New Zealand’s era of climate-change mitigation, which began with National signing the 1992 Rio Declaration and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is over. The physical and political effects of Cyclone Gabrielle mean the era of adaptation has begun.
National had a brief window last week to leapfrog Labour and the Greens, to be first to rhetorically transition to adaptation and own the new politics of climate change. Finance Minister Grant Robertson quickly saw that risk and closed the window by raising the prospect of new taxes to pay for it.
First, the definitions.
Mitigation is trying to stop human-induced climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s about not burning coal, transitioning to electric cars, planting trees and preventing cows from burping methane.
Climate change adaptation is when you accept that climate change is going to happen anyway and get prepared for it. It’s about constructing more resilient infrastructure, building sea defences, updating zoning rules and farmers changing crops.
Very crudely, the political left has tended to concentrate on mitigation with the right more likely to emphasise adaptation. As a whole, New Zealand has focused mostly on mitigation to meet domestic emissions targets under the various UN declarations.
Just as roughly, the political tribes have divided on how fast New Zealand should move on mitigation. The left has tended to argue that we should lead the world to inspire action by the big five emitters, China, the US, India, the EU and Russia. The right has advocated being “fast followers”, moving in concert with our major trading partners.
Both the Clark and Key-English governments also emphasised science.
When ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, Helen Clark argued New Zealand should “catch the next wave in energy technology, rather than watch it pass by”.
At the failed Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, where the presidents of China and the US arrived only to discover there was no real negotiating text, the most meaningful outcome was the launch of Tim Groser’s Global Research Alliance (GRA) on agricultural greenhouse gases. It now involves scientists from over 60 countries working to reduce emissions from food production, including through biotechnology.
Agricultural emissions represent over 10 per cent of GHG emissions globally. The idea is that if New Zealand scientists could find ways to halve that, global emissions would fall by over 5 per cent — doing 30 times as much good as New Zealand reaching net zero domestically.
With that exception, New Zealand’s 30-year climate-change mitigation strategy has completely failed.
Delusions that China or India would be inspired by our climate-change policies have, as predicted, proven fanciful. From the 1992 Rio Declaration through to just before Covid, world GHG emissions increased by 57 per cent. Of our three main trading partners, China’s emissions were up 261 per cent, Australia’s by 20 per cent and the US’ by 2 per cent.
Greta Thunberg quickly worked out that promises at the annual UN jamborees, which tens of thousands of bureaucrats and hangers-on cynically attend each year, were worthless.
In any case, New Zealand’s mitigation record provides no soapbox to lecture others, with our emissions having risen 15 per cent since 1992. Under each of the Bolger-Shipley and Clark governments, they rose around 7.5 per cent, before falling nearly 1 per cent under John Key and then rising 1 per cent in the first two years of Jacinda Ardern.
Sadly, having plunged dramatically over the previous decade, imports of coal quadrupled while Ardern was Prime Minister and the amount burned to produce electricity increased five-fold. If electric cars use coal-produced electricity, they are no better for the environment than petrol ones.
Another very coarse generalisation — with an even greater number of obvious exceptions — is that the political right preferred mitigating climate change with market mechanisms like the emissions trading scheme (ETS), while the left preferred direct interventions.
Allowed to work properly, an ETS can’t help but deliver zero net emissions by the due date. But no government could allow an ETS to work as intended if it meant true market prices for agricultural emissions, destroying rural communities as pastoral farming is converted to forestry, and raising global emissions as our agricultural production moves to countries with inferior environmental records.
Direct interventions, like Groser’s successful GRA, Shane Jones’ failed billion-tree project and Ardern’s counterproductive ban on oil and gas exploration, were necessary.
The cyclone has changed everything. It is evidence that the left tended to be right about the science, but underlines that the right tended to be right about the international politics. New Zealand is not at greater risk of extreme weather events because of anything we have done, but because China, India, Indonesia and Brazil have so massively increased their emissions.
From the start, it was obvious they would never change path.
Some mitigation strategies will continue. The GRA is still New Zealand’s biggest single potential contribution, with everything else globally irrelevant. That doesn’t mean our emissions won’t fall, as car manufacturers stop making petrol and diesel vehicles and electric cars become the only option — hopefully powered by hydroelectric, solar or nuclear power rather than coal.
That date will probably arrive sooner than expected, requiring charging stations throughout New Zealand if we are to keep using our roads.
Similarly, those road and rail networks need radical upgrades, as do some stormwater systems. A combination of sea defences and zoning changes is needed, especially on the coast. As always, farmers will need to produce the stock and crops that make sense for the new conditions. Massive new investments are needed in the military, to provide more capability to respond to weather events and because climate change is expected to create global instability.
Those who have demanded greater investment in mitigation for 30 years are right that this will all cost more than had the world prevented climate change. But they are wrong if they think New Zealand’s mitigation efforts would have made any difference. Every dollar we now spend on domestic mitigation that is not matched by a thousand dollars spent by China and India is a dollar we cannot invest in adaptation.
National could have made these points, positioning itself as forward-looking on climate change while Labour and the Greens remain in denial. Alas for the right, Robertson got in first, and the debate is now about how to pay for it. Robertson is signalling that he favours tax. National indicates that it prefers borrowing.
That would be a rational climate-change debate to have in election year.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based political and public affairs strategist. His clients have included the National and Act parties, and the Mayor of Auckland.