The election campaign’s big Climate Debate started and ended with one stark reality.

The Auckland debate opened with a quickfire question in which all parties were asked to rate the importance of climate change as a policy priority. All, bar one, said it rated a 10 out of 10. Even New Zealand First. The outlier was National, whose representative Hunua MP Andrew Bayly gave it an 8.5 on that scale, to balance it with the need for a strong economy.

At the end of the one hour 45 minute, spirited policy debate, the last speaker was Greens’ leader James Shaw. He zeroed in on the “one party that has not signed up” to the need for a carbon reduction law, carbon budgets, a carbon commission and more urgent action “and that is the party that currently runs the government.”

Looking at Bayly, Shaw said: “That’s one of the reasons I want National to go into Opposition as it means… the old guard might go off into the sunset and people like Andrew can move up and by the time they get back in you will have those Blue Greens in there.”

Candidates from all leading parties but Act fronted for the Worldwide Fund for Nature-Oxfam-University of Auckland debate on Tuesday night, perilously late in the piece campaign-wise but strangely appropriate given the perils under discussion and the lateness of the political response.

National was certainly out on its own. Bayly, who chairs Parliament’s local government and environment select committee, stood his ground arguing his party had signed the Paris climate agreement on behalf of New Zealanders and climate minister and deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett had been one of the first in the world to do so. He rejected the need, as argued by some other parties, for a law to set targets for carbon reduction. “We signed the Paris agreement.”

National’s Hunua MP Andrew Bayly was a late replacement for the party’s East Coast Bays candidate Erica Stanford (centre). Photo: Tim Murphy

Asked if National would achieve its Paris target, of cutting carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels, Bayly first smiled and said it was “challenging” and when pressed by the moderator, business commentator and Newsroom columnist Rod Oram, he eventually said “We believe we’re going to meet it, yes.”

All other parties said “No” – National could not do so.

“There has to be a just transition; we cannot have workers on the scrapheap due to climate change.”

Megan Woods

All parties but National ranked the economic impact of climate change as a 10 out of 10; the same result for the introduction of a Zero Carbon Act and for bringing agriculture into the emissions trading system or alternative within five years.

New Zealand First’s Denis O’Rourke seemed to surprise the audience of more than 200 at the university’s medical school when he declared climate change to be his party’s “overarching policy to which all other policy must be subject” and called it a “definite 10” and a “huge 10” to Oram’s rating questions.

Labour’s climate spokesperson Megan Woods said climate change represented the largest economic transformation since the industrial revolution. “It is not just the parliamentarians having the political discussion. There has to be a just transition; we cannot have workers on the scrapheap due to climate change.”

The Greens’ Shaw explained why his party rejected an Emissions Trading Scheme as the best mechanism to reduce carbon: “We would bin the ETS and replace it with a fee and dividend approach. If you want public policy failure, look no further than the ETS. The point of an ETS is to reduce emissions but during the time we have had an ETS they have gone up 21 percent. It does the precise opposite of what it is supposed to.”

Even the international business journals the Economist and the Financial Times argued a carbon tax was better for business as it provided certainty.

Given Labour’s policy to strengthen the ETS rather than abolish it, Oram asked Woods how Labour and the Greens might resolve their climate change differences if they had to form a coalition after Saturday.

Woods said she agreed with Shaw that the existing ETS had not done its job. “It is a tool, not a strategy. It has been there in lieu, over the past nine years, of us having a plan to reduce emissions.”

But alongside a Carbon Commission and carbon budgets and “putting a floor and a ceiling within the ETS…we have something that looks and smells a lot more like a tax. 

“The point we have in common is we want an effective way of pricing carbon within the economy.”

“We would abolish the ETS. We think it is a failure and unlikely to get us where we need to be.”

Denis O’Rourke

Shaw said the parties had different policies but coalition negotiations were all about relative sizes of parties’ votes. “If people prefer our solution, I would say vote for it and that gives a signal in coalition negotiations.”

National’s potential governing partner, NZ First, also rejects the ETS. O’Rourke said: “We would abolish the ETS. We think it is a failure and unlikely to get us where we need to be.” He talked of “some kind of internal system” not involving international credit trades and when Oram said it was either an ETS or a carbon tax, he said: “I think that’s more likely the way we would see it but I do not want to pre-empt if there is further development” of options.

Denis O’Rourke (second from right) said for NZ First, climate change was the overarching policy ‘to which all other policies must be subject.’ Photo: Tim Murphy 

On land use, parties talked up the need to fund research into cutting emissions from cows, Bayly saying New Zealand could be the world leader under a fund National had established for research. Shaw, however, said if all scientific answers being studied were all 100 percent successful and all implemented, this country would still need to cut our national herds by “35 percent if we are going to get within 2 percent of zero.”

“You can’t just talk about industries and government. It is actually about all of us as well.” 

Carrie Stoddart-Smith

Most of the parties present said re-foresting marginal or erosion prone land was a priority. The Greens promise planting 1.5 billion trees nationwide, NZ First wants to plant a million hectares by 2030.

The debate also covered transport solutions, industrial heating and economic transformation. The Māori Party’s Pakuranga candidate Carrie Stoddart-Smith promised subsidies for electric vehicles, closure of all coal fired power plants by 2025 and a focus on whanau. “You can’t just talk about industries and government. It is actually about all of us as well.” 

To a question on whether climate change was a moral issue, candidates largely agreed yes. United Future leader Damian Light said making climate change a priority was a moral duty. Woods said it was a social issue as well as moral; O’Rourke said “absolutely” adding the key was changing attitudes. “That’s why it is so important that we work together and find consensus.” Shaw said it was a moral issue and “the greatest challenge of our time.”

Bayly said it was not only a moral issue but an economic and social one. “I’m deeply interested and know how central this is and National as a party are of that view too.

“We need to get there. It’s just a question of how we get there.”

An interjector from the floor called out: “Do More.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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