Lions led by donkeys

target Climate change minister Nick Smith has been popping up all over the media in the last couple of days talking 2020 targets, on the back of the latest Infometrics/NZIER economic modelling [PDF] on the potential costs of different targets. And though he is refusing to commit to a number before next month, it’s becoming pretty clear that the wind is blowing in the direction of 15% by 2020, and no improvement on 50% by 2050. There’s a transcript of the interview he gave with Guyon Espiner on TV NZ’s Sunday morning Q+A programme here, and his discussion with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ’s Nine To Noon this morning is here. Espiner and Ryan do their best to pin him down, but the minister’s only clear on one thing — 40% is too expensive. From the Q+A transcript:

Well the government’s commissioned this report from Infometrics and NZEIR to try and get a feel for what those numbers would be if we went for the target that Greenpeace is promoting of minus 40, that indicates a cost of about you know 15 billion dollars per year at 2020, you know that’s more than the entire expense of our health system…

…that’s a cost of about three thousand dollars a year, 60 bucks a week…

Is that a fair summary of the likely costs? Time for a quick look under the hood…

You don’t need to get far into the report before a couple of important points emerge. From the Key Points section (p5 of the pdf), the report explains:

So the target that New Zealand would seek to commit to could be met through a combination of domestic reductions, including through forestry offsets, and the purchase of offshore permits.

And a little further down the page:

An increase in carbon sequestration through forestry is equivalent to an increase in allocation of AAUs. It improves New Zealand’s RGNDI by reducing the need to purchase emissions permits from other countries. While our modelling does not include the response of forestry to prices on carbon, increased sequestration could offset stringent AAU allocations.

In other words, all the big frightening numbers being bandied around by Smith, and seized on by right wing bloggers like David Farrar and Ian Wishart are based on excluding one of the most important parts of an effective emissions reduction strategy — growing trees. They are therefore unrealistic — useless as a tool for informing the policy debate. All the report tells us is that big cuts will cost more than small ones, which I would regard as more or less self-evident.

Forestry has effectively offset all NZ’s emissions growth since 1990, as the government has just confirmed. The net cost to New Zealand of the first Kyoto commitment period is zero, nothing, nada. Because we’re good at growing trees. But the minister is apparently happy to exclude forestry from considerations of the net cost of future targets. To me, this looks like politics pure and simple. Smith wants to be able to justify a modest target, so he’s happy to commission economic modelling that is designed to produce the numbers he needs.

To be fair to Smith (and I’m struggling, I must admit), he appears to be trying to steer a middle course between the do-nothing ACT (and National) rump, the do-little big emitters, business ideologues and farming leadership, and the calls from Greenpeace and climate activists (and me) for steep cuts. To do this, he has to ignore and misrepresent the facts (you can hear him on the Ryan interview (at about 3:40) claiming that global cuts of 50% by 2050 is what the IPCC is telling us — and that’s not just wrong, it displays amazing ignorance from a minister supposed to be on top of his subject). A middle course may be all he feels he can steer, but good politics often makes bad policy, and we’ll all end up paying the price.

Listening to Smith this morning confirmed my view that the National-led government is making climate policy on the hoof. There has been no proper consideration of how New Zealand could cut its emissions, no strategy developed or even emerging, no integration of ideas. Climate policy is being played as a purely political issue, because there seems to be no real appreciation of the seriousness of the problem.

Let me be clear. Climate change is not some nebulous thing that’s going to affect life at the end of the century, it’s here now and happening faster than expected. Two degrees is not a safe upper limit. 450 ppm is too much carbon. There is clear and present danger, and urgent action is required. That means we need leaders with the courage to act decisively, and the persistence to see things through, but I see no signs of that from Smith, Key, or anyone in the National-led government. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” springs to mind, and the judgement of history on this generation of NZ’s leaders will be equally harsh.

Update 28/7: Key effectively confirms 15% will be the target, plus Keith Ng’s On Point rips into the way Smith interprets/presents the Infometrics/NZIER report. Bomber’s not impressed, either…

7 thoughts on “Lions led by donkeys”

  1. But Gareth, John Key (funnily enough, rhymes with…) was on the wireless just today saying how his government’s actions would be regarded as a good move for centuries to come.

    He was talking about the cycleway though. I wish I were joking.

  2. I tried to write this response on the NBR article about this, but it was not acceptable because it contains “abusive word(s)”. I wonder what words they were: “government” or “welfare” perhaps?

    Looks like the feedback from the public consultation round has not been fully taken on board.

    At the Nelson meeting there was talk of negotiating a change in rules so that forestry turned to timber products could be counted as sequestered for the lifetime of the product. Where is the mention of that? NZ could probably easily count an extra 10% down with that rule changed, and such a term would boost NZ forestry’s profitability no end.

