Time for some flag waving. But what flag?

Colin James’s Otago Daily Times column for 14 July 2015

It’s flag-waving time: Tim Groser off to Europe to wave our climate change flag; Greece waving the socialist flag; and the last chance to wave your own flag at John Key.

Flag design submissions close on Thursday. Only 679 people have gone to public meetings. But online visits have topped 700,000 and around 6000 designs have been submitted. The distinctive koru is second after the Southern Cross and ahead of Key’s unimaginative fern.

Key’s process is costly, fast, market-flashy and overseen by a designer-free panel, muddled with yet another royal tour (read Union Jack) in October and with no upfront yes-no vote. If a durable new symbol drops out, it will be serendipity.

Greeks have been waving defiance flags at creditors. But that is a gesture, not a future. Greeks are learning that socialism in one country is impractical in Europe’s integrated economy.

There are lessons in that for Grant Robertson as his Labour commission tries to redefine social democracy for this globalised country.

In fact, just about any ism, including conservatism and China’s autocratic-technocratic bundle of contradictions (first, pump up a bubble, then go on pumping when it bursts), runs into global limits on how far its practitioners can chart a distinctive course and also keep citizens’ material standard living rising.

Even an inveterate internationalist such as Groser is on new territory. His specialty, trade, has been essentially give-and-take. Even that is blurring. And his add-on job, climate change, is an all-in-together predicament. Give-and-take leaves givers and takers in the same drifting boat.

So what climate flag will he wave in Luxembourg on Saturday-Sunday and Paris on Monday-Wednesday?

The Luxembourg meeting is of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, to which, he said, “New Zealand” — that is to say, Groser, widely connected international figure — “is invited as a special participant”. The Paris show is a ministerial prep for the end-of-year climate change summit.

Groser will take with him the cabinet’s INDC, its “intended nationally determined contribution” to combating climate change, announced last week.

This amounts, Groser says, to a “fair share”. If all other countries commit to a proportionate “fair share” based on history, wealth and abatement potential, the United Nations science consensus says we can expect climate change to roll on warmly. (Some in our cold winter might say: “Right on.”)

The INDC sets a cut in greenhouse gas emissions of 11% from 1990 levels by 2030. That is 6 percentage points below the 5% promise for 2020.

But the 11% is conditional on “unrestricted access to global carbon markets that enable trading and use of a wide variety of units”. Up to now this has enabled us to buy some mitigation instead of doing it all here. If such access is denied post 2020, as some insiders expect, Groser’s INDC cut would amount to zero (at least from 2020).

Part of his problem is animal methane. There is promising research but it is a far short of market-ready.

Animal methane has a powerful “forcing” impact at the time it is emitted. But it dissipates quickly, so if the amount emitted doesn’t change it doesn’t add to warming, unlike carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide which hang around for centuries. They are the real culprits.

So why didn’t the cabinet leave methane out and include only farmers’ fertiliser-enhanced nitrous oxide emissions? The number would look better.

Problem: it then couldn’t say “all gases” (though actually agriculture is still not in the emissions trading scheme). And there is a threat that some heavy carbon dioxide emitting countries might push for drastic cuts in methane emissions to buy them time in the hope technology makes it easier to cut emissions later.

In effect the cabinet is operating on the same hope. Groser in a radio interview dismissed strong 2020s action as a “one-way bet”.

Technology hope took Simon Bridges, to Silicon Valley last week, trying to entice some vanguard technologists to use New Zealand as a transport test bed, exploiting our readily expandable renewable electricity.

The same could logically be done for industrial and building heating, where New Zealand is a slow follower, as is clear from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria’s July 3 lecture and from a new McKinsey Institute global study of firms.

The tentativeness stems from the cabinet’s focus on the fiscal, economic and possible political costs of action, especially action affecting farmers.

Business New Zealand’s Phil O’Reilly called the INDC “challenging”.

But a Business New Zealand offshoot, the Sustainable Business Council, said it wanted a “more predictable pathway” for longer-term investments. It knows a Labour-Green government will raise the ambition.

Go back to the flag: the INDC suggests a snail — for authenticity, the famous native Mount Augustus variety.

The snail risk is that the country brand will be eroded. Flag waving wouldn’t help the economy then.