Good science: look under the radar for progress

Climate negotiators are in Doha for two weeks. The symbolism is grim: Doha gave its name to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) global freer trade talks which have frozen, giving way to regional bargaining: a United States-based deal will be talked over in Auckland next week and an Asia-based deal was kicked along last week in Cambodia.

Not much, if anything, will be done at Doha these next two weeks that will actually (as distinct from putatively) slow greenhouse gas emissions. Our government is in synch: this month it diluted its watery emissions trading scheme by replacing a near-valueless “pledge” under the Kyoto Protocol with a safely undefined (but, John Key has said, firm) future pledge under the bottom-up, sanction-free general convention.

That is the “bus” on which, Tim Groser said after last December’s climate talks in Durban, all countries are aboard, though it has yet to go far. (Groser actually aims to rebook on the more comfortable, motionless WTO bus as director-general.) Some countries, among them the United States, are thinking of getting off the bus into mini-vans: “clubs” of countries contemplating aligned action.

The point at Doha now is to examine the bus’s fuel lines, gearbox, steering and headlights — then maybe think about getting into gear at a future talkfest. (The destination target date, sure to be missed, is 2015.) Meanwhile, if the scientific majority is right, climate-driven damage is coming, though mostly not for a decade or two, long after Groser and Key are forgotten.

The Doha agenda is not empty. High on it is the green climate fund to help vulnerable poor countries adapt, notably our Pacific islands. Rules are needed to stop double-counting and cheating. Pledges are needed from rich countries, to get the fund up to $US100 billion a year. (It is now about $US10 billion, to which New Zealand contributes $NZ30 million.)

Here adaptation is left to local councils, most of which don’t have the wherewithal to assess the risks or counter them.

At Doha climate rules need tightening: on forest protection (a major source of emissions reduction); on measuring, reporting and verifying claimed climate actions; and on the “clean development mechanism” rich countries (like us) use to buy claimed mitigation measures in poor countries to give the appearance of emissions action.

By contrast, the United States-centred Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks next week and the 16-nation free trade hookup of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan and Korea look orderly.

Of the two the second, covering huge economies with multitudinous, fast-expanding middle classes, offers much greater export and partnership opportunities for this country. Celebration next week of the fortieth anniversary of Norman Kirk’s recognition of the Communist government in Beijing symbolises that. The United States faces a slow-growth decade of fiscal adjustment. Its top TPP objective is protection of its intellectual property, which is its national advantage. (The Dotcom affair is a taster.)

Amidst all this, don’t forget Australia. Next week the final report of the Australia and New Zealand Productivity Commissions is due on what to do next in CER, the closer economic relationship free trade agreement, to mark that it is 30 next year. Also this week, after a five-year gap, science luminaries are meeting for trans-Tasman talks.

Science cooperation is critical for a small country. That was the focus of a meeting in Auckland on November 8 and 9, engineered by Sir Peter Gluckman, Key’s chief science adviser, of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand and Singapore.

It was under the radar, referred to only in a very brief press release by Science Minister Steven Joyce — a contrast with his and chair Sue Suckling’s marketing-speak-laden launch of the Advanced Technology Institute (out of Industrial Research Ltd) as “Callaghaninnovation”.

Small countries share vulnerability in a rapidly changing global economy in which international institutions (like the WTO) no longer work as they used to. That was underlined by John Allen and Singapore-based Treasury alumnus David Skilling at the talks.

Small countries also share factors in science and technology. They can’t do all science and can’t get most of what they do up to scale, as big, capital-rich countries can. But they can learn from each other how to identify the value proposition in what they do and develop practical tools to make innovation work for their country.

The six agreed to meet again and develop a work programme.

For a tiny nation like ours, such “science diplomacy” hookups may turn out to be vital in a world in which concentrations of the “creative class” give host economies a competitive edge. Not least, our universities and research institutions are too small and lowly ranked to cut it alone.

If we’re talking of buses, Gluckman’s looks like one to get on and kick into life.