Analysis: A Q&A with the host of Q+A might be telling about what’s to come from the National Party about climate before October’s election.

Less than a fortnight ago on the TVNZ current affairs show, National blew up a bipartisan housing accord agreed only two years earlier, but under a different leader.

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Last week, appropriately, it was Q+A’s host Jack Tame who tried to pin down National’s Simon Watts on the implications.

On the stage at Ōtautahi/Christchurch’s new convention centre, at the infrastructure industry’s annual conference, Building Nations, Tame asked Watts to acknowledge, as climate change spokesperson, that expanding city boundaries will lead to higher emissions.

“We acknowledge there are trade-offs,” Watts replied.

Young people need to be able to afford to buy a home, and the “blockage” was the price of land, he maintained.

The urban boundary should be allowed to “sprawl”, he said, although more intense housing would be appropriate near urban transport hubs.

National could reduce emissions through its ‘Electrify NZ’ policy, and, at the same time, address housing affordability, Watts said.

Tame pressed again. But more affordable houses under National’s housing plan would lead to greater emissions than the alternative?

“Yeah,” Watts acknowledged, while adding: “We can’t simply put our head in the sand [about affordability] and say, well, everything’s fine.”

The country has to reduce emissions in a “sensible way”, the North Shore MP said. “But it is not a case of one or the other.”

Traffic is at a standstill in Auckland’s CBD. Lucy Xia/RNZ

Let’s tackle the housing policy first.

Timothy Welch, a University of Auckland senior lecturer in urban planning, wrote on The Conversation that National is making “a soft policy even softer” by withdrawing support for a scheme allowing land owners to develop up to three units, three storeys high, on most urban lots without consent.

Watts’ framing of “it’s not one or the other” is interesting considering National has dumped an agreement aimed at delivering more affordable houses in a way that doesn’t cost councils dearly by having to build more roads, sewers, and water pipes to new, sprawling suburbs.

But it could be a vote-winner, as so-called “medium density residential standards” have been unpopular with existing home owners, who don’t want three-storey units being built, as of right, next-door.

The telling part of Watts’ comments, potentially – in a bit of tea-leaf-reading, before National’s policies are fully announced – is the “trade-offs” line.

It harks back to former Prime Minister John Key’s mantra that New Zealand had to do its bit on climate, but the country had to balance its environmental responsibilities with its economic opportunities.

Yes, the National government signed the Paris climate agreement, and electrified rail in Auckland and Wellington.

Overall, though, across successive governments, greenhouse gas emissions haven’t dropped below 1990 levels – like they have in many other developed countries – despite the existence of the emissions trading scheme.

The policies and signals of the John Key government also encouraged more irrigation and agricultural exports, seemingly cementing the related emissions into the sector’s already outsized footprint.

Given the battering many parts of the North Island have taken this year, it’s likely National won’t just be fighting the policies of the Labour government at this year’s election, it’ll also be fighting its past failures to reduce emissions. (The same could be said for Labour, to be fair.)

‘Get out of the way’

Hitting the net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050 will require a doubling of electricity generation capacity.

The 2021 strategy released by Te Waihanga, the Infrastructure Commission, said there will need to be a substantial increase in energy production from renewable sources to meet a growing demand for electricity and clean energy.

That’s not just because of population and industrial growth, but also the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and the increased electrification of transport and industrial heating.

“National wants a future model where our transport system is powered by green, renewable electricity,” Watts said yesterday. “When you go away on holiday and you plug in your electric vehicle, that it’s powered by renewable energy.”

Watts described National as a party of limited government. Often a government’s role is to get out of the way of industry, he explained, and “allow them to progress”.

In the absence of National’s agriculture policy, the party’s climate centre-piece is ‘Electrify NZ’, which feeds into the red-tape-cutting narrative.

The policy will “turbocharge” new investment in solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro plants, he said, by setting a one-year limit for consent decisions, and allowing consent terms of 35 years.

“We see that as the first cab off the rank in terms of our ability to reduce our emissions through increasing the amount of renewable energy generation capacity,” Watts said.

Between 1990 and 2021, the country’s gross emissions rose about 19 percent, with one of the biggest problems being road transport, emissions from which rose 85 percent over the same period.

Watts told the Building Nations conference generating more renewable energy “is the first and most important aspect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions”.

“If we are serious about the need to reduce climate change emissions then we need to be dealing with what is blocking that pipe. And the consenting regime, under this Government, is a major barrier.”

In his speech, Watts confirmed National wanted the emissions trading scheme to do the heavy lifting to reduce emissions. In the meantime, the country should embrace fossil gas as an affordable energy option – especially over coal imported from Indonesia for the Huntly power station.

He also referred to a comment from Contact Energy earlier this year that the biggest threat to new renewables was the Government’s Resource Management Act reforms.

Asked for comment, Green Party co-leader James Shaw said: “The problem with National’s policy is that it is either copying from us, or it’s a hangover from the old fossil fuel days, it is incomplete, and the good bits are already in our emissions reduction plan.

“Policy that is already happening includes reducing barriers to consenting renewable energy projects through Resource Management Act reform. Leaning into the emissions trading scheme is a good idea, but it won’t get us far enough.

