It was high noon in the wild west town of Aotearoa.

Sheriff Cabinet Ministers was busy at his desk, sorting through citizens submissions, when Deputy “Greenie” Shaw bursts into the room. “Sheriff, it’s the Climate Breakdown Gang again. They’re back and causing trouble. If we don’t do something, somebody’s going to get hurt!”

Sheriff Ministers knew what had to be done. It was all laid out clear in the Zero Carbon Act. He rose from his chair and reached for his trusty sidearm, hanging on the peg by the door. Those troublesome Emissions Boys would be no match for the Revamped ETS, its shiny emissions-killing metal gleaming from the holster. He strapped on the weapon and reached for the door.

But then he thought, “Wait. What about inflation? What about the election? What about my corporate buddies at the Parliament Saloon? Nobody understands the ETS anyway. What the hell.”

The sheriff turned back and sat back down at his desk and went back to the submissions.

Greenie, wide-eyed and exasperated, piped up, “But sheriff, we’ve got to do something! Mayor Adern has promised the townspeople that we’d be net zero of those emissions by 2050!”

“That’s another 27 years away, Greenie“, grumbled the sheriff. “Plenty of time to deal with those emissions. Now go away, I’ve got paperwork to do.”

“But, what will we tell the townspeople? They are expecting us to get out and fight those Emissions Boys with the ETS!”

“I’ll just hit them with another request for submissions. That’ll shut them up!”


The evil Climate Breakdown gang out to raise havoc

What? Wait a minute! That isn’t how the story is supposed to go! The sheriff is supposed to go out into the streets and fight the bad guys, not hide in his office doing paperwork!

But faced with the choice of either strengthening the ETS, (i.e., NZ Emissions Trading Scheme) by letting emissions prices rise, as the Climate Commission has recommended, or holding emissions prices down for another year, our cabinet ministers blinked and voted in December to keep the prices low. So, we are in for yet another blowout of the cost containment reserve, releasing more emissions credits into the market than planned, making it incrementally harder to reach our ‘net zero by 2050’ emissions goal. So much for using the ETS to cap our emissions.

This little episode, the latest in a long list of disappointing episodes involving the NZ ETS, points up its fundamental weakness – it is a beast that is easily defanged.

Which is perhaps why The New Zealand Initiative, a conservative think tank advising the National Party, likes it so much. They argue that government incentives and regulations to control emissions, such as banning the import of petrol engines by 2035, as recommended by the Climate Commission, are not needed because the ETS is all that is needed to do the job.

But, we all remember what happened to the ETS under the last National government. The emissions price went from $21 per tonne CO2 in 2011 to just $2 per tonne by 2013, recovering to $19 per tonne by 2017, when Labour returned to power. In essence, the last National government was quite successful in defanging the ETS, stopping nearly all progress in reducing New Zealand’s emissions along the way. Good for business but bad for the planet.

So, considering this latest example of how easily the ETS can be softened, and even by a government that has declared a climate emergency, it is clear that we should NOT put all our climate mitigation “eggs” into one basket, like the ETS.

Government incentives and regulations, on the other hand, are harder to “defang” because, once handed down, industry starts to take action. The government ban on coal-fired boilers after 2037, for example, would be difficult to change because industry has already started to invest in the change to other fuels. A new government relaxing the 2037 ban would be met with howls of anger from industry, asking why they want everyone to change horses in mid-stream. Businesses do better in a stable regulatory environment, so regulations made well in advance give them time to plan and make the necessary changes with minimal disruption.

So, don’t despair, Deputy Shaw. There are other guns we can use to fight off the Climate Breakdown Gang. Sheriff Ministers just needs to be pushed into having the courage to use them.


by Tom Powell – Climate Karanga Marlborough