Carbon tax and election could be left to the Left of Rodney
Corrected 22 June 2014
Aotearoa’s Green Party is in exceptionally good company.
With its proposed carbon tax and ‘climate tax cut’, the party is finally in sync with the carbon ‘fee and dividend’ that Dr James Hansen has relentlessly promoted, at least since 2008. Dr Hansen has also consistently advocated for nuclear power, as the only technology capable of keeping fossil fuels in the ground and unburnt, but that is another story, and not one that the Greens are keen to share.
The theory of fee and dividend is that consumers will make rational, low-carbon, decisions as to how to spend their tax cut. An example would be a person electing to spend more on public transport and use their car less, and to spend the savings on something that has a lower embedded carbon cost. The idealised post-fee-and-dividend citizen might, for example, forsake car ownership altogether and invest the savings in forestry, with its Green Party carbon credit of $12.50 per tonne.
If, on the other hand, the receiver of the dividend is in the privileged position of it adding to their high-carbon discretionary spending, for example, by flying north for a tropical winter break, the carbon tax will have simply added to carbon emissions. In many cases, of course, the rebates would simply be swallowed up by the increased petrol costs of those who had no practicable option but continue to drive to work.
The capital cost of the existing fossil-fueled transport infrastructure in the United States is guestimated to be $12 trillion. On the assumption that it is in rough proportion to that of United States to global car ownership, a good guestimate of the cost of the global transport infrastructure might be $36 trillion. Whatever the actual figure, the cost of converting infrastructure designed for cheap fossil fuels, to low-carbon technologies, is clearly going to be colossal. With its new policy, the Green Party puts its faith in market forces to bring about the change upon which the future of billions of people, and millions of species, depend. But even if sufficient time existed for people to responsibly respond to a carbon tax, it is by no means guaranteed that a zero-carbon economy would result. Despite taxes doubling its cost in 1985, and relentless rises in taxation since, it took 25 years for total tobacco consumption to halve in Aotearoa—a 0.025% reduction per year. Dr Hansen, meantime, is calling for an annual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 6% per year—a blistering 240-times greater rate of change.
Although the rate has increased rapidly, at present, only 10% of Aucklanders use public transport, compared to the great majority (84%) who use cars. What has been shown to change the transport habits of significant percentages of Aucklanders is the availability of convenient public transport. When the tram system was dismantled, public transport usage plummeted and, despite a 3.5 times increase in population, has yet to eclipse the 1950s peak of more than 100 million passenger trips per year. When the Northern Busway was built, it was an overnight success, actually reducing car numbers crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge. The quickest route now to reversing the percentages so that 84% use public transport and only 10% use cars, is to make public transport fareless—as per Mana Party policy—and prioritise road use for buses. Then, to further-reduce emissions, particularly of nitrogen dioxide, which is already at dangerous levels, use more of the carbon tax to electrify the busways.
While the notion of free anything is an anathema to many, public transport need not remain fareless forever. However, only free transportation is a concept sufficiently provocative to induce droves of car users to step out of their comfort zone—the motivation to receive one’s fair share of a good thing generally trumps righteousness, if the rash of over-65s cashing in on their free ferry ride to Waiheke Island is any indication. Reducing demand for transport is, long term, as important as reducing its greenhouse gas emission profile. In 1992, a National government happily passed legislation requiring every employer to:
take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees while at work
While occupational safety and health is of unquestioned importance, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are a matter of not only safety and health, but of survival. Patently overdue is legislation requiring every employer to take all practicable steps to limit anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Deskbound employees today are typically compelled to commute daily in peak-hour traffic regardless of whether their physical attendance at proscribed times of the day, five days a week, at a centralised workplace is material to the work they perform. Similarly, organisations, including some august not-for-profits that should know better, insist on mailing hardcopy promotional material to recipients who, with very few exceptions, are equipped to receive a zero-carbon electronic equivalent. Longer term, then, fares could be reintroduced to public transport and some of the (by then smaller) carbon tax take be spent further facilitating walkable and cyclable communities.
Dr James Hansen’s advocacy for what he stresses should be a 100% dividend is understandable, given the United States context of deep distrust of central government. But Dr Hansen’s faith in the carbon-taxed free market is not such that he feels he can refrain from also advocating for nuclear power. Rather than slavishly adopt a market-led approach to zero-carbon energy that might be the best that can be hoped for in the United States, New Zealanders should draw upon their own brave history, particularly in regards to electricity generation. If Aotearoa is to boast a mostly zero-carbon transport system, then electrification is the name of the game. That means taking tough decisions in the short term, such as removing the enormous subsidy on energy supplied to Rio Tinto Aluminium, and in the longer term, replacing the Huntly Power Station with the first commercially available modular fourth-generation nuclear power station. Dr Hansen’s track record in making the right calls on anthropogenic global warming means that many folk who would otherwise have dismissed nuclear power out of hand have taken the time to read why he believes fourth-generation plants are the solution to low-carbon energy, and to the challenge of burning the nuclear waste from older technologies and from retired weapons. The rather better part of the Green Party’s new climate action policy is:
The establishment of an independent Climate Commission to provide expert and independent advice to the government…
The current fiasco whereby different local bodies work to different projections for the rise of the all-surrounding sea is the perfect illustration of this government’s abdication of its responsibility to provide national guidelines. The rebuild of Christchurch at hopelessly close to sea level, and the consenting of residential development in low-lying parts of the Makaurau region, such as at Point Wells and Ōrewa, is delinquent. Even with radical climate action, sea level is set to rise for millennia, and in devastating pulses. But rather than a commission, a department of climate action is surely required, charged not only with producing climate action policy, but with providing climate action guidelines for all public sector organisations, including the military.
