Jim Salinger: Time NZ played its climate change part, even if it's small

Tim Groser. Photo / APN
Tim Groser. Photo / APN

A "voluntary emissions reductions scheme" is like asking me to pay voluntary taxes - I would probably not pay them! As I sit in my autumn perch in California I ponder why I should pay taxes to the New Zealand Government. My contribution is so small (less than 0.02 per cent) that it is insignificant, so why should I bother?

Today I learned that New Zealand has received two "Fossil of the Day" awards on the first day of international climate talks in Doha, Qatar, issued by the Climate Action Network (CAN) to countries that "performed badly" in the climate change negotiations.

New Zealand, unlike Australia, has decided not to put its target into the second commitment period of the Kyoto agreement, citing "spurious grounds when the reality is that it is just a massive display of irresponsibility", according to CAN.

More alarming to observers in the United States is that the New Zealand Government has completely misread American public opinion. Minister Tim Groser notes "there is zero possibility of the US joining Kyoto, so I think we're in the right space".

However, Dr Jon Krosnick of Stanford University has found that in 2010 and 2012 two-thirds of Americans wanted the Government to take specific actions to mitigate the effects of global warming.

Although President Barack Obama may not be able to ratify Kyoto through Congress, carbon dioxide has been ruled a pollutant by the US Supreme Court so the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Individual states can also introduce their own schemes. Tuesday, November 24 was a red letter day for California, which issued the country's first broad-based cap-and-trade blueprint to reduce emission of planet-heating pollutants.

The pioneering effort of its landmark 2006 law caps emissions from more than 600 power plants, refineries, cement plants and other factories at 15 per cent below today's levels by 2020. It will allow companies to buy and sell emissions allowances among themselves as a way to meet the overall goal less expensively. The cap-and-trade programme will take effect next year, complementing strict rules to cut emissions from automobiles.

And this from a state which is the eighth largest economy in the world, if the states of the US were compared with other countries. As of 2010, the gross state product is about $1.9 trillion, giving it a lot of political muscle.

For example, Detroit car makers tried to block the cap-and-trade blueprint to reduce greenhouse emissions in court, but lost at every turn. California is responsible for the smart technologies that reduce energy use, and enable car vehicle emissions to be forced down. These regulations benefit us all because new motor vehicle technology has now radically increased fuel efficiencies, all due to the performance standards demanded by Californian legislators.

It's time for New Zealand not to welch on its global obligations. The announcement of a "voluntary emissions reductions scheme" is like asking me to pay voluntary taxes - I would probably not pay them!

If as citizens of a country we are required to pay taxes, even if those payments are minute, then New Zealand should be part of the second Kyoto Commitment period.

A second commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, to take effect on January 1, is the last opportunity for a seamless transition from one Kyoto period to another. At the same time, coverage needs to be extended to include the high emitting nations.

Even though New Zealand is a small emitter on the world stage, every small, legally binding emissions reduction target counts in reducing greenhouse gas levels. That's why I pay taxes.

Dr Jim Salinger is a visiting professor at Stanford University, California.

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