Today, 101 Nobel laureates have penned a letter to world leaders ahead of Joe Biden’s climate summit, calling for a treaty banning fossil fuels. Here in NZ, decisive leadership, big government and big bucks are needed to change people’s behaviour on climate emissions.
ANALYSIS: The fact the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations are based on good science and technology and are practicable does not guarantees their effective implementation.
The developed world is littered with examples of policy implementation failure. New Zealand is no exception; notable policy failures include: housing, poverty, infrastructure, water pollution and youth suicide.
Notwithstanding many Commissions, policy reviews and government initiatives, little progress has been made in resolving these long-standing problems. This is not to suggest that New Zealand’s public policy processes always fail. Indeed, relative to other western democracies, we ‘punch above our weight’ internationally in some areas – a recent example being our response to the COVID pandemic.
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Nevertheless, there are grounds for concern that the optimistic tone of the Commission’s report risks an eventual epithet, ‘How High Hopes in Wellington Were Dashed Down on the Farm, In Our Cities, and In Our Homes’.
Our concerns are based on the findings of a corpus of academic policy research highlighting the political challenges associated with policy implementation.
Though some of these ‘real world’ implementation challenges are acknowledged in the Report, we are concerned that the Commission may have under-estimated the scale, complexity and political challenges that lie ahead.
Those are specifically with respect to the governmental and policy process changes that will be required to deliver the Commission’s recommendations.
Why climate change policies are politically challenging
Climate change is a ‘wicked problem’, that is, complex, intractable and contested. Any proposed solutions – even if scientifically robust – are thus likely to be politically contentious for the following reasons.
As the report states, meeting emissions targets requires ‘transformational and lasting change across society and the economy’. Piecemeal adjustments to existing policies will not work. Different societal groups, regions, and industries will be impacted by climate change action in different ways.
While the transition to a low emissions society will bring benefits and opportunities, it will also be challenging and costly, especially for those most affected sectors such as agriculture and energy. These groups will mobilise to resist change and/or delay the introduction of initiatives that would leave them worse off in the short-term. Importantly, they will likely have a preference for a regulatory style that is as close to self-regulation as possible.
There is thus a real risk that the report’s bold proposals – even if adopted – will be ‘eroded’ or even quietly abandoned during the implementation phase. Policies have to pass through several ‘clearance points’ or gates before successful outcomes are guaranteed; each stage, presents opportunities for key interests to challenge and to reframe the policy problem.
There will be debate about both what we can/should do, as well as how we should reduce emissions targets. Implementation problems also arise for reasons other than deliberate obstruction; messages become distorted and misunderstandings arise as proposals wend their way through the implementation process.
Governments of all persuasions within and beyond New Zealand have for many years backed off from radical climate change proposals in order to conciliate key interests. Being able to offer impacted groups side-payments will undoubtedly help the government to secure buy-in for the Report’s recommendations.
The task of translating the Commission’s recommendations into real world policies will fall principally on the shoulders of busy public servants. The sheer scale of it will be daunting – similar to that currently faced by UK civil servants, now scrambling to replace 50 years of accumulated EU legislation with ‘home grown’ UK laws and regulations.
However, while the Report contains many references to the need for ‘targeted assistance’ for various groups and sectors, it provides relatively little information as to how such assistance might be funded, designed, and delivered. Moreover, policies – even those based on sound scientific evidence and carefully crafted – invariably have unintended consequences.
Climate change policies have many cross-sectoral implications. As such, they will inevitably ‘spill-over’ into other policy sectors, generating new unexpected policy problems elsewhere.
Our argument is that the fundamental obstacles to climate change action are inherently political. Thus, tackling climate change requires wider consideration and understanding of the problem – beyond the well-rehearsed scientific and technical analyses. Specifically, we believe the following public policy/political issues need to be addressed urgently in order to enable New Zealand to meet its carbon emission targets by 2050.
Policy design, delivery, and monitoring capacity and capability
First, we will need to have in place sufficient policy design, delivery and implementation monitoring capacity to deliver the Report’s policy proposals. The task of translating the Commission’s recommendations into real world policies will fall principally on the shoulders of busy public servants.
