On the bus. Or the truck. It's a gas

Tim Groser comes from a family of actors. So when he talks climate change, he talks in theatrical allusions, of “getting everyone on the bus” and “not backing the truck up the drive”.

Groser’s “bus” was at Durban in December, the most recent United Nations global climate change summit. An old bus had creaked into Durban. But up-and-coming big “developing country” emitters like China, India and Brazil were not on and some “developed” countries which were on, notably Japan, were getting off. The United States had never got on.

Groser was instrumental — some say crucial — in getting everyone on a new bus. That was the major outcome of talks though it is a slow bus and will get us very little closer in 10 years to stopping planetary warming (if it is warming — Wellington’s winter so far invites scepticism).

The other Durban star, former climate change ambassador Adrian Macey, was at the wheel of the old bus, the Kyoto Protocol, under which rich countries said they would meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2008-12, which is why we got an emissions trading scheme (ETS). The ETS is supposed, “at least cost”, to cut net emissions back to 1990 levels.

Actually, we will meet that commitment not because of the ETS but because the rise in emissions is more than offset by forest absorption of carbon dioxide and we can add offsets by buying emissions reducing actions (CERs) from poor countries under the Clean Development Mechanism.

The ETS price has slid to a very low $6-$7 a unit, dragged down by collapse of the European ETS, to which ours is linked (reasons include over-allocation of free units, weak economic growth and a big switch to renewables) and kept low by a big supply of CERs. Our ETS has no cap, so there is little incentive to cut emissions. Our businesses and farmers are curiously lax about energy and fertiliser efficiencies.

Groser in effect last Monday told businesses and farmers not to stir too much. The one-for-two discount on the 10 per cent of their emissions for which major emitters don’t receive free units is to continue indefinitely. So is the exemption from direct measures for farmers. Only in 2015 will Groser think again.

That, he says, is “doing our fair share”. In effect, provided we have enough trees (though at $6-$7 a unit no one is planting) and can buy enough poor-country CERs, our fair share amounts to doing nothing about actually cutting emissions — at least until 2015.

Still, that, Groser says, is better than “backing the truck up the drive”, which he says climate sceptics and deniers want. It is also not hitting the bus’s accelerator, which he says greens (and Greens) and the Labour party want. The sick world and domestic economies are reasons to keep the motor in idle.

This is a variation on the cabinet’s “foreign policy is trade” line. Groser is a world expert in trade, well-known in many capitals, which is why he was called on at Durban (and at Cancun in December 2010) to un-jam the talks.

But actually trade is foreign policy, as the Chinese will teach us over time if we don’t work it out first. To get the best and continuing access to markets and to mechanisms to fix behind-the-border problems we need good government-to-government and people-to-people relations as well as good company-to-company relations.

That is an argument for doing a bit more than our fair climate share. We have specific needs because of our unusual emissions profile, notably pre-1990 forests (on which we have won a concession) and animal methane. We get heard not because we are big and tough but because we are seen as an earnest player and honest broker.

There are rumblings from high in the United Nations climate hierarchy that we risk losing that status because the ETS is loose and without a cap and the government’s 2020 emissions reduction target has so many conditions that it doesn’t amount to a row of beans.

And we do have a need in the climate talks: to get animal methane out of the mix.

There is a strong argument for doing that. Methane is a powerful “forcer” but stays in the atmosphere only 20-30 years. Carbon dioxide stays for centuries. Logically, only rises in the flow of methane emissions should be counted, not the total flow. That would leave agriculture’s problem as effluent, which would not be a compelling reason for leaving it out of the ETS. In any case a Labour-Green government will put it in.

The government has only recently begun to address this “metrics” issue. The best it can hope for is to build a coalition of developing countries to inject it into any post-2020 arrangement. But if we lose credibility as an earnest player and honest broker, the big powers won’t listen.

The risk for business and farmers is that Labour and the Greens will get in the bus and hit the accelerator. The risk for the rest of us is that business and farmers will suddenly have to adjust at greater cost than starting now.

To gear up or not to gear up: that is Groser’s question.