OPINION: One of the great differences between John Key and Bill English as prime minister is that the latter answers the questions he is asked. Key’s political ear was finely tuned to give answers that fitted his political agenda rather than answers that tried to explain his personal point of view. English, by comparison, can be a little tin-eared and earnest. At the same post-Cabinet press conference this week where he got a laugh for his response to a journalist asking whether he’d modelled his Kiwi drawl on Fred Dagg’s, English also managed to spend a protracted period sounding like a climate change sceptic.READ MORE: * Why councils want to keep a lid on their population growth – Pattrick Smellie * New Zealand ratifies Paris Agreement to combat climate change * Intensifying sun and increased CO2 a ‘double-whammy’ for climate change It’s not clear whether he meant to or not. Asked repeatedly whether the Government was concerned about the impact of extreme weather events created by climate change, English staunchly chose to see this as a media plot to make him connect the dots between the Edgecumbe flooding and climate change.
He wasn’t about to do that.
Instead, he used the Bay of Plenty disaster as homily fodder. Governments with low debt levels and annual surpluses are well-equipped to deal with whatever nature throws at a country: be it flood, fire, or earthquake, he argued.
The point is well-made, but getting the prime minister to express a view on the potential impact of extreme weather events caused by climate change proved impossible.
One possible explanation for this is that English is steadfastly rational – no single weather event can be pinned on climate change – and takes the natural view of a former finance minister, that “catastrophism is expensive and wasteful”.
As prime minister of a government with a commitment to action on global climate change, however, he could have afforded to go a little further, despite his instinct that much of the debate about climate change has what he calls a “theological” tinge.
Or does English quietly, in his heart of hearts, not really think climate change is such a big problem or, if it is, that adaptation rather than emissions reduction or mitigation is the only viable response?
This matters because, on current projections, there is no way New Zealand will meet its commitment to cut carbon emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 – except by buying a stack of carbon credits on the international market.
That means New Zealand is highly exposed to the potential for high carbon prices, which could add billions of dollars to the cost of compliance, without doing much at home to reduce emissions. This is especially since we’re counting on plantation forests to do a lot of that job already.
New analysis from the Business NZ Energy Council scopes the challenge with its two working models of the energy and transport sectors’ potential contribution to decarbonising the economy.
One scenario, known as Kayak, presumes higher economic and population growth and a low carbon price, in which modest emissions reductions are largely offset by new emissions from a strongly growing economy.
The other scenario, dubbed Waka, imagines more concerted government intervention to combat climate change, a higher carbon price and lower economic and population growth.
Neither is a prediction – they are simply ways to help thinking about the future. But it’s clear that even in “full Waka” mode, the transport and energy sectors would still only deliver half the emissions reductions required by 2015’s Paris Agreement on climate change.
The rest would have to come from a lot more forestry planting, a lot more carbon credits purchased on the international market. Or from agriculture – electorally sacred and still requiring scientific breakthroughs on lowering methane emissions – coming to the party earlier than currently envisaged.
This is the dilemma for English as he approaches a difficult election. Acknowledging climate change means acknowledging the scale of the challenge, which is as much political as it is environmental.