Special Feature: Burning Down The House – Climate Change Consultation

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Special Feature by Sven Solen, Rapporteur Courtesy of NewsroomPlus.com.

Newsroom new logo-300IN DECEMBER 2015, countries will meet in Paris to establish a new international climate change agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

Specifically, all countries have been asked to put forward a target to reduce emissions after 2020 ahead of the negotiations in Paris. These are known as ‘intended’ nationally determined contributions (“INDCs”).

As of this week, the Government’s rushed consultation on public views on New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change contribution has 10 days left to go, and counting down. Submissions – including use of the option of an online form – close at 5.00pm on Wednesday 3rd June.

The consultation was opened by Climate Change Issues (and Trade) Minister Tim Groser on 7th of May with these tone-setting words: “New Zealand wants to set a target which is environmentally credible and reflects our particular circumstances. But we also need to consider the possible impacts and costs to our economy.”

Mr Groser announced there would be a series of countrywide public meetings – none of which he has fronted at, and according to officials purposively never intended to.

Initially limited to 11 meetings an additional twelfth meeting was organised for Wellington to be held tonight 25 May, prompted by the high level of interest – and palpable discontent – evident at the packed out first meeting in the capital city on Tuesday 19 May – shifted from a Thorndon hotel to a much larger hall at Wellington Girls’ College to handle the numbers.  

Also in Wellington this week, Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) is holding an evening public forum on Tuesday 26 May with the title ‘A Fair Share? Constructing New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change target‘. It promises to help those who want to make a submission “be better placed to do so”, and brings together a panel consisting of: 

  • Paul Young, Generation Zero.
  • Adolf Stroombergen, an economist at Infometrics.
  • Dr James Renwick, a Professor with Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences.
  • Suzi Kerr, a senior fellow at Motu, New Zealand’s leading non-profit economic and public policy research institute.
  • John Carnegie, a regulatory economist who oversees Energy, Environment and Infractructure issues at Business New Zealand.

 

Burning Questions

The stage ‘managed’ consultation meeting held for the Climate Change Contribution Consultation in Wellington, on 19 May – officials are pictured on the stage with an image of a burning forest behind them, and hundreds of concerned citizens demanding answers to questions about New Zealand’s stance on climate change in the audience.
The stage ‘managed’ consultation meeting held for the Climate Change Contribution Consultation in Wellington, on 19 May – officials are pictured on the stage with an image of a burning forest behind them, and hundreds of concerned citizens demanding answers to questions about New Zealand’s stance on climate change in the audience.

The stage ‘managed’ consultation meeting held for the Climate Change Contribution Consultation in Wellington, on 19 May – officials are pictured on the stage with an image of a burning forest behind them, and hundreds of concerned citizens demanding answers to questions about New Zealand’s stance on climate change in the audience.

Running a poorly-resourced public consultation process, to which hundreds of concerned citizens turn up, within days of a multi-million dollar Flag Consideration Panel ‘campaign’ that struggled to attract half a dozen people to its first meeting in Christchurch, was never going to be a good look – a pointed comparison that was clearly and loudly made at the Wellington Climate Change Contribution Consultation (“the Con Con”) on 19 May.

In that atypical, almost-theatrical way that such meetings pan out, the grouping of cross-agency public servants who were there to set the scene for the consultation – referred to as officials throughout – were inevitably put through a reasonably bruising encounter, illustrative of an obvious disjunct between the behind-closed-doors limitations of official policy formation and the urgency of New Zealanders’ voices needing to be heard.

At the end of the meeting, public official Kay Harrison spoke on behalf of the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) as lead agency, to tell the audience what “strong reminders” she had heard, and about the importance of these words in direct relation to climate change issues: stewardship, leadership, equity and justice, the place of education, and the co-benefits of acting on climate change – that is, not just the costs.

Harrison also did her best to echo the values and emotions exhibited by members of the audience during an often intense two-hour-plus airing of public views, choosing the words courage, anger and dread to describe what she had heard, tempered with some expression of … hope.

