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 thatâ€™s more than the entire expense of our health system…
…thatâ€™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 Zealandâ€™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.