09 September 2014

Labour's climate change policy; something old something blue somethings borrowed not much new

As I was saying in my previous post Labour do have a seven page climate change policy that is at first look pretty comprehensive.

Labour will

  • begin the transition to a low carbon clean energy economy
  • set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets and plans to achieve them
  • set up an independent climate change commission
  • will implement a comprehensive risk assessment framework in order to develop a comprehensive climate change response plan
  • establish a carbon budget process
  • achieve 90% renewable electricity generation target by 2025
  • reduce per capita domestic transport emissions 50% by 2040 from a base year of 2007
  • ensure that there is no retail carbon price gouging of consumers
  • manage the transition to ensure social justice particularly with respect to low income families
  • restore the carbon price to the NZETS (NZ Emissions Trading Scheme)
  • require emitters to cover at least half their emissions with NZ issued Units (not the cheap international 'hot air' units).
  • bring agriculture into the NZETS from 1 January 2016
  • give agriculture a free allocation of NZ units equal to 90% of 2007 production

Something borrowed

This really does appear to be a great list of policies. Interestingly, some of these policies have been borrowed from a variety of people.

The carbon budget idea is borrowed from the Sustainability Council back in 2011 and in 2012 and from Generation Zero's "Big Ask" Report of July 2014.

The independent climate commission idea is also borrowed from the Sustainability Council in 2012 and from Generation Zero's "Big Ask" Report of July 2014.

The comprehensive risk assessment framework and climate change response plan is borrowed from the Wise Group.

The policy requiring ETS emitters to use at least 50% NZ units is borrowed from the long-suffering carbon forest industry who in 2012 asked for limits on the amount of ultra cheap 'hot air' imported units that emitters can use to meet their ETS obligations.

Labour's policy also has a swipe at National for ignoring the foresters request to do something about the catastrophic decline in the NZ carbon price.

"Also, National sat on its hands as an influx of cheap, imported, international emission units collapsed the price of NZUs.

So, Labour's fix for the price collapse is to;

"..restrict international units by requiring at least 50% of all units surrendered to meet obligations under the ETS to be NZUs (on an ongoing basis).

The problem with this measure is that it won't work. It won't stop the cheap dumpster diver international units holding down the NZ unit price. If its compulsory for 50% of units surrendered to be NZ units, then thats the same as permitting 50% to be cheap international units. So the international units will still drag down the NZ unit price.

I have argued in a previous post that allowing use of international units was a fundamental flaw in the design of the NZETS (along with the lack of a cap). Previous partial restrictions on international units have not had any impact on prices.

The ironic thing about the Labour policy swipe at National "sitting on its hands", given that their 50% restriction fix won't work, is that that the unlimited importing of international units into the NZETS was hardwired into the original design of the NZETS in the Labour government's 2007 Framework for a New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme document. In other words, it was originally Labour's idea that the NZETS be so open to international units that they set the NZ carbon price.

The only way to set a "real" carbon price in the NZETS is to ban the use of all international units and manage the supply of NZ units and assigned amount units so that the carbon price is sufficient to incentivise changes in behaviour. If Labour won't do that, then their position is closer to Tim Groser's view that the international price should set the NZ price than to the views of the environmental NGOs and foresters who want an effective carbon price.

Something old

The rest of Labour's policy to "fix" the emissions trading scheme is to largely return it to the 2008 version Labour originally enacted.

Labour's "something old" policies on the ETS are to:

  • strengthen the ETS by bringing agriculture in on 1 January 2016
  • base the amount of free emissions units allocated to agriculture on 90 per cent of its 2005 emissions
  • continue with free allocations for carbon-intensive industries exposed to export competition, such as steel and aluminium.

This means that Labour will continue gifting excessive amounts of carbon credits to major polluters like Tiwai Point smelter owner Rio Tinto Alcan NZ and Norske Skog Tasman. The base for allocation will change from past production intensity to historic 2005 production levels - which may end up being pre-Global Financial Crisis peaks.