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Affirming, or not, here’s what I heard expressed:

  • that officials in the public sector were displaying a “real lack of stewardship”, are simply “afraid to give free and frank advice”, and that the Ministry for the Environment has become (in the words of economist Geoff Bertram) “dispirited and lost”
  • “New Zealand should take leadership”
  • that with no Ministers “fronting” there was no real political accountability in play – Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council sympathised with officials being put forward instead as “punchbags”
  • “equity issues are not coming through … KiwiSaver is not going to help us!”
  • consternation that “we have so much research and I feel like we’re not using it… and are still thinking in silos”
  • an official answer from MfE’s Guy Beatson that modelling runs were done for agriculture but were factored out because they didn’t produce “conclusive results” and didn’t align with current government policy
  • a general challenge to what one speaker called “faulty assumptions” in macroeconomic modelling by Infometrics (in a report titled A general equilibrium analysis of options for New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change contribution).
  • frustration at the perceived persistence of “20th century thinking” and a business as usual approach rather than embarking on transformative change
  • a deep concern at a “lack of a plan to fix our future” from Generation Zero, with Paul Young commenting “we get distracted by the agriculture (arguments) and end up with (an unambitious focus on) making our future only slightly less bad”
  • strong views that retaining a 5% target as a contribution would be “pathetic and embarrassing”

Notable comments during the evening came from a concerned parent who travelled from the Kapiti Coast to Wellington to object to what she called a stubbornly prevailing “psychology of denial” surrounding climate change issues, a young man who simply said “you guys (officials) all seem to be very short-term”, and Dr Anne MacLennan of OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health Council who made this telling statement: “Designing non-farting cows is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic”.

In addition RNZ had sent a reporter, and seated at the back row of the hall were elder Press Gallery journalists Colin James, who contributes to the Otago Daily Times, and the Herald’s economics editor Brian Fallow.

Why The Discontent?

If there was an over-riding demonstration of discontent it was focused on the MfE’s 18-page, jumbled but carefully layered 6000 word discussion document.

The one word used repeatedly to describe the document was “disappointing”. Disappointment that it:

  • was an extended “lining up of excuses”
  • “ignores the potential benefits of taking actions”
  • “treats me with contempt (by) hiding behind a concept of fairness … and an emphasis on uncertainty”
  • “ignores sub-optimal outcomes”
  • took a line where the theme was “we can’t be seen to be doing too much” or, worse still, portraying “New Zealand as a victim”

Underlying specific disappointments was a disappointment that the Government had left consulting with the public “to the last minute” – compounding the neglect by a consultation timeframe of just 18 working days and next to no publicity.

A standout, standup response came from Pala Molisa, currently a lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Accounting and Commercial Law.

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While admitting he had only managed time for a cursory read of MfE’s consultative discussion document, Molisa was wary of any language that might euphemise or sanitise the looming “(moral) atrocities” of climate change, and cautioned against a reliance on cost-benefit frameworks which he said are “broken in this context”. Speaking directly to the cadre of half-a-dozen officials he urged them to “struggle for better language that doesn’t push out or marginalise intrinsic values”.

On the substance of challenges being faced, Molisa mused on the consequences of economic thinking based on unlimited growth, and made a call for more structural analysis of underlying systems, without which, he said, “we won’t be able to meet the test that these realities demand”.

Climate Change – One Redaction At A Time

Referring to a proactively released, if heavily redacted, Treasury briefing report of October 2014 – seven months earlier – New Zealanders should, it seems, be grateful that public consultation is taking place at all.

The report (ref T2014/1674) reveals Treasury advice that while there is “no legal expectation to consult the public on New Zealand’s post-2020 emissions target”, Ministers had consulted in similar circumstances in the past “and so domestic stakeholders are likely to expect consultation”. To its credit Treasury commended having an “an open consultation process”.

The thinking, in part, was that the international negotiations happening in 2015 present different issues from previous negotiations and give New Zealand different options. This most likely refers to the assessment that the agreement being driven towards for Paris in December will constitute a bottom-up approach – because countries will be determining for themselves the form and level of their targets, and the rules they intend to apply when measuring and reporting progress towards meeting them.

There are strong pointers from this briefing process to the language used by the Ministry for the Environment in its consultative discussion document published at the start of May.

