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Upton-on-Line - Diaspora Edition

Upton-on-Line - Diaspora Edition

January 2006


This (very obviously plain) plain text edition is the result of computer traumas too tedious to relate. We know that subscribers are substance rather than appearance people and will bear with us in the short-term. In addition, from this issue onwards upton-on-line will not be replying to those of you who – maddened or inspired – hit the reply button and feed back your own wisdom. The tidal wave of spam that now infests cyberspace has made it impracticable for us to sift through thousands of junk messages searching for the few nuggets of gold. There are of course always other ways of locating the writer if you are truly determined!

In this issue

A fresh outbreak of horticultural Puritanism is forestalled by Lesley Max; A Place in France provides real life insights into French bureaucracy; and some ruminations on climate change policies as New Zealand decides to jettison its carbon tax.

Arboricultural fundamentalism

What is it that makes Paris such a stunning city to live in or mooch around? The cafés? The metro? The dreamily smooth footpaths tailor-made for roller-blading? Well, yes, all those things. But it’s also the trees and the boulevards wide enough to accommodate them. They stretch for kilometres – the plane trees are probably the most memorable, but flowering chestnuts, limes and a score of lesser species run them close. They mark the changing of the seasons, providing welcome shade in the oppressive summer heat while letting the light in on dull, short winter days. Yes – you guessed it: they’re deciduous trees; and after centuries of urban living, Europeans wouldn’t plant anything else. Firs, spruces and pines do just nicely on the mountains or in the countryside. But in an urban setting, the only conifers you will see outside of parks are immaculately clipped box and yew – cut down to size to allow light in but screen nosey-parkers out.

How different things are in New Zealand. A zealous generation of Arboricultural fundamentalists seems determined to ensure that ‘native’ trees must trump ‘exotics’ whatever the setting. Every new roundabout, motorway off-ramp and city square is being kitted out in the same mélange of assorted Coprosmas, Pittosporums, Ti-Tree flaxes and either kahikateas or totara. Coastal zones get the obligatory pohutukawa and no space seems spared from an outbreak of cabbage trees. As long as it’s native it must be okay.

Unless, that is, the silent majority are unleashed. As the Auckland City Council recently discovered when faced with revolt at the hands of Save Auckland Trees led by the formidable Lesley Max. Diasporans who have not already followed this gripping story will roll their eyes to learn that an exotics extermination campaign was all but underway in Queen Street. Perfectly healthy and attractive exotics were to be axed in favour of “nikau palms, flaxes and a few pots for plants providing seasonal cover” as The New Zealand Herald put it. An agenda rooted in some muddled ideas about national identity was about to inflict token indigeneity amidst the soul-less gulch that serves as the ‘heart’ of modern Auckland. Lesley Max’s victory has sent something ominously called the “urban design panel” back to the drawing board to look at “the function, type and number of trees”.

Spare (us) the totaras

Upton on line hopes the panel will have a think about the function – and historical origins – of cities and urban lifestyles. They might also like to have a think about the ecological and human realities of 21st century New Zealand. New Zealand is not some pristine Gondwanan enclave at the bottom of the Pacific. There is no risk that native plants will disappear from view – a quarter of the country remains in its original cover (and extraordinary level for a developed country whose economy is rooted in farming). Neither is New Zealand’s population exclusively Pacific in its cultural orientation and resonances. For many kiwis, planes, oaks and poplars are as much part of their inherited visual landscape as rimus or ratas. New Zealand’s wealth has largely been created through the imposition of a temperate northern hemisphere ecology on a temperate southern hemisphere ecology. Many of us regret the damage and extinctions that occurred in the process of human colonisation of these islands. But it has happened, and exotics of all species are here to stay (save, let’s hope, some of the worst pests if we can must the resources and the cunning).

But more mundanely, cities are decidedly artificial, exotic creations. And plantings should bear some relationship to the way people live in them. They absorb huge amounts of heat, especially in summer, and high rise buildings create shading and wind tunnels. Surely, in some settings, deciduous trees are going to recommend themselves providing shade in summer and more light in winter? New Zealand has a single native deciduous species – the kowhai. It’s not ideally suited to down-town sites and has neither the architectural form nor canopy to come anywhere near rivalling a well formed plane tree.

