Over the next year, John Key faces a choice between his – and New Zealand's – international reputation on one hand and National's support base on the other as he wrestles with reducing our carbon footprint

If you use the language of the Prime Minister's favourite past-time to describe his political style, you'd say he's got a great short game. Short-term, or at least term-to-term, he's proven himself a master reading the public's appetites and knowing his political limits.

Call it poll-driven or short-sighted, but it's been darn effective both in managing the immediate economic crises his government's faced and winning votes. As I've written about Bill English before, this government has been defined as much by what it hasn't done as what it has. But there's a flip-side to this, laid bare at the G20 this weekend.

One of the defining marks of the Key years has been a refusal to engage with long-term issues; "kicking the can down the road", as some like to call it. His modus operandi has been to say, if I don't have to face up to it now, I'll leave it for some other PM. You can see it in his refusal to engage on the retirement age, cutting contributions to the Cullen Fund, public transport and of course climate change.

But he can't keep kicking the climate can down the road as he has done. His golfing buddy Barack Obama called Tony Abbott out this weekend at the G20 in Australia in a pretty unsubtle way. You might he he shirt-fronted Abbott, talking of the risk of the Great Barrier Reef disappearing before he and his grand-kids had a chance to see it.

Obama said the Asia-Pacific region had more to lose from climate change than any other part of the world and said all countries needed to act and act decisively. You could argue Key was as shirt-fronted by that as Abbott was.

Our Emissions Trading Scheme is now a joke, emissions are up 20 percent under National and by the Ministry of the Environment's own estimates say we are nowhere near on track to meet our own goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 emissions by 2050.

Key has settled on a safe series of political spin lines regarding climate change – New Zealand is too small to make a difference, nothing matters unless the big emitters change, we're doing our bit through the global alliance, we already use a lot of renewable energy, and we have a unique footprint that's got more to do with farming than fuel.

He's evolving the argument behind that last point, saying that because we produce food for the world – and the world does need more food – other countries should give us an free pass and not insist we cut emissions as much as them.

All of these lines work at home; Key's political calculation is that anyone who truly cares about these issues is probably voting Green anyway, so for at least another term or three there's little political cost to him in ignoring the problem. But it'll be less acceptable abroad.

In truth, Key's reluctance to move comes down to the economy and his government's failure to "re-balance" it. Because we are so over-dependent on dairy – and agriculture more generally – making a difference to our emissions would come at a high cost to our farmers, and therefore the country.

Because Key and Co don't like to look long-term, they've failed to see a) the economic need of transitioning to a more blatantly green economy and b) the economic opportunity of being a market leader in this area. The deal between China and the US this month looks like an opportunity missed for this country; China has to spend what in technical terms you might call a gazillion dollars to ensure its emissions peak by 2030. That will mean a lot more non-coal-fired plants; if we had taken the Greens' advice six years ago and put the power of the state and market behind our own renewables energy we'd be in a great position to reap the profits.

That's all by-the-by now, but the very real problem for Key is that Obama is determined action on climate change will be a legacy of his presidency and with China moving on the issue, the time could be ripe for real action.

The next focal point for world decision-making is at the United Nations climate change conference in November next year and the pressure will be on for substantive action. Obama has already said the Copenhagen conference failed because leaders were still negotiating when they arrived, whereas the talking should be done by then and they should arrive merely to ratify. That means hard talking – and cabinet agreeing a new reduction target – early next year.

So Key and his cabinet face some tough choices.

On Sunday the Prime Minister all-but ruled out moving agriculture into our ETS while he's in power, which will make it hard to seriously cut emissions given that, as he says, we have a unique footprint with close to half of our emissions coming from methane.

He tried out this line about being a food-basket for the world, but it will be a hard sell. Lots of countries, America and China included, can argue they produce more food than we do and America exports tonnes more to the world. So why should we be able to hide at the back of the class and not be called out? Can we actually hide at such an event now we're on the Security Council? And are we prepared to sacrifice our reputation for moral leadership?

It seems international pressure means we will have to come up with a better target and will actually have to do something to achieve it, rather than heading in the wrong direction as we have under National. But farmers and much of the National Party base will be fighting that all the way.

So what's Key to do? Is his decision determined by his golfing buddy and international reputation or his support base and fourth-term dream?

Or, dare I hope, by a sense of responsibility to his grand-children's generation, so eloquently described by Obama in Brisbane on Saturday.


