(Not) changing the climate on climate change

Here’s a foreign policy issue the government wishes would go away: climate change. Most other governments wish it would go away, too.

They will nonetheless send emissaries to Lima in Peru for 12 days of talks from next Monday. Lima is a waystation on the meandering United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change pathway towards a deal in Paris in late 2015 to limit world greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after 2020.

New Zealand is on track to increase its emissions. Ministers see action on GHGs as a cost, not as an opportunity meriting application of its “investment approach”.

China goes for opportunity. President-plenipotentiary Xi Jinping’s high-profile deal at the APEC summit in Beijing this month with President-in-decline Barack Obama lifted China another notch towards “G2” status alongside Obama’s United States. G2 status implies influence on global rules and in how global institutions operate and in framing ideas by which societies and economies are run.

Xi spreads that G2 message with a combination of assertiveness and graciousness. It was graciousness on show here last week, when he signed an agreement with John Key to cooperate on climate change to “work more closely on developing carbon markets, emissions trading and other market mechanisms”.

Our carbon market is broken. China has some big regional carbon markets and intends a national one. Who will get more out of the “cooperation”?

But is Xi on the climate change high ground? Or is something else going on?

The deal with Obama at APEC committed China only to aim for GHG emissions to peak around 2030. Meantime it will go on ramping up its already massive emissions. It has not said what it expects that 2030 level to be.

The logic is that China has a long way to go before its per capita economic output nears that of Europe or the United States (or New Zealand). The west built its wealth on coal, then oil and gas. Why shouldn’t China (and India and Indonesia and others)?

But China also has an indigenous reason to act to curtail GHG emissions. Pollution is killing too many of its people. It knows it cannot get to western wealth levels on the current paradigm.

So it has been working on “peak coal”, a target year when its use of coal will peak. In Beijing in April I was hearing 2020. Now there is talk of an earlier date. China is planning to stop imports of dirty coal, mainly Australian, in a couple of years.

If China has a self-interest in acting to curb GHGs, does rich New Zealand?

At one level New Zealand has an interest in appearing to “do its share”, as Key puts it, to keep its good global citizen reputation and its clean-country brand. Key points to some research money, modest energy efficiency measures and a bit of help for South Pacific island states.

But beyond that, not a lot. Expect a modest “intended nationally determined commitment” next year ahead of the Paris summit and a hand-wringing “narrative” to go with it.

Key points to the high proportion of renewable electricity generation already, unlike almost every other country.

He argues, with cause, that not a lot can yet be done to cut animal methane (around a third of our total) short of cutting output, which he says doesn’t make sense in world needing food and in a country where food production is much less climate-unfriendly than in likely substitute countries.

But actually the fast-growing sources of GHG emissions are transport and industrial heating. Key excuses light action there on the ground that New Zealand is a taker of technology so not much can be done and in any case taking action is a cost.

Too little mitigation leaves the world and us having to adapt. On Thursday the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will warn of hard questions and difficult choices. These include complex property rights issues for councils planning for sea level rise, on which government help has been niggardly.

Onetime businessman Key has a mitigation option Bill English could tell him about: adapt the welfare reform “investment approach” and take the risk that approach implies.

Key could even be a “leader”, as Andrew Little (far more forceful in his first days than critics expected) thinks this country should be.

One option: renewable generating capacity equivalent to 44 per cent of total current capacity has been consented. That could power the whole light vehicle fleet if converted over, say, 15 years to plug-in hybrids or all-electrics.

The government could stimulate that in various ways, including intervening (with a sunset clause) to reduce the resale risk that bothers fleet-lease financiers.

The dividend could be a top clean-green brand and high global citizen standing — and a far lower oil import bill.

There is risk. Investments carry risks. But there is also a risk in a cost-fixated policy: erosion of brand and standing and higher import costs.

A cabinet minority wants a bit more ambition — but only a minority. Xi could perhaps offer his mate Key a thought or two.