No Clue, No Plan, No Future


The National-led government’s failure to take the climate problem seriously is setting New Zealand up for an epic emissions reductions policy failure.

Earlier this month the Ministry for the Environment released its annual report (web, pdf). Tucked away on page 60 (scroll down) is this graph, showing New Zealand’s modelled net emissions of greenhouse gases out to 2040.
Emissions are currently running at about 60 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, but by 2025 they’re expected to be nudging 100 mt CO2-e. They then drop only slightly — to about 90 mt by 2040.

Small problem: the National-led government has set a target of a 5 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, and a 50 percent cut — to about 30 mt — by 2050. Unfortunately for Tim Groser and Simon Bridges, the two ministers handling the climate portfolio, the Ministry for the Environment clearly believes that current government policy settings are on course to increase NZ’s emissions by 50 percent over the next 27 years.

The discrepancy was spotted by Kennedy Graham, Green spokesperson for climate change, who blogged about it twice (one, two) last week, and asked questions in Parliament. Graham described the mismatch as an “obscene policy failure” and “policy incoherence of [a] breath-taking dimension”.

As you might expect, NZ’s news media were all over the story, keen to get the government to explain what was going on. As you might expect in your dreams. The only news outlet that I can find who covered the story in depth is Reuters/Point Carbon (via Climate Spectator):

Domestic emissions permits in the New Zealand ETS currently trade at NZ$3.75 ($3.15), but companies are also allowed to comply by buying U.N.-backed carbon credits, which are available for only 30 cents each.

The New Zealand government last year removed legislation that would have forced big companies to pay for a bigger share of their emissions and restrict access to international credits – both moves that would have driven up carbon prices.

It also put on hold indefinitely including in the scheme emissions from agriculture, which accounts for nearly 50 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions.

Under questioning from Graham in Parliament, Simon Bridges, the associate minister for climate change, said that the emissions trading scheme was “a long term tool” and that price rises would follow when there was a new global agreement and “leadership from the major economies.”

The current low price for carbon in the ETS is what’s causing the long-term emissions blowout, because it provides no incentives for forestry planting (or disincentives to harvest). Emissions rise out to 2025 as forests planted in the 1990s are harvested, but the subsequent levelling off is entirely due to an heroic leap of faith by the MfE modellers:

After 2030, we project that net emissions will fall as harvesting activity decreases and the greenhouse gas removals from forests planted since 2012 rises.

In other words, the men from the ministry assume that by some magic, forest owners are suddenly going to start planting large forests that will enable us to cap our emissions 50 percent above today’s levels. If that a planting doesn’t happen very soon, NZ’s net emissions could easily balloon way over 100 mt per annum from 2025 onwards.

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Bridges is right in one respect: the ETS is a long term tool — but only if you use it properly. As the Reuters report indicates, by keeping prices artificially low they keep the policy levers set in neutral, and the nation commits itself to business as usual instead of preparing of a carbon-constrained future in a cost-efficient manner.

All this policy incoherence comes in the wake of the release of the first part of the IPCC’s fifth report, which for the first time spells out a carbon budget for the planet. To have a reasonable chance of staying under a 2ºC temperature rise, we can afford to emit a total of about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon in total. Over the last 150 years we’ve emitted half of that amount. At the rate we’re adding carbon to the atmosphere at the moment, the second half of our carbon allowance will be gone in a matter of a couple of decades. The longer we leave taking action, the steeper — and therefore the more expensive and difficult — the cuts will have to be, or we’ll blow past two degrees and be on course for three or four degrees and certain disaster.


If New Zealand is going to do its fair share, and for the least cost, then instead of waiting for someone else to take the lead and force the game, we should be taking action now. To anyone who follows the science and understands the real risks that we’re facing, this much is common sense. What a shame that something so basic is so lacking on the government benches.


  1. There seems to be two types of leaders in the world at present – those who deny man made climate change is happening like the new Australian PM, and those who acknowledge it but do nothing about it like the New Zealand PM.

    But it should be pointed out that they are supported by a vast number of voters who are also either in denial, or not willing to acknowledge that urgent action is needed.

    The truth is, that many people have not even genuinely comprehended we are living on a planet in the middle of space.

    • “But it should be pointed out that they are supported by a vast number of voters who are also either in denial, or not willing to acknowledge that urgent action is needed.

      The truth is, that many people have not even genuinely comprehended we are living on a planet in the middle of space.”