Comments (20)

by Lee Churchman on November 19, 2014
Lee Churchman

His golfing buddy Barack Obama called Tony Abbott out this weekend at the G20 in Australia in a pretty unsubtle way.

So what? The lame duck president was posturing this week. He can sign agreements all he likes, but if he thinks that the Republicans are going to allow him to live up to that agreement, he is nuts. And if you think Abbott is bad, check out Harper. Our democracies don't seem to be set up to deal effectively with issues like climate change. Let's wait and see what the Chinese do. 

Or do you have a better suggestion, Tim?

by mikesh on November 19, 2014

We can only claim to be a "foodbasket to the world" if by food we mean animal foods. We would probably be OK if it were grains and vegitales that we were producing..

by Viv Kerr on November 19, 2014
Viv Kerr

You've summed up the situation well Tim, but it appeared to me that the mainstream media let National away with ignoring this critical issue during the election campaign. I tried to find out what National's climate change policy was in September this year. This is from the (rejected) letter I sent to my local paper, the Otago Daily Times, about how I got on.....

"I hadn’t heard much on National’s climate change policy, so I googled it  today and got 2 hits. First was a page of press  releases from Tim Groser,  a link took me to a list of 36 policies,  but not climate change. The second hit went  to a National campaign page which said “our plan is focused on 4 key areas”. Climate change was not mentioned. There was no ‘search ’ function for me to find out more."

Why were National allowed to get away with not having a climate change policy? Did Q&A ask the National party about climate change during the election campaign? If so, what response did you get?


by Chris Morris on November 19, 2014
Chris Morris

Other than Obama's statement at the G20, which he has yet to get through a hostile House and Senate and hasn't even got full support from his own party, no other leader at the meeting promised anything. China isn't going to do anything for another 16 years. India hasn't said anything but are building coalburners flat out. Back in their own countries, even some of the strongest advocates of strict limits are backsliding. In Germany, they are building lignite burning stations to de-nuke and seriously planning to drop their emission targets. 

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/european-commission-move-away... Japan is burning more fossil fuels to cover the decommissioning of nukes. France is planning to do similar.Britain is staring to realise the folly of renewables dominating their grid and is installing massive back up diesel enine power generators. Even the Guardian, hardly a bastion of rightwing reactionaries, is recognising the folly of the Obama speech. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/18/abbott-will-soon-lo...

Under that sort of political background, why should NZ commit to anything?

by Chris Morris on November 19, 2014
Chris Morris

I found the article that indicates a change in German policy


by Charlie on November 20, 2014

First thing I noticed when diving on the Great Barrier Reef was how cool the water was. Compared to my normal SCUBA spots in Indonesia and Malaysia the barrier reef is somewhat chilly. Wetsuit territory.

The consequence of this is that the coral diversity is not as great as further north. Sure the reef is massive, and sure they have lots of BIG fish (mostly already eaten in Asia) but the coral is not as nice as further as the warmer waters further north...where it flourishes...

Chatting to a local biologist whilst I was there last, he said the problems they're having with die-back may be related to the herbicides and fungicides being washed off the banana and sugar plantations.





by Sean on November 20, 2014

I hate to say this but JK is actually doing the sensible thing not having a policy on Methane emissions.
The science on the atmospheric methane balance is not really started on , let alone understood well enough for government interference.
Putting Methane and CO2 in the same box is just daft. CO2 is highly stable in the atmosphere and CH4 is absolutely not.
Every bit of new research (and there is not much of it!) into the formation and destruction of CH4 in the environment finds new methods of both. Some of these discoveries suggest very large numbers.
It is likely that the flux rates of CH4 in the environment and therefore the life span of this gas are one or two ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE different (flux higher) than the numbers generally quoted in popular 'climate debate' over the last decade.
I agree that NZ's credibility abroad does depend on having a willingness to address climate change but something actually useful would likely be more of a long term advantage.
CO2 is the real problem, don't let the carbon emitter lobby confuse you!

by BeShakey on November 20, 2014

Other than Obama's statement at the G20, which he has yet to get through a hostile House and Senate and hasn't even got full support from his own party, no other leader at the meeting promised anything. China isn't going to do anything for another 16 years.