Auckland is by no means the only city to plant natives indiscriminately. Upton-on-line can directed interested readers to a bizarre use of totara in Hamilton’s Victoria Street. It will eventually form a massive, unchanging bulk of matt green whose intense winter shade will only be complemented by the needles it will shower year round on the street around it. (If Mrs Max has a Hamilton branch they might care to look at the latest lunacy along the edge of State Highway One alongside what used to be the Te Rapa Airforce Base, now a thriving new commercial development: superb exotic plantings half a century old or more have been inter-planted with grim totara no doubt to facilitate the axing of the existing graceful trees in due course.)

Upton-on-line has nothing against totara, flax or anything else – in its place. There will be urban settings that invite natives. And it would be good, too, to see some effort being made with natives that aren’t so easy – or cheap – to establish, like titoki or puriri. But equally there will be many settings that lend themselves to the seasonally adaptive exotics that work so well in so many cities. Take a look at the plane trees in Auckland’s Victoria Park or around the margins of Hagley Park in Christchurch. There are also wonderful trees – mostly evergreen it has to be said – that go back to the early days of European colonisation that, a century old, make parts of our cities much more distinctive than ill-sited natives: Norfolk Pines, Bunya Bunyas, Moreton Bay Figs, and Jacaranda in warm, coastal settings: the magnificent cool climate conifers in colder climates (witness the extraordinary plantings of Sequoiadendron and Abies in Queenstown or Ashburton).

New Zealand has native and exotic floristic heritages. They both matter – and they can be mixed. But until someone is prepared to apply a little discrimination and imagination, please lay off the clumps of quick growing, sub-canopy species that will be leggy and drab in no time: or the poor old totaras, condemned to grow shaggy and grim on road sidings or in traffic roundabouts until their sheer inappropriateness invites the chainsaw, a waste of thirty years growth and another round of quick-fix arboricultural fundamentalism.

Horticultural Tip: One excellent urban use for totara is as a hedging material. Upton-on-line has almost 100 metres of 3 metre high, closely clipped totara defending his property against the Waikato’s dismal blustery south westerlies. It is peerless. It is also very prickly – leather gloves are recommended at pruning time.

Handling French bureaucracy

Not a few New Zealand families lingering like stunned mullets following the paralysing innocuousness of Television One News have found themselves watching – and enjoying – A Place in France. The adventures of Nigel and Céline, Nippy and Reza have radiated the sort of sun soaked languor that the British find irresistible as they invade rural France with their execrable accents and endless commentaries on converting prices back into pounds. Nigel’s imitation of a waspish, egocentric Pom is so good he must be like that in real life.

But the most true-to-life moment was the debutante restaurateur’s encounter with French bureaucracy. As upton-on-line can attest, you can’t move in France without carrying a portfolio of documents just in case some fonctionnaire decides to throw his weight around. Those who have lived in France will have identified immediately with Nigel’s sheer exasperation in being required to produce a copy of his divorce papers translated into French by a French lawyer to be able to register his restaurant for business with the local chamber of commerce.

But that wasn’t the most true-to-life bit. As the impossibility of this demand washed over Nigel’s face (there was just a day to go), upton-on-line and his other half both commented aloud: “he’d be best to say he’s never been married.” Such is the moral torpor into which five years in France has reduced us. And sure enough, seconds later, Nigel explains that the nice person in the Chamber of Commerce has said that they are, after all, a Chamber of Commerce and are supposed to encourage business so why doesn’t he just say he has always been single…it would be a lot simpler!

Herein lies the plate tectonic boundary between the Anglo and French worlds: the Anglo world fights proposed regulation tooth and nail but then supinely submits once it is in force. The French pass rules and regulations like they are going out of fashion but simply ignore them when they get in the way.

