That two-thirds of our emissions reductions over the next 10 years will come from offshore confirms our status as a high carbon-consuming population that makes little effort to change the way we do things, writes Pat Baskett

Recent government policies give a false assurance that our comfortable lifestyles are secure – for more summers of fossil-fuelled pleasures. Meeting our targeted emissions reduction (of 41 percent below 2005 levels), as agreed to at the 2015 Paris climate conference, will require little, or no change in our individual activities. We’ve decided to simply buy our way out of the problem.

As Newsroom has reported, more than two-thirds of the emissions reductions over the next decade are likely to come from offshore and then be attributed to New Zealand’s record.

Shame, shame. We will have confirmed our status as a high carbon-consuming population that makes little effort to change the way we do things.

Billions will be spent on these offshore credits – anywhere between $5.8b and $13.8b. The question of why these funds can’t be devoted to local projects is almost too obvious to ask. Nevertheless – how many electric (not hydrogen) buses would that buy? How many more native, rather than pine, forests could be planted? How many wind turbines built? What would be the cost of saving and extending our passenger railways? How many more coal-fired industrial boilers could be electrified? The list goes on….

This short-term strategy is pure economics and has poor psychology behind it. We’ve been well prepared for the effects of Covid with constant government warnings and strategies laid out. These have helped understanding and general acceptance of restrictions that have been for the greater good.

But the situation we’re in with Covid is transitory and nothing compared with the permanent, immutable effects of human activities on climate, biodiversity and the oceans worldwide.

A serious attempt by the Government to dedicate those funds to buying local credits from local projects would provide the leadership climate policy lacks, in contrast to that exercised during Covid. It would give reality to the climate emergency announced three years ago, jolt public serenity and boost those organisations and individuals already taking their own initiatives to reduce emissions, in business, industry, agriculture.  

At least one such group, the Nelson Tasman Climate Forum (NTCF), feels undermined by government failure to rectify a flaw in our Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The ETS grants free allocations of New Zealand Units to “eligible industry applicants to protect their competitiveness against producers that do not face equivalent costs for emissions”.

A unit equates to one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2E) emissions produced by industrial and business activities. Units are purchased from the Government and can also be traded among business participants in the NZ ETS.

The 2020 list of successful applicants for these allocations of free units is long and includes major polluting companies such as Fletcher Building, Fonterra, New Zealand Aluminium Smelting, companies which calcine lime, along with pulp and paper producers. Companies like Turners and Growers which export fresh produce, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums are also on the list.

The problem lies in what can, or should be done, with amounts that are not used. The point is these are free allocations which at the moment can be sold – to the companies’ profit. Climate Minister James Shaw’s request for funds to fix this loophole was recently rejected.

This means more than $100 million in carbon credits is allocated each year but unused. At the current price of $75 per credit this adds up to 1.3 million tonnes – close to the annual emissions of the Nelson-Tasman region of 1.2 million tonnes. Forum Convenor Joanna Santa Barbara comments:

“When I think of the efforts we make to cut back small amounts of emissions wherever we can in the region, this quantity of emissions, allowable through bureaucratic error, is angering. We taxpayers are enriching polluting companies to sell licences to emit carbon unnecessarily.”

The Forum is a community group established in 2020 and includes members of both Nelson City and Tasman District Councils and representatives from several Te Tau Ihu. Their ‘Climate Action Book’ sets out comprehensive strategies and ideas for actions to reduce emissions and protect the natural world.

Forum activities include informative tree planting projects, informative movie screenings, webinars, repair cafes and submissions to local and central government.

Free allocations, Santa Barbara suggests, should be nullified, not resold, or be available only to the Government to sell.

Under the EU’s ETS, free allocations are conditional on companies making efforts to decarbonise their processes. Those enterprises not implementing measures recommended in energy audits have their free allocations cut by up to 25 percent.

Instead of EU ETS allowances, companies can buy credits from emissions-saving projects under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism in developing countries. 

Is this what New Zealand will do? On the face of it, this sounds fine. But it misses the crucial point of the Paris Agreement, which is to reduce emissions at home.

A charge on carbon wherever it is used and in whatever form – oil, gas, petrol, diesel, coal – has long been the preferred option of critics of emissions trading schemes, behind which lies the mantra of free market ideology. Perhaps the most democratic alternative system is that which proposes issuing citizens with a certain quantity of Tradeable Energy Quotas or TEQs.

This would enable households to manage their own carbon use and budget appropriately. Unused TEQs could be sold. TEQs were studied in the UK in the early 2000s but have never been adopted anywhere.

It may be too late to change the system here, but we have a lot to make up for in our efforts to slow global heating. The internationally recognised Climate Action Tracker gives us abysmal ratings. Our policies and actions are “highly insufficient”, our domestic target is “insufficient”, our “fair share target” is “critically insufficient”, and our climate finance is “highly insufficient”.

We know Government focus has been to keep people safe from Covid. But we have a minister for climate change. His support and funding need to be commensurate with the importance of his task.

Leave a comment