Oram: Red herrings and wrong notes from Nats climate change spokesperson

Last Tuesday, Todd Muller wrote an op-ed piece in The New Zealand Herald about what he's learned in his first year as the National Party's climate change spokesperson. Rod Oram goes through Muller's text point by point, giving a response to each.

Muller: My daughter is in her first year of rowing and for the entire season has proudly gone by the rowing nomenclature of a "novice" as she navigates the early morning starts, calloused hands and long distances that more seasoned operators have all seen before.

One year in as National's Climate Change spokesperson and I can't help but see some similarities. I have encountered my fair share of challenging reports, alarming data, and global stage-struts. This is the story of my novice year.

Oram: Your simplistic summary completely ignores the big climate change developments around the world during the year. To name three:

- Many more people in business, civil society and government were spurred to increased urgency and action. Likewise, opinion polls in many countries show growing concern about climate change. One of many triggers was the UN’s report on how damaging a temperature rise above 1.5c will be, and how the nations of the world have barely a decade to sharply cut their emissions if they want to avoid that.

- Here in New Zealand to date, 76 businesses which generate some two-thirds of our GDP have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition. This initiative, run by the Sustainable Business Council, which is part of Business New Zealand, is only 16 months old. Most of the companies have long taken some climate actions; all are pledging more; and the number signing up is rising rapidly.

- Two months ago, the nations of the world agreed on a global rule book by which they will implement the emission reduction commitments they made under the 2015 Paris climate accord. This vastly complex, contentious but ultimately successful work on the book over the past three years was co-led by two female diplomats: Jo Tyndall of New Zealand and Sarah Bashan of Saudi Arabia.

Muller: The role was never one I sought. Coming from a rural background with career stints at both Zespri and Fonterra, climate change was never something I had considered in great detail. As our farmers and growers will appreciate, the climate serves up what it will, and our job was to make the best of it and produce something overseas markets would pay top dollar for.

"Climate change" was for academics and planners to wrestle with and if I'm honest, I privately mused that I'd be long gone before it happened or not anyway.

Oram: But did this past year change your mind? Do you believe you have a role? Do you understand that climate change is happening? That farmers are already suffering here and around the world and the impacts will quickly get worse? Have you learnt that the utterly crucial transformation of food and farming systems globally in response to climate change is the greatest opportunity farmers will ever have?

Muller: Initially, the only thing that changed was my inbox. Emails began arriving in their hundreds, equal parts "existential threater" and "climate sceptic", sprinkled with the occasional offerings of good luck or riddance. As I hit the road on a nationwide roadshow of more than 40 public meetings I found my newfound pen-pals were as passionate in person as they were in their Arial font size 12, often more so.

Oram: You missed vast and valuable insights and information, if such emails really did entirely populate your inbox. Sceptics and existentialists are extreme minorities. The real responses to climate are coming from rational and practical people, such as some of our best farmers.

And of your 40 plus public meetings, how many were widely advertised and open to diverse audiences? In contrast, how many were essentially National Party meetings?

Here and abroad, the mainstream debate and action is about positive responses to climate change. Here are just a handful of myriad organisations who can help you and your caucus colleagues on your journey:

In New Zealand: Sustainable Business CouncilSustainable Business Network, Environmental Defence Society and Generation Zeroand Carbon News is essential daily reading.

Overseas: C40 CitiesInstitutional Investors Group on Climate Change, Carbon Disclosure Project, World Economic ForumStockholm Resilience Centre, Global Commission on the Economy and ClimateUnion of Concerned ScientistsEnvironmental Defense Fund and Nature Conservancy.

Muller: Reports, data, modelling and academic opinion flooded in at a scale that was astounding in volume and complexity. I decided early on I would not seek to become an expert but instead to reflect on how we, as an isolated export-reliant country, could play a part in what will be a century of economic change and climate adaptation across the globe.

Oram: The issues are incredibly complex but organisations such as the ones above help experts in other fields (such as politics and business) and lay people understand them clearly and act on them decisively.