A taxing climate

One of the casualties of the big deep breath that seems to follow each election has been the carbon tax. Upton-on-line has not followed the detail of how this particular policy wreck has come about so it would be presumptuous to pretend to any expertise about the particularities. But a massive shortfall in plantation forest sequestration of carbon probably played a role. The extent to which NZ governments since the mid-1990s had planned to curb emissions,had always been limited on the basis that large amounts of carbon would be stored in rapidly growing forests. Fortuitous forestry expansion would provide a relatively painless way of meeting Kyoto targets while accommodating a good slug of emissions growth in the medium term. Lower sequestration than expected raised the prospect of more rigorous emissions reduction measures if New Zealand was going to stand by its commitments.

Like most recipes for instant virtue, the easy fix turned out to have all the durability of snake oil. And, in time honoured fashion, the fall from grace has been accompanied by stern moralising (with gleeful choruses of sotto voce ‘told-you-so’). This comes from two diametrically opposed camps. On the one hand, climate sceptics (apart from revelling in the policy discomfort) sternly castigate those who claim to be able to forecast the economic future. What sort of central planning hubris could have predicated a policy response on the basis of wholly unpredictable forest plantings? On the other hand there is moral harrumphing from the deep green lobby who from the outset opposed any steps other than those that yielded real cuts in emissions. For them, environmental Calvinism has been vindicated well and truly.

Upton-on-line has to take responsibility for the significant reliance on forest sinks. At the time it seemed to recommend itself as a least-cost solution in the short term that would enable New Zealand to play its part in containing the (net) increase in anthropogenic emissions while buying time for the diplomatic – and scientific – waters to clear. Certainly, in 1997 neither businesses nor consumers were ready for a much more rigorous policy based solely on reducing human emissions. New Zealand was by no means alone in this approach. While holding out for an even less demanding target, Australia relied heavily on land use change rules hammered out in the negotiations. Perfectly sensibly, every country sought to protect its competitive economic position through the inclusion of least cost solutions. Forestry seemed to be New Zealand’s trump card.

In fairness, it was always squarely stated that forest sinks could only ever be a transitional solution. Once the sinks were full – in other words, every acre available for plantation forest was planted and at maturity – there would be no more lee-way available: the standing stock of carbon would then have to be maintained for the foreseeable future through matching any harvest with replantings. Furthermore, it was admitted that if sinks were used simply to avoid taking any other action, we would reach saturation point with a much bigger emissions reduction challenge than we’d had at the outset. The rationale for reliance on forest sinks was that they would buy time for more gradual adjustments in lifestyles and patterns of economic activity and buy time too for genuinely transformative new technologies.

Techno-fixes: mirage, conundrum or TINA?

At the bottom of almost every agenda save that of the most puritanical eco-fundamentalists lies the hope of some techno-fix. Replacements for the fossil fuels on which we have constructed the entire fabric of modernity offer the tantalising prospect of unbroken affluence (for those with it as well as those striving for it) with a much lighter ‘footprint’. The reality is that at this point there is nothing remotely close that can offer affordable energy in the quantities the world’s population needs to live the way we do in countries like New Zealand. Even if really significant gains can be made in the efficiency of conventional electricity generation from coal, the sheer scale of the forecast growth from developing countries will swamp the plausible gains. And there is no replacement for the liquid fuel requirements of the global transport sector on any sort of horizon which could make a difference.

And yet, those who would decry technology-fixes have to confront an even more alarming socio-economic reality: that there are simply no precedents in human history for government-imposed changes in lifestyle on the scale that would otherwise be required. Trying to radically lower emissions by tough taxes or draconian regulations would only be conceivable in the face of an imminent disaster. In political terms, ‘imminent ‘ means at most within a couple of years. To justify such measures on the basis of changes – uncertain in both magnitude and location – that are likely within a time span of decades is beyond the political capabilities of either democratic or authoritarian states.

There is no alternative to finding technologies that can significantly reduce the social and economic dislocations of any response likely to have an impact. The problem is: how do you stimulate innovation in the sort of far-reaching technologies needed in the absence of any sort of long-term policy signal?

Why a tax makes sense even though we won’t have one

The carbon-tax as it had been conceived had plenty of critics. The fact that the Government had offered alternative agreements to particularly vulnerable sectors was one easy criticism levelled at the tax. Why offer differential breaks to different sectors and ask others to pick up the costs? A very rational criticism. But let’s not forget that those who raised this criticism were often strenuously opposed to any tax at all and were in all probability backing any exemption that moved. The flaws in the proposal enabled them to criticise its weaknesses without having to spell out what they’d have done – which one suspects was likely to be nothing.

