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Climate change inaction

Climate change inaction

Stephen Knight-Lenihan, Julia Harker and Prue Taylor

Managing Carbon Emissions

The Greens' carbon tax proposal takes us back a decade, when we argued between tax certainty and efficiency versus cap-and-trade flexibility. That's no bad thing. But whatever approach is taken, relative merits have to be discussed in the context of a package of policies addressing climate change. The current administration has no real interest in promoting such discussion, leaving any debate overemission reductions in a political vacuum.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill triggered mild panic globally. Where is our oil spill contingency plan? What oil spill contingency plan? We had the marine equivalent of a mop and bucket. So like many countries New Zealand reviewed its preparedness. Conclusion: better do something. Reviews were made, contingency plans put in place.

One rather crucial piece of information revealed but subsequently ignored was that the best way to address hydrocarbon pollution was to forget about preparing for an oil spill. Far better was to reduce hydrocarbon pollution in stormwater by introducing bio-filters and other mechanisms. This was because predicting where a spill would occur was impossible, the probabilities were very low, responding to oil spills was of limited utility with the responses often doing more harm than the original spill, and bang for buck it was better to address known sources of chronic rather than acute pollution.

This is a classic risk assessment exercise. Logic dictates one course of action (the risk estimate), politics another (the overall assessment of all risk – environmental and socio-economic). If there was a spill, we had to be seen to do something. And sure enough the Rena happened off the Bay of Plenty, demonstrating both the need to be seen to be doing something, and the overall lack of efficacy of doing so. Meanwhile the slow decline of estuaries and some bays from cumulative pollution continues, as does lowland fresh water quality and terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Biophysically we’re going backwards because cumulative damage is difficult to deal with and unsexy.

We need to be able to respond to disasters, but must also know where the real problems lie. It's the Red Adair syndrome. Red’s the guy who will cap the blowout, save the town, and retire a hero. Those who create such good risk reduction systems that there is no blowout in the first place and where nothing major goes wrong retire unknown and unheralded. We take for granted that this is the way things work because, well, they work.

Addressing the risk of climate change is a similar political game. We need to be seen to be doing something (in our case, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme) while pretty much everyone agrees the ETS doesn’t actually address the problem (reducing fossil fuel consumption). The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reportbacks out of the political mire by claiming it just maps out where we need to go. It does not navigate the way.

Globally, being seen to do something also means adaptation is now taking a more central role. For example, New Zealand’s local government is required to focus on it, not emissions reductions. Adaptation addresses more understandable threats, and is a better fit for the Red Adair model: we will save coastal towns by engineering solutions, or we will adapt agriculture to the new normal. However, failing to effectively address the cause of climate change while focusing on adaptation means minimising the harm of adverse events while increasing the probability of those events occurring.

Added to this is institutional inertia and, in some cases, a bloody-minded refusal to engage in the debate, or recognise there is one. This moves towards unethical behaviour. Transport is a good example.

The Government Policy Statement on Land Transport Funding (the GPS) guides how land transport funding is allocated, yet largely ignores the emissions implications from roading. This contradicts the need to contribute to ensuring environmental sustainability, once a requirement under the LTMA. Subsequently the Government got rid of that particular provision in the Act.

The LTMA dovetails with the Local Government Act 2002 and the Resource Management Act 1991. This assists the integration of land use and transport decision-making, taking into account a range of economic,social, cultural and ecological issues. There was, and remains, much debateover how to make the trade-offs between the goals. However, explicitly addressing environmental sustainability, as part of transport management under the LTMA, was an important obligation. It further entrenched the idea that such things need to be accounted for in all decision-making affecting land use and consequent impacts on atmospheric, terrestrial and fresh-water ecosystems.

The kind of information presumably available while the current GPS was being prepared includes Transport Ministry forecasts in late 2011 showing a 2009-2030 growth in passenger traffic of 14% and road freight of 24%. As of 2010, emissions from road transport account for 17.4% of all greenhouse gasemissions, having increased 66% since 1990. Transport is the fastest growing contributor to emissions in the energy sector, although this rate has slowed over recent years. Ministry of Economic Development modelling at the time suggested transport was the most challenging part of the energy sector to get emission reductions. The latest greenhouse gas inventory confirms the trends. Failing to provide guidance through the GPS on how to respond to these emission forecasts and reality is perverse, indeed unethical.

In a parallel development, the courts have confirmed the intent of amendments to the RMA: local government shall provide for adaption to climate change, but in terms of specific resource consents, councils cannottake into account emission implications, except when considering renewable energy options. This means that while the climate change benefits of a windfarm may be considered, the negative impacts of a coal-fired power station must be ignored.