A further weakness in the Green Party policy is its carbon neutrality target:
…advice to the government on: carbon prices, carbon budgets, and complementary measures to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Firstly, there effectively is no carbon budget available—the warming and sea-level rise already locked in will extract a savage enough toll, and developed countries such as Aotearoa have already burned far more than their fair share of fossil fuels. The 2° target talked of by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a totally political construct that would condemn hundreds of millions to misery, if not to early (mass) graves. Globally, the brakes have to be put on fossil fuel use much more abruptly, if there is to be any prospect, for example, of reining in an eruption of Arctic methane. As a small country of famously early adopters, Aotearoa can turn on a dime, in comparison with the likes of the United States or China. On selfish economic grounds alone New Zealanders should take the plunge, so as to have energy independence in the face of the rapidly escalating cost of extracting fossil fuels, and on health grounds—public transport has proved to be a boon in reducing the modern scourge of noncommunicable diseases. The choice is stark: Future-proof the economy now, or fritter away the short remaining time available to transition from the doomed fossil-fuel based one. Were this a wartime emergency, an annual 20% per reduction in fossil-fuel use would not be thought of as unreasonable, and after six years (the length of World War II) fossil-fuel emissions would be reduced by three quarters. The repercussions of global warming will unquestionably dwarf those of both world wars, in both magnitude and duration, and the bumbling efforts of recent National- and Labour-led governments are an affront to the spirit of those who served.
More Milk Less Methane: The New Zealand Herald’s zoomable graphic nicely illustrates just how multifaceted and interconnected the challenge of reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is. While the Green Party’s plan to clobber dairy farmers with a carbon tax on those emissions might sound reasonable, rebating the tax so that individual farmers were accurately rewarded for the mitigation steps they took would require an enormous new bureaucracy—better to provide the industry with the tools it needs for smarter and cleaner farming practices, besides, farmers will pay more than their fair share of the absolutely necessary and long overdue carbon tax on fossil fuels.
Graphic Richard Dale New Zealand Herald
And then there’s dairying. The Green Party plans to tax dairying methane emissions, albeit only half as hard as those from fossil fuels. Despite only 5% of dairy cow methane emanating from flatulence, as opposed to the 95% emitted by burping, the negative currency of another ‘fart tax’ is far too powerful for the dairying lobby to resist using it. If the Greens are going to wilfully assist with getting out the Act and National vote, then it should be for sound reasons. Lumping dairy products in with fossil fuels is a fundamental error. Dairy products are an entirely valid food source, and their export should be something of which New Zealanders are proud. While not all dairy consumption is wise consumption, it is in an entirely different class from fossil fuels, for which there is no case for the continuing indiscriminate general use of. Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from dairying effectively, not only requires a multifaceted approach involving breeding, feed type, feed supplements and vaccines, it must be implemented in concert with measures to reduce the other critical dairying emissions, such as nitrate, phosphate and ammonia. A carbon tax, like the tax on tobacco, needs to be stringent in order to shock consumers into changing their habits, and, while the tax stream lasts, to fund the costly low-carbon infrastructural changes needed. A carbon tax on dairy farmers is likely to be paid by those farmers who can’t afford to pay the horde of accountants, tax lawyers and technicians whose business it would be to minimise their clients’ reported methane emissions.
Last month, 78% of dairy farmers, including sharemilkers, voted to continue paying the DairyNZ levy of about $5.5 million annually, more per year than the current government is committed to funding agricultural greenhouse gas research. Dairy practitioners, therefore, already invest robustly in research, some of which at least is devoted to sustainability. Given the widespread economic benefit of dairying, additional funding for agricultural greenhouse gas research, and for ensuring that that paid for by DairyNZ and by the government is complimentary, should simply come from the new fossil-fuel tax. Another ‘fart tax’ would only serve to further entrench farmer-resistance to the goal of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Besides, farmers will potentially pay far more than their fair share of the fossil-fuel tax, given their heavy dependence upon road transport.