Forestry lecturer Euan Mason points out that once agriculture is in the ETS with 90% free allocation, they too will be able to take advantage of the price differences in the ETS, just like the carbon intensive industries have. They will be able to surrender half of their free NZ units back to the government, with the other half of their obligation satisfied by buying 11c international units. They can then sell their remaining NZ units for say $4.00 each. They then pocket the arbitrage difference between the prices of the units.

It's important to remember that Labour's original NZETS wasn't particularly well designed or effective. As Jeanette Fitzsimons said in the documentary "Hot Air", the Greens only unwillingly voted for it as it was "the only game in town", a first step and better than nothing.

In 2009, economist Geoff Bertram gave one of those Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies talks about the Labour and National emissions trading schemes. After about 30 minutes of carbon supply and demand curves, some one asked Geoff to sum up in plain language. Geoff Bertram's reply is the only part of the lecture I can remember to the letter. He explained that both schemes were patchwork quilts of exemptions and loopholes and delays. Both schemes lacked caps on emissions. Both schemes introduced unnecessary NZ units whose pricing would be at the whim of the international markets. He concluded:

"Well the Labour ETS is a dog, and the National ETS is a complete dog"

Something blue

Are you surprised that I am saying that Labour's climate change policy includes "something blue', as in from the National Party? I am surprised as well. Any climate change policy in common with National would seem almost to be logically impossible given that in National's list of policies has no climate change policy.

This statement from the the third page is what I mean.

"Labour is committed to achieving a lasting consensus among New Zealand’s main political parties on an ETS. We have consistently tried to work with the National Party to reach common ground. But we aren’t prepared to compromise our fundamental principles to do so."

Labour also gave a similar answer to Forest and Bird in their "Polling the Pollies 2014" report. Forest and Bird asked why Labour wasn't supporting the Green's 'carbon tax cut' policy.

"Labour's preferred means of pricing is to fix the the existing ETS. Using an ETS to price carbon is the only broad area of agreement in climate change policy, particularly particularly between the two largest parties (despite National's lip service for an ETS). Labour would not throw that agreement away lightly to start again with a carbon tax."

Reading these statements removes any doubts I may have had about being too hard on Labour's climate change policy. Ultimately Labour are just borrowing the headline ideas of the NGOs to make their policy appear effective. The truth is that in terms of how they intend to price carbon via an ETS, they would rather be "something blue", closer to National than to the Greens. This is just raw political expedience masquerading as high principle. A compromise being justified on the grounds we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In an enigmatically named post I wrote three years ago for the 2011 election, The snake swallows the elephant in the room and then flogs a dead horse, I suggested that climate change politics and particularly the NZETS could potentially descend into a politically institutionalised ritual of "flogging the dead horse".

My fears appear to have been realised. National and Labour in effect have the same policy narrative that explains the problem; "THEY undermined the NZETS", and a narrative solution, "WE will fix the NZETS". This creates the on-going cycle of the 'horse is underperforming' and the narrative’ solution (keep flogging the horse). But beneath the impenetratable detail and complexity of the arguments about fixing the NZETS, it will remain ineffective.

In summary, it is not enough for Labour's climate change policy to borrow some good policies from the NGO's when the fundamental problems of the NZETS are not addressed. It needs a cap on emissions. The number of units or carbon credits or permits must be limited to the cap. It needs to exclude all international units. There should be no free allocation of units. It should apply to all sectors. All the ducks must be in a row. All the cogs must turn in the same direction. Returning the ETS settings to the 2008 design doesn't achieve this. Seeking a 'flog the dead horse' consensus with National also doesn't achieve this. Isn't climate change important enough to warrant policies better than something old, something blue, something borrowed and not much new?

3 comments:

  1. Kia ora -heres my latest song, a tribute to the ACT party - - satirical- lampooning neo-liberalism - hope you don't mind my posting this - don't worry you'll like it - please pass on to anyone you can - thanks - bruce http://youtu.be/ahN0hEqVreI

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  2. Hi Robin- hope you don't mind my emailing again - have written song "Dirty POlitics" please pass on to as many as you can and have a listen yourself - you'll like it - -all the best- bruce - http://youtu.be/dTZdbmXSNWI

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