More concerning, it appears councils may not be able to introduce policies on such things as land use and transport systems if the main aim of these policies is to mitigate emissions and reduce the risk of climate change. This is inconsistent with the approach of many other developed countries. Letting local councils identify opportunities should be encouraged and supported, not stymied.

The Government argues that the ETS takes care of the mitigation issue. The ETS includes specific sectors of the economy, and requires payment to cover the costs of emissions. This market signal motivates a reduction in emissions. Coupled with offsetting by carbon sequestration, this is intended to address our international obligations.

So will this be sufficient to reduce transport emissions? In 2011 the ETS priced carbon at up to $12.50 per tonne and the Ministry of Transport’s post-election briefing to the incoming minister showed this would increase at-pump fuel costs by about three cents a litre. If prices rose to a theoretical $100 per tonne, the effect would be to reduce the growth in transport emissions between 2010 and 2030 by about one per cent. Since then, prices have fallen and for New Zealand units currently sit around NZ$3-$5 (CarbonCommTrade shows spot price fluctuations since 2010). The Ministry noted at the time that the ETS was not sufficient on its own to significantly reduceprojected growth in transport greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, the GPS “continues the government’s strong focus on removing key bottlenecks in the land transport network, encouraging economic growth and productivity, obtaining value for money and improving road safety” (page 6 of the document). What it does not do is detail the implications for emissions of this approach and how to respond in order to help meet Cabinetemission reduction targets of five per cent by 2020 or 50 per cent by 2050 targets. (The targets keep shifting, reflected by the comprehensive but confusing Environment Ministry website).

By the way, New Zealand does have an energy strategy. In 2011 the energy supply and demand management strategies were combined into one. This identifies ways to reduce emissions, including from transport. But it exists in a different policy universe to the GPS, has little legal weight, and is essentially marginalised.

The sad conclusion is that national targets are fantasies that will never be attained, and are not intended to be. They give people avague impression things are happening, but not in a way that upsets lifestyles or threatens votes. Tying local government up by expecting it to improve transport efficiency while eroding its ability to address emissions reductions directly is oddly consistent with this cynical approach to climate change mitigation.

Of course this assumes local government wants to pursue real emission reductions; the cynical approach doubtless suits many local government politicians as well. But that is not the point. Removing the local government mandate reduces opportunities for local communities to discuss emission reduction options, identify opportunities, decide whether it is important or not, and give a clearer message to local and central government politicians. It may be New Zealanders don’t really care, but we suspect that is not the case.

In addition, relevant information may not be included in critical decision-making processes, and this may be set to continue. For example, a 2012 New Zealand Transport Agency-commissioned report concludes that, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per freight container moved around New Zealand, coastal shipping and rail are the best options, and a distant third is roadtransport. In addition, coastal shipping, followed by rail, is significantlymore cost-effective over long distances.

The overall conclusion is that coastal shipping should be better integrated into transport decision-making to increase its use for long-distance transportation of containerised goods. It would be good to beable to compare per-tonne per-kilometre carbon dioxide emission efficiencies to influence which of the transport options should be favoured.

Prior to the current GPS being finalised there were discussions with various stakeholders allowing such information to be tabled. But the final GPS offers few opportunities to consider alternative views focusing on climate mitigation. The Government may be investing in rail, but it is not done in a coherent way as part of an overall transport strategy. Andcoastal shipping is even more marginalised due to the fragmented way we currently consider transport funding. This leads to lost opportunities to explore more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of transporting goods. (The current GPS will be replaced next year with a revised version).

It is true that New Zealand’s contribution to global emissions is relatively small, and we can contribute to reductions by working on technology and management systems transfer in areas such as agriculture. But every individual, community, state, province or region in the world can say variations of the same thing.

What needs to be done is a complete overhaul of the integration between such things as transport and land use planning. The implications of funding decisions on emissions need to be clearly stated. Interim emission reduction targets for all sectors, not just transport, need to be set, in order to give the country a fighting chance to reach future emission goals. The recently proposed Auckland Low Carbon Strategic Action Plan is the kind of approach worth considering. The difficulty for the Auckland Council is being sure what it can implement without attracting legal challenges.

Regular updates on progress need to be reported in the same way we cover the stock market and exchange rates. This way people would have a clear idea of where we are heading, and such feedback must influence funding decisions. It might shift New Zealand toward lower carbon intensity and more sustainable lifestyles when integrated with an energy strategy linked to regulatory and incentive levers.

This is the kind of integrated approach alluded to by the Transport Ministry in 2011 that would include the ETS as but one tool; a carbon tax would similarly be seen in the context of other legislation, policies and regulations. Obviously it would apply not just to transport, but all sectors. Any administration that does not provide for clear discussion on the places of taxes, levies, investments, or any other tool, in the context of our responsibility to reduce emissions, is acting unethically.


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