Leaving aside the complexity of this policy design task, the sheer scale of it will be daunting – similar to that currently faced by UK civil servants, now scrambling to replace 50 years of accumulated EU legislation with ‘home grown’ UK laws and regulations. Thus, we urgently need to review our existing politico-administrative system in order to ensure that our public service (across all sectors) has the appropriate knowledge, skills, capacity, and cross-sector, coordination mechanisms in place to develop and deliver whatever climate change policies are adopted.
Secondly, as the report states, mainstreaming climate change and sustainability policies will also require meaningful engagement with key societal stakeholders, including iwi, local and regional authorities as well as industry, NGOs and community bodies.
As witnessed by declining public support for this year’s Covid-19 lockdowns in Auckland, consensus politics and voluntary compliance per se cannot be relied upon, especially when individuals no longer believe their behaviour will make a difference.
Previous research relating to gender-mainstreaming suggests that integrating climate change considerations into all policy areas will necessitate far-reaching organisational and cultural change, both throughout the public service and within other bodies involved in the design and delivery of climate change policies.
A third challenge for the public service will be to establish pro-active monitoring systems and processes. Waiting for the Climate Change Commission itself to report slippage against its own targets would be akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
We need to establish appropriately resourced, monitoring agencies with effective enforcement powers. We also need to establish sophisticated steering and re-steering mechanisms to enable agencies to respond swiftly to any divergence from planned targets and changing circumstances.
Fourthly, tackling climate change action requires a review of current local government structures, roles and responsibilities. New Zealand has a strong, unitary system of government; local authorities currently have only limited delegated powers and very modest resources. The two-tier local government structure, established in 1986, is both complex and fragmented. This disjointed mosaic of local and regional authorities and responsibilities is simply not fit for purpose given the need for integrated and coordinated climate change adaptation policies.
Finally, and most importantly, the Commission’s Report presents a major challenge to the Government’s preferred approach to policy-making. Like most (though not all) of its predecessors, the current Labour Government’s regulatory style has been incremental and consensual.
It has shied away from radical policy change on a number of issues (including environmental matters) and has demonstrated a predilection for a regulatory style characterised by voluntary co-operation and self-regulation. This style is best described as ‘regulatory lite’.
However, as witnessed by declining public support for this year’s Covid-19 lockdowns in Auckland, consensus politics and voluntary compliance per se cannot be relied upon, especially when individuals no longer believe their behaviour will make a difference.
We need decisive political leadership. The Government must commit to radical policy change notwithstanding inevitable opposition from key interests. Luckily, the timing of the publication of the Commission’s recommendations is propitious for the government in this regard.
For similar reasons, reducing carbon emissions is likely to be politically challenging for the Government, which may need to adopt a more dirigiste (directive) regulatory style in order to change people’s behaviour. We doubt that ‘regulatory lite’ will enable the Government to translate the Commission’s doable recommendations into achieved policy outcomes.
This is not to suggest that deliberative policy-making and consensus politics should be abandoned. Indeed, changing individual behaviour via ‘soft’ measures – incentives, public debate and education will continue to be a necessary – but not sufficient means of achieving transformational change.
We need decisive political leadership.
The Government must commit to radical policy change notwithstanding inevitable opposition from key interests. Luckily, the timing of the publication of the Commission’s recommendations is propitious for the government in this regard. Covid has resulted in two major changes that have in turn created a new ‘window of opportunity’ for governments worldwide to address some long standing policy problems.
First, ‘big government’ is back in fashion. Confronted by the global pandemic, people around the world turned to national governments to ‘do something’, and quickly. Widespread public support for the Ardern government’s quite dirigiste response to Covid demonstrates that governments can be decisive and be rewarded for bold leadership.
Secondly, not only is big government back, it is back with big bucks too. The ‘austerity turn’ which western governments have embraced for decades is now over.
Dr Rod Carr’s Climate Change Commission report presents a huge challenge for Prime Minister Ardern. It also provides a massive opportunity for her to be long remembered as the leader who grasped the climate change nettle.
A political communicator par excellence, but she now faces perhaps her biggest test, namely mobilising support for policies, which will be unwelcome to many and which will require significant and lasting changes to all of our current lifestyles.