The Goverment's greenhouse gas emissions target misses the climate change mark
Is the government's feeble climate change target the product of putting a trade negotiator in charge of climate change policy?
Or is it proof that for all the blue-green blather, this Government is unwilling to risk its green-averse support based by pursuing not only a more honourable, but a more credible, approach to New Zealand's contribution to the 21st century's most pressing issue?
The target of an 11 per cent cut to greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2030, tabled last week by Climate Change and International Trade Minister Tim Groser is not just unambitious, it is staggeringly so.
For a start, if New Zealand gets its way and is allowed to carry over carbon credits created by plantation forestry in the first 20 years of the century, it will be able to meet that target without implementing a single policy change.
Worse, actual greenhouse gas emissions will be 32.5 per cent higher than they were in 1990 and New Zealanders are likely to be emitting more per head of population than Americans.
That's what Climate Action Tracker – a credible, international group of climate change policy wonks – concluded in its critique, issued on Monday.
"While most other governments intend cutting emissions, New Zealand appears to be increasing emissions, and hiding this through creative accounting," said Dr Bill Hare, chief executive at Climate Analytics, one of the four organisations comprising CAT.
"It may not have to take any action at all to meet either its 2020 or 2030 targets," Hare said.
More on exactly how that works later.
Secondly, and equally importantly, is evidence that the difference between an ambitious and an unambitious target may not be that large - perhaps $500 a year per household for each of the 10 years between 2021 and 2030.
That's the key conclusion of an Infometrics study for the Ministry for the Environment, which was both used and buried in the recent public consultation on what our climate change target should be.
The report compared the impact on household incomes of pursuing a 10 per cent reduction in emissions on 1990 levels by 2030, versus a 40 per cent reduction.
At 10 per cent, the average cost to the average household – estimated to have income of a bit over $80,000 by 2030 – would be $1,300 a year. At 40 per cent: $1,800 a year.
Politics as usual thinking presumed, probably rightly, that neither number would be welcome to the average voter, but the lower number would be more welcome.
What the public document didn't reveal was just what a small hit to the economy either target implies.
Over the course of the 2020's, the total impact of a 40 per cent carbon emissions reduction target would be just 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), assuming a carbon price of $50 a tonne.
In other words: an impact of barely 0.1 per cent of annual GDP – a rounding error for Statistics NZ.
More to the point, that is barely 0.2 percentage points more than the estimated cost of a 10 per cent reduction target over the decade, at 0.9 per cent.
And even more to the point, Infometrics didn't even attempt to guess at what economic opportunities and benefits might offset that cost as a result of taking more action on climate change.
Of course, computer modelling about the distant future is fraught.
The Infometrics model assumes average growth over the decade of 2.2 per cent a year, a $50 per tonne carbon price, and that New Zealand will buy its way out of most of its emissions reduction obligations on the international carbon market, no matter what happens.
All of those assumptions will prove wrong, to a greater or lesser extent.
However, ministers appear to have gone a step further than usual in their reaction to the Infometrics numbers.
They have effectively chosen to disbelieve them because they are "counter-intuitive".
But they can't have it both ways, having implicitly accepted the findings by using the scarier-sounding household cost figures in public consultations without releasing the full Infometrics report.
That took an Official Information Act request from the Greens.
The public consultation was all but over by the time the Infometrics report became public and got almost no media traction.
However, even the degree of household and economic sacrifice outlined by Infometrics may not occur if the Government's intention to use 'banked' carbon credits from forestry carbon sinks to offset emissions in the 2020s.
Whether that will be allowed in a new global climate action pact, expected to emerge in Paris in December, remains to be seen.
As the rules currently stand, New Zealand cannot technically work this fiddle.
However, our Government may simply decide to ignore that, along with others that hope to exploit pet escape clauses that reflect local circumstances.
Alternatively, a poker-faced Groser may simply be taking a low-ball offer into the Paris talks, expecting to have to bid higher and make concessions, employing the same tactics as he would if negotiating a free trade deal.
This kind of brinksmanship approach may work for international arm-twisting purposes, but it leaves the voting public in the dark, just as has happened with the widely vilified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
A TPP-style communications failure on climate change policy risks rendering the Government's claim to a 'blue-green' agenda as hollow as its current offer on carbon emission reductions.