Towards a Low-Emission Economy.

Reporting a civilised conversation on the policy challenges of reducing carbon emissions.

I recently attended a roundtable on the political issues as New Zealand transits towards a low carbon emission economy. As well as me there were about two dozen experts. Chatham House rules, but I can tell you about my responses.

To be clear, I support reducing carbon emissions; but I am very aware it is a global problem and anything New Zealand does will have a negligible global impact. I guess my basic stance is a moral one summarised by Robert Fulghum’s principle in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS (his capitals – the only one of the 16 principles all in capitals).

However, I do not expect the majority of the population to be persuaded by this argument, especially if the return to it is zilch or less. Were we to rely solely on such moral arguments, the policy would fail as more urgent issues dominated. Can we provide better arguments?

I was struck by how often this group, indeed most I listen to, slid between ‘we’ (meaning New Zealanders) and ‘we’ (meaning the world). It is much more compelling that the world should reduce the amount of carbon it emits into the atmosphere to reduce global warming, climate changes, storm surges, and sea level rises. But it does not follow that New Zealand should do it too.

Except for Kant’s ethical principle that you should behave in the way you would expect others to behave. Bother, back to the morality again.

Mind you, if we behave well we strengthen our urging of others to pursue carbon emission reductions, which will benefit everyone including us. One participant pointed out that if we pioneered good quality policies we would do the world a service because it would encourage them to follow. (Actually, even if what appear to be good quality policies fail, the world can also learn from our experience.)

In summary by being moral we can leverage our outcomes by the rest of the world tackling global warming more vigorously.

Another gain is that many of the Pacific Islands are already suffering severely from global warming. Pursuing a low emission economy at home would help our Pacific strategy. We have a good record of speaking on their behalf. We should open our shores to their climate change refugees. We need to avoid being too self-serving (more Pasifika migrants would be an asset to New Zealand) but it offers them some security in a Pasifika friendly country.

Another participant, confessing to being a ‘petrol-head’, said that even if there was no carbon emission problem we would be switching over to electric cars – the ex-Ferrari owner talked about the inherent engineering superiority of electric engines. The low-emissions strategy is pushing us in the right direction. At the moment electric cars, and other technologies like solar panels, are are a bit more expensive but the costs are coming down and it seems likely that they will eventually undercut conventional technologies – enthusiasts tell me sooner rather than later – so it makes sense to put in the future public infrastructure now.

That led me to wonder just how many of the changes we are talking about to reduce carbon emissions would be introduced anyway. They could be prioritised and should be publicised.

Yet in my view all that would still not be enough to convince a majority of the public. They will tick the ‘yes’ box when asked if they support a low-emission economy but will they tick it if they have to make real sacrifices?

The roundtable was troubled by the costs of adjustment not falling evenly while the benefits would fall quite differently (big gainers would be those not even born). You could argue that the farmers and miners, say, are generating the carbon emissions so let them, and their regions, bear all the adjustment costs – a response similar to that which happened under Rogernomics.

It wont happen that way under MMP –  nor did it happen before the neoliberal ascendancy. There will be measures to spread the costs across the entire community. (There was a vigorous argument for an active labour market program to ensure that redundant miners would transition to other skilled jobs.) That spreading of the costs means that rest of us will face lower government spending or higher taxes. The sacrifices will be real enough.

Of course some are strongly committed. Many voted for the Greens with the outcome that the low-emission economy is a part of the Coalition Government’s program. But who can tell whether the program will still be there – other than as a ghost – in three years time? The Key-English Government’s record was that, on the whole, they accepted the threat of global warning, but over the nine years they did little, even rolling back (or dithering over) some of the Clark-Cullen policies. (Simon Bridges has responded more positively.)

So how to better anchor in the strategy? It seems to me that we need to shift the focus away from an exclusive concern with carbon emissions to a wider remit of mitigating the effects of climate change of which the low-emissions economy is a central part. The difference is that a mitigation approach would also deal with rising sea level and storm surges (and, if we can, droughts and all). I am not saying we should back down on the low-emissions target, but that it should be embedded in the wider mitigation program.

It would scare the bejabbers of many people when they realise the degree of sea-level rising and that we are going to be as effective as Cnut at stopping it, unless the entire world joins in. (Some of the rise is inevitable.) But at least they will have a government which acknowledges the threat and is doing (or seems to be doing) something about it.

An interesting proposal was that we should seek a political ‘super-majority’ committed to a low-emissions policy in the medium term. Practically, that means Labour and National (and the other parties) coming to some consensus about a target in the long term. When in power they might pursue the outcome with slightly different policies. Do I hear you sigh? Is not ours a confrontational political system?

In 1993 a super-majority agreed to raise the age of entitlement for New Zealand Superannuation from 60 to 65. But that is a relatively simple policy compared to the package that would have to be agreed towards a low-emissions economy. One left the roundtable pondering pessimistically. But the seas outside were not up to street level – not yet.