Zero Carbon Bill lives or dies on politics

ANALYSIS: The long-awaited Zero Carbon Bill is essentially non-binding, sets targets for long-lived and short-lived gases differently (good news for farmers), and an ultimate zero-net carbon emissions target for 2050.

It’s pretty good, but also pretty much what was expected. The immediate aftermath was anger on both the left and the right - Greenpeace called it “toothless”, Federated Farmers called it “frustratingly cruel”. I would call it “predictable”.

Predictable in the sense that the bill was always about surviving until 2050 and the bipartisanship and consensus that would require. 

In the Greens’ annual State of the Planet speech in 2018 (their first in Government) Climate Change Minister James Shaw stressed this, telling his party’s base to resist the temptation to rush through their popular policies, and instead look to the long term.  

“I know that there will be many on our side who, with justification, will say: 'They had their time – it’s our turn now and time to look after our own, as they looked after theirs'. That is understandable, and tempting. But it is not sustainable,” were Shaw’s words back then. 

In subsequent media interviews Shaw has stressed the importance of bipartisanship, even at great cost (though not at any cost) to the Bill. 

It’s not hard to see why. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday that the bill was the culmination of a 20-year journey for Shaw. In that time, several pieces of landmark legislation stand out. 

The bipartisan problem

The first is New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS. Lauded upon its introduction in 2008 in the dying days of the Fifth Labour Government, it was subsequently gutted by the Fifth National Government. 

The same year New Zealand got its ETS, the Labour Government in the UK passed its Climate Change Act, essentially its version of what Shaw unveiled today. It established a Climate Change Commission tasked with setting targets, and has successfully enabled the UK to slash its emissions whilst growing its economy. 

Most importantly, unlike our ETS, the Climate Climate Change Act was bipartisan, passing with just five votes against.

While New Zealand’s politics wasted a decade arguing over whose version of the ETS to enact into law, the UK managed to cut its emissions to 39 percent of their 1990s levels. New Zealand’s emissions aren’t expected to fall until at least 2025. 

The New Zealand versus UK comparison proves a simple point: our problem isn’t science, it’s politics. The science is relatively clear; we’ve got to cut and we’ve got to cut now. 

New Zealand is both blessed and cursed by the fact that we start from a good position scientifically. Most of our electricity is already generated by renewables. But that good position is in fact a massive political problem, because it means that instead of booking the easy wins early like the UK, which was able to shut down coal power generation (which it should have done anyway), New Zealand’s climate policy has to move straight to the thorny political issues like what to do with peoples’ livelihoods: farming, transport, forestry. 

And that of course is why we’ve ended up with a bill like this one. When your starting point is bringing in as many cooks as possible, you’ll inevitably spoil the broth. 

The Government’s next big problem also has a British precedent, and that is the danger that in trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no-one, a crisis exemplified by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s turgid Brexit deal.

Will Collins play the populist on energy costs?

The exemplifies the crisis that is playing out in miniature within the National Party currently. While its climate change spokesperson Todd Muller negotiated the deal with Shaw, the party has yet to confirm it will support it through the house. 

Muller and National leader Simon Bridges are happy with the creation of the Climate Change Commission, but are unhappy about the targets for biogenic methane, which largely comes from agriculture.

With Bridges’ grasp on power weakening, there’s every chance the rural backbone of the National party could use the issue as a chance to roll him. Bridges has changed the party’s position on climate change, and when he was Transport Minister he began taking a more serious stance on climate change than other National ministers.

Climate change debate poisoned Australian politics for a decade 

Rolling Bridges over climate change would have a precedent: Australian Governments of both colours have collapsed after trying to take a tougher line on climate change.

Kevin Rudd, who proclaimed the issue “the great moral challenge of our generation,” (sound familiar?) failed to get a carbon reduction over the line after refusing to negotiate with then-Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. He was rolled by Julia Gillard, who pledged “there will be no carbon tax under a Government I lead”.

Gillard eventually passed some climate legislation which was repealed by the next Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (who rolled Turnbull as opposition leader), who was himself rolled by Turnbull, who was rolled by current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but not before ditching a key climate change policy to stave off dissent (in the intervening years Gillard was herself re-rolled by Rudd). That's Australian politics for you.

National is a powerful party, with ambitious politicians and a leader whose position is weakening. The current chatter is that the bill is likely to be supported by the party to first reading, but what happens at that point is unclear for the moment. 

The bill does everything that it can do whilst keeping everyone onside. It’s a political solution to a scientific problem.

The Act, when it is enacted, will live or die on politics. Unlike the Reserve Bank, to which the Climate Change Commission is so often compared, the bill will not set binding targets. That bit is up to politicians, who, as we've seen over the ditch, don't always play nice when it comes to climate change. Every step of the way, the Climate Change Commission will rely on politicians to enact its will. 

If the bill succeeds, it will vindicate the ability of our complicated, imperfect democracy to solve the great problems of our age.

Inter-generational politics

If it fails, it will prove the opposite: that our democracy isn't up to handling the great problems of our age. It's not unprecedented. The British political system isn't capable of delivering to its people a palatable political answer to Brexit, arguably a less pressing issue than climate change.

The great 18th century Conservative thinker Edmund Burke wrote that society was not a contract between the rulers and the ruled, but between the generations — "a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who have yet to be born".

Should the bill fail, our politicians will have to reckon with the fact on their watch, they found this centuries-old proposition to be worth less than a few burping cows. 

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