022, and it will tell us in as strong language as scientists at their most careful can muster that we are absolutely fucked if we don't change. I'm confident that the targets and pathway in the Bill will be amended - but to strengthen them, not weaken them. And we need to be ready to push for that amendment when the time comes.

The challenge now is to stop the government backing down on this. Because while they've supposedly reached agreement within their coalition, we've seen how "agreement" with NZ First isn't all its cracked up to be. There's a real danger that farmers will lobby Shane Jones, maybe make a few donations to Winston (undeclared, of course - its amazing how NZ First never declares anything), and the party will suddenly change its mind and refuse to support the bill unless the targets are weakened. And I hope that the Greens have made it crystal clear that if that happens, they will withdraw confidence and supply and force an election. Because this is their raison d'etre as a party, and if they can't get this policy through, there's no point propping up Winston anymore.