Zero Carbon Bill’s Trojan horse

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
The National Business Review
27 October, 2019

Taken at face value, the government’s zero-carbon bill is a toothless façade. On closer examination, it looks more like a Trojan Horse for dictatorial government by decree. 

New Zealand experienced dictatorial government by decree between 1982 and 1984. It took the form of a blanket wage, price and rent freeze using powers delegated by a dinosaur legacy of war-time controls – the Economic Stabilisation Act 1948.

That Act allowed the government to usurp parliamentary powers. The economic outcomes were bad; to its great credit, the 1984-90 Labour government abolished the Act.

First the façade aspect. The government’s zero-carbon bill purports to be about climate change. Specifically, it purports to contribute usefully to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It gives this impression by specifying grandiose aspirational targets for reduced greenhouse emissions by 2050. Setting grandiose targets regardless of practicality, costs or even wellbeing risks becoming this government’s trademark.

One provision in the bill shows reducing global emissions is not the government’s prime goal. The goal is instead to reduce domestic emissions. It aims to force a New Zealander who could invest in an overseas project that reduces emissions by, say 1000 tonnes of CO2, to invest those funds locally even if it only reduces local emissions by a small fraction of 1000 tonnes.

Why does the bill focus on reducing local emissions? The bill’s explanatory note explains the government’s real purpose. It is to achieve “an economy-wide transition … to a low-emissions New Zealand.” The 2050 targets are merely the means to this purpose.

This is a vastly more ambitious agenda. A net emissions target can be met by allowing New Zealanders to buy offshore credits, without necessarily “‘transforming” the economy. Why not let them do so?

Made to change

One answer is ideological. At base, humans are the problem. They are destructive. Capitalism is destructive. Human-induced climate change is just one manifestation of the threat humans pose to the planet, if not the solar system. We humans must be made to change in a fundamental way. We will not do it unless the government forces us to, so we must vote for a government that will force us. 

The UK’s The Guardian newspaper appears to represent such an ideology. A pop-up message from it this week proclaims that: “The Guardian believes that the problems we face on the climate crisis are systemic and that fundamental change is needed.” Yet science is not about belief and in a democracy the public, rather than an elite, should determine what government-driven change is needed.

Regardless of ideology, who voted for a transition to a low-emissions economy? How much did they offer to pay out of their own pockets? And what is the cost to New Zealanders’ overall wellbeing?

A document accompanying the bill reveals the costs would be large if the targets are to be achieved. Against this, the government knows there will be no direct climate change benefits. New Zealand’s emissions are insignificant globally.

Neither will there be discernible indirect climate change benefits. The biggest emitters – China, India and the US – will not give a fig about chest-beating proclamations from New Zealand.

This is not to argue New Zealand should do nothing. New Zealanders’ prosperity depends on access to overseas markets and allies for its defence and security. We need to be seen to be a good international citizen. We can do this by being a follower rather than a leader in climate change mitigation.

A zero carbon bill is not needed to keep step with other countries. That goal can be achieved instead by evolving the existing emissions trading scheme mechanism.

No enforcement?

Second, the current bill is toothless. It has no enforcement provisions. It requires the minister for the environment to ensure there are sequential five-year economy-wide plans for achieving this government’s headline-grabbing targets. But why would people comply if the costs are large and the benefits ethereal?

The big lesson from centrally planned economies is that central plans for the economy don’t work well, even under totalitarian regimes. People have their own plans. Different people have different plans. One-size-fits-all plans by central government have to be imposed by oppressive means. Oppression stifles dynamism.

It is implausible that the government has omitted enforcement provisions because it does not care if the plans are toothless. It is much more plausible that the government has enforcement mechanisms in mind that it prefers not to disclose in the bill.

So, what might the scope of powers conferred, and enforcement provisions, be? We do not know what the government has in mind. The façade of the fabled Trojan Horse was innocuous – the deadly aspect was hidden inside it.

Parliament would create a constitutional atrocity if it delegated sweeping powers to executive government to mandate or prohibit any activity relating to greenhouse gas plans. Imposed carless days could be a means of achieving planned targets. Gas barbecues emit CO2, humans expire it. Trees are good, they absorb it. Regulate accordingly. Limit domestic emissions by limiting immigration, discourage childbirth. Who knows what might capture the imagination of a future government?

Some years ago, a National-led government, in conjunction with the ACT party, provided for officials to formally advise the Attorney-General if any aspects of a government bill could materially alter people’s rights and freedoms.

On this occasion, the published statement of officials’ advice was of a “nothing to be seen here” nature. And there lies a deep problem. Officials cannot presume to speculate about the extent of delegated powers and enforcement mechanisms that the government might or might not have in mind.

It is hard to think of a good reason for the lack of transparency about what this bill is about and its implications. The people of Hong Kong are fighting for important freedoms. New Zealanders need to be alert too. The follow-up measures to implement the provisions in this bill could turn it into a dictatorial monster. What, if any, safeguards are the government proposing? We do not know.

The government has not shown that “transforming the economy” is necessarily desirable, or even achievable, yet the costs to wellbeing of what it is proposing are huge. What has happened to the government’s wellbeing focus?

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