Dear John: the environment IS the economy

The environmental implications of the government's first 100 days are worrying, but not for the obvious reasons

Apropos George Monbiot, I have been thinking about how to inculcate the necessary sense of urgency. In the eye of the perfect storm, not much seems to be happening.

In World War II, populations rallied around to “dig for victory”. They were manifestly threatened. Does anyone except Rodney Hide fail to see the threat we are now facing?

They also, in Churchill and Roosevelt, had leadership. I am thinking about writing to the Prime Minister. I am so pleased his name is John. “Dear John,” I shall say. “You know how this ends.”

Pre-election, he said he thought he might be “a bit like [Barack] Obama”. Cue Obama on Bill Clinton’s claim to have been the first black President: “I would have to investigate more Bill’s dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether in fact he was a brother…”. We’ve seen John Key dancing recently, on stage at the Big Gay Out.

The President has momentum and goodwill and inspirational qualities. He has leadership. Meanwhile our leader (who seems a nice man too) is squandering his opportunity has perhaps already squandered it.

The “first 100 days” has acquired symbolic status. It sets the tone of a new government. With a couple of exceptions, like Electoral Finance Act repeal, lawmaking in the National-led government’s first 100 days can be categorised pretty consistently as follows: components of the economic rescue package, law and order, and the environment. The 100 days ends on February, 26 but in practice it ended last Thursday.

Under the “economic rescue” rubric, we’ve had the Taxation (Annual Rates and Urgent Measures) Act providing for April 1 tax cuts, an Employment Relations Amendment for 90-day trial employment periods and changes to Kiwisaver, a “small business relief” package that will include lifting the GST threshold and reducing penal rates for underpaid provisional tax, an infrastructure package, and Resource Management Act changes. The latter is also environment-related (it includes provision for an Environment Protection Authority, and the Ministry for the Environment identified the operation of the Act as a problem in their briefing to the incoming Minister), but it was announced as an infrastructural reform which might be telling if it is all about the symbolism in the first 100 days.

Minister of Justice Hon Simon Power cut a dashing figure. A Bail Amendment Act reversed the threshold for remanding defendants in custody to its 2002 position. The Domestic Violence (Enhancing Safety) Act provided for police to impose place of safety orders. A Sentencing (Offences Against Children) Amendment gave explicit recognition to violence against children as an aggravating sentencing factor. The previous government’s Sentencing Council plans were abandoned. Parole eligibility thresholds will increase and, in some cases, be abolished. From 2011, DNA samples will be required from anyone arrested for any imprisonable offence. The Sentencing (Offender Levy) Bill proposes a $50 levy per offender for victim compensation. The Gangs and Organised Crime Bill confers more robust powers to deal with gang fortifications. “Fresh Start” youth justice legislation was introduced, for a new incarnation of boot camps for recidivist young offenders. Boy racers were said to be “a priority”.

There were Biofuel Obligation and Electricity (Renewable Preference) repeals. Lightbulb efficiency will not now be regulated. The Green Homes Fund was abolished (but will be reinstated in part, by a proposal to insulate state houses as part of the infrastructure package). The emissions trading scheme is “on hold”, pending the inquiry of what is now dubbed the Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee (formerly the Climate Change Committee).

So: no ambiguity about priorities, nor a surprising choice of priorities. But the new government’s method of giving effect to environmental priorities is a bit disturbing.

There are two possibilities. Either the government is sending exactly the signal intended in its first 100 days, which is that the only environmental priority is ensuring it doesn’t interfere with the really important thing, economic growth. Or there is more to come, and what we have seen is only the first phase of a political rebranding exercise.

The Labour-led government’s environmental record was less than proud. Helen Clark talked briefly about carbon neutrality. This seemed largely aspirational; after not very long, it disappeared into the ether with the rest of the hot air. Meanwhile, carbon emissions increased at one of the highest rates in the OECD. Deforestation hit a 50-year high. The proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources dropped. Minister of Agriculture Hon Jim Anderton seemed hellbent on taking us back to a dairy-inspired version of the 1950s.

