11 November 2011

Swallowing the elephant flogging the dead horse

Apologies to the Little Prince
A snake swallows the elephant in the room and then flogs a dead horse - The politics of climate change in the 2011 New Zealand Election campaign

So whats happening with climate change in the campaign for the 26 November 2011 election?

I was originally thinking about writing a wonkish post comparing climate change policies between parties. You know the sort of thing.

Which parties have policies that reflect the seriousness of the impacts the science predicts? Who has got the science wrong? Which politicians are all talk and no action? What are the minute details of the each party's NZ ETS policies. Such as delays to sector entry dates, partial price obligations and varying free unit allocation regimes...MEGO, anyone? (My Eyes Glaze Over....)

Then I thought, Nah! I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

You know what really strikes me about climate change in the election?

It's the absence. It is as if climate change is nearly completely absent from the campaign. When climate change does pop up, it's portrayed in simplistic soundbites.

Nick Smith says anthropogenic climate change is real and complex and 'wicked'. But promises more moderating, balancing and delaying of the NZ ETS. Labour says anthropogenic climate change is real and we will fiddle with some NZ ETS details for agriculture slightly earlier than National as farmers don't vote for us anyway. The Greens say anthropogenic climate change is real and we have a detailed wonk-friendly exposition on our website, but for this election we are running with "jobs, kids, rivers". oh no...MEGO...

What's happened is that climate change, the 'elephant in the room', has been swallowed up whole by the 'snake in the room' -- politics. Along with all other serious political issues.

This snake is the real theme of the election. Russell Brown calls it the politics of absence. Brown says "cultivated political absence...shapes the almost unprecedented popularity of John Key". John Key's political success is because of this successful strategy of "de-politicising" himself. Key's politics-free radio chat show was the perfect example.

The media have largely just played along with the politics of absence. The election is discussed as a poll-driven horse race. Or a rugby game "of two halves" with "kicking for touch". Who looked confident? Who had the best sound bites? Who mispronounced his/her New Zild the least or most. Restructure or "reeshrukcha"?

The media have trivialised and objectified political debate. I give this example. The most discussed electoral contest in 2011 appears to be Auckland Central which the Herald calls "the battle of the babes" as the candidates, Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, are both relatively young women, whose shared Herald columns are called "Broadsides". Do I need to say more?

After the snake has swallowed the elephant in the room, the snake becomes the dead horse that needs some more flogging.

Climate change has been politically institutionalised. Its now "flogging a dead horse". Everyone has a policy (a horse). Everyone talks their policy. No one does anything.

These policies all have a narrative that explains the problem (the horse is under-performing) and a 'narrative' solution (keep flogging the horse).

It is here that the metaphor of "flogging the dead horse" fits so well. Firstly, the probability of the two main political parties really acting to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases is the same as the probability of the flogged horse springing back to life.

The second reason is that the best dead horses can be repeatedly flogged.

Take the Resource Management Act (RMA). It's the ultimate flogged dead horse of NZ politics. In its 20 years of life, it has been in an almost eternal state of being vilified from all sides: for environmental failures and for economic inefficiency.

Both National and Labour have both been subjecting it to interminable reviews and amendments. The basics remain the same. Plans are written with lofty goals. Plans don't reflect consent practice. But then consent decisions rarely reflect plan goals. Consents are needed for some activities not others. Some consents need more evidence and take longer than others.

The NZ ETS is the new dead horse in the flogging stable. Its perfect. Like RMA issues, the NZ ETS is fiendishly complex. To most people, the NZ ETS is a MEGO topic. My Eyes Glaze Over. A recital of any of the detail of the NZ ETS is usually enough to induce that response. Thus deflecting most criticisms.

Being complex, if not incomprehensible by design, the NZ ETS can be fitted, usually negatively, into any political viewpoint. Farmers can still oppose it with vitriol despite their generous treatment. It is just as good a political punching bag as the RMA.

National's 2009 amendments institutionalise that most Kiwi of practices -- a five yearly review by committee. To me this is the statutory recognition of the near-permanent state of "fixing" the RMA is subject to. Labour have said they will continue the 5-yearly reviews if they become Government. Thus they have bought into Nick Smith's approach of eternal moderating of the NZ ETS. Labour get a payoff of needing less specific policies.

So debates on the NZ ETS, like this one, between Nick Smith's soundbites and Russel Norman's observations on perverse price incentives, on TV One's Q and A programme, don't really matter politically. The debate itself is just more MEGO. The snake swallows the elephant.

Interestingly, TV One had Jeanette Fitzsimons as their 'pundit' for the Smith/Norman debate. She cut right through the snake punditry by analysing the NZ ETS on the meta level. She said the NZ ETS was now so weak and distorted that it no longer mattered what tinkering Smith did to it. "It's like driving a car fast towards a cliff and arguing whether to go in fourth gear or fifth".

