What would a National government do on climate change?

If National win the next election, it’s important to know ahead of time how they will address climate change.
If National win the next election, it’s important to know ahead of time how they will address climate change.

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

With the polls showing that the National Party has a chance to lead the government after next year’s election, it is worth wondering what they would do to promote action on climate.

At the moment, Christopher Luxon and his climate spokesperson Scott Simpson are making all the right noises about continuing the present government’s programmes 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 programme of five yearly emissions budgets, advised by a newly formed Climate Change Commission, and reformed the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

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They seem committed to carry on the present government’s climate-focused programmes. But cracks are appearing.

Matt Burgess, newly appointed as economic advisor to the National caucus, has just released a paper titled, “Pretence of Necessity; Why further climate change action isn’t needed and won’t help”. The paper’s title sums up his position.

Burgess bases his conclusions on an expected boom in exotic forestry as the price of ETS carbon credits rises, which would then offset the nation’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 more pine trees to suck that CO2 back into the land.

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

The nation’s net emissions can’t rise above the amount specified in the cap, no matter what else is done.

From a climate perspective, there are serious problems with these arguments.

For one, not everyone, least of all farmers, wants a major chunk of NZ 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 is still not working as it should.

Because the “cost containment reserve” (i.e., the maximum price) of carbon credits has been reached in two recent government auctions, the number of credits offered for auction has gone beyond that set by the cap.

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

The emissions cap is being routinely exceeded.

Also, there is no time limit on the validity of credits, and companies with forestry credits aren’t selling them to offset emissions.

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

The Government has essentially guaranteed that they will increase in value with 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 planned in the emissions budgets. Trade in carbon credits was never intended to become a speculators’ market.

So, there is a push within the National Party to abandon emissions reductions beyond what falls out of the ETS.

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

National needs to confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the Zero Carbon Act and follow that with a programme of actions that will meet the legislated targets. (File photo)
National needs to confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the Zero Carbon Act and follow that with a programme of actions that will meet the legislated targets. (File photo)

The Climate Change Response Act was originally passed by Parliament in 2002 in order to satisfy the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, an early international treaty on climate change, of which New Zealand is a signatory.

The Emissions Trading Scheme was established by the then Labour government in September 2008 as a further step to satisfy our treaty obligations.

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

In 2011, carbon credits traded at about $21/tonne CO2, but successive government moves to weaken the ETS resulted in the price of carbon credits dropping to just $2/tonne in 2013.

Although changes were made subsequently to strengthen the ETS, by 2017, when the National government left office, the price had recovered to only $19/tonne.

New Zealand lost nearly a decade of progress on emissions reductions due to mismanagement of the ETS, even as the then National government pledged to cut New Zealand’s net emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 at the Paris Accords in 2015.

David White stuff.co.nz
Meeting Auckland's goal of halving carbon emissions by 2030 "will be tough", but it is achievable, the mayor says. (Video from May 2021)

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

We certainly can’t solely count on a flawed, limited and easily manipulated tool like the ETS to bring New Zealand’s emissions down, as Burgess suggests.

National needs to confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the Zero Carbon Act and follow that with a programme of actions that will meet the legislated targets.

We need to know they will not just rely on buying international credits and planting pines when there is so much else we can do.

National’s climate change spokesperson Scott Simpson responds:

For five years the current Labour Government has talked a big game on climate action but delivered very little.

Grand gestures with poor or no delivery have become the hallmark of Jacinda Ardern’s government, not just in a lack of climate action but in so many other policy areas as well.

If there is criticism due then it falls to the current government. Even Greta Thunberg has been scathing in her withering commentary as she singled out our government’s dearth of real climate action.

National is absolutely committed to delivering net-zero emissions responsibly. We believe a prosperous economy and innovation are the best pathways to net-zero 2050 and beyond.

Scott Simpson says National Party leader Chris Luxon walks the talk on climate change, something Labour does not.
Scott Simpson says National Party leader Chris Luxon walks the talk on climate change, something Labour does not.

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

National is proud to have signed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and then to have ratified it on behalf of all New Zealanders. We supported the Zero Carbon Bill in 2019.

We are 100 per cent committed to meeting our international obligations under the Paris Agreement, and to net-zero and methane reductions by 2050.

What’s more, in Chris Luxon we have a leader with a proven track record. He not only understands the issues involved but he knows how to walk the talk and has been a real climate action champion in his previous corporate roles.

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

But getting the framework right is crucial and it needs to withstand any changes in government over the next few decades.

That’s why National supports the independent Climate Commission in their work to offer advice on emission reduction budgets and on policies that will enable citizens, communities and businesses to get on with the job.

Kavinda Herath / Stuff
National Party leader Christopher Luxon is encouraged by discussions he has had about the future of the aluminum smelter at Tiwai Point.

We won’t always agree with everything they say or all they suggest, but that doesn’t mean we oppose climate action. It just means 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 path towards lower emissions:

  • Science-based: Targets and decisions must be based on the best available science.
  • Technology driven: We will adopt new technologies to reduce emissions rather than rely on lower economic activity.
  • Do what works: People respond best to change when engaged and given policy signals that provide 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 minimise the economic impact of reducing emissions, especially policies that place an unfair burden on single regions.

Finally, with regard to Matt Burgess and his paper - that report was written for the NZ Initiative, not the National Party. It does not reflect the National Party’s position. It’s useful however to point out that the report agrees we should cut emissions and deliver targets. The report is really just one opinion on how to do so.

There’s nothing wrong with debating and analysing the many and varied options that are ahead of us and the world, in fact doing so is healthy in a functioning democracy. It is the unquestioned adherence to dogma that is dangerous.