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Burning the Tax-Payer

Mar 5, 2015 Politics

Talks on climate change always fail because that’s not what they’re mainly about.

This column was first published in the January 2015 issue of Metro.


Enjoy the sun, sea and surf — and remember that next year’s summer is meant to be hotter.

The UN’s annual climate change talks, this time in Lima, have failed for the 20th year in a row. That’s not how they’re presented, of course. According to delegates, simply issuing a communiqué is a triumph. This one is grandly called the “Lima Call for Climate Action”. They always have names like this. Remember the “Bali Road Map”, the “Copenhagen Accord”, the “Cancún Agreements” or the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”?

To be fair, Lima was always positioned as a mere stepping-stone, with only 11,000 delegates flying in. Next year in Paris will be a full-scale jamboree, with attendance reaching the 40,000 who showed up in Copenhagen in 2009. That achieved nothing either. There was not even a negotiating text for the 40,000 to consider — but why let that get in the way of a decent trip?

Just like global trade talks, the UN’s climate talks are doomed by their own ambition. More than 190 UN members are involved and the rules of international negotiations demand all must agree to everything before anything is agreed. In contrast, only around 20 countries — the major producers and emitters of chlorofluorocarbons — were involved in the negotiations that led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that fixed the ozone layer. Everyone else signed up later and it eventually became the first universal agreement in history. And it worked: you no longer need to put quite as much sunscreen on your kids as you did in 2006.

Were the UN serious about climate change, it would limit the talks to China, the US, India and Russia, and maybe Japan, Brazil, Germany and Indonesia. Together, those eight account for 60 per cent of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Make it the 20 biggest emitters and you have three-quarters of the global total. Bluntly, the other 170 countries that attend the conferences are irrelevant. New Zealand’s emissions are 0.2% of the global total. Those who think what we do matters have their heads in the sand.

Rationalising the negotiations won’t happen because of the dirty little secret of climate change talks: for a big chunk of those present, they’re primarily about money.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the Kyoto Protocol as “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations” that would “almost certainly increase emissions on a global scale”.

His comments caused outrage, but it’s true Kyoto imposed obligations only on the developed world. The likes of China, India, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia were excluded.

Even then, it just so happened that the Kyoto Protocol was based on GHG emissions relative to 1990, a year exquisitely chosen to benefit the European Union, given eastern Europe began its post-communist clean-up soon after. It was therefore designed to transfer money from the United States, Japan and Canada to, primarily, Russia and the EU. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the US Senate rejected Kyoto 95-0, John Howard’s Australia refused to ratify it and Canada pulled out.

Of the world’s top 20 emitters, only Japan, Germany, the UK and Italy were ever bound by Kyoto. Of those four, the three Europeans knew they could only gain financially because of what happened to their economies immediately after 1990. The one loser, Japan, has faithfully met its Kyoto obligations by transferring money to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Meanwhile, global emissions have increased, just as Harper foresaw.

The “Lima Call for Climate Action”, while not binding on anyone, continues this grand tradition. It calls for more assistance from countries such as New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada to the likes of China, Russia, India and Brazil.


What should New Zealand do? The current policy is to engage seriously with the process. Tim Groser rushes around trying to broker a meaningful deal between the US and China while we offer emissions targets the government regards as realistic and achievable. In response, foreign non-government organisations (NGOs) slam us for not being ambitious enough, and Groser will almost certainly fail.

The better path — taken by most of the world — is to mindlessly take the moral high ground, offering up whatever policy pledges the NGOs demand. After all, policy pledges are weighted more heavily by the Climate Change Performance Index than renewable-energy use or energy efficiency, and no one expects them to be achieved.

That’s why New Zealand, with more than 70% of our electricity generated from renewables, can get beaten on those scorecards by massive coal-burners like Germany, South Africa, Poland and the UK. Such scorecards are entirely bogus.

So enjoy your summer, but remember your grandkids will still need a T-shirt and hat.


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