Emissions trading soon — next the real climate game

This week, two months late and nearly eight years after a self-proclaimed climate-friendly government came to power, comes the greenhouse gas trading scheme announcement: some firm decisions, some preferred options and some choices yet to be made.

The government’s explanation for taking eight years is that there was not a parliamentary majority. But that mistakes the true nature of majorities.

The clue to building parliamentary majorities under MMP lies not in the narrow, twisting confines of Parliament, where parties look over their shoulders at interest groups, which often take up rigid, narrowly-based positions.

The clue to building majorities inside Parliament is to build them outside Parliament. Parties inside Parliament — unless they are small parties representing a particular minority or ideology — defy such majorities at their peril.

The way not to build majorities outside Parliament is to hunker down in the Beehive and Treasury, emerge with tablets of stone and then graciously “consult”. No one “owns” such a policy except officials and politicians.

That is how the government got itself into its climate change paralysis in the first place — bewildered that it had to retreat before rock-throwing farmers and to carve incapacitating holes in its intended carbon tax.

It doesn’t help if, as officials say has happened over the past year, ministers rule out options because there is no pre-existing parliamentary majority. That is cart before the horse.

There is another way: bring together interest group leaders, officials and key politicians and get them to engage with each other so that they come up eventually with something they can all agree to live with, even if all have bits they disagree with.

This is how Scandinavian countries deal with big issues. Guy Salmon has studied those processes, which a government here with a mind to build durable majorities could adopt.

Not having done that and running out of time before the Kyoto Protocol kicks in at year-end, the government has made up its emissions trading scheme in secret. The majority comes later, if it comes.

There is a glimmer of possibility it might. In August, as I wrote here at the time, a fuller post-announcement “consultation” than usual was mooted, involving two-day regional multi-sector forums and two advisory groups, one high-level and one technical.

Given the shift in business and farmer attitudes over the past year it is just possible this process, if done well, might now build a majority outside Parliament and, in turn, one inside Parliament.

But that is only one step on a long path. The big game is what follows the Kyoto Protocol, to apply from 2012. New Zealand needs not to get done over, as it was in Kyoto.

John Howard and George Bush want to turn Kyoto on its head: “bottom-up” “aspirational” targets by countries, upon which they might or might not deliver. Kyoto set targets which ratifying countries (New Zealand is one, Australia and the United States are not) have to meet on pain of penalties.

New Zealand faces a complex challenge in how it positions itself in the post-2012 negotiations, which have yet to get seriously under way.

This country has a “brand” to protect — but what is it? One option is to add “greenhouse-gas-efficient” to the clean-green clich´┐Ż. Our cows are more climate-friendly than anyone else’s, for example, so if more milk is to be made (as the world wants), then for the good of the planet it should logically be made here.

But a host of other climate-friendly actions is required, such as more windfarms and trees, efficient buildings and transport and clean waterways and vastly more agriculture research than ministers are so far proposing, if other countries’ negotiators are to take ours seriously and, more important, if the brand is to be recognised by climate-sensitive consumers, the retail chains serving them and, down the track, consumer-responsive governments.

This is particularly relevant in Europe. France is already muttering about carbon tariffs and France and Germany are talking up measures to punish uncompetitive actions by other countries, which could conceivably be applied in time to climate change.

Then there is policy work to do (and it is being done) with developing countries, with which this country shares agriculture and forestry concerns, though with different specifics. That may involve work on sector arrangements for high-emitting industries such as aluminium, steel and cement. One way to get developing countries into a post-2012 regime is for rich countries to pay to help them adopt climate-friendly technologies and policy options.

All of which needs a “mandate” for our negotiators. A set of instructions from ministers alone won’t do. A real mandate comes from the country as a whole.

So when the emissions settle after this week’s flurry a big question will remain: can the government (and the opposition) learn how to make such a mandate? The omens so far are not brilliant.