Of all the arguments for adopting a nationwide carbon emission reduction policy such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, one of the most peculiar runs something like this: New Zealand should adopt emission reduction legislation even if it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the climate because other countries will punish us with trade barriers if we don’t.
The first thing to do when faced with a threat is to ask how real it is. More specifically, would other countries really have blocked New Zealand exports or stop patronising our tourism industry if we hadn’t adopted an Emissions Trading Scheme or similar? Or could it be that those who present the threat within New Zealand are bluffing, exaggerating the threat in order to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with New Zealand’s trade relationships with other countries?
As I’m currently exiled in Canada, I’d like to share a few observations of how the Great White North has dealt with the international politics of climate change. Perhaps the quickest way is to describe a cartoon circulating in Canadian papers this week of the Prime Minister bending over to give a gesture Tame Iti would be proud of.
Symbols aside, it is worth looking at the path Canada has taken over the past few years with respect to carbon emissions policy.
Canada is approximately fifty per cent wealthier than New Zealand on a GDP per capita basis, and on some days temperatures in some cities are colder than those at the North Pole. Unsurprisingly, Canadians burn a lot of fossil fuels. Putting aside a few small oil-rich nations, only the United States and Australia emitted more greenhouse gases per capita than Canada did in 2005. Canada’s 22.6 tonnes per capita was twenty per cent higher than New Zealand’s 18.8, and by 2007 they were thirty-four per cent above their Kyoto target.
Anybody who supposes they might be sorry for it is in for a rude shock. Only last week did Prime Minister Stephen Harper agree to go to Copenhagen next month, and in case anybody was to take this as an act of contrition, his Minister for the Environment had this to say: “One thing the Conservative government will never do is fly over to Copenhagen, pull a target out of the air that is ill-suited to our industrial base, to our geography and agree to damaging the Canadian economy.”
Tough talk from the unfailingly polite Canadians. Unfortunately it’s the kind that we in God’s own country, the country which led the world with votes for women, a principled stand on nuclear weapons, and unilateral free trade can only hear wistfully today as or own environment minister panders along with waffle like “[Adopting the Emissions Trading Scheme] is a balanced and responsible approach to a very difficult and complex issue.”
Of course you might expect that such intransigence would be punished somehow? Surely Canada is now facing the wrath of a disappointed international community? To be fair a “coalition of scientists” did ask for Canada to be suspended from the Commonwealth, but nobody is taking them seriously, and we all know what a bombshell that sanction was for Robert Mugabe.
In reality, Canada has not suffered trade problems due to its position on climate change policy. President Obama has mused about Canada’s “dirty oil” extracted from oil sands on the Canadian prairies, but as energy security becomes a critical issue in the United States, its peaceful neighbour can probably afford to remain calm as one of the few reliable and stable energy suppliers Americans have.
Meanwhile, Canada has shown that a commitment to free trade is the most important factor in getting trade deals done. With a trained economist as a Prime Minster, Canada has brought agreements with four new countries into effect over the past two years, and has a further eleven currently pending. Since 2003, Canadian exports have risen twenty per cent, hardly the sign of a country that is becoming an economic leper in the international community.
Perhaps the true difference in the rhetoric and behaviour of Canadian and New Zealand politicians is the political will of the two countries’ voters. In Canada’s latest election, the Liberal party practically signed its own death warrant by promoting as its main platform “green shift” policy that would shift a large part of the Federal Governments’ tax burden onto carbon emission behaviour.
Although it was once the natural party of government in Canada,
the complexity of its scheme, its hapless leader, an economic decline and widespread suspicion of any carbon reducing policy meant that Canadians sent the Liberals to a record low in the polls. As one Western Canadian commentator wrote “green shift (Ed. note: Please stop leaving the “f” out of that term.)”
In New Zealand, the level of opposition to such policies has been too low, perhaps muffled by the national narrative that our “greenness” is one of our distinguishing characteristics. By comparison, our “conservative” government has spent most of its time trying to ignore the demands of the ACT party, whose position is similar to that of the Canadian Conservatives. Whether you believe that politicians are inevitably followers of public opinion (e.g. Helen Clark) or should be leaders who do what they think is right and take the consequences at election time (e.g. Ruth Richardson), there is clearly much that the New Zealand body politic can learn from Canada.
Being a world leader is one thing, but being the only “conservative” leader “pushing centrally-planned economies in the name of saving the earth,” as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, is not helpful, Mr. Key. New Zealanders would be better served by leadership that politely puts New Zealand first. Perhaps more of us need to politely ask for it.
Countries by Emissions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions
Countries by per capita Emissions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_greenhouse_gas_emissions_per_capita
Guardian Article on Kyoto target and commonwealth suspension: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_greenhouse_gas_emissions_per_capita
Canadian Trade Stats: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/gblec02a-eng.htm