The business lobbies' dangerous hot air

The cowardice of the business lobbies are on display for all to see as they try the same old ETS stalling strategy. It's just dumb management

It was as predictable as it was short-sighted. No sooner had the Australians parked their emissions trading scheme until after this year's election, the New Zealand business lobby had its megaphone out whinging about our scheme, which is due to kick in on July 1.

The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) ignored facts and went with the line that New Zealand couldn't afford to "lead the world" at a time when our economy is "far too fragile". It released an online survey that proved that most of the business that think like them do, in fact, think like them (although 13 percent don't).

Federated Farmers saidit's time for the government to "act in New Zealand's interests" by cutting taxes and putting more money into, er, agricultural research.

It's incredible how they can find the argument to suit the times and their own purposes... and by saying incredible, I mean utterly lacking in credibility. Perhaps a better time to have started moving to a greener economy would have been, oh I don't know, when the economy was booming in the mid-90s. And gee, we would have... if farmers and business hadn't labelled the proposed carbon tax a "fart tax" and had it axed.

Since then we've had delay after delay as these lobbies have argued "not now", "not us", and -- this week's version -- "not until everyone else has done it". It's the same old stalling tactic reheated and dished out at every opportunity.

Most recently, the incoming National government put Labour's ETS on hold, redesigned it so that future generations would carry the can for polluters today, and then offered hug subsidies to farmers and business.

Yet after all that, with a watered-down ETS stacked hugely in their favour (Smith calls it "moderate", Key has pointed out that it's being phased in "very slowly"), still the lobbies come out this week whining and stamping their feet.

These cheerleaders for short-termism (I'd call them cheerleaders for carbon, but I don't even think it's about that) ask you to forget climate change, the unavoidable long-term global transition to a post-fossil fuel economy, and the profits to be made from green tech, their fair-weather talk of becoming an innovation economy and simply rally behind their short-term bottom-line. It's nothing more than cowardice and blindness that they're offering.

Without a doubt, the political environment has changed in the past few days. Australia and the US both seem to have stalled on their paths towards an ETS, both because of looming elections and the need to get some runs on the board before voters head to the polls.

That's bad news for the planet, but a smart New Zealand businessperson will see it as good news for him or her. In short, they've just been told that two of our biggest trading partners are going to be stuck with a 20th century economy and we've got a few years jump on them.

Business claims to want a competitive advantage, a head start on the competition. They say that all they want is a no surprises political environment with stable, well-signalled decision-making. They want to cut costs and innovate. Well here it is guys, this ETS offers the complete package, and, as Nick Smith has pointed out, "generous allocations for trade-exposed industries". So go for it!

For a start, stop making stuff up. New Zealand's ETS is hardly "world leading". Have you note been to Europe? Smith points out that 29 of the 38 countries facing Kyoto commitments already have an ETS. The only measure by which ours leads anything is that it cover all gases and all sectors. That, you would think, is not only fair and comprehensive, it offers an opportunity.

But no, these business groups spit the dummy and, as Fran O'sullivan has written, warn of a "winter of discontent".

Thankfully, these lobbies do not represent all New Zealand businesses, a point that's often lost in much media coverage which likes to make generalisations about what "business" thinks. We do have a chance to lead in green tech because some business leaders have gumption. The New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, two weeks ago welcomed the government's commitment to the ETS because "nature isn't waiting".

“It is important to stay on track because in the long run we are going to have to make an adjustment anyway,” the Business Council’s Chief Executive, Peter Neilson, says. “The longer the world delays, the higher the cost.”

The Sir Stephen Tindalls, Rob Fyfes and Jeremy Moons of this world are others who seem to get it. And I suspect its their influence -- or if not those individuals themselves, others like them -- who are giving the government the courage to hang tough.

They see that energy costs are on their way up regardless, and are preparing for it; that the future is in clever ideas such as this solar scheme in California. They know the research that says that those countries that shift early will save costs in the long run.

They see the value of New Zealand's clean, green brand and seek to protect it. They recognise that consumers in the northern hemisphere are changing their buying habits and are crying out for new, environmentally-friendly products. They see the reports that talk about green tech as a $10 trillion industry over the next 20 years and that green tech investments have kept growing even through the recession. They realise that 75 countries have pledged to cut or limit emissions by 2020, so change is coming whether we like it or not, and so we might as well get in first.

They see that New Zealand Inc. has to take an integrated approach as it re-styles our economy, and part of that is an ETS that encourages all businesses and ordinary New Zealanders to invest in the right way.

Proving just how out of touch they are, the EMA only last month was urging the government to borrow to fund infrastructure, such as roads and electricity. So... let me get this thinking straight... New Zealand can handle the extra costs of investing in the future, but, er, can't handle the extra costs of investing in the, um, future.

No, it doesn't make sense. Our future must be based on greener, cleaner technology, the incentives have to be put in place. The government must hold its nerve and maintain its courageous stance. There's no time to waste.

Climate change has not gone away, and neither have the finite realities of peak oil. All that has happened this week is that two of our trading partners have balked, and given us an opening. Do our businesses have the courage and ability to use this competitive advantage? That's what the business lobbies should be expending their energy on.