The horse is dead and no amount of flogging will make it trot again.

09 November 2011

An all-sectors NZETS should include agriculture

Gareth notes that Nick Smith has confirmed that agriculture will be unlikely to enter the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme.

"Hon Dr Nick Smith... explained the recent decision to indefinitely delay bringing agriculture into the scheme, stating the technology to do so practically does not yet exist"

Nick Smith yet again gets away with a soundbite of spin that is contradicted by the orthodox economic rationale for having an all-sectors all-units and all-gases international emissions trading scheme for greenhouse gases.

Just for the sake of argument, let's ignore the Sustainability Council's work on agricultural emissions reduction and assume that Dr Smith is correct that there are no practical technologies that will enable the agricultural sector to reduce emissions.

Let's go back to basics. Why do we even have emissions trading including all greenhouse gases across all sectors and across national borders?

The whole point is so that 'cheaper emissions reductions' can, in the short to medium term, largely carry the can for 'expensive emissions reductions', in meeting emissions limits or caps.

In economics speak, a sector of an economy with 'expensive emissions reductions' options is more or less just the same as a sector without practical technologies to enable reductions of emissions. Agriculture, for example, according to Nick Smith!

To paraphrase from another Nick, Lord Stern, in a well-functioning "deep and liquid" market for emissions permits, emitters with expensive mitigation options become buyers of permits and purchase permits from emitters with cheaper mitigation.

The role of the all-gases ETS, is to provide a wider variety of cheaper markets for emissions reductions, than would be the case in a single-gas ETS (such as a ruminant methane ETS, if there was one).

So the role of the emitting industries with fewer mitigation options (or more costly options) is to provide a flow of funds to reward those industries that have the cheaper emissions reduction options!

Logically, the lack of immediate practical mitigation technology in any one sector, is not a valid reason for leaving a sector out of an all-gases ETS.

02 November 2011

Nick Smith fails the smelter spin test

What does The Hon Dr Nick Smith, Minister for Climate Change Issues, say when the Greens accuse him of subsidising greenhouse gas polluters. Well it seems he denies it and he produces instructive soundbites of spin. I am informed that at Wellington's Oxfam election and climate change debate he said that the NZ Aluminium Smelter Ltd's operation at Tiwai Point is the only aluminium smelter in the world exposed to a carbon price.

He has said this soundbite a few times. For example, in response to Kennedy Graham on 29 September 2011:
"..the aluminium smelter in Bluff is the only aluminium smelter in the world to face any price at all for its greenhouse gas emissions".
On TV One's 'Q and A' programme:
"the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter in Bluff, it is the only one in the world that pays any face at all for carbon pricing." (1)
In Parliament in September 2009,
"...the Bluff smelter, on 1 July next year, will be the very first to face a carbon price for its pollution. The European scheme excludes aluminium smelters until 2013..."
Does Dr Nick's soundbite stand up to scrutiny? The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, which started in 2005, excludes the European aluminium smelters until 2013. But it included electricity generation from 2005. And aluminium smelting is very electricity intensive. As the International Energy Agency says: "Although the primary aluminium sector is not directly covered by the (EU) ETS, the impacts of the CO2 price are felt through increases in electricity prices" (p 8). (2)

Another example of a Smith soundbite is saying that the overly-generous free allocation of emissions units to industry in the NZETS is not a cost to the taxpayer. For example: Parliament on 29 September 2011:
"This member and other members make the gross error of trying to claim that not exposing industries or consumers to the full price of carbon over all their emissions is somehow a subsidy. A subsidy implies that there is a cost to taxpayers. That is not true.."
Unfortunately for Dr Nick, that's not what the Auditor General, Lynn Provost, says in her accounting and auditing advice for emissions units in the public sector
"NZUs have a market value and the issue of NZUs without charge to participants is an expense to the Government and creates a liability".
Sorry Dr Smith, the Tiwai Point smelter is not the only aluminium smelter exposed to a carbon price in an ETS. And the European smelters probably pay a higher carbon price through their electricity costs as the Tiwai Point smelter owner is compensated for electricity costs as well as emissions through excessive free allocation of emissions units.

Sorry Dr Smith, you can't just create and give away a permit to emit greenhouse gases that has a clear market value and say there is no cost to taxpayers as Treasury did not write out a cheque. The Auditor General says there is a cost to taxpayers of giving emissions units away to emitters.

Footnotes
(1) NB By 'pay any face' I think he means 'face any price'.)
(2) IEA, 2008,'Climate Policy and Carbon Leakage - Impacts of the European Emissions Trading Scheme on Aluminium'