Envirologue by Dave Hansford


Multi-no-choice – National’s Idea of Climate Consultation

Earlier this month, the Government invited New Zealanders to comment on the position Climate Change Minister Tim Groser should take to COP 21 negotiations in Paris come December. To help them understand the issues, it offered some context in a discussion document, available here.

Except that it didn’t. What it gave the public instead was the same tired old litany of excuses as to why we should wait and see. The same old thinly-veiled “this is going to cost ya” threats. The same old “so much of our energy is renewable already, so we can’t really do much more” platitudes. The same execrable “if we make our farmers pay for their greenhouse gas pollution, the world could end up starving” nonsense.

It tries again to convince people that anything New Zealand does about its emissions will make very little difference to the planet. Most irksome, it seriously expects us to believe that: “... we are committed to doing our fair share and taking responsibility for our emissions,” when New Zealand’s greenhouse pollution is now 21 per cent greater than in 1990.

As for New Zealand being a bit-player, consider that each EU citizen now emits 7.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases on average – down from nine tonnes in 1990 and set to drop to six tonnes over the next commitment round. In New Zealand, you and I – abetted by millions of Friesians – pump out 17 tonnes.

Far from being a team player, New Zealand is in fact polluta non grata at international climate rounds, because our neighbours plainly see that a reduction target of five per cent below 1990 levels, when the EU has committed to a 40 per cent reduction, the US to 28 per cent, and climate supervillain China to 20 per cent by 2030, closely mimics the sound of dragging feet.

UN multilateral provisions let nations each quiz other about their performance on climate change, and New Zealand has been facing some searching questions of late from those concerned that we might not actually be serious about this. Brazil, which noticed that New Zealand had tabled a target of between 10 and 20 per cent at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, wanted to know: “Please, explain the reasons for reducing the target to 5%.” It also wanted to know why we couldn’t make any progress on even that paltry token: “Please, provide the reasons for the lack of quantified reduction of emissions regarding many planned actions that have been reported in Table 3 under the CTF.”

Others see right through the National Government’s dumb show of “meeting” its 2020 targets by buying up hot air credits from former Soviet states – emissions certificates widely considered to be fraudulent. This from the United States: “How do you plan to prevent double counting with the host countries of projects that generated CERs that your country plans to use towards meeting its pledge in the pre-2020 period? If a host country refuses to adjust its reporting towards its progress to its targets to reflect CERs it exported, do you still plan to count them?”

In reply, the New Zealand delegation pretended that we might not need to resort to CERs – something approaching a bald-faced lie – then offered this empty sop: “The best means of dealing with this issue would be for countries intending to participate in international trading to have processes in place to prevent double counting.”

This is the sort of context conspicuously absent from the Government’s consultation document. Instead it tries to present New Zealand as a hapless, but well-intentioned, victim of its own agrarian circumstance.

By the end of this consultation paper, anyone would be excused for thinking that action on climate change is a net loss, a leg-iron around the ankle of prosperity: “More ambitious targets will have a higher cost. For example, if New Zealand took a target of 10 per cent below 1990, then the cost of New Zealand’s target could increase by an additional $200 million per annum. For a target of 20 per cent below 1990, then the increase in cost could be an additional $500 million or more.”

So? North Canterbury is right now in the grip of yet another drought. These are an annual event nowadays, but over the last decade, they’ve begun to lengthen, extending into autumn and even winter. In the Hurunui, farmers short on feed will either have to sell capital stock at fire sale rates or buy in more supplementary feed. Dairy farmers will somehow have to do this on record low returns, following the crash in dairy prices.

The 2007-08 drought cost the country $2.8 billion. In 2013, we took another two billion dollar hit. That makes $500 million a year look like a bargain, but the public is not presented with any of this.

But, the paper warns, it’s worse than that: “Firstly, wages will grow more slowly, in line with the overall economy. Secondly, the price of some goods and services will be higher (e.g.; electricity and vehicle fuel). These effects decrease the amount of ‘household consumption’ possible, i.e.; the average household will be less ‘well-off’ than what would be expected without a target.”

Between 1992 to 2014, New Zealanders’ household consumption expenditure jumped by nearly 57 per cent (in 2009 dollars). In 2012, it was the fourth highest in the OECD, eclipsing even the avaricious Americans. Capitalists love such orgiastic consumption, because it makes GDP look good. This how they frame the depletion of resources (and, incidentally, crippling debt) as prosperity. If New Zealanders were to ease back on the credit card, it would in fact be a good thing for the environment and the economy.

The document warns readers that even a target of 10 per cent below 1990 (which, incidentally, would certainly be regarded with contempt at Paris) could, by the year 2027, cost families an extra $30 a year, while a 20 per cent cut might cost them $130. These costs are based on a $50-a-tonne carbon price – eight times higher than it is presently.

If it were being truly honest, the discussion document would point out to readers that in fact, they’ve already shelled out more than this to bail out Solid Energy. If you want to know something of the real costs of old-school, fossil fuel thinking, here are some figures for you: $320 million – the amount state coal miner Solid Energy currently owes to banks. $153 million – taxpayers’ money shoved into the haemorrhaging wound. $103m – the amount you will pay to clean up the land despoiled by Solid Energy. $182 million – the SOE’s latest loss for the year ending June. Add restructuring costs and the social fallout from laying off nearly 900 people at Stockton, Spring Creek and Huntly East since 2011.

At least the Government has said it will no longer be propping up this doomed enterprise. And doomed it surely is: in the past few years, 26 US coal companies have gone bankrupt and 264 mines have closed. The US coal industry lost 76 per cent of its value in just five years. The share price of Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest private coal miner, fell by 80 per cent.

The world is changing fast. An economy that has for three hundred years been powered by fossil fuels is about to turn off the tap, and flick the switch instead on a new age of decentralised renewable energy. Eton Musk’s Powerwall has, practically overnight, made renewable energy cheaper at the meter box (and at the factory) than thermal, but its impact goes far beyond affordability – it hurls a gauntlet at China, which has for years been positioning itself as a renewable superpower. It will respond with still greater capacity, more development, still cheaper technology. Renewables, which have ever been a swell on the horizon, are starting to curl into a monster wave approaching fast.

This gives us an opportunity you won’t read about in the consultation document: we could use this energy revolution to power a smart green economy. This year, says global credit checker Standard & Poor’s, companies will issue green bonds for a record US$30 billion to bankroll low carbon industry. The market already tripled its value between 2013 and 2014, and significantly, has not slowed as oil prices slumped – it now has its own momentum.

A critical threshold has been crossed. Now, says our own Simon Upton, Chairman of the OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development “policies rather than technologies are now holding back progress.”

Neither does the consultation paper tell people about the cost of doing nothing, despite Treasury figures which show that business-as-usual – maintaining our present emissions trajectory – could cost us $52 billion.

 The Government is trying to present our climate policy as the choice between an arbitrary, meaningless percentage and what it might cost you. This is a gross misrepresentation: instead of a few bullet points about forest sinks and more hydro, it should be asking New Zealanders instead whether they want to be a part of the new industrial revolution. Whether they would prefer to keep bankrolling Government enticements to oil companies and funding coal clean-ups, or whether they would like to re-boot the economy on the back of planet-saving innovation.  

One thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve always done, the planet is going to cook. I’ll put my hand up right now – here’s my thirty bucks…

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