A sounder argument was based around the competitiveness of New Zealand’s industries. Why should New Zealand shackle its traders with costs not being borne by many of its trading partners? This was, of course, a problem institutionalised in the architecture of the Framework Agreement on Climate Change from the outset: the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities meant that developing countries were always going to be able to compete without the costs of carbon caps. It might have been a justifiable transitional step if all developed countries had stood by their commitment to take the lead, at least at the outset. But with America and Australia walking away from the Kyoto protocol, the competitive distortions for the remaining countries were simply intensified.

So how could a carbon tax make any sense in the New Zealand context? The answer to that depends first on whether you think there is a problem worth doing anything about and secondly, assuming you do, how best you think governments can influence the future. There is no consensus on either of these questions. On the first, many of the critics of government policy are very hard to pin down on whether they consider climate change even to be an issue. Making easy fun of complex, cumbersome, flawed policies enables them to avoid the hard question. It is much easier to intone that the jury is out or that they have an open mind. Open minds are to be applauded. Minds that simply avoid forming a judgment, however provisionally, don’t merit the attention they demand. Robust sceptics could do much for the quality of public debate by stating the basis for their hunch that the likely scale of the problem is so small that it can safely be left to run its course.

Their opponents, on the other hand, should spell out why they consider some level of policy intervention justified – and the trade-offs they have made in reaching that conclusion. This broaches the second question. Governments aren’t good at lots of things. If they go down the road of imposing heavy costs for questionable gains (like causing carbon-intensive industries to migrate and then leave the country reliant on importing the same products) they won’t cover themselves in glory. But governments are not without options. Two things they are quite good at doing that are relevant to climate change are: funding very long term, esoteric research for which there is no prospect of an early return; and injecting, by way of taxes that only governments can impose, a price signal that nudges consumers and investors in the direction of less carbon-intensive options.

On the R&D front, one assumes that it is unlikely that, given its resources, New Zealand will not be the crucible for transformative new technologies (although its scientists will no doubt play their part). But when it comes to using taxing instruments, it should be possible to design them in a way that minimises economic costs while sending long term signals. Upton-on-line has to confess that in the 1990s he was deeply enamoured with tradable permit systems. They seemed so rational: if you wanted a guaranteed emissions outcome, permits did the trick and left it to the market to allocate them to the most efficient users. If the permits were grand-fathered, there was an automatic compensation mechanism for those facing costly adjustments.

Since, however, the size of the potential market and hence the price of permits would be unknown given the daunting challenges involved in negotiating anything approaching a global market) such a solution offered huge uncertainties about the economic costs. Any modifications to it designed to provide more certainty or to protect especially vulnerable sectors, would have generated burgeoning complexity. A tax, in comparison, imposes clear costs and – if levied without exemption – is simple and transparent. There is only one big judgement: at what level should it be imposed? Upton-on-line is not inclined to rush in here where angels and Treasury officers fear to tread, but if oil price hikes of the scale we have seen have failed to collapse the economy, one has the impression that a tax could be fashioned at a level that reinforced energy saving behaviour and sent a signal to investors and consumers alike to ‘watch this (atmospheric) space’. It’s all a question of incidence and timescale. Making the tax fiscally neutral and recycling the revenue could make it even more defensible.

Who will make a real difference?

Sending a signal may be as much as New Zealand can really do. Because the outcome of this issue will not be decided by tiny marginal players. It will be decided by investments made in the big economies of the world and by the technologies that do or don’t make it to the market as a result of whatever policies those large economic blocs are prepared to impose. If China, India and others continue to commit to coal-fired power on the scales currently being talked about, then the emissions trajectory will be locked onto an even steeper path. The same applies to motor vehicles: if motorisation continues to increase globally at anything like predicted levels with technologies still based on liquid fossil fuel, then another lock-in to higher emissions is guaranteed. The same applies to air travel and a host of other sources.

