Emissions reduction: talking hot air

The Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee is deliberating—and lobby pressure is building towards Copenhagen, where international emissions reduction targets will be debated. That’s heavy weather up ahead

The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) Review Committee has finished hearing submissions. Peter Dunne says it aims to report “as soon as possible”. It’ll take more than common sense - is there a Solomon in the House?

Members’ minds must have turned to America and Australia. Governments in both countries have spent the best part of the last month trying to enact cap and trade. Our government says it wants to align our scheme with Kevin Rudd’s. As the world’s largest carbon polluter by a very substantial margin, America’s willingness affects global prospects at Copenhagen, and more generally.

The Obama administration is promoting a Bill dubbed “Waxman-Markey” - the American Clean Energy and Security Act 2009. It has been barely covered in this country - not covered in fact, by local media, that I have seen or heard. The world should be following, heart in mouth; the whole world might turn on it.

Aspects of that Bill are weak. They may yet get weaker. As one blog site put it: Waxman-Markey’s clearing hurdles by lowering the bar. Its limp price signals are matched by equally limp goals: a 17% reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2020, which equates to a 3% reduction on 1990 levels. But, it is a start - a very substantial 932-page good faith gesture, and indicative of a trend towards cap and trade (as opposed to carbon taxing), which should be of interest to the ETS Review Committee.

In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme passed the House of Representatives. Its fate in the Senate is not assured. The scheme will now be delayed, starting in mid-2011, a year later than planned. It aims to cut emissions 5% on 2000 levels by 2020, and up to 25% if matched by major global polluters. Of particular interest to our government’s “alignment” policy, agriculture is not covered initially, but may be from 2015. From 2013, our ETS was all-sectors all-gases.

Consider the paltriness and futility of the proposed reduction targets. To make it more likely than not that average global warming will not exceed 2 degrees (that is, to achieve a 50% probability, which is not high), and maintain atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beneath 450 parts per million, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says a 50-85% average global reduction in emissions by 2050 will be needed, more in some countries. The recommended interim target is 25-40% by 2020. This is against 1990 levels. Members of the European Parliament have endorsed 80% by 2050; in Britain, the Brown government’s pledged to achieve it.

By contrast, Nick Smith’s catchy policy, for “50 by 50” - 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 - is criticised as weak, but is also less conservative than what has been offered by bigger polluters. Smith repeatedly says, in defence of government policy, that this government is interested in setting realistic achievable targets, not rhetorical flourishes.

The trouble is, despite growing international consensus about the need for interim targets, National to date won’t set any. That means no accountability, and worse, no apparent plan for getting to 50 by 50, or indeed anywhere at all. Even the New Zealand Institute, which famously argued we should be fast followers not world leaders on this issue, was not advocating doing nothing in the meantime.

Adding to the general impression of dithering and dissembling, New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador to the delegates meeting in Bonn allegedly said last week that between now and August, the government will consult New Zealanders on setting a 2020 reductions target, and then announce the target. Here we are, in the middle of June: silence from the government. I emailed Nick Smith’s office, a week ago. What consultation process is this? When will it be announced? Was the delegate perhaps referring (misleadingly, but never mind) to the ETS Review Committee? Easy questions, you might think. I mean: Ambassador Macey doesn’t just ad lib on this stuff. Does he? I still don’t know.

To put this in perspective, New Zealand is responsible for less than 0.2% of global emissions, and the United States and China around 22% and 18% respectively. Many countries including the European Union are treading a cautious conditional line - setting small targets unilaterally, more ambitious if matched. I would not be surprised to see the ETS Review Committee emerge with a recommendation of this kind.

However, New Zealand is the second most emissions-intensive economy in the OECD; we emit the second-highest ratio of greenhouse gases per unit of GDP. Export-led agriculture accounts for about half. Our emissions trend is dismal: 26% up since 1990, among the worst of the industrialised Kyoto countries. Our brand is at real risk. More importantly, self interest at Copenhagen will not wash. Every country has to “bring it”, to put moral pressure on the States.

Meanwhile, an agglomeration of activists did make enough noise to make the news, including a celebrity-led call to “Sign On” and - my personal favourite - “John Key Feels the Heat”. (No, they didn’t light a fire under him, which would have been equally apt and even more entertaining; this was performance art. “The sculpture of the Prime Minister is slowly melting until his arm falls off and he drops the world on the ground.”)

So … politicians and diplomats do what they do (talk a lot), and activists do what they do (shout a lot!), but they only create the conditions. What will individuals do?

Greenpeace, Oxfam, et al’s first focus is on the government: sign the petitions; send a message to the government to step up pre-Copenhagen, and a subliminal self-congratulatory message to yourself. What follows is not a criticism of their efforts. It’s a statement of the obvious. Whatever government does, sooner or later, individuals have to wear the cost and make the changes.

Robyn Malcolm knows. She frames it a bit differently (“allowing New Zealanders to get behind the government”) and asks: what are we prepared to give up? I’d turn that question around, too: what do we stand to lose? What else might we gain?