John Armstrong's opinion: Jacinda Ardern's eco-warrior, emissions cutting image is a 'charade'

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Don’t be fooled by the Prime Minister’s utterances on climate change matters.

Jacinda Ardern might talk big on that subject. When it comes to taking action on what is the most pressing issue facing the planet, there is not much to show in terms of measures on her part that have made or will make a tangible difference to the lives of those most likely to suffer from the rise in temperature.

Whether deliberately or not — and nothing she does is not deliberate — Ardern has turned Helen Clark’s maxim that politicians are best advised to under-promise and over-deliver on its head.

When it comes to tackling global warming, a politician over-promising makes for warm fuzzies in the minds of his or her audience.

People feel a whole lot better if they are able to believe something is being done — and no-one is more persuasive in offering comfort to those agonising over the future of the planet.

In that vein, the wise politician will under-deliver for reason of survival. That is because — bar planting trees — the only thing that can be delivered is cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

That means cutting someone’s standard of living.

Thus has Ardern constructed an image of herself as some kind of eco-warrior in the front-line of the international crusade against global warming.

It is a charade. Jacinda Ardern would like everyone to believe her administration is being bold in its framing of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But it isn’t. That was vividly apparent in the reaction to this week’s release of a consultation document dealing with electric vehicles or, more to the point, how to get heaps more of them onto New Zealand’s roads while simultaneously getting carbon dioxide-spewing gas-guzzlers off the highways and byways.

The document received a positive response from just just about every quarter with its proposal for a discount of up to $8000 on the first-time purchase of an electric vehicle — or EV for short — funded by a fee of up to $3000 on the first-time sale of fossil-fuelled vehicles with high emissions.

The extent of the welcome should have rung alarm bells, however.

In confronting the challenges posed by man-made climate change, there is no free lunch.

Someone has to suffer. Someone has to make sacrifices. Someone has to make compromises. Someone has to pay the bill.

If reducing global warming could be reduced without cost, the problem would have been sorted long ago.

It is the classic example of the Law of the Commons.

The dearth of criticism would suggest the discount is too small and the emissions fee not large enough to persuade people to switch to an EV.

That is likely to even more the case given the $8000 discount only applies to new EVs. The bulk of the EVs currently in the country are used Japanese imports. The discount on second-hand vehicles shrinks to $2600.

Is that kind of money large enough to remove what surveys have found to be the biggest obstacle to people buying an EV?

Nobody knows.

That would not matter were it not for the fact that a large uptake in EVs is a crucial ingredient in New Zealand meeting its emissions reduction targets down the tracks.

The consultation document warns that there is “considerable uncertainty” about the likely pace of EV uptake.

Even if there was a favourable uptake, officials warn the pace of the decline would not be consistent with the Government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

If New Zealand’s vehicle fleet is to become largely electric by 2050, nearly all newly-registered vehicles would need to be electric by the early 2030s. The reason? The life-span of of petrol or diesel-powered cards can be 20 years or more.

The Ministry of Transport’s projections suggest that only around 40 per cent of vehicles entering New Zealand will be electric in 2030.

Thus the need for further Government intervention or incentives.

The problem has been compounded by the time-lag in New Zealand coming to the EV party.

The blame for that rests with the previous government. It is incumbent on Ardern to fix it.

The EV share of the new car market was just under one per cent last year. That figure was on a par with Ireland and just a couple of percentage points below the levels in Britain, France and other European nations. But it was nothing short of pathetic when placed alongside the switch from fossil-fuelled cars to EVs that has been under way in Scandinavia.

In Norway, the EV share of the new car market was more than 49 per cent last year. That country has taken a range of initiatives including tax breaks for purchases of EVs, waiving of registration fees, free parking, allowing EVs to use “bus only” lanes. And free passage on ferries.

Of crucial importance has been the siting of sufficient charge-points across Norway to remove the second biggest factor in people’s decisions whether to go electric — the fear that the car’s battery will run down far from civilisation.

The drive displayed by Norway — a country with a population not much larger than New Zealand — to go all electric make Ardern’s efforts look puny.

For her to claim that her Government is bold in its response to climate change is a joke.

The scheme unveiled this week hardly breaks new ground.

It is a rather timid replica of similar “feebate” schemes operating in European countries and North America. Closer to home, such an approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions found favour with the Productivity Commission in a major report that the Government-funded de facto think tank issued last year.

There is a profound lack of urgency. The scheme on show this week has endured a lengthy gestation in the Ministry of Transport.
It is not yet official Government policy.

This week’s launch also doubled as an announcement of a period of public consultation.

The scheme is not scheduled to be operating before 2021.

Climate change emergency? What climate change emergency? Well you might wonder.

Such lengthy policy deliberation is commendable under normal circumstances. But Ardern and her colleagues have endeavoured to reap kudos via promises of urgent action in the tackling of global warming.

The reality falls a long way short of Ardern’s election campaign rhetoric, especially her highly-potent declaration that climate change is “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”.

The implication that she wanted voters to draw from that statement was that Labour under leadership would be just as bold as when it came to introducing policies to stem the amount of carbon dioxide and methane being pumped into the atmosphere as David Lange had been in staring down the United States back in the 1980s.

Bring bold on climate change doing things like permanently mothballing the country’s remaining capacity for electricity to be generated from burning coal. It means setting a far tighter timetable in cutting methane emissions. And so on.

Instead, the Government’s approach has been to focus on what is politically easy, rather than what must be done regardless.

Forget the nuclear-free moment. What Ardern’s ministry needs is a fossil fuel-free moment.