    There were soil experts who pointed out that NZ agriculture could become net producers of carbon credits, not consumers, through soil management. The ground can hold more carbon than forests, and we have the expertise and conditions to capitalise on it through the global ETS markets. NZ’s emissions profile is not a “special circumstance”, it is an opportunity.

    Businesses emitting carbon need such information added to their shareholders’ reports, balanced by credits received from the government or purchased on ETS markets. In the EU, the “free” allocation of credits will be auctioned off by 2020; in order for that to work, we need to know who are getting which allocations.

    Instead of enabling these Free Market approaches we’ll just be seeing more Big Government. Say hello to increased taxes to pay the bill and corporate welfare giving businesses no economic advantage to enact change. The worst thing you can give to a business that isn’t competitive is a hand-out and that is exactly what this government is planning to do.

    1. “there was talk of negotiating a change in rules so that forestry turned to timber products could be counted as sequestered for the lifetime of the product”

      Yes, we could negotiate all kinds of things but unfortunately its not that simple! Its a big world out there and NZ is only a small part of it. We have to wait and see, the NZ govt has put in the following submission:

      The Australians have backed us up:

      So maybe it will get through.

      But its not the answer to everything. HWP would smooth the bumps, but it would still mean production forest emissions are net zero in the long run. Afforestation will only sequester emissions for a limited time. And soil carbon will reach a maximum.

      Burning 200 million year old carbon can not be reversed by sequestering carbon for 25 years. Or 100 years. Even if the carbon was stored for 100 years it doesn’t come close.

      All these measure, forestry, soil carbon, etc, only postpone our liability. Usually they mean that when it does it hits harder, because we have the double whammy of gross emissions and net emissions from LULUCF.

      (Look at figure 5, year about 2025:

      So I think anyone who supports an aggressive target (of say greater than +15%, because I think thats about the best we can reach) needs to think of a better way than just planting trees.

        1. Then what will happen? The US will bow to the mighty Kiwi?India will see merit into signing up to cuts? What? I don’t see it eh.

          Your link to the ‘later comment’ doesn’t answer anything except the level of your ignorance on the issue. “sequester them for a long time by using them as building materials”, you seem to miss the point here. The reason we are announcing a target is for the Bonn UNFCCC negotiations, leading up to Copenhagen. It therefore makes zero sense to not base that target on UNFCCC rules.

          “but there’s nothing to say that such a crude approximation needs to continue with Copenhagen”

          Don’t under estimate the power of the status quo. This is a political issue as well as a scientific one now. Take the current Annex-1 non Annex-1 distinction. Latvia Lithuania etc in and Korea Taiwan etc out. 100% : 0% distinction. Very poor method to have an agreement. But the method is established so it will be kept.

  3. “To do this, he has to ignore and misrepresent the facts (you can hear him on the Ryan interview (at about 3:40) claiming that global cuts of 50% by 2050 is what the IPCC is telling us…”

    The category 1 from the SRES scenarios tables has a 2050 global emissions reduction range of -85 to -50, from 2000 levels. I guess this is where Nick Smith get’s his 50 by 50 from.

    Given that NZ is amongst, the highest per-capita emitters, it seems somewhat inequitable to suggest that we only have to meet the global average. If National is advocating that strategy, they are advocating to force countries such as Kenya to also reduce it’s emissions by a significant amount. i.e. say 300 kg/yr CO2 to 150kg/yr, while we reduce from 20 tonnes/yr CO2 to 10 tonnes/yr CO2. This is obviously unjust and will not lead to any agreement with developing world in Copenhagen.

    If countries such as Kenya are to develop their emissions will likely rise, because of this the developed world will have to make reductions beyond the global average in-order to accommodate their continued development.

    (Btw – I’m not sure what Kenya’s emissions are exactly, as they were just a flat line at the bottom of the graph, so these figures are just a demonstration.)

  4. GUYON “What you’re saying this morning is you are not prepared to wear a 40% reduction by 2020, the economic impact is simply too great.”

    NICK “I do. Look we’re in the middle of a recession, we’ve got a thousand people a week losing jobs, if we go for a target one I don’t think is achievable, I don’t think you’d get there, I think you’d do more damage to New Zealand’s reputation and certainly you’re not going to get. When I look at the track record of what’s been achieved, the analysis that I’ve been getting from Ministry of Economic Development about how much progress we can make in the electricity sector, how much progress we can make in improving transport and getting a better efficiency there. If I look at the agricultural sector where New Zealand’s got a ginormous challenge.”

    Clearly the articulate words of a man with a real grip on the ginormous challenge we face. I don’t need to finish my sentences, it is economically unaffordable for ministers to speak intelligibly in the midst of a recession!

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