If dairy farmers are to be penalised, it should be for polluting streams, or for routinely clubbing calves to death, or a number of other unsavoury practices that bring the sector into disrepute. The Green Party does deserve credit for helping to club to death the comatose emissions trading scheme, but having turned its back on one neoliberal approach, it should go the whole hog and abandon carbon fee and dividend—a blow-your-own carbon tax will squander the one chance fund the necessary low-carbon transformation. Likewise, a blanket carbon credit for forestry will not guarantee that carbon is meaningfully sequestered—a more surgical approach is called for, including training foresters in continuous cover forestry (and in how to not maim or kill themselves) and educating decision makers in the benefits of wood products substitution for high-carbon materials—yet another responsibly for the Department of Climate Action.
Whether a left- or right-leaning government is elected in September, as in 2008, may well come down to how strategically voters cast their electorate ballot in just a handful of seats. In 2014, for the first time, this could include Rodney, where the only threat ever faced by a National Party candidate in that electorate is posed by Colin Craig, the climate-denialist (and Moon-landing agnostic) leader of the Conservative Party. Craig is closely polling the East Coast Bays, Rodney, and Upper Harbour electorates, and needs National’s accommodation in order to win one, to ensure his three–year-old party to gets its full entitlement to a probable two or three seats in Parliament. The form that the accommodation takes won’t be the now-toxic Epsom style cup of tea. More likely there will be a simultaneous talking up by National of the Conservative’s importance, whilst professing that National’s candidate has the full support of the party. Whether Craig’s campaigning at the national field days was insurance against the possibility of his choosing the rural seat of Rodney, or purely to help build party-vote, will be known in the next week or two. If it is Rodney, then regardless of the spirited insistence by National Party incumbent Mark Mitchell, John Key will be dreaming that his first-term backbencher will lose gracefully to Craig.
Rodney, in its initial incarnation in 1871, was first held by a champion of the people. But at least since its first reestablishment in 1946, it has been a wilderness for left-leaning voters. In Rodney, to borrow from Tom Scott, a gumboot standing for National would be elected. Under first-past-the-post, the only value of voting there was to help provide proof of the system’s patent unfairness, such as when Labour, in two consecutive elections, 1978 and 1981, won a majority of votes only to find itself in opposition. Small wonder that, in 1992, a referendum saw 85% of votes cast in favour of changing the electoral system. From 1996 onward, left-leaning Rodney voters have been enfranchised—or at least that half who understood that the party vote was the only vote that mattered were. While the architecture of mixed member proportional is utterly sound, to the user it is not entirely intuitive, with many voting as though the two votes were a first and second preference. Many Green Party supporters, for example, vote for the Green electorate candidate, only to give their all-important party vote to Labour. Similarly, many Act Party supporters end up only helping National. That there is an elegantly simple fix to the system, however, was beyond the wit of the 2012 Royal Commission on the Electoral System, not that the government that was blatantly exploiting them was going to address even the most egregious defects—the undemocratically high threshold for party representation, and the coattails provision that circumvents it.
Colin Craig needs the votes of as many of Rodney’s National Party supporters as he can muster. Whether that results in Key being in a position to form a government after September may now well depend upon how many in Rodney cotton on to the need to help Mark Mitchell retain his electorate seat, but give their party vote to the Greens, the Internet–Mana Party, or to Labour. But while a party vote for either Labour, Green or Internet–Mana could help keep Key out, for there to be any certainty, Internet–Mana would need to be strongly supported. Because unless Hone Harawira is returned (or Laila Harré were to win an electorate seat à la Epsom) up to 5% of the left-leaning votes cast could be wasted, and John Key will lead the next government. The best insurance against that further-climate-wrecking recipe, is for as many as possible of those who otherwise might be planning to party-vote Green or Labour, to vote Internet–Mana—a Green or Labour vote could well be a wasted vote.
So, thanks to the Green Party, a carbon tax is now firmly on the political agenda, but, if Colin Craig chooses Rodney in which to stand, that electorate’s Left could well determine the election outcome, and thus its chances of implementation:
- By voting Mark Mitchell for Rodney, and
- By party-voting Internet–Mana.
Update On 22 June, Colin Craig announced that he would contest the East Coast Bays Electorate. Since then, serendipitously, the incumbent, the Minister for Immigration Murray McCully, has apologised to the prime minister, and belatedly to the complainant of the alleged rape by a diplomat, for the ministry bungling that allowed Muhammad Rizalman Ismail to flee home to Malaysian. Conspiracy theorists could almost be excused for seeing the whole sordid affair as having been deliberately engineered to hang Minister McCully out to dry, without ‘Teflon John’ having to risk publicly endorsing the barely credible Craig, and thus be seen to be instructing his man to take a dive.
It is to be hoped that sufficient of the 8716 who voted against a National-led government there in 2011, hold their noses and electorate-vote McCully, and deny National of the support of Craig and his cohort. Conversely, of course, Rodney remains one of the 67 out of 71 general-roll electorates that have no influence on the total number of seats won by the respective political parties.
Disclosure The writer was imprinted by dairying during school holidays in South Taranaki.