Biofuels’ merits were doubtful. There is accumulating evidence that biofuels are “greenwash”, responsible for net effects that are environmentally and socially damaging: conversion of rainforests to palm oil plantations and food crops to fuel. The Green Party negotiated a sustainability clause. But most of the sustainable fuel sources are second-generation, still under development. It’s not clear they can yield the quantities required to meet meaningful biofuel targets. Targets coupled with a sustainability clause might guarantee continued investment in their research and development. Against that, biofuel sends a risky signal: a bit of green fuel in the tank justifies consumption.

The Emissions Trading Scheme was innovative and ambitious: the world’s first all-sectors, all-gases scheme. It offered polluter-pays allocation of our Kyoto liability, cognisant of the fact that the bulk of our emissions comes from primary producers. But New Zealand is responsible for only 0.2 percent of global emissions. Hon David Parker, the Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues, expected reduced emissions attributable to the ETS in the region of 10 percent (of the 0.2 percent); however it would, he said, curtail the increase in emissions. There was a risk that harassed businesses would simply relocate. Agriculture, responsible for half our emissions, was excluded until 2013 and cushioned with free credits after that. The Green Party, right up to the last minute, was in two minds whether to support it, to the extent that they issued a call at a very late stage for the general public to tell them what to do.

The proposal to regulate lightbulb efficiency was consistent with other appliances. Much was made of it. Predictably, the irresistible benefits of claiming the political prize trumped the negligible gains from enforcing change to a few extra bulbs.

In short, on closer inspection, the government’s approach is understandable, and arguably pretty robust.

The relative silence of Minister for the Environment Hon Nick Smith might be commendable: that of a man with head down, coming to grips with the substance and intricacies of his portfolio. It would obviously be undesirable to pre-empt his own government’s select committee inquiry.

It’s unfortunate that the terms of reference for the inquiry strobe ambivalence, and what is irreparably damaging is the perception of dithering and doubt about the realities of climate change: the antithesis of leadership. This is why I fear that whatever the substantive merits John Key has squandered his opportunity.

A big rump of people are not alive to any of this. There are plenty of others thinking about it and taking baby steps, like changing the lightbulbs, recycling paper, and taking cloth bags shopping. Yet nothing less than the hard stuff will do: getting out of the car, buying quality that will last, thinking about the whole life cycle of purchases, eating less meat, starting a garden, regulating consumption of petrol, power, water, rubbish. To encapsulate: old-fashioned values. I sound like Jim Anderton. How about: simplicity.

I’ve been thinking about why this is hard; it seems a no-brainer to me. It’s hard because we’re all wound in, by habit and by culture. Culture change is the biggest ask. In decades, it might be achieved by osmosis. But we don’t have decades. And there are innumerable areas where individual efforts and good intentions need to be facilitated by the government.

The National Party campaigned unambiguously on a platform of fresh faces and the same core policy. It was their only platform. They have no mandate for a U-turn. A policy position that there is no need to intervene in response to climate change would be a U-turn. So would an absence of leadership. If anything characterised the Clark government it was leadership, a damn sight too much of it at times.

There might be an unwillingness to exacerbate fear and uncertainty in an already-struggling economy, by acknowledging the fact that the world is changing. But it is, and it must. To wreck, in a century or so, a planet that has existed for millennia, we must have been doing something wrong.

There might be an element of 0.2 percent-related realism. Put simply, no matter what New Zealanders do, there’s not much we can do.

So: forget about climate change; be agnostic. But for the sake of our economy, on which we seem to be myopically fixated, let’s do something about our own brand of “greenwash”: clean, green, 100 percent pure New Zealand. The Prime Minister holds the tourism portfolio. He should be keen. So should the Minister of Finance, who has identified export opportunities as one of his top three concerns. As the rest of the world climate change believers become more environmentally savvy, they will see through us. It’s in our economic interests, whatever the weather.

Here’s another idea, if the message seems unpalatable and the political price too high. The Emissions Trading Scheme Review committee, since we’re having it, might seize this opportunity to collectively show some leadership, and emerge with cross-party accord. We have a super accord, to provide for our old people. An environmental accord might secure a future for the young ones.