Not about emissions

With its Emissions Reduction Plan released last week, the government is promising unprecedented control over every aspect of your life.

How you move. What you eat. Where you live. How you heat your home.

It is little short of a revolution. Between its emissions plan and next year’s Budget, which will also be about climate change, future governments of this country will have more to say about everything.

The problem is that existing policies already have this country firmly on track to deliver emissions targets.

In both its draft and final reports, the Climate Change Commission said current policies and a $50 carbon price will be enough to deliver net zero emissions in 2050. Its analysis did not show undue reliance on removals by exotic trees, although Ministers and officials have repeatedly made misleading statements about the Commission’s findings.

Today’s carbon price is $65. So we are ahead of schedule.

Which makes the government’s Emissions Reduction Plan redundant. We get to our targets without the Plan. Emissions will come down about as quickly with the plan as without.

New Zealand should get more credit for its progress on emissions. On a per-capita basis, greenhouse gases have been falling since 2006. They are down 22% overall, and down 34% if agriculture is excluded.

Net emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases – relevant for the net zero target – are down 25% per person.

And it is not pine trees that are doing all the work. More than 100% of the fall in net emissions is due to lower gross emissions.

So current policies are already doing the business demanded by environmentalists. There is no need to add thousands of dollars to the cost of vehicle imports, or any of the many other impositions being looked at, since we are already on track to deliver the stated goal.

There should be no question existing policies will deliver all of our emissions targets if they are given the chance. That is because, apart from methane, New Zealand has set net emissions targets. Both domestic law and international agreements recognise three pathways to lower net emissions: lower gross emissions; removals by trees and other carbon capture technologies; and offshore mitigation.

Removals and offshore mitigation are each affordable and scalable enough on their own to deliver net zero emissions in 2050.

But voters prefer reductions. Fine.

So the task for emissions policies is to assemble a mix of reductions, removals and offshore mitigation which

  • delivers emissions targets; and
  • reflects the premium voters are willing to pay for more reductions, less removals and less offshore mitigation.

The government is not thinking about climate change this way. In fact, it does not seem to be thinking about emissions at all. It has published an Emissions Reduction Plan which will bring down emissions by about the same amount as existing policies to achieve the same emissions targets.

What, then, is the point of an Emissions Reduction Plan if it does not reduce emissions?

Judging from its effects, the point is control. The plan will have two clear effects. Ministers will decide how and where emissions come down, not you. Second, you will pay more – ten times more, on the government’s own analysis – for the benefit of their judgment.

What a terrible deal. For the environment. And for your back pocket.

And all based on the twin lies that reducing emissions requires central control, and that the government’s Emissions Reduction Plan reduces emissions.

Time to get real about emissions

It is nice to see others point out the consequences of an emissions cap. Thomas Lumley gets the logic of an ETS:

We’ve got a cap (more or less). One of the non-intuitive aspects of having a cap rather than a fixed price is that parallel efforts to reduce carbon emission don’t work the way you’d expect them to. If I replace my gas stove with an electric one, my kitchen will emit less carbon (modulo the impacts of making the new equipment).  If everyone did it, everyone’s kitchen would emit less carbon (again, ignoring the impacts of making the new equipment).  What would happen to NZ’s total carbon emissions? Nothing. We have a cap.  Less of the cap would go on carbon coupons for burning natural gas; more of it would be available for cars or trucks or coal-fired power stations.  The impact of our kitchen-renovation decisions would be cheaper emissions rights for other polluters, not lower emissions.

Well said, Thomas.

A commenter on Thomas’s post has some fairly standard objections to the argument:

First, the ETS was thoroughly undermined by the previous govt because the carbon price did not rise and companies were able to use dodgy offsets from overseas. If such a thorough undermining of a supposedly brilliant and effective self-regulating system could happen once, then it could happen again (with another change of govt).

This is solved by not opening the window to fraudulent credits. Or a commitment to make good on any credits which turn out to be fraudulent. Or both. That future governments might act in bad faith on emissions is an argument for the transparency of the sort an ETS provides.

Second, how high would the price of carbon have to go to shift people’s behaviour? And at that point is there the chance that you might get a general popular revolt that would undermine the political will to make the system to work as it should.

Good question. The Climate Change Commission says $50/tonne (p91). Basil Sharp et. al. say $85/tonne. In 2018, Concept Consulting, Motu and Public Policy Research said $76-$127/tonne. NZIER estimated far higher costs, also in 2018. None of this apart from NZIER looks scary with 29 years until the net zero deadline in 2050.

Anyway, non-ETS policies are far worse on a cost per tonne basis. Almost everybody acknowledges this. Cap and trade cuts at least cost. If your objection to the ETS is cost, you should be even more worried about other policies. As the joke goes, you do not have to outrun the bear to survive, you only have to outrun your colleague.

Officials have argued that the lack of transparency of non-ETS emissions policies buys enough cover to justify their higher costs. Except we have already had a public revolt mainly (though not entirely) against non-ETS emissions policies. I’d have thought is obvious that policies which add thousands of dollars to the cost of an imported car are going to be easy to spot. In any case, non-transparency is a non-argument for policies which have to work in the long run. Voters are going to it figure out eventually, and one might question the democratic merits of trickery.

Thirdly, there is the danger that emitters, rather than reducing emissions, basically rely on offsets. So, that will be great for increasing forestation, but it still might not change behaviour and reduce emissions

Which is just shifting the goal posts from emissions – you know, the thing that causes climate change – to changing behaviour and disrupting lives per se, which does not cause climate change. A tonne of emissions removed has exactly the same climate change benefit as a tonne reduced. From a climate change perspective, any distinction between reductions and removals is arbitrary. We should just do whatever combination of reductions and removals best helps the climate.

But try explaining to most environmentalists the idea that there is an emissions penalty that goes with arbitrarily insisting on reductions over removals, or domestic over offshore, or EVs over pretty much every other scalable way to avoid emissions. I cannot recall ever seeing an environmentalist say they are concerned we might lose 95% of the emissions benefits of a policy by insisting each tonne has to come from EVs and nothing else. The attitude seems to be who cares if we could have cut 20 times more emissions for the same cost?

I do. And when the rubber meets the road, so will voters. Time to get real.

New Zealand emissions are falling

After peaking in 2006, net emissions of greenhouse gases from this country have fallen materially.

Since 2006:

  • Net emissions including agriculture are down 6.7%.
  • Net emissions including agriculture per capita are down 22.1%.

The gap between these two figures is population growth. Between 2006 and 2019, the population increased 20% from 4.2 million to 5.0 million. Total emissions is probably the relevant value for Paris 2030 but per capita is the more relevant value to the 2050 target of net zero emissions.

Gross emissions are responsible for 106% of the change in net emissions since 2006. Agriculture emissions peaked in 2014 and have fallen 1% since then.

Source: Greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2019, Ministry for the Environment

I suppose you think it is just a coincidence that New Zealand’s emissions began falling almost exactly when the Emissions Trading Scheme was launched?

Yes, it probably is a coincidence. The GFC landed in 2008 and after an early price spike the ETS did not deliver a carbon price in double figures until 2016. It is possible the fact there was an emissions price and the promise of higher future prices made a difference. But who knows?

The fall in net emissions after 2013, during a period of economic growth, is the more promising part of the trend line.

So there has been impressive progress on emissions.

There the good news ends. To reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 will require per capita emissions to fall at a higher rate, 48% faster than between 2006-2019. That is a big number, made bigger by the fact that the 22% reduction since 2006 was the low-hanging fruit.

It only gets more difficult from here.