A determined PM’s massive challenge

If it has escaped your notice so far, this Prime Minister is determined to get what she wants.

That includes the Minister of Maori Affairs she has set her mind on. Labour would be looking for a new leader if it bucked her choice, she said on Monday.

She made it sound matter-of-fact, so much so that I almost had to pinch myself to register she had issued an ultimatum – normally a sign of crisis politics.

Actually, it is matter of fact. Helen Clark is so supremely in charge that her utterance was neither desperate nor a threat. Her leadership was not on the line. It was simply a hypothetical statement. And this Prime Minister does not deal in hypotheses.

So you should take seriously her intention to acquire for her country a badge of first-world status: environmental leadership.

This is no small ambition. We have slipped below first-world status: third-world diseases in some regions and suburbs, faltering life expectancy, low relative wages and heavy dependence on commodity exports.

But can a Prime Minister will her country into the first world? Sir Robert Muldoon tried by sheer willpower in the early 1980s to defy the forces pushing us out of the premier league. He ended his prime ministerial days in a policy bunker amid economic decay.

Ms Clark has committed us to meet the Kyoto target for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. She has put in charge of that quest one of her best-performing and most trusted ministers, Pete Hodgson.

Mr Hodgson is determined Greenpeace will not again label New Zealand “fossil of the year”. He is putting together a policy package to enable ratification of the Kyoto protocol by the due date of mid-2002.

But Kyoto is a big ask. By last year our emissions were 19 per cent higher than 1990 for carbon dioxide, which accounts for about two-fifths of our emissions.

Getting back to 1990 emissions levels by 2008-12 will require big behavioural change – in energy generation and use, on the roads, in running machinery, in heating and cooling buildings, in waste creation and disposal, in tree planting and use (trees soak up carbon dioxide, so offset emissions), in land use. Holding levels of methane (about half our emissions and still about 1990 levels) will need fodder research and changes in fertilisation and irrigation practices.

This comes at an economic price. The Employment Relations Bill pales into insignificance against the potential costs to business of kicking the carbon dioxide habit. Mr Hodgson’s approach is to use all mechanisms, including regulation, emissions trading, new roads charging mechanisms, incentives, a carbon tax – anything he can lay his hands on.

Some think this could make swathes of our business internationally uncompetitive.

Mr Hodgson disagrees. For example, he sees “an awful lot of low fruit to pick” in transport (where minister Mark Gosche has made “sustainability” his byword), in vehicle emissions controls, in government leadership in buying dual-fuel vehicles, in a bar on old-car imports. The building code has been revised to promote better insulation.

But there remains the possibility we might commit ourselves to Kyoto, only to find we are in a minority, the requisite number of signatories not having materialised.

The United States is thought unlikely to ratify but instead to push for defining use levels at some future point (say, 2020) and getting commitment not to break through those levels – in the meantime stepping up research into alternative fuels. Some scientists here think fellow-travelling with the United States on that route offers potential competitive advantage and business opportunities.

How likely are we to end up out on an expensive limb? Re-enter Ms Clark. Attentive to her MPs, she is taking a month to replace Dover Samuels. Shows of strength are best done from the fortress of pragmatic majorities.

So maybe business can breathe easy. If Kyoto doesn’t get the numbers, don’t expect to find this country out on a limb.