Explicitly Treasury argued for taking a “fair share” target. The word “fair” as highlighted by a speaker at the 19 May Wellington meeting, occurs 15 times in the discussion document.

Likewise a move to tailor a target around New Zealand’s “national circumstances” – to manage the expense of stringent targets after 2020 – was framed as a driving ‘opportunity’ by Treasury back in October, so not surprisingly is a term that is threaded throughout MfE’s discussion document.

An Afterthought: So What About The MfE Discussion Document?

Click on the image above to watch a 4 minute long, tightly scripted video produced in support of the consultation on setting New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change target.

When people at the 19 May meeting weren’t calling out “farcical” aspects of the way the consultation process itself was being conducted, there was loud and clear feedback that the scaffolding of the discussion document was constructed in such a way that an overwhelming number felt they were being shoe-horned into a discussion they overwhelmingly felt doesn’t do justice to the issues, or in some way misrepresents them.

Many were struggling with paragraphs like this: “Reducing transport emissions will require a range of measures including changes in vehicle use. This might include increased use of public transport, walking and biking, and emerging technologies”. Might!?  

The sophistry of the document was directed in a friendly enough manner – “us” used 6 times, “you” used 13 times, “we” 73 times. But as already noted above much of the language followed a set of predetermined key-words that dominated the discussion document – “technology/ technological” for instance appearing 29 times within its 18 pages, because we’re ‘betting the farm’ on technology coming to our planetary rescue.

Great for the policy wonks and in keeping with Ministerial directions no doubt, but great for the public?

To close off this overview of the Climate Change Contribution Consultation, here’s a content breakdown of the discussion document – available to read here – followed by a randomised précis and gentle critique of the document.

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CONTENT BREAKDOWN

NEW ZEALAND’S CLIMATE CHANGE TARGET – DISCUSSION DOCUMENT – May 2015

  • Minister’s Foreword & Introduction – c. 870 words 

1. Why is New Zealand setting a climate change target?

  • Human impact on the climate – 247 words 
  • What does climate change mean for New Zealand? – 108 words
  • Global response – 259 words
  • A new opportunity – 307 words
  • Objectives for the contribution – 237 words
  • What is an ‘intended nationally determined contribution’? – 133 words
  • Q1: (a)  Do you agree with the above objectives for our contribution?
    (b) What is most important to you?

    p.8

    .
    2. What would be a fair contribution for New Zealand?
  • (Opening) – 52 words
  • New Zealand’s circumstances – 319 words
  • What is the effect of different gases on climate change? – 147 words
  • New Zealand’s emissions and targets – 227 words
  • What are we doing to decrease agricultural emissions? – 472 words
  • Use of carbon offsets and forestry sinks to meet targets – 278 words
  • Comparison with others – 411 words
  • Q2: What do you think the nature of
    New Zealand’s emissions and economy means for the level of target that we set?
     p.12

3. How will our contribution affect New Zealanders?

  • Cost of the target – 116 words
  • Using international carbon markets – 67 words
  • The price of carbon – 37 words
  • How will our target affect the economy? – 175 words
  • How will our target affect households? – 229 words
  • Why is there a cost for maintaining current target levels (5 per cent below 1990)? – 46 words
  • Why do costs increase more rapidly as targets become more ambitious? – 49 words
    Q3: What level of cost is appropriate for New Zealand to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? For example, what would
    be a reasonable reduction in annual household consumption?
    p.14
    .
  • New opportunities – 274 words
  • Emerging technologies to reduce transport emissions – 196 words
    Q4: Of these opportunities which do you think are the most likely to occur, or be most important for New Zealand  p.15
    .
  • Domestic policies to meet our target – 221 words
  • Summary – 457 words
    Q5: How should New Zealand take into account the future uncertainties of technologies and costs when setting its target p.17

 __________________________________

CONTENT POINTS & CRITIQUE

Foreword & Introduction 

  • To date action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the world has not been strong enough.
  • Setting a target, to apply 10 to 15 years from now,
    is challenging given the uncertainties in the new agreement and what might be economically and technologically possible over the coming decade.