Moreover, we are not an isolated country. We are utterly caught in the realities and responses to climate change. How decisively NZ and other nations act over the next decade will fundamentally define humankind’s challenge for the following century. If we drastically cut emissions in the short-term, we have a far better chance of adapting in the long term. If we don’t, all bets are off.

Here in New Zealand, a decade is only three terms of government. So, public, parties and Parliament have to agree and act very fast. Three terms of ineffective government would inflict irreparable damage to our economy, society and environment. The party or parties leading such governments would inflict on themselves long and deep loss of integrity, credibility and electability.

Muller: As James Shaw and I sat down to negotiate a framework for the establishment of an independent climate commission, I strongly advocated for our National Party principles: allowing science to paint the picture, technology leading the way, pacing ourselves at the pace of our competitors, and being relentlessly honest about the economic implications of the transition.

Oram: Wrong. Science doesn’t paint the picture, it defines the pathway. Technology doesn’t lead the way, brave people in politics, business and civil society do. Their vision and values make possible the technological solutions. Our competitors are not mass market followers, they are innovation leaders. Honesty about the economics is not about short-term costs but about current and future benefits of investing in the transition, and utter realism about inactions’ crippling long term impacts and costs.

Muller: Bi-partisanship is easier said than done, but as we have walked through our conversations in good faith, I am optimistic we can find common ground. While 2018 was spent developing a view on a framework for emissions reduction, we now need to quickly move to tackle the more difficult challenge of actually reducing emissions.

Oram: Wrong. The absolute priority is an all-party agreement this year on a Zero Carbon Act and the Independent Climate Commission to enable it. The latter will set the pathway to that 2050 goal and the five-year emission reduction targets along the way, while monitoring the success (or not) of government policies, business strategies, and civil society responses.

With the Act and Commission in place to guide us, we will make far more effective decisions about where to invest in science and technology, about which transformation strategies to develop and about which opportunities we take to cut emissions. Technology is changing so fast, we will be doing some things in five years’ time which now we think are impractical and uneconomic.

Creating that certainty of direction and freedom of opportunity is the single greatest lesson the UK has learnt in its decade to date with such a framework. That’s why more than 20 national and regional jurisdictions have followed its lead. We will barely be a fast-follower if Parliament passes the Zero Carbon Act this year.

Muller: Most other countries reflecting on their own domestic commitments are confronted firstly with electricity generation, which is often fossil fuel dominated. That is their challenge of the next decade. Ours is harder, with electricity production already at 85 per cent renewable. We can continue to increase this, but as we approach 100 per cent renewable electricity, the last few per cent become very expensive and don't deliver significant emissions reductions.

Oram: Complete red herring. Our electricity challenge is not to squeeze out the last 15 percent of fossil fuels from electricity generation. It is to find economic ways to switch industrial and transport users from coal, gas and oil to electricity; and to create an intelligent generation, transmission and distribution system to meet the extra demand. Fossil fuel use in generation might even rise a bit. But that would be minor compared to fossil fuel reductions in industry and transport.

Moreover, every country has its clean tech challenge. We’re lucky ours is not electricity. Other countries are lucky theirs isn’t agriculture. The winners globally will be the countries that rise to their biggest challenges with ambition, creativity and effectiveness.

Muller: We have to play our part, but only really have the levers of transport, industrial processing, and potentially agriculture (technology pending) to do the heavy lifting. Of course, we could plant more trees, but these take a long time to grow and the more farms you plant in pine, the more pain small-town New Zealand feels.

Oram: Wrong. We have far more opportunities than many other countries to reduce emissions and build our economy in transport, industry and agriculture, and in urban design, infrastructure and activity. The Productivity Commission lays it all out in its extensive work on our transition to a low carbon economy.

Among the Commission's many insights, this quote best captures the breadth and scale of our opportunities: “…the shift from the old economy to a new, low-emissions economy will be profound and widespread, transforming land use, the energy system, production methods and technology, regulatory frameworks and institutions, and business and political culture.”

To achieve all that, one of many critical needs is to massively reorient our science and innovation ecosystem to make these opportunities happen, ProdComm says. That’s most urgent in agriculture. We already know many of those pathways to low emissions agriculture. But so far we are drifting along with no focus of effort, resource or incentives on them. Our farmers are hoping that other countries won’t act on agriculture so they won’t have to.

