The 2020 vision of crowds

And why they will be disappointed with Nick Smith’s answer to the emissions reduction conundrum

Nick Smith’s tie is ethereally pale green. He’s chosen it carefully; it’s no accident, he tells us, that his powerpoint is green and blue. This detail seems to please him. The tie pleases me more.

It’s standing room only. At a few days’ notice, a few hundred people have come to be consulted. Queues to the microphones snake around both walls. By the end of the evening, despite Fran Wilde’s snappy chairing, we’ll have overrun by an hour.

It’s a 40 by 2020 crowd (ie a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 11 years), a Wellington-central liberal crowd. One might do an injury on some of the suits, but it’s ordinary and diverse enough; it looks a lot like this. Only one young woman is angry. She wants to “just occupy stuff”, and start a community garden. Her politics are so transparent, I wonder why she’s here.

Smith says he’s here for two reasons: to be up front with the public about the mammoth size of this task, but mostly, to listen. And listen he does, while others tell it in their own words. This is the government's quick-fire tour around the country to listen to the public mood before it decides its emissions target for 2020.

"It is the Government's intention to table at the Bonn climate change negotiations in August our country's policy on a 2020 target to help achieve global agreement at the Copenhagen Conference in December", Smith has announced.

Many at the Wellington meeting are eloquent. Many are, tediously, “here for myself and my children”. I am so tired of hearing about the children.

Some talk of “low hanging fruit”. A young man tells a story: four years ago, he and his wife set a research-based household target of 2.4 tonnes CO2-e. They did insulation, composting, “all that stuff”. They reduced their vehicle mileage to 5,000 km/year. It was easy, he says. It saves them money. A Green Party staffer tells how he and the NGOs sat around a table on a Sunday afternoon, and knocked off 20%, “no regrets”.

Wainuiomata Joe Average, told he can’t drive his car, is going to have some regrets.

Some focus on the science. Dr Smith has, for the first time, asserted the government’s unequivocal commitment to IPCC climate targets (2 degrees and 450 parts per million) and an emissions trading scheme. He’s gauged his audience nicely; the concession disarms some. Others are shrewder, and turn it back on him: if you want that end result, 40 by 2020 is what scientists say it will take.

Smith is grappling with four planks: environment, economy, science, and foreign affairs. All seem to be pointing roughly the same way, to me, and Smith is berated for his economics – for discounting the costs of not acting, being stuck in last century’s paradigm, and talking of economic and environmental “balance”.

Some speakers don’t trust the government, because they’re all capitalists and liars and democracy is a failure; they want a mass grass roots movement. The irony seems to escape them. They might find they and the National Party have quite a lot in common.

Older audience members urge us to remember the war spirit. In times of adversity, people will do what it takes. The war ended, though; this one is forever.

You’ve used emotive words, like “big” and “bold”, says one young woman to Smith. The word you’re looking for, Minister, is “responsible” – a responsible 2020 target. And Billy offers this, from beneath hair and hat and beard: you’re not going to get an answer to your question (“how can New Zealand set a 2020 emissions reduction target?”), Minister, because you’re asking the wrong question. You’re trying to fix a broken model.

All are, in their different ways, offering support. Some allude to Smith’s forthcoming battles with his Cabinet colleagues, business and farming lobbies, and at Copenhagen in December. We’re with you, Minister, someone says – everyone in this room backs you to do the right thing. Smith smiles, a wry small smile. What about the other 4 million, outside of the room?

He takes heckling good-naturedly, acknowledges a thundering one-man haka with a nod and a small salute. Twice, he rises to respond to questions, always choosing the easy questions. The big one on screen he ignores; he’d rather leave that to the crowd.

Smith is asking two things, and he urges speakers to address both: what should the 2020 target be, and what price will New Zealanders pay? He wants realism; he notes the size of the task to halt emissions growth let alone reverse the trend. He's also wary of the history of big, bold broken promises which only end up damaging our reputation as if lower targets had been set and met in the first place. Some countries, he says, are wealthier than others. Some have greater opportunities to reduce emissions than others. New Zealand’s emissions profile makes reductions quite difficult; our GDP makes us quite poor.

It becomes abundantly clear that, whatever else Smith says he is doing, he’s here tonight to manage expectations – in particular, the expectations of this crowd that is so inconveniently “ambitious for New Zealand”.

Before us are two pictures: figures 3 and 5. Smith keenly explains in some detail why forestry, with its carbon peaks and troughs, is useful but also flawed (a good chance to plug his party’s 1990s legacy). Then he prevaricates: 40 by 2020 is an option, if we will write off the coal-fired power and the aluminium smelter, our whole transport fleet and everything else but agriculture. It’s spin, and it speaks volumes about everything, including the “50 by 50” policy. If 40% is absurd, 50% must be a farce.

Figure 5 invites its viewer to plot a line, from today to “50 by 50” (a 50 percent reduction by 2050). The line crosses 2020 at about 1990 levels. The following day, David Farrar blogs the same idea. Matthew Hooton says “20 by 20”. A 25% reduction would scrape in at the low end of the IPCC-recommended global average. (Remember that GDP argument?)

That’s the range I’m picking: from 0% on 1990 levels to 20 or 25% – perhaps, like Australia, 25% only if matched.

Reading this back, cynicism’s come easy and cheap. Truth is, cynical is the last thing I felt last week, and I envy Smith. In a heartbeat, I would follow him round the country to every one of these meetings, wondering what shade of green this man really is, and loving the wisdom of crowds.

It’s not too late to have your say. The consultation schedule is here.