      I could not agree more, that is one of the major problems in New Zealand, yes in most countries, that the population is so tied into lifestyles and existing systems for using transport, energy, services and products that are highly wasteful and environmentally damaging, to really bring about a change, people need to accept that change is needed, be prepared to do it themselves, and naturally vote in a government that will manage and lead the change.

      As most do not want to change, unless they really have to (due to economic or other pressures), nothing much will be done. Hence the media does not bother reporting, as few would want to read the truth, and hence this government gets away with what they are doing, or rather failing to address and do.

      It is all geared for the ecological and indeed also economic disaster to strike, so the lemmings are all too busy running towards the giant cliff, with their blinkers on.

      Bring it on, and we will have murder, robberies, assaults, riots, cannibalism and what else there is that is so dreadful.

      Humans have not learned from past wars, and they will not learn in this either, I fear, so history will repeat itself.

      • We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.
        David Suzuki

  2. Carbon trading would be the most cynical, stupid, and grossly unfair market management tool ever.

    The general population cannot escape the additional costs and margins to maintain profits, so why buy in or support the effort. Disengagement and avoidance is all that’s available.

    We, the mass, cannot say – and be heeded – start rewarding the industries and the products that reduce emissions. Stop allowing loopholes for favoured groups.

    If trading is so wonderful – what progress have we made toward far more effective means of powering transport, that are as affordable in Mumbai as in Morrinsville?

    Without the short- termist thinking of fracking, where’s the development of less harmful fuels at affordable prices for those on minimum wage and far from the Greens’ beloved public transport?

    Get rid of this giant ‘be seen to be doing something’ fakery. This year, under urgency, for preference.

    And ask the Greens to stop pontificating. Get their international networks moving to generate coherence, congruence and ways that work for the populations generally (not that bunch of 13000 in Richville NZ. Thanks Chris!)

    And get some smart yet fringe thinkers onto this. Mass meetings of expensive head-nodder people in posh places from Rio on haven’t been able to crack this. They’ve had their shot. Now get some decent and effective collaboration moving totally committed to cracking all the blocks and BS in the way of breakthroughs.

    It’s too big for pollies and people with a stake in the status quo. They need to be sidelined PDQ.

    • Andrea, I’d go further. ‘Carbon trading’, so-called, was and is the most mind bendingly stupid idea ever enacted by the world’s leadership. And world leadership has come up with some doozies. Carbon Trading was never in this world going to work. It hasn’t, it isn’t and it won’t.

      Good heavens above, the ‘lack of incentives’ gag is so laughably infantile from people who purport to be a government. You would think the survival of the human race might kinda get the buggers to stir of their fat backsides, wouldn’t you? Most us ordinary Joes and Jos are doing what we can within our limited means, but not those grasping, stingy, miserable types.

      But I’ve long known this about most capitalist type fat cats. They could not give a flying fart in a typhoon about anybody but themselves. They couldn’t give rodent[‘s rump even about their own kids. Look at the number of Kiwi business people who have sold out to foreign ownership, so they could take the money and run.

      Giving those avaricious arseholes the ‘right’ to buy the privilege of filthying up the air we breathe, as if this ‘right’ were in the government’s gift, is plain nonsense, and it’s a nonsense we ordinary folk have to pay for. And we – or our children – will be paying for it, with their very lives. The flatulent fat cattists sure lord won’t be.

      The only upside to this is that the fat cattists, with their last breaths, will be gasping upon their own flatus, just like everyone else. The ultimate social levelling.

  3. it’s all very well to try to limit carbon emissions by means of ETSs, carbon taxes or even legislation, but as long as we are digging the stuff up we will burn it – that’s why we dig it up, or suck it out. It’s silly to maintain we can dig it up but restrain ourselves from burning it. Any attempt to do so will be undermined and compromised, just like NZ’s ETS.

    Leave the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole, is the only way to go.

  4. Although we can always do more, we now have a time for shutting the coal burners at Huntington. This I believe is our last coal fired generator. We have also ordered electric passenger trains for Auckland which will take some cars off the road. If we now had a vigorous program for converting our road transport to electric we would be well on the way to meeting our CO2 commitments.
    The problem with the carbon tax is that every country in the World cheats. The system we use is not important but we must reduce emissions. What was the point of Helen Clark signing up to the Kyoto agreement and then going home and putting up emissions by 25%.
    While on the subject, we have a very high methane emission profile from our dairy industry. What are the chances of the people who consume our dairy products paying for the methane. We all know the answer is zero.

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