Here, though, is the reality around the world, reported by CGIAR, a French-based consortium of international agricultural science researchers and funders:

- 189 nations committed to cutting their overall emissions under the Paris Agreement.

- 127 nations include agriculture in their adaptation priorities.

- 104 nations include agriculture in their GHG mitigation targets.

- 15+ nations include agriculture in their “economy-wide” targets.

- 179 nations mention agriculture as an adaptation priority or as part of a mitigation target or action.

New Zealand is not one of the 104 nations committed to cutting its agriculture emissions within its overall reduction target. Yet, we still pride ourselves on being a leading agricultural nation.

Half our emissions come from our rural sectors, and half from our urban sectors. The emission reduction challenge is just as hard for townies as it is for cockies. If one group acts but not the other, we will comprehensively fail to meet our Paris commitment. We can only succeed if both act and help each other to do so.

Muller: We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that ultimately it will be decisions made in Washington, Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi that determine the level of warming we will see over coming centuries.

Oram: Wrong. Those four countries only account for half of global emissions. Some 195 other nations account for the other half. Every country, however small, must play its valuable role.

Moreover, Beijing and New Delhi are already the global leaders on climate responses (and their challenges are far greater than ours), likewise, the EU. Washington is irrelevant for now, thanks to Trump. But that will be short-lived. Meanwhile, many US cities, states, companies and scientists are leaders at home and abroad. Moscow will remain irrelevant – Russia accounts for only 5 percent of global emissions.

Muller: The climate game is a global arm-wrestle mainly fought between the established economies demanding action, but not necessarily in their economies, and the developing countries who want eye-watering support for not doing what developed countries did for 150 years – using cheap fossil fuels to drive economic growth. We need to reduce our emissions in line with global partners while preparing to adapt to a changing climate as global efforts appear certain to fall short of what is required.

Oram: Ah, have you given up? If many more do, it really is all over. The world needs optimistic realists, who include good politicians.

No, developing countries don’t want “eye-watering support”. Under the Paris accord, they are seeking a minimum of US$100 bn a year from 2020. That is chump change for the global economy which generated US$80 trillion of GDP last year. Of that some 55 percent was created by developed countries, 15 percent by China and 30 percent by all other countries.

The first comprehensive report on the economic dimension of responding to climate change was by Nicholas Stern 12 years ago. His analysis proposed 1 percent of global GDP a year was required, but that was not a cost. It was an investment that generated economic activity and reduced future climate costs.

This field of climate economics has developed rapidly since. One of its founders, William Nordhaus of Yale University, shared the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Muller: Year by year the conversations continue as the world meets at UN conferences. This is where the "climate strutting" is most evident. Tens of thousands of delegates are locked in rooms negotiating line by line the rules by which commitments will be assessed, tested and measured. The whole thing has the feel of a giant trade show with the latest research, data, and technology with intensely earnest NGOs everywhere you look demanding more action, and faster.

Oram: Wrong. Triumphs worth celebrating are when all but a few nations of the world meeting under the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change make progress, such as:

- In 2014 they agreed to the UN’s Fifth Assessment Report on the climate. The report was the fruit of six years’ work by experts from more than 80 countries, including 829 lead authors and review editors who drew on the work of over 1,000 contributors. About 2,000 expert reviewers provided over 140,000 review comments.

- In 2015 they committed at the UN’s annual climate negotiations in Paris to reducing their emission.

- In 2018 they approved at the UN’s annual climate negotiations in Poland the rule book for those reductions.

In contrast, we should fear failure if:

- A party can’t see the wood for the trees.

- A parliament of 120 MPs can’t pass a Zero Carbon Act.

- A country of 4.8m people can’t get its act together on climate.

Muller: Solutions are coming into view but will take time to translate into action. Meanwhile, the climate clock keeps ticking, but maybe that's the point. Perhaps it always will, and we will just collectively learn to adapt to the sound.

Oram: So, you really have given up!

Muller: But hey, I'm just a novice. Perhaps it will all become clearer in my second year.

Oram: In two years a smart novice can become an effective leader.

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