OPINION: Climate politics is incredibly fickle.
In the 2007 Australian election, with the memory of horrible bushfires close at hand, Labor’s Kevin Rudd was swept to power with huge support for some serious climate policy. Seventy-one per cent of his voters said it was “very important”.
But 14 years later, Australia remains an international pariah on climate, with no real policy to tackle climate change and some of the highest per-capita emissions in the world. The issue destroyed the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull and contributed heavily to Labor’s surprise loss in the last election.
Because it is so fickle, and because politicians can almost always see some short-term advantage in attacking policies that only pay off in the long-term, many people like the idea of depoliticising climate change – taking the party political heat out of the issue so cooler heads can get together and sort the issue out.
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This is the idea behind the Climate Change Commission, which released its first carbon budget and tranche of advice on Sunday. It’s not just something Labour and the Greens like the sound of – National voted for the bill that created the commission and set its targets into law largely on the back of supporting the commission.
There are people on all sides of the political spectrum who want more done on climate policy, and know that it is much easier to make hard decisions when an independent body is pressuring you to do so.
Indeed, the commission may well have ended up as something closer to the Reserve Bank, independently setting policy themselves, had NZ First not hated that idea so vociferously.
The goal makes sense, but depoliticising climate is impossible. The decisions that need to be made are deeply political and will require serious change to our entire economy and way of life.
There is simply no way to take this out of the realm of politics, which is how we as a society make big decisions.
The drops seem minor at first, but the assumption at the same time is that economy and population will keep growing. Usually that has been paired with increases in fossil fuel emissions.
Those policies include: Banning new petrol cars from entering the market from 2032, banning new natural gas connection from 2025, fully closing the Tiwai smelter by 2026, and increasing the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) price to $70 a tonne of emissions, double its current figure.
They also include a policy almost no politician in New Zealand has ever really endorsed, lest they feel the full force of the farming lobby: A reduction in the overall number of cattle. That the commission is endorsing this, even with the much-lower target set for biogenic methane the sector won during the bill’s passage, shows they are truly independent.
The truth is New Zealand already has the technology it needs to greatly reduce its agricultural emissions and water pollution: rifles.
None of these policies will be easy to shepherd into being. Some of them might be broadly popular, but massively opposed by sectoral groups with serious power, or locations that would be the hardest hit.
Others have the potential to blow up into “nanny-state” nightmares: A lot of people will feel pretty nannied when told they can’t have infinity water heating and gas stovetops in their new house, or have to pay thousands more for a second-hand Nissan Leaf than they would have for a Toyota Corolla.
Some think a lot of this political pain could be avoided by getting the Government out of micromanagement and using the ETS as a blunt-force tool. If emissions were priced high enough the market would work out the most efficient way to reduce these emissions.
The commission disagreed, essentially saying the ETS alone could mean acres and acres of pine forest planting without enough actual reductions. It’s also a bit of a fiction to imagine the ETS itself would keep messy politics away: since its creation the ETS has been a political plaything, constantly buffeted by the whims of those in office.
These policies have not yet been taken up in full by the Government, and it will likely be out of office by the time of some of the tougher calls are needed.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has accepted the overall direction of travel, however, and the shrinking carbon budgets themselves.
She has a lot of political capital after a historic election win, and clearly wants to build her legacy around climate change somewhat. That will be horrendously difficult.
The Opposition’s task is far from easy. In the short term many of these policies will make for easy targets.
National leader Judith Collins has take the portfolio of climate change from the quite considered and environmentally minded Scott Simpson and given it to Stuart Smith, who has already said that climate policies must not meddle with “personal freedoms”.
But the public are clearly thinking about climate change more and more these days, and for National to return to feeling like the natural party of Government, it will need to be credible on the issue.
How it does that will be one of the defining political stories of the next decade.