Two weeks after Jacinda Ardern declared a climate change emergency she has been snubbed by a major UN climate conference and left on the sidelines with Scott Morrison and Donald Trump.
It’s hard not to see the hands of the host of the conference, the British Government, behind the snub.
Their High Commissioner in Wellington, Laura Clarke, in a move which has raised eyebrows in the Beehive over its political nature, told the Climate Change and Business conference in Auckland on November 12 that was a gap between New Zealand’s ambitions on climate change and reality.
“You have Scandinavian ambitions in terms of quality of life and public services, but a US attitude to tax,” she said.
“The brand 100% Pure New Zealand lulled many into a false sense of security when the environmental reality is far more challenging.”
Clarke’s comments verge on a diplomat interfering in New Zealand politics which by convention diplomats are not supposed to do.
The reality that Clarke talks about is the statutory requirement for the Climate Change Commission next year to propose the country’s first carbon budget.
But Ardern may face some challenging decision ahead if she wants to follow up the emergency.
Addressing a Pacific Islands Forum Zoom summit on climate change on Friday, Ardern said the Pacific should expect more from New Zealand.
And she pointed to the Climate Change Commission’s forthcoming proposals.
“In May next year, our Climate Commission will make recommendations to us around the compatibility of our indices with the one point five-degree temperature limit that we have established and our domestic legislation in twenty twenty-one,” she said.
“The commission will also provide New Zealand advice on our first five years emissions budget, a process that we’ve also set down in our domestic law and then later in twenty twenty-one will be responding with our first emissions reduction plan.
“Because as all of you have pointed out here this evening, again, we have to focus on reducing our emissions if we are going to have a meaningful impact and that next ten years is so critical.”
The Chair of the Climate Change Commission, Rodd Carr, also held a separate Zoom briefing on Friday in which he set out the hard choices facing New Zealand.
And he implied that the ETS component of the petrol price would have to rise a lot higher if it was to deter consumption, but even then it might not succeed.
He also raised questions about the long term future of the “one billion trees” programme which is designed to capture carbon.
Carr said that New Zealand faced a dilemma; did it move hard and fast and risk alienating important stakeholders, and we might inflict costs and losses that might be avoidable.
“On the other hand, if we delay and have to move faster later to catch up, we may regret that we haven’t made earlier bolder action to reduce our gross emissions, that the consequences of the delay may be that New Zealand is less likely to be able to access some of the markets that are important for us,” he said.
He said there was no doubt there would be costs and losses from the early exit of some fossil fuel-based technologies such as coal-fired boilers or “that high emitting imported internal combustion engine car in your driveway.”
And cars are likely to be at the centre of the climate change debate.
Currently, the main tool to persuade New Zealanders to move away from fossil-fueled cars to alternatives such as Electric Vehicles is the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which appears as a levy imposed on petrol costs.
But Carr said it was not working.
When the ETS price was $25 for a tonne of emissions, its contribution to the price of a litre of petrol was about six cents.
“If it were to rise to 50 dollars a tonne, then its contribution to our petrol price would be about 12 cents a litre,” he said.
But he said price did not change much how much petrol we bought. And petrol prices were also determined by the value of the New Zealand dollar, and about half the price paid at the pump was accounted for by other taxes and levies.
“So one of the questions is not specifically about petrol,” he said.
“But if the ETS at these prices has only a very small impact on final consumer prices, how much work can we expect the price to do alone if the ETS price was dramatically higher?”
This becomes a major policy question for the government next year; how to reduce the number of petrol cars on the road using a mechanism other than price.
A second big question surrounds the future of forestry in our emissions budgets which the Climate Change Commission was required to provide advice on.
“New Zealand’s forest footprint cannot expand indefinitely,” he said.
“We would ultimately plant ourselves into the ocean.”
Forestry is important.
Because it “sucks up” carbon dioxide, it reduces the overall emissions reduction target that New Zealand has to reach.
But Carr said the world has essentially acquiesced to New Zealand fiddling its carbon reduction figures because it was allowed to compare its gross emissions (that is without deducting the forestry absorption) from 1990 with its net emissions (that is, taking the forestry into account)today.
Carr said that comparison showed we hadn’t made much progress.
However, when like (gross)from 1990 was compared with like (gross emissions, now), it was clear we had doubled our actual emissions.
In other words, in reality, the task facing New Zealand is bigger than we might imagine, and we have not really made any significant inroads into reducing our actual emissions.
Ardern appeared to acknowledge that in her speech to the Pacific Islands’ Forum.
“As all of you have pointed out here this evening, again, we have to focus on reducing our emissions if we are going to have a meaningful impact in that next ten years,” she said.
But as Carr pointed out the political price for that may be very high.