Choosing to take action

Participants look at a screen showing a world map with climate anomalies during a World Climate...
Participants look at a screen showing a world map with climate anomalies during a World Climate Change Conference near Paris. Photo: Reuters.
Neither Donald Trump nor the market have the answers to addressing climate change, writes Colin Campbell-Hunt.

Colin Campbell-Hunt
Colin Campbell-Hunt

Since my last column President Trump has taken the US out of the Paris climate accord. Readers of the ODT have been well served by commentary that rightly concludes that this is regrettable but that the fight will go on and will not be greatly impeded by America’s temporary absence. I have no need to add to these conclusions.

New Zealand has also been visited by Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former  chief executive of Exxon Mobil. Our political leaders apparently voiced concern over the US withdrawal from the Paris accord, a reproof that cannot have had much impact, coming as it does from a country whose contributions to the global effort to reduce GHG emissions are less than what is required to keep global warming below the crucial 2degC target. As Alan Mark and Dougald MacTavish reported in the ODT earlier this month, we have in fact given ourself licence to increase (yes, increase) our CO2 emissions by buying $1.4 billion of carbon credits every year from CO2 reductions in other countries. As they say, this is a massive subsidy to be paid by New Zealand taxpayers to support an agriculture sector that is to be free of any incentive to seriously reduce its contribution of half of all New Zealand’s GHG emissions.

The ongoing mystery is why it is that our Government is doing so little — and nothing on the scale required — to respond to the threat of climate change. Instead it is protecting the particularly dirty form of agriculture that sends dried milk powder to the world, countenancing new coal mines, and exploration for new gas fields. Why? The immediate answer is that all of these activities will produce, or have the potential to produce, money now or in the near future. The far, far larger costs of climate change — both to our economy and every other aspect of our society — will not be felt soon: not within this electoral cycle, nor even the career span of our current political leaders. The calculus of narrow individual interest concludes that the short term benefits of dollars today completely obscure the swingeing burden of climate change costs on future generations.

But politics was not always so in New Zealand, and it is not so now in many other advanced countries. Why is it that our obvious responsibility to pass on a liveable world to future generations can be completely set aside by a political ethos  in which  narrow, short-term economic interest trumps (no capital T this time) any other social priority?

My answer to that question comes from being a brash young economist in Wellington in the early 1980s, mixing with the architects of our present economic management orthodoxy: Graham Scott, Bryce Wilkinson, Roger Kerr, etc. I still do not believe we were wrong to attack the absurd interventions that characterised the latter years of the Muldoon regime: the price-fixing and "scrub retention schemes" so well satirised by the sadly-departed John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg. But in the process we left the political system with a profound fear of taking a stand on anything that could not be justified in an evidence-backed calculus of costs and benefits. I suspect that many of today’s politicians would see it as political suicide to take a principled stand on any issue that cannot be justified in this way: a phobia so deep that they do not even recognise it themselves.

As long as the challenge of climate change is mired in the political system we have now, we can expect little progress. But there is an escape, and the Europeans are showing the way.

The answer is to create institutions that sit outside the political process, and are empowered to set clear long-term targets for emission reductions, and to monitor progress towards them. The UK has set the pace here, passing a Climate Change Act in 2008 that puts a legal obligation on government to reduce GHG by 80%  below 1990 levels by 2050. The corollary is that the UK acknowledges that it can only emit a known volume of CO2-equivalent gases from any given date to the 2050 target. The question then becomes how quickly can this "carbon budget" be used up? In the hands of the current political system the answer will always be "leave it ’til later". So the Act also establishes a Committee on Climate Change that proposes a carbon budget based on the cost-effectiveness of reductions over the coming five year period.

Over the past two or three years, variations on these institutions and targets have been adopted by Finland, Denmark, France, Ireland, South Korea, Vietnam and Mexico. Norway’s climate change legislation is passing through parliament and Holland’s Scientific Council for Government Policy has recommended the same for the Netherlands. In New Zealand, Wise Response is close to making a similar recommendation. The Dutch report cites widespread benefits of creating consistency in climate change policy and targets: improved certainty in planning for all sectors of society; limiting the risk of stranded assets; greater resilience in spatial planning and infrastructure; greater consistency in policy across the full range of policy areas (from health to energy to transport ...) and at different policy levels (from local to national bodies); and — crucially — mobilising civil engagement for the climate challenge.

If New Zealand’s political history has left us with a legacy of haltered and timid governments, we do not need to let their inactivity deprive future generations of a liveable future. As we all agreed back in the 1980s, governments should not be expected to do everything. As we are learning now, neither should markets.

- Colin Campbell-Hunt is an emeritus professor at the CSAFE Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.

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