Kennedy Graham

Atlas shrugs off climate change – a New Zealand policy failure of monumental proportions

by Kennedy Graham

Our record on climate change has come to rank as perhaps the greatest policy failure in New Zealand history.

The latest figures for this country’s greenhouse gas emissions were released on Monday.  They project an extraordinary blowout in our emissions over the next quarter-century – the critical period of global and national emissions that will determine the fate of the Earth, and therefore our children.

The latest projection is for our net emissions to continue to grow from its present level (56 m.t. in 2011) to peak at about 98 m.t. in 2028.   By 2040, they are projected to be 85 m.t.

This embarrassing projection sits on the worst track record of any developed country between 1990 and 2010. As reported to the UN,[1] our net emissions went from 32.4 m.t. in 1990 to 57.5 m.t. in 2010, a 60% increase in 20 years.[2]  The next worst OECD country, Canada, recorded a 46% increase.  The EU reduced its collective emissions by 17%.  Norway cut its emissions by 49%.

New Zealand’s past record is abysmal.  Its future projections are worse.

Back in 1992, the (National) Government signed the legally-binding UN Framework Convention in which we undertook to bring our emissions down.  The increase from 34.6 m.t. that year to a projected 98 m.t. in 2028, an almost three-fold increase, is an obscene failure in policy.

In 2009 the current Government adopted a target of 50% off 1990 emissions by 2050.  Because of Kyoto accounting rules, this is a gross-to-net target – so the accepted challenge is to reduce from 60 m.t. gross emissions in 1990 to 30 m.t. net emissions in 2050.

Clearly, on current trends, New Zealand will be around 70 m.t. to 80 m.t. in 2050 – twice to three times the stated target.  This is not an acknowledgement of past failure; it is an announcement of future failure.

Has anything so shameless been perpetrated in NZ policy before?  How did we get to this abject position?

Through a series of self-deceptions:

  1. By thinking, early on, we could use our forestry as the primary, if not sole, way of meeting targets;
  2. By flip-flopping, in serial manner, between carbon tax and unit-trading as the economic instrument;
  3. By surrendering, shamelessly, to sector and pressure group demands for exceptional treatment;
  4. By failing, especially the current Govt., to understand the macro-economics of climate change policy.

This last failing was dramatically illustrated by the Prime Minister in his post-cabinet press comments on Monday.   Journalists queried him about the implications of the future emission statistics.  John Key gave a puny version of Atlas shrugging.

Mr Key warned against focusing too much on long term projections when half of New Zealand’s emissions come from farm-produced nitrate and methane.  The New Zealand-led global alliance researching how to reduce livestock emissions could ‘quite possibly’ come up with a scientific solution to cut those emissions dramatically.

“It’s not necessarily going to be a kind of slow linear reduction”, he said. “So actually, I’m of the view science is going to be our friend when it comes to this area.  I’ve never been of the view people are going to dramatically change their lifestyle. They’re not going to stop eating protein, they’re not going to stop wanting New Zealand to produce that protein, but science can actually assist us.”

Suffice to note that it is the scientific community which has shown the need for fast linear reductions, commencing now, for there to be a 50% chance of averting dangerous climate change (the 2°C threshold).

With leaders like this, New Zealand needs no enemies.  As other nations will point out before long, we are our own worst enemy.



[1] FCCC/SBI/2012/31, pp.14, 15 (16 November 2012)

[2] This latest MfE figure for 2010 is higher than that recorded to the UN for 2011 cited earlier in the blog: a case of revised figures (upwards…) as greater knowledge is acquired.