National has little choice but to withdraw from the multi-party consensus on the Climate Change Commission — or at least insist the Government ask its chair, Rod Carr, to resign.
This is not because National is against urgent action on climate change, but because it supports it.
The commission was set up following negotiations between Jacinda Ardern and then-Opposition Leader Simon Bridges, supported by Climate Change Minister James Shaw of the Greens and then-National Party Climate Change spokesman Todd Muller. NZ First acquiesced.
This was before Covid, when National had a reasonable chance of winning the 2020 election.
Bridges calculated he was best to stand statesmanlike beside the Prime Minister, the way John Key did with Helen Clark over Sue Bradford's child discipline bill. If Muller could be there too, so much the better for his leadership ambitions.
Only Act's David Seymour and National's Judith Collins spoke out about the danger the commission posed, but eventually Collins stayed grumpily loyal to her party's line.
Ardern and Bridges aimed to depoliticise the details of how to achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases, other than biogenic methane, from 2050.
"Net zero by 2050" is one of those slogans allowing politicians to signal virtuous intent but with a timeframe on which they can never be accountable.
To put some meat on the slogan, the commission was legally required to provide independent, expert advice on how to mitigate climate change, and how New Zealand should adapt to whatever climate change will nevertheless occur.
Its first job was to advise Shaw on emissions budgets and reduction plans. Next year it will make recommendations about caps and price controls for the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and whether farmers are ready to be fully brought into the scheme.
The commission will keep quiet through election year while working on its biggest project yet — telling us after the election what it wants us to do to adapt to climate change.
Even the commission understands that nothing New Zealand does will materially slow climate change. It knows that how we adapt to the higher temperatures, rising seas and more frequent storms that climate models predict is all we can control.
You might ask why this work couldn't be done by the existing bureaucracy, which is required by law to provide free, frank and politically neutral advice.
The reason, as everyone in Wellington understands, is that that's just one of those things that gets written into the law and is not to be taken seriously.
In practice, the "no surprises" rules successive governments have imposed on the Wellington bureaucracy mean its function has been reduced to helping the governing party with its re-election.
Even though we are only at the very first stage of the commission's work, the danger of radical mission creep that Collins and Seymour foresaw is already manifest.
It has become clear that the commission is not primarily or even mainly concerned with New Zealand reducing global emissions. If it were, it would reject entirely the domestic ring-fence imposed upon it.
By far the biggest contribution New Zealand can make to reducing climate change is funding projects in developing economies to reduce their emissions and prevent clear-felling of rainforests.
Such projects cost less than $20 to remove the equivalent of one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2e tonne) from the atmosphere. Yet the Ardern Government regularly spends over $1500 per CO2e tonne on its projects to reduce emissions.
New Zealand's total annual emissions, including even the biogenic methane the Government excludes from its net zero target, are coming up to 80 million CO2e tonnes.
For just $1.6 billion a year of international aid, we could be at real net zero now. Double that to $3.2b and New Zealand would be removing twice as much CO2e from the atmosphere as we emit. We could be doing that not in 2050, but right now.
But despite the commission believing climate change is a global crisis, it doesn't want New Zealand to do this. Instead, it wants New Zealand to achieve net zero when measured almost entirely by activity within our borders.
Even then, it says we could achieve net zero for around $50 per CO2e tonne, or a cost to emitters of around $4b a year, just a little above the current price of $41. That money would go to other New Zealand businesses. But the commission doesn't want to do that either.
Instead, Carr explicitly rejects New Zealand achieving the biggest possible reduction in CO2e emissions for the least cost. He says he wants to use climate change to radically transform every aspect of how we live our lives.
This includes how we work and make money, but Carr and his commission's ambitions are much bigger, including what amounts to constitutional change.
This is the commission pursuing a wider agenda at the expense of its first statutory purpose, to mitigate climate change. Richard Prebble rightly called this socialist quackery.
Even worse, remember that so far the commission has made recommendations only about mitigation, which it knows will be ineffective. How much more Kampuchean will its advice become when it reveals, after the next election, what massive changes it demands to how we live our lives in order to adapt?
Climate change policy is ultimately about neither more nor less than correctly pricing the CO2e externalities of human activity.
The ETS, the cap-and-trade scheme developed in 2007 by Labour's Climate Change Minister David Parker and National's Nick Smith, cannot fail to deliver net zero emissions whenever the Government decides to set the cap at zero.
That need not be 2050. It could be 2025, 2030 or whenever the Government decides to let the scheme run as Parker and Smith intended. And, as designed, the ETS could not fail to deliver that outcome at least cost.
When Bridges agreed National would support the commission, he and his party were signing up to maximising New Zealand's contribution to the fight against climate change and to getting ready for its effects.
They were not agreeing to Carr and his colleagues using the commission to promote an extreme-left utopia that will in fact worsen New Zealand's contribution to fighting climate change compared with Parker and Smith's existing policy mechanism.
Collins is fast losing whatever confidence she ever had in Carr. If Ardern and Shaw won't get rid of Carr, Collins should admit she was right all along and pull the plug.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.