“National’s struggle is particularly obvious when it comes to the how. You can’t just magic up a clean-energy future, especially when you are still tied to fossil fuels and old-fashioned, free-market dogma.”

“There are very few instances, really, where actually we see that the Government is going to need to actively get involved in terms of writing a cheque for infrastructure.”
– Simon Watts, National Party

On Wednesday, National’s leader Christopher Luxon took to the podium at Building Nations – but neglected to say the word “climate” once – laying out a five-point plan for infrastructure that included reference to embracing innovative funding models, and central government making “deals” with local and regional governments.

Newsroom asked Watts when a National government would “get out of the way”, and when it would be prepared to make direct investments.

It’s hard to know if he is being coy to avoid spilling the beans on future policy announcements, but the impression he gives is of a party shy to invest heavily to reduce emissions.

He confirms Electrify NZ will rely on “the removal of regulation and bureaucracy that is slowing down the ability for primarily our private sector to undertake that investment”.

Government investment is important in areas of market failure, he says.

(That’s a poke at the Government’s emissions-cutting deal with NZ Steel, announced last month, which National doesn’t support. Watts told conference-goers National should not throw money at profitable multinational companies.)

Where does it see a climate-related, direct investment, then?

Watts says the emissions trading scheme will be the primary means to achieve emissions reductions.

“There are very few instances, really, where actually we see that the Government is going to need to actively get involved in terms of writing a cheque for infrastructure.”

He mentions a significant opportunity in research and development for agriculture, but adds: “That is investment that’s already underway within the private sector.”

(Actually, successive governments have invested tens of millions in researching agricultural greenhouse gases, as part of a “global research alliance” announced by the National government at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen.)

So how will reducing impediments to consents being approved actually reduce emissions, especially if National is going to scrap investigations into a potential pumped hydro scheme at Lake Onslow, and clean car rebates designed to accelerate uptake of electric and hybrid cars that also penalise owners of high-emitting vehicles?

Watts says the important thing is a having a “clear pathway” for emissions reductions, especially for the key drivers of emissions. Reductions will vary “depending on the aspect around that”.

“From our point of view, it’s a theoretical conversation unless you’ve got some of the enablement elements that actually can make that occur.

“You can’t talk about moving to EV vehicles if we don’t have enough electricity generation to actually power those vehicles. We can’t transition our heat, involving the likes of Fonterra, across to electric boilers, if we haven’t got the generation capacity.”

These seem arguments stretching far into the future. How would a National government reduce emissions in its first term?

“We’re focused on the things that will actually enable that transition,” Watts responds. A government that doesn’t pick winners, he says, that can enable infrastructure to be built (like renewable power stations), and moving New Zealand to a lower-emission economy.

“And there’s an acknowledgement that, actually, we’re focusing on a 2050 target around net zero.”

Watts says National is committed to its international climate targets, for 2030 and 2050. Agricultural emissions are a significant part of that, he says, and “we’ll have more to say about that soon”.

Should the country miss its emissions reduction targets there will be a pretty hefty direct investment.

A Treasury report released in April warned inaction – having to buy offshore carbon credits because climate pollution wasn’t reduced at home – could cost the country billions of dollars.

“This is a long-term conversation,” Watts maintains. Calling on John Key’s language of pragmatism, he repeats: “We’re focused on reducing emissions in a sensible way.”

Despite saying the emissions trading scheme would be the main way of achieving emissions reductions, National would not bring agriculture – the country’s largest emitter – into the scheme. (Labour hasn’t done so, either, as it pursues the embattled He Waka Eke Noa scheme.)

Watts says National is committed to pricing agricultural emissions outside the scheme, and reducing its emissions. That is, as long as the industry isn’t threatened.

“I think you’re dealing with a conversation around trade-off,” Watts says, circling back to his answer to Q+A host Jack Tame. “We’ve got to talk about some of these trade-offs, and try and find that balance between food security, energy security, and emissions reduction.

“I’m confident over a function of time between now and 2050 we’ll be able to get that balance right.”

He adds: “One can’t be at the expense of another in the short-term.”

While National will announce its policy on pricing agricultural emission “shortly”, Watts confirms the primacy of the primary sector. “We don’t see that the way in which we’re going to achieve our challenges around emission reductions is through shutting farms.”

Those views are set against the background of New Zealand’s terrible record, in global terms, on cutting emissions, and its maligned climate target.

According to Climate Action Tracker, the country’s policies are rated “highly insufficient”, whether that’s comparing our decarbonisation plans with the global goal of keeping warming below the dangerous level of 2C, our contribution to climate finance, or the fairness of the target against historical emissions.

In a special report in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned global carbon dioxide emissions must be cut by about half by 2030 for the world to have even a two-thirds chance of keeping warming at 1.5C.

Speaking about those crucial cuts in March this year, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said “the climate bomb is ticking”. “Carbon dioxide concentrations are at their highest in at least 2 million years.”

Just this week, a new study predicted the level of baked-in warming in the globe’s climate system might mean the Arctic will have its first summer without sea ice as early as 2030.

There was no mention, however, of balance, trade-offs or pragmatism.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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