A consultation document on New Zealand's post-2020 climate target released by the Government yesterday is silent on what sort of numbers it has in mind but is clear that any commitment will be highly conditional and provisional.
The timeframe for a new agreement to be struck in Paris in December requires the Government to give some indication by the middle of the year of what New Zealand might be able to commit itself to out to 2030, the document says.
The current target is to reduce emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and a "more ambitious" target is expected beyond that. Current emissions are about 21 per cent above 1990 levels.
This vagueness contrasts with the European Union's target of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 and the United States' offer to reduce emissions to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Europe has cut per capita emissions from nine tonnes in 1990 to 7.5 tonnes today and its post-2020 commitment is expected to cut them further to six tonnes. New Zealand's per capita emissions are about 17 tonnes.
The Government attributes this high level of per capita emissions to the unusually high proportion - nearly half - generated by ruminant livestock. While research into reducing those emissions has produced promising developments, "their commercial viability is not yet clear".
As the gap between New Zealand's gross emissions and any diplomatically feasible target is only going to widen, the rules around the two mechanisms used to bridge the gap are crucial.
One is international carbon markets and the other is the rules around forestry and land use change.
"Rules that provide the right incentives to maximise carbon sinks and smooth out the fluctuations of planting and harvesting cycles will be critical, as will an agreement that affirms the use of international markets," the document says.
"Making headway in both these critical areas is proving difficult and it is not clear when they will be resolved."
Consequently any "intended" commitment the Government makes this year will be provisional and based on clearly specified assumptions about those areas of uncertainty.
One of the questions the document poses for submitters is what level of cost they think is appropriate in the cause of reducing emissions. "For example, what would be a reasonable reduction in annual household consumption?"
Some indicative modelling, based on a carbon price of $50 a tonne (about eight times its current level), suggests a target of 10 per cent below 1990 levels would reduce household incomes by $1300 or 1.5 per cent by 2027 compared with taking no target.
Greens co-leader Russel Norman said many reports had found that moving to a low carbon economy was a major economic opportunity. "Yet this Government continues with its 20th century mindset of seeing emission reductions as a cost."
The consultation paper's number totally ignored the huge economic benefits of cutting emissions, the cost to taxpayers of not cutting emissions, and of different policy options, such as the Greens' carbon tax that recycled revenues raised back to households to reduce their tax bill, Norman said.
Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry criticises the absence of any discussion of the costs of climate change itself.
"To focus on just one side of the cost equation gives a misleading impression. Nor is there any attempt to identify the low-cost options to reduce emissions," he said.
"You are not going to get meaningful consultation if you don't present meaningful information."
Submissions on the discussion document close on June 3. Ten public meetings are scheduled across the country over the next two weeks.