NBR's weekly political wrap: Climate policy gets mixed reviews

Watch Grant Walker interview NBR's political editor Brent Edwards and Brigitte Morten, consultant at Silvereye, on Kiwibuild, housing and climate change.

Climate change dominated politics this week, with the government finally tabling its Zero Carbon Amendment Bill.

Later in the week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the establishment of a clean energy centre in Taranaki at the Just Transition summit in New Plymouth.

Neither announcement was greeted with universal acclaim. At the same time the government could not avoid criticism of its troubled KiwiBuild policy.

In this week’s political wrap, Silvereye consultant Brigitte Morten, who worked for the previous National-led government, questions whether the climate change legislation or the Just Transition summit will make any difference. She also says the government is in big trouble over KiwiBuild.

After the government announced its climate change legislation farmers and the National Party expressed alarm about the target of reducing methane emissions by 24-47% by 2050. Opposition to that target now raises questions about whether National will support the Bill.

Its climate change spokesperson Todd Muller says the target, which he describes as “eye-watering,” came as a surprise to National.

“From our perspective that is a serious concern and, as we read, far beyond what the science would demand of that gas, so we’re signalling that we’ve got particular concerns about that and will reflect more closely on the bill when we next meet as a caucus,” Mr Muller says.

Imperfect legislation

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the legislation is not perfect and the Green Party did not get everything it wanted either.

“But I think it’s a very good start and most importantly it does the thing that it actually has to do, which is to set up a framework for us to live within one-and-a-half degrees of global warming. That is the most important point and you can forgive a lot of imperfections in the rest of the bill because everything has to serve that purpose,” Mr Shaw says.

Brigitte Morten says it is not clear how the transformation to a lower emissions economy will happen and it is not clear whether Mr Shaw will accept some of the technologies – genetically modified grass for example – that could help reduce methane emissions.

She says New Zealand First leader Winston Peters can claim some sort of win at least over having methane treated separately to other greenhouse gases while Green Party supporters are likely to feel disappointed.

Meanwhile, on Thursday and Friday, the government hosted a Just Transition summit in New Plymouth to discuss how the Taranaki economy can adjust to last year’s decision to ban new offshore oil and gas exploration.

Oil and gas shock

The oil and gas industry was shocked by that decision but Greenpeace climate campaigner Amanda Larsson says the industry has known about climate change for at least 30 years.

“They’ve had ample time to transition away from this industry and into cleaner technologies. They’ve had ample time to support workers in that transition as well. You know, 30 years is a whole generation of workers and the truth is that instead they have chosen to lobby politicians for inaction,” Ms Larsson says.

Peter Bryant, managing partner of American consultancy firm Clareo, spoke at the summit and says he disagrees with the decision to close down oil and gas exploration.

“There is just no sense to destroy companies as big as BP and Shell. What we want to do is help them think about how they can diversify their businesses over a period of time that makes sense. They employ hundreds of thousands of people – there are pensioners that rely on their shares. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

Ms Morten agrees and says government officials had advised banning new exploration would drive up emissions because it moves New Zealand’s energy reliance to countries with worse impacts on the climate.

Hollywood movie director James Cameron was also one of the speakers at the summit and Ms Morten is not sure why.

“When most people think about James Cameron they think about the Titanic and that’s probably not the kind of visual rhetoric the government’s looking for is a sinking ship.”

Is this summit going to make any difference at all?

“No, I don’t think so and if I was, you know, in the Taranaki region and involved in this industry I would be pretty frustrated by the fact they’ve all come to town for this conference after just surprising them with the exploration ban last year. I think if I was in the Taranaki region I’d be like, ‘why didn’t you come to talk to us beforehand about just transitions rather than just surprising us’?”

Housing a weakness

The government has also continued to be dogged by questions about KiwiBuild, with both Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Housing Minister Phil Twyford raising doubt about whether the government is still committed to building 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years.

Ms Morten says KiwiBuild is a big political weakness for the government, particularly as Labour had made such ambitious promises in the 2017 election campaign.

“Setting it up as the fact that they were going to provide all this affordable housing was always going to be dangerous because there is no agreed version of what an affordable house is.”

She says the government has discovered just how complex the housing problem is.

“The problem with setting up a headline figure like 100,000 houses means you’re always going to fail because it means you don’t actually have people appreciating all those complex factors,” Ms Morten says.

What would National do?

“I don’t think National is going to come out with some sort of silver bullet policy because they know there is no such thing.”

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