Obama has said that the goal was specifcially designed to be achievable through changes available via executive power only. China is already doing a lot and will need to do more in the short/medium term to achieve their goal (e.g. in 2013 they had 378 gigawatts of electric power generating capacity based on renewable sources, primarily water, wind and solar sources, which is twice that of any other country). Claiming htye don't need to do anything for 16 years is a bit like saying I can achieve my goal of running a marathon in six months without doing anything until I get to the start line.


by Chris Morris on November 20, 2014
Chris Morris


What will happen if the Republicans cut funding to the EPA as they have threatened to do? Obama's powers are very limited and he is in great danger of being abandoned by his party. He also has to fight the state governments that still control much of the decisions. The US has been cutting its carbon emissions significantly because it is closing its old coal plants and replacing them with CCGTs powered by fraccing gas so the changes are occurring but not from any presidential edict.  With regards China, most of its electricity generation is coal. GW is meaningless with low availability plant. It is dispatchable  energy that matters. For 2011, the last year I can find complete data; fossil fuels were 3607TWh, hydro 690TWh, nukes 82TWh and all other 110 TWh.  It has set a target of 4.8Bt coal a year for electricity generation by 2020, but this is about 20% more than currently burnt. The new generation will be mainly from nukes with 30GW under construction and CCGTs. They are also damming as many rivers as they can.  With regards the other renewables, they plan for the share of non-fossil fuels in the total primary energy mix to rise to 15% by 2020 from 9.8% in 2013 which after taking out hydro is little change.They also aim to increase their steel and cement production which also burn a lot of coal. India is having similar expansionist energy plans..

Now with these massive changes, whatever NZ does will have no effect and the moral high ground is very cold comfort for those hit by fuel poverty. And the latter is what happens when you go to the unreliable renewables like wind and solar.  Now why would I want to run a marathon against opposition who is driving gas guzzlers? That is the world of realpolitik.



by Mike Osborne on November 21, 2014
Mike Osborne

Your average Chinese who is expending 3.9 tonnes of CO2 per capita (stat from 2000) lining up against a New Zealander expending 19.3 tonnes of CO2 per capita may have a slightly different perspective on who is driving the gas guzzler.

by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2014
Tim Watkin

Chris, you make good points, but there is a moral argument about it being the right thing to do. Then there's what you might call the 'moon shot' point, that leading the world in this transistion will help us lead the world in developing the transition technology and selling it to bigger markets. I agree with Shakey that China is hardly doing nothing for 16 years... and as for American politics, what if Obama starts the move and Clinton wins the next election? Given her and Bill's stance on such things, you'd expect the effort to continue and pick up pace when the Republicans lose control.

by Chris Morris on November 21, 2014
Chris Morris


I see you aren't going to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. According to the World Bank, in 2010, NZ per capita CO2 emissions were 7.2t and dropping slowly. China was 6.2t and rising quickly. They already would have crossed.


Is the moral thing to take a vow of poverty and wonder why no one will follow us? Countries will only move if they see it is in their interests to do so.  Currently, about half the world's CO2 comes out of four countries that have no intention of changing their expansionist ways in the next ten years. And despite what they might say in diplomatic circles, countries like Germany and Japan are increasing their fossil fuel burn. Look at the data

If you read the trade papers and the plant forward orders rather than Shakey's teeshirt slogan stuff, you will see China is doing very little and no signs of a change. They are planning major hydros up in the Himalayas as their main renewable generation. Many of their windfarms aren't even connected to the grid or if they are, aren't generating because they have broken down. Compare the generation to the nameplate data of their stations gives a better picture of where their power really comes from. China is closing a lot of its old coal burning power stations but they are being replaced with new supercritical ones that have better pollution controls. They are still commissioning about 600MW a week, mostly fossil fuelled plant.

People have been talking about this leading wave technology since the 80s and very little has come of it. Thirty years ago was when smart meters and embedded generation was first mooted as the revolution. It was also why Bob Thompson put no capital into the Transpower grid for so long until it was near overload. Now they are having to go the opposite way. This is more pronounced in countries with a big renewable portfolio. Extensive generation is very expensive . In the future electricity will still be mainly made by prime movers spinning a big electromagnet in a copper coil and there are economies of scale. That is near inescapable

With regards the US elections, Hilary might win, but then so might George W's nephew. 


by Mike Osborne on November 22, 2014
Mike Osborne

Chris - the figures I was quoting were "CO2 equivalent" which includes the other GHGs. The 2005 figures (latest I can find) are China 5.5 and NZ 18.8 - and you're right China's CO2 has been increasing at a fast rate recently. The point remains - on a per capita GHG emissions comparison we are roughly twice China's rate so why would we expect them to cut back their emissions when they look around and see that they are far from the biggest. And our justification for inaction should be - we can't do anything because of those four big polluters? How convenient.

by Chris Morris on November 22, 2014
Chris Morris


The talk between the US and China was just on CO2 from energy production. There was no mention of any other gases. Most of NZs GHG is the theoretical methane (the cow multiplier was from feedlot cattle) and the CH4/CO2 multiplier effect of that is still under much scientific debate. Also, the methane levels have not been rising at anywhere near the rate of CO2.

