Local and global — the emissions target tango

Here are two angles on the 2020 target for greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). One is the greens’ slogan to “think globally, act locally”. The other is to think locally and act globally.

Greenpeace and others who back a 40 per cent cut take the first route.

The world is headed for trouble, they say. Sure, if New Zealand stopped emitting GHGs completely that would not avert the trouble. But if everyone takes on board the global predicament and takes local action, that would limit the global trouble. And we would be good citizens of the world.

Those who take the second route say that if New Zealand alone takes action, or only a few countries do, we will just become poor because there will be costs, possibly large, in investment, industrial and farming activity, jobs and incomes. That’s the think-locally part. The act-globally part is to engage in international talks aimed at global action.

The Labour-led government followed a qualified version of the first approach. National has broadly taken the second approach though it adds that there are local reasons to act globally: if we are judged to be slacking by foreign consumers, retailers and governments, that could damage exports and tourism. That is, there is a potential cost of inaction, which must be set alongside the definite cost of action.

All parties but ACT discount the doubters of the science. They accept there is an issue and a need for global action. There is and will continue to be an emissions trading scheme (ETS) and there will be an emissions reduction target.

The select committee reviewing the ETS is to report by the end of this month. A bill will be drawn up which will go briefly to a select committee and be law by the end of the year. At least, that is the timetable.

And the cabinet will decide the 2020 target in the next seven days for delivery in Bonn next week at the next round of international talks on a new global GHG agreement to succeed the Kyoto protocol.

That target will not be reducible later. So costs are coming — though so also, in due course, are offsets from the unpredictable technological upsides which usually accompany rule changes.

But it may not be a simple target.

First, the target is not an absolute cut in emissions (from the 1990 level). It is a net figure: emissions can go on rising if we plant enough carbon-absorbing trees, take other carbon-absorbing actions and buy enough of other countries’ emissions cuts.

Second, it could be a two-level target, with (as the European Union and Australia have put in theirs) a higher level conditional on what other developed countries say they will do or on an international agreement involving some action by developing countries.

A hard global agreement is unlikely but the fact that one part of the United States Congress has passed a soft ETS bill and that China is no longer outright refusing to play ball suggest at least there will be what Tim Groser, the climate change negotiations minister, calls a “framework” agreement on a goal, with more talks to follow. Groser is also confident there will eventually be a deal on cutting deforestation in developing countries.

Third, the target may be explicitly or implicitly conditional on changes in some of the Kyoto land use change and forestry rules which disadvantage New Zealand. Under the present rules our emissions may rise steeply after 2020 because large 1990s plantations of trees will be ready for harvest then.

Fourth, half our emissions are from pastoral agriculture, very hard to cut.

That all points to a modest figure next week, well below the think-global-act-local crowd’s 40 per cent. Modesty is the more likely because if negotiations do get real there will be intense international pressure to lift it. Groser says other countries will see no reason we can’t cut fossil fuel emissions commensurately with other developed economies.

Moreover, we won’t get let off on agriculture. Groser senses an international “mood shift”, in part because agriculture is a big part of developing countries’ emissions. He says rich-country researchers are “doing the numbers” on what can be done and their governments will expect our farmers to do that. Moreover, this country can lead in developing mitigation technologies and the cabinet is about to announce an international network which this country will lead.

The government’s desire for alignment with Australia also suggests a modest initial target.

At a seminar last week Peter Wilson of electricity company Vector and Alastair Cameron of law firm Buddle Findlay raised large doubts about the practicality and climate sense of alignment.

Among their doubts was a low likelihood of “leakage” of economic activity to a softer-touch Australia and an argument that as ETSs proliferate around the world, as appears to be beginning, it makes sense to keep options open to be able to hook into other trading systems.

That is, trans-Tasman alignment might be too local — and it’s the global that counts.