If the big, fast developing countries of the world and some of the biggest developed economies like the USA and Australia are basically prepared to see the emissions track climb inexorably, then whatever risks climate change poses will be significantly enhanced. That seems to be the unavoidable conclusion of what is actually happening rather than what officials may be saying. This is not a conclusion those worried about climate change want to hear because it is exactly the argument used by many business people to justify pulling New Zealand out of an agreement like Kyoto. Why shackle our economy if so many others aren’t and the level of sign-up an ambition is so small it won’t make a difference?

A few realities

It may help to spell out a few realities:

(1) No-one ever said Kyoto would solve the issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions: it was supposed to be a first step – by developed countries – that everyone hoped (but didn’t dare say) would be followed by the progressive engagement of all countries.

(2) Because the problem involves an environmental externality that has no borders – the global atmosphere is a commons into which everyone can pour their waste products – then some genuinely global regime has to be found if the problem is to be tackled. Otherwise the free rider problems are insuperable.

(3) New Zealand negotiated in good faith at Kyoto and has done so since. If New Zealand takes that the view that a genuinely global approach is the proper one, then it cannot simply decide to park its engagement until others show up. It is not credible to say that New Zealand can’t make a difference so it should just turn its back. Even Australia, which decided not to sign Kyoto, recognises that its international credibility rests on making genuine efforts to meet the target it held itself out as being able realistically to meet.

(4) On the other hand, the failure of those negotiations even to engage countries like the USA (let alone China), does raise the costs of compliance for countries like New Zealand. This in itself is a fair point for New Zealand to make if it believes its target is now unachievable.

(5) If New Zealand misses its target, it won’t be the only country to do so. Signalling that early – if that is what the Government fears – might be the most credible way of getting the debate back on track.

(6) Implementing workable, modest policies that send clear long term signals and increase the cost of carbon is more important than either causing a melt-down through slavishly trying to hit a particular target or drowning everyone in gimmicky greenery that has a feel good factor but doesn’t really change anything.

(7) It makes sense to purchase emissions reductions initiatives abroad if they are cheaper: the externality is global – where the emissions are reduced is irrelevant as long as they are real and verifiable. On the other hand, in the same way that countries have an eye to energy security, it would be a risky policy to assume that all emissions reductions can safely be made off-shore.

(7) Truly transformative technologies will almost certainly originate from abroad so the speed with which they penetrate is likely to be a more significant factor than any other. While the laboratories of origin will almost certainly receive significant public money, getting the technologies to market will only happen if the private sector can make them pay.

So where does all this lead?

On the world scene….

If the last point is correct, one of the most useful things New Zealand could do is to put some real diplomatic resources into urging those countries that can influence the development of transformative technologies to hasten their advent. The taxation, R&D, development assistance and regulatory policies of the largest economies can significantly alter the environment for technology development. For example, if as we are told, clean coal has to be among the future options, then what are the policy settings in key markets that will really make full carbon capture and sequestration possible?

A small country like New Zealand might not be able to do many things. But it could take a long hard look at where diplomatic and negotiating activity is currently concentrated and what sort of return that is showing in comparison with attempts to bring forward much more efficient and in some cases radically more efficient technologies. Hammering that issue hard abroad might be more useful than some of the things we do. To do so credibly we would need to put our share of the resources where our mouths are. We might even consider taking the lead in an area like ruminant methane emissions.

On the domestic front…

Policies should make greenhouse gas emissions more expensive and on a progressive basis but at a speed that takes account of capital turnover. Policy instruments should be stable and send signals about long-run scarcity of space for emissions so that people have clear incentives to reduce emissions and/or invest in cleaner technologies. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a well-designed carbon tax would be the least costly domestic instrument. The question to be debated is the extent to which New Zealand should divide its emissions reductions effort between domestic action and paying others to do it off-shore. But to become a credible part of the policy mix, a carbon tax would need a broad level of sign-up. Who is going to make medium term investments - be they at home or in business – if a carbon tax is on-again, off-again depending on who wins the next election?

If the current policy mix has got too sticky and too complex, then it might be time for all the main parties to get round the table. There are sufficient incoherences on all sides to make for reasonably even servings of humble pie. It just might be that the policy options everyone has sworn to avoid might be the best ones.


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