What would a national government do about climate change?

Column: The signs are that a new national government would do far less than the current government has pledged to do on climate and as a result could undermine the pursuit of our climate commitments.

With polls showing the National Party has a chance to lead the government after next year’s election, it begs the question what it would do to promote climate action.

Right now, Christopher Luxon and his climate critic, Scott Simpson, are doing whatever it takes to continue the current government’s programs on reducing emissions and building the nation’s resilience.

The National Party voted unanimously to support the 2019 and 2020 amendments to the Climate Change Response Act (the Zero Carbon Act) which formed the program of five annual emissions budgets, advised by a new commission on climate change, and reformed the emissions trading system (ETS).

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ROSA WOODS/STUFF

A closer look at one of Nick Golledge’s models of Antarctica, if the world fails to ditch fossil fuels (video first posted June 2020).

They seem determined to continue the current government’s climate-focused programs. But cracks appear.

Matt Burgess, newly appointed economic adviser to the national caucus, has just published an article titled, “Semblance of necessity; Why further action on climate change is not necessary and will not help ». The headline of the newspaper sums up his position.

Burgess bases his findings on an expected boom in exotic forestry as the price of ETS carbon credits rises, which would then offset the country’s future emissions.

There is no need to reduce emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases (i.e. carbon dioxide), he argues, all we need is no more pines to suck that CO2 into the earth.

Burgess further argues that the policy levers of the next emissions reduction plan, such as levies, subsidies, regulations and bans, will be an inefficient waste of money because net emissions are already capped by the ETS.

The country’s net emissions cannot exceed the amount specified in the cap, no matter what.

From a climate perspective, these arguments pose serious problems.

For one thing, not everyone, let alone farmers, wants much of New Zealand’s farmland converted to pine forest to generate ETS emissions offsets. There are mouths to feed and native biodiversity to protect.

Another issue is that the ETS still doesn’t work as it should.

Since the “cost containment reserve” (i.e. the maximum price) of carbon credits was reached in two recent government auctions, the number of credits offered for auction exceeded that set by the cap .

When the auction price exceeds the maximum, it triggers a mechanism that releases more credits for the auction.

The emissions cap is regularly exceeded.

In addition, there is no time limit on the validity of credits, and companies that hold forest credits do not sell them to offset emissions.

JASON DORDAY/STUFF

Environment Minister David Parker during the launch of the government’s plan to improve recycling and help reduce waste, emissions and pressure on the environment at Concourse Henderson in Auckland.

The government has basically guaranteed that they will go up in value over time, so presumably these credits have become a lucrative investment security. When these carbon credit investors decide to sell, it would allow more emissions than budgeted for emissions. The trade in carbon credits was never intended to become a market for speculators.

Thus, there is pressure within the National Party to drop emissions cuts beyond what falls out of the ETS.

If this happens and history is any guide, it could spell disaster for New Zealand’s goal of meeting our climate commitments.

National must confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the zero carbon law and follow this with a program of actions that will achieve the targets set by the law.  (File photo)

CHRISTEL YARDLEY / Stuff

National must confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the zero carbon law and follow this with a program of actions that will achieve the targets set by the law. (File photo)

The Climate Change Response Act was originally passed by Parliament in 2002 to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, one of the first international climate change treaties, to which New Zealand is a signatory.

The Emissions Trading Scheme was established by the then Labor Government in September 2008 as a further step towards meeting our treaty obligations.

Later that year, National won the election and came to power.

In 2011, carbon credits traded at around $21/tonne of CO2, but successive government measures to weaken the ETS caused the price of carbon credits to drop to just $2/tonne in 2013.

Although changes were later made to strengthen the ETS, by 2017 when the national government left office, the price was back to just $19/tonne.

New Zealand lost nearly a decade of emissions reduction progress due to mismanagement of the ETS, even as the national government at the time pledged to cut net emissions of New Zealand by 30% by 2030 during the Paris agreements in 2015.

David White stuff.co.nz

Meeting Auckland’s target of halving carbon emissions by 2030 “will be difficult”, but it is achievable, the mayor said. (Video from May 2021)

Given National’s past poor performance on climate action, it’s important that we hold the party accountable for its support of the Zero Carbon Act.

We certainly cannot rely solely on a flawed, limited and easily manipulated tool like the ETS to reduce New Zealand’s emissions, as Burgess suggests.

National must confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the zero carbon law and follow this with a program of actions that will achieve the targets set by the law.

We need to know that they will not just buy international credits and plant pine trees when we can do so many other things.

National climate change spokesperson Scott Simpson responds:

For five years, the current Labor government has talked a big game on climate action, but delivered very little.

Grand gestures with poor or no delivery have become a hallmark of Jacinda Ardern’s government, not only due to a lack of climate action, but also in many other policy areas.

If criticism is due, it rests with the current government. Even Greta Thunberg was scathing in her withering comment pointing out our government’s lack of real climate action.

National is absolutely committed to delivering net zero emissions responsibly. We believe that a thriving economy and innovation are the best paths to net zero 2050 and beyond.

Scott Simpson said National Party leader Chris Luxon talks about climate change, which Labor does not.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Scott Simpson said National Party leader Chris Luxon talks about climate change, which Labor does not.

But it’s not just the emissions that need to be addressed. The current government almost never refers to the problems of adaptation which, for an island nation like ours, pose even more daunting challenges than reducing emissions.

National is proud to have signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 and then ratified it on behalf of all New Zealanders. We supported the zero carbon bill in 2019.

We are 100% committed to meeting our international obligations under the Paris Agreement and reducing net zero and methane by 2050.

Plus, in Chris Luxon, we have a proven leader. He not only understands the issues at stake, but he also knows how to lead by example and has been a true champion of climate action in his previous corporate roles.

He knows that it will be citizens, communities and businesses who will lead the charge in decarbonizing our economy.

But having the right framework is crucial, and it must withstand any change of government over the next few decades.

That’s why National supports the Independent Climate Commission in its work advising on emission reduction budgets and policies that will enable citizens, communities and businesses to continue their work.

Kavinda Herath / Stuff

National Party leader Christopher Luxon is encouraged by the talks he has had about the future of the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter.

We won’t always agree with everything they say or suggest, but that doesn’t mean we oppose climate action. It simply means that we reserve the right to debate, question and if necessary propose alternative ideas.

In government, National will use five climate principles to guide our policy toward reducing emissions:

  • Science-based: Targets and decisions should be based on the best available science.
  • Technology-driven: We will adopt new technologies to reduce emissions rather than relying on weaker economic activity.
  • Do what works: People respond better to change when they are engaged and receive political signals that give them confidence in their short- and long-term decision-making.
  • Global response: New Zealand will keep pace with our global trading partners.
  • Economic impact: We will seek to minimize the economic impact of emissions reductions, particularly policies that place an unfair burden on individual regions.

Finally, regarding Matt Burgess and his article – this report was written for the New Zealand Initiative, not the National Party. It does not reflect the position of the National Party. It is worth pointing out, however, that the report agrees that we should reduce emissions and meet targets. The report is really only an opinion on how to proceed.

There is nothing wrong with debating and analyzing the many and varied options available to us and to the world. In fact, this is healthy in a functioning democracy. It is unquestioned adherence to dogma that is dangerous.

Teresa H. Sadler