 I also note that China is investing about $20B a year in overseas oil and gas developments - there is significant methane emissions from them.

by Charlie on November 22, 2014

Chris: you know your stuff.

China won't do anything to impede its growth. Sure they gave lip service to a lame duck Obama in Brisbane - it's the Asian way. Smile and nod but then go do just the opposite.


by Chris Morris on November 22, 2014
Chris Morris


I do not profess to be an expert. However, I have access to enough technical information, through both work and private reading, and have a good enough memory to be able to have a good BS detector. The cynic in me distrusts anything politicians say unless it is backed up by data


China is planning to add 448GW of new coal burning power stations in the next decade to meet their power demand. This is on top of the replacement for existing generation plant. No matter how many wind farms they build, coal is going to stay their main source of energy. In 2020, they predict it will be down to 62% of their energy supply from the current 66%. However, the growth means they will still be burning 4.8billion tons a year, and that is just for electricity.  Disregard the political rhetoric, look at their power plans. 

If Obama is proposing to use executive actions to promulgate measures like banning coal use which is already opposed by a hostile legislature, it will go straight to the Supreme Court and all end in tears. They take their First Amendment rights seriously. The court case would also be a millstone for any Democratic presidential candidate. However, according to this data :http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/   the US emissions have dropped about 10% since 2005. If he proposed a law to encourage fraccing which would stabilise the low gas price, CCGTs would be built to replace the aging steamers http://www.powermag.com/iea-40-of-worlds-power-fleet-will-need-to-be-replaced-by-2040/ , they would meet their goal and keep even the Republicans happy .


by Chris Morris on November 22, 2014
Chris Morris


I referenced the data for China's power plan but didn't give the source. Sorry about that.  Here is the major summary in public domain: http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=CH




by Chris Morris on November 23, 2014
Chris Morris

These articles also show the problem is a lot bigger than people make out



and the comments add a lot more details


by cindy on November 26, 2014

Coming in late to this conversation. 

Sure, the US and China could do a lot more, but simply by making this statement to the world, that they are working on climate change and take it seriously, they are sending a strong political message. 

It's a message our Government could take a little more seriously.  Tim, you're right, the NZ Government's climate policy is appalling.  I don't know how much longer Groser can seriously stand on the sidelines, pointing his finger at everybody else while doing absolutely nothing at home.  

Indeed, what we're doing here now is a scandal: we're giving free carbon credits to all the big emitters who then swap the expensive NZU's out for cheap international units and make a profit from it. To the tune of millions every year. And not a single kilo of C02 has been stopped from going into the atmosphere.  

Tim, good to see you're focussing on this - I also heard you on The Panel today saying the same thing.  

Meanwhile, our emissions projections are going to go through the roof, especially once our Kyoto forests are cut down.  

New Zealand's international stance on this is now to propose an international regime that is based entirely on making sure we have to pay the least amount possible for those ballooning emissions.   So long as we get that, we'll be fine.  

Treasury's advice to the incoming Minister was explaining all of this.  I found it incredible that there was nothing in that advice about how if we were to cut our emissions, then we'd have to pay less.   And nothing at all about the potential costs of the climate impacts if everyone adopted our attitude and did nothing - or even if everyone adopted our proposal in Paris next year.  (Treasury advice here: http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/briefings/2014-climate-change/bim-14-climate-change.pdf ) 

I'm going to Lima, will be blogging over on Hot Topic. 

by Chris Morris on November 28, 2014
Chris Morris


Do you not see the contradiction between your demand that NZ does something about its emissions and then telling about your flights overseas? Air travel is one of the major consumers of fossil fuels. It was only left out of Kyoto because of arguments on liability and the politicians were desperate for any agreement.  You may well have paid for carbon credits to offset against your trip, but they are just indulgences updated to the 21st Century.  If you want to be credible, walking the talk is a lot more than a sporting cliché.

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