1. Why is New Zealand setting a climate change target?

  • New Zealand’s temperature is expected to rise by about 3.5°C by the end of the century… the key risks that have been identified for New Zealand are sea level rise, flooding and wildfires. Drought is also expected to increase.
  • (Substantial reduction of emissions will involve) large scale changes in the way the world produces energy and uses land.
  • It is a challenge to determine what our contribution will be before the agreement is concluded, rules are finalised, and without knowing what technological developments will occur in the future.

2. What would be a fair contribution for New Zealand?

  • In the next 15 years much of (the forest planted since 1990) is expected to be harvested as part of normal forest management practice, meaning that these forests will no longer provide a significant carbon sink over this period.
  • Since 1990, New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions have grown by about 21 per cent, along with our population and economic growth. The sources that contributed most to this increase were carbon dioxide emissions from road transport, as well as nitrous oxide and methane emissions from agriculture.
  • New Zealand farmers have been successful in reducing the emissions intensity of our agriculture – that is, the emissions generated per unit of meat or milk – by about 1 per cent per year since 1990. This has been achieved through better feed and animal management practices, improved genetics and soil fertility. [… and agricultural intensification since 1990 equates to ??]
  • Making headway in both these critical areas is proving difficult and it is not clear when they will be resolved.

3. How will our contribution affect New Zealanders?

  • Our target is likely to be met through a mix of reducing domestic emissions, establishing new forests and through using international carbon markets.
  • More ambitious targets will have a higher cost. For example, if New Zealand took a target of 10 per cent below 1990, then the cost of New Zealand’s target could increase by an additional $200 million per annum. For a target of 20 per cent below 1990, then the increase in cost could be an additional $500 million or more.

CRITIQUE 1: How is this not perverse scaremongering (without a full context)?

screenshot-2015-05-25-05-33-12

  • (Our target will affect households) in two ways. wages will grow more slowly, in line with the overall economy. Secondly, the price of some goods and services will be higher (eg, electricity and vehicle fuel). These effects decrease the amount of ‘household consumption’ possible, ie, the average household will be less ‘well-off’ than what would be expected without a target…  For example, continuing with the current target of 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 means that in 2027, an average New Zealand household would be around $1,270 per annum worse off in terms of household consumption than if no target were taken.

 

CRITIQUE 2: Stating the glaringly obvious

screenshot-2015-05-25-05-34-58

  • Our population has grown by 31 per cent since 1990, compared with the OECD average of 18 per cent. Continued growth may place upward pressure on our emissions.
  • New Zealand’s gross emissions are currently around 21 per cent above 1990 levels and will be around 36 per cent above 1990 under ‘business as usual’ projections. This means the bulk of effort required for a given target is to bring emissions back to 1990 levels.
  • Reducing our emissions can also contribute to immediate and longer- term benefits.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing forest sinks can lead to improved health, environmental and social well-being, and improved erosion control and water quality.

CRITIQUE 3: Ironic call for Help* – What does that even mean?

  • We need to be ready for a world where the emissions intensity of our products and services becomes increasingly important to markets here and abroad.
  • Our low population density has contributed to a high per capita use of road transport.
  • Given that around 65 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions come from transport and agriculture, reducing our total emissions is a significant challenge.
  • When addressing agricultural emissions, the key is to … (ensure) that efficient production in New Zealand is not replaced by inefficient production offshore.
  • For the same level of cost as the United States’ target, New Zealand’s target would be between 15 per cent above 1990 levels to 10 per cent below 1990 levels.
  • For the same cost it
    is possible to reduce more emissions by purchasing international units from overseas, or by planting
    new forests, than by reducing domestic emissions.
    In addition, it can help to support countries with less financial capacity to invest in new clean technologies.
  • Given this uncertainty, setting a target will require careful consideration about the extent of action we can take to reduce emissions while managing affordability of the target for future governments.
  • Setting an international target means the economy will grow more slowly than it otherwise would.
  • Our modelling suggests that meeting targets solely through domestic emissions reductions will increase the cost.

To ensure your point of view is clearly understood, you should explain your rationale and provide supporting evidence where appropriate. (From the notes to Submitters). 

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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