Taking tiger mountain (by strategy)

NZETS.jpgWith a final decision required next week, the Green Party has asked for public feedback on whether it should support the government’s emissions trading scheme legislation, and people have not been slow in coming forward. Jeanette Fitzsimons announcement on Thursday explained the dilemma facing the party:

“We set out to achieve a number of things, such as including transport and agriculture into the scheme earlier, a fund to insulate homes to keep power bills down, targets for emissions reduction and support for new innovations that offer significant carbon reduction. […] On some of the issues we have not been able to make progress. We have not been able to get agreement to phase in transport instead it will come in in one lump in 2011, so this has not changed. We have made very little progress on agriculture but we are still talking about this. Very importantly we have not found a way for Government to accept a biodiversity standard to ensure that planting pines does not destroy biodiversity.”

The usual suspects have not been slow to chip in. Business NZ wants them to vote against the scheme; Greenpeace believes they have no choice but to support it. The debate at frogblog and Chris Trotter’s new blog has been interesting, while No Right Turn provides a characteristically concise summary of the situation.

Meanwhile National’s deputy leader, Bill English, told last week’s Climate Change and Business Conference a little bit more about National’s ETS plans. He outlined six key points (pun intended):

1. The ETS must strike a balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests. It should not attempt to make New Zealand a world leader on climate change.

If we are not to be a world leader, what are we to be? A laggard? NZ’s strategic vulnerability on this score is huge, as I suggested when examining the NZI’s “fast follower” report. The rest of English’s points are as you might expect, but this one gives the game away:

4. The ETS should encourage the use of technologies that improve efficiency and reduce emissions intensity, rather than encourage an exodus of industries and their skilled staff to other countries.

This looks like an explicit indication that National is taking its direction from the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, and will introduce “intensity” based emissions targets for big emitters. In itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it remains to be seen how it can be made to work in the context of a trading scheme. Politically, however, it is a pretty clear indication that a National ETS would be even weaker than the current proposals.

So what should the Greens do? If they refuse to support Labour’s ETS, and National form the next government, we will get a worse scheme. If they support the current legislation we get an ETS now. That will at least bring some certainty to business decision making – even if the scheme is weaker than the Greens would like. A National government might well move to amend the ETS (they’ve said they will), but any changes they make will – unless they are able to govern alone – have to find multi-party support.

Voting against the ETS also puts the Greens into an invidious position going into the election. Helen Clark has said that Labour will put climate policy high on their campaign agenda if the ETS is not passed (as Chris Trotter suggested), and that will give them a weapon against both National and the Greens.

In my view, it’s important that New Zealand puts a price on carbon, and soon. The current ETS proposals are less than ideal, but they’re better than the foreseeable alternative. The Greens should vote in favour of the ETS. In this case, the somewhat scrawny bird in the hand is a great deal better than a songbird singing the big emitters’ tune somewhere in dense bush.

The NZ Herald’s editorial on the subject today covers all the bases, and then adds:

The fact is – the dwindling band of dissenters notwithstanding – that the pace of climate change is outstripping the human race’s response to it. As a result we risk becoming, like a rabbit trapped in a truck’s headlight beam, paralysed by our own inaction.


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