Big chill on NZ's climate-change response

Just a few years ago you could spark a political row by asking whether humans were partly to blame for climate change.

While there is still a strand of scepticism running through some sections of the National Party - and a mile-wide streak in the ACT party - there is by and large broad consensus across the divide.

Now the political debate is not about whether we should act, but how and what cost we should bear.

But the technicalities of emissions trading schemes, carbon units and Kyoto protocol commitments are eye-glazing for most voters.

Which may explain why the Government's serial backtracking on climate change in the past few weeks has sparked so little political heat so far outside the greenhouse.

First the Government slipped the leftovers of the emissions trading scheme into the fridge, via a law change sporting the sleep-inducing title Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Other Matters) Amendment Act.

It remains to be seen whether it will be whipped out later for a quick stir-fry or consigned to the recycling.

Under the changes the date for agriculture to join the scheme has been postponed from 2015 to sometime, maybe never.

Also on the never-never is the transitional measure that allowed businesses to surrender one unit for every two units of emissions.

The Government has also dropped plans to phase out a 90 per cent subsidy on high-emission trade-exposed industries and failed to limit the number of (cheap) international units that businesses can buy rather than being forced to buy Kiwi units. That has raised howls of outrage from foresters who say it is undermining their economic position.

All of that adds up to such a weakening of the "price signal" sent to emitters that critics say the emissions trading scheme will have a minimal effect, if any, on curbing future carbon emissions.

Simon Terry, of the Sustainability Council, said the act amounted to a breach of National's election promise that its ETS changes would be fiscally neutral.

"You can argue about the size of the breach of promise but it is hundreds of millions of dollars at very least, and more reasonably many billions of dollars."

Then, on Friday, Climate Change Minister Tim Groser slipped out a press release that effectively backed the country out of a binding and legally enforceable Kyoto Protocol commitment to reduce emissions between 2013 and 2020.

Instead, it would adopt effectively a voluntary commitment under the parallel United Nations Convention Framework.

He talked up the advantages of aligning with developed and developing countries accounting for 85 per cent of global emissions.

They include the United States, Japan, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Russia and many other major economies, Mr Groser said.

By dint of their "developing" status most of those were already outside the commitment period that expires at the end of the year, though to be fair the list includes some recent refugees from Kyoto.

Mr Groser also tried to make a virtue of the decision, arguing it would "ensure that at least New Zealand has started a process of carrying forward the structure created under the Kyoto Framework into the broader Convention Framework. This had been a point of principle of some importance to many developing countries".

It's as if he believes New Zealand's more principled position will "rub off" on the others.

Let's be charitable and call it "a bit of a stretch" that those other countries will take our decision to abandon binding commitments in favour of voluntary ones as a signal for them to adopt the Kyoto rules that we still hold dear.


And then there was his assertion that he did not want to tie a future government's hands with an eight-year commitment. Given our three-year parliamentary term, how does that sit with signing any long-term international commitment?

And what happened to the plan to align our climate-change efforts with Australia, given that Mr Groser's press release came out on the same day the government of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard conditionally opted to commit to the 2013-20 period?

While it has largely gone under the radar, the Government has radically changed its original commitment to climate-change measures.

And there may be more to come.

The Cabinet's next decision will be whether to adopt a "formal" target on emissions reductions to 2020, which so far exists only as a conditional offer to cut them to between 10 per cent and 20 per cent below 1990 levels.

That decision is itself conditional on establishing the final rules, including access to international carbon markets.

It may not get many voters hot under the collar, but New Zealand's climate-change response has just been quietly filleted.

The Dominion Post