A big issue inviting political energy renewal

The tawdry political news last week was a purity-versus-power internal Labour spat over the hashed recruitment of urban-Maori populist Willie Jackson to finesse the Maori party. There are other, useful ways Labour could expend its energy, as a report today will offer.

Labour spats don’t promote the alternative Labour+Greens government that has recently been getting legs. The latest poll average has Mr Reliable Bill English’s National at 48% to 27% for Andrew Little’s Labour and leading Labour+Greens by 9 points.

English and Mr Fixit Steven Joyce will aim to cement that with a soothing budget, dousing active and smouldering brushfires with spending boosts.

Beyond that, the word is, expect during the year several big announcements of directional shifts in policy to portray National as renewable despite being in its ninth year when cabinet ideas usually run dry.

Might one announcement be a very belated gear-change on renewable energy and climate change?

A possible, but not conclusive, clue is in English’s promotions of Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges.

Bennett last year started singing some verses from the United Nations climate songsheet.

Bridges has in the past edged towards doing more on energy modernisation than Mr Reliable and Mr Fixit would wear but now can argue his case from his new economic development perspective and No 5 rank.

One of Bridges’ last acts as Energy Minister (before, enigmatically, English gave the job to Judith Collins) was to issue a joint Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) draft strategy on energy “productivity”.

This strategy said more efficient use of energy and more renewables would lift employment, GDP, the country’s reputation and energy resilience, save on imports, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and cut health costs.

In other words, energy efficiency is not just a greenie cost to business. EECA can be given a bit more leash.

But the strategy is still not off the leash: it is mostly aspirational, committing to “consider” rather than mandate action. It recommits to an un-energetic transit to electric vehicles.

Bridges as Transport Minister last month puffed up the start of a two-year trial of a self-drive electric shuttle on a private airport road — a day after Paris introduced an actual self-drive electric public shuttle on public roads between two rail stations, with others planned.

And whereas the strategy tentatively accepts that “our export markets may start to focus more on the embodied carbon in imported goods and perhaps even services”, Business New Zealand has for two years been actively scanning energy and climate futures.

Still, there are pointers to action, among them reviews of building codes where we wastefully lag Europe.

And MBIE and EECA (plus the Ministry of Transport, Z Energy and Mercury Energy) has funded an “Energy Cultures” report by Janet Stephenson’s Otago University sustainability centre. (Pointer for Labour: the centre is in its economic development spokesperson David Clark’s electorate.)

This forward-thinking report is being promoted in Wellington today. It is grounded in in-depth research of individuals and small and large businesses.

As a guide to action, the report reads more like an up-and-coming generation’s thinking (Bridges) than that of 50-somethings English and Joyce.

It details points for (actual) action, more research and policy options in nine areas: home energy, households in “fuel poverty”, small businesses, business “eco-innovation”, electric vehicles (“modest by international standards”), efficient driving (a lax deficiency potentially fixable by, for example, smartphone apps providing feedback), urban freight, the potential for a “youth-led” transition and general mobility.

Among myriad findings are deficiencies in regulating rental properties (landlords skimp) and lack of guidance for householders if they do want to improve energy use and live healthier lives (and cost Jonathan Coleman less).

Small businesses either don’t know what they can do (and save money doing) or don’t have time or think it too small a portion of costs to bother about or are in rental premises.

Most businesses do not yet see potential market gains in business models incorporating sustainability.

Changing production models — for example, just-in-time parts supply — and online purchases needing fast, dispersed delivery to houses) require more delivery vehicles and journeys.

Multi-modal transport could be part of a “cultural shift”. That would need diverse sources of funding, a “sufficient price on carbon” and laws prioritising sustainability.

And stacks more.

Logically, this is grist to Labour+Greens’ policy mill — but only if Labour can shuck the political mismanagement at the top that triggered last week’s spat.

Meantime, it is also potential grist to an English-Joyce, and thus a National renewal, mill. If they listen to the 30-40-somethings.