I can still picture a lot of my childhood. Most of my memories are of school holidays, when we’d break from the routine of marmite on toast, packed lunchboxes and spelling tests.
We’d walk barefoot down tar-melted roads sharing $1 lolly bags, spend daylight splashing in rivers and lakes, and nights cooling the sunburn with aloe vera. I also vividly remember seeing pictures of bulldozers clearing the Amazon, orangutans gripping burning trees, and polar bears clinging to broken ice sheets.
We learnt phrases like “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and the importance of reducing our carbon footprint through individual actions, such as catching a bus to school rather than being dropped off by car.
Speaking to kids at school now, they’re less concerned about what they want to grow up to be and more concerned that there’ll be a world for them to grow up in at all. You can feel the anxiety about climate change. They want to see action. The question is, what is the right action to take?
Today the Climate Change Commission will release its final report on how we can reach the Government’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050. The commission says reaching the goal will take strong decisive action and will require “transformational and lasting change across society and the economy”.
These changes will dictate what types of cars parents will be able to ferry children to rugby or netball practise in, how many cows a dairy farmer can milk, all the way down to how a chef is allowed to cook your food on date night. Almost nothing will remain untouched.
It might be worth giving up freedom and choice if it saves the orangutans, but none of this, none at all, will actually reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions one gram.
The proposals we’ve seen are less about reducing emissions and more about telling us what we can and can’t do. They’re about transferring decisions away from New Zealanders to the Government.
The problem is that New Zealand now has two competing climate policies that work against each other.
One is the Emissions Trading Scheme. Introduced in 2008, it means that when you buy petrol at the pump, or pay your electricity bill, there’s already a charge for emitting carbon built in. To sell petrol or electricity (among other things linked to carbon emissions), companies must buy carbon credits. The price depends on supply and demand for credits.
Under the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Government can cap the overall supply of credits available. It can therefore cap the overall amount of carbon that can be legally emitted in New Zealand. If demand rises, and the number of credits is capped, then the price rises.
People have every incentive to insulate their home to save electricity, eat at a restaurant that doesn’t cook with gas, or buy an electric car. It will save on the cost of carbon credits that’s already built into those choices.
Along comes the Government’s other policy, under the guidance of the Climate Change Commission. If the Government implements the commission’s plans, such as stopping restaurants from installing new gas cookers, then those restaurants just free up credits for someone else to use.
Perhaps someone who was going to insulate their house to save on electricity will no longer do so. The credits remain the same, but who is the Government to say that you shouldn’t save on electricity to have a flame-grilled steak?
What really matters is not whether you insulate your house or eat steak, but what New Zealanders’ overall contribution to carbon in the atmosphere is. The policy that decides that is the Government’s first one. It decides how many carbon credits are available nationwide.
Even if you can tolerate the commission’s intrusion into how we live and work day by day, there is another problem with today’s announcement. It is all based on assumptions made today about what the world will be like in 20 years’ time.
Who could have imagined the world could keep working while locked down at home, when I was walking on those carefree summer holidays? The one certainty about the future the Climate Change Commission imagines is that its assumptions will be wrong by the time we get there.
That’s why the Government should reject the commission’s micromanaging plan, set a cap for emissions, and let the people figure out how best to run their businesses, homes and lives within that cap.
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