Gordon Campbell On the ETS And The Greens

So the Greens’ long, slow striptease over the Emissions Trading Scheme has now come to an end, with the party being granted a G-string of government concessions and commitments, in return for its support. The concessions are good in themselves. The difficulty will be in persuading the public that this is a victory, and not simply a pay-off.

I’m not suggesting that the objections that the Greens have had to the earlier forms of the ETS were not genuine – of course they were, starting from the fact that this was not their desired response to the problem. A carbon tax was, but they lost that fight long ago. Ever since, it has been a matter of dragging the government faster and further in a situation where the government could always play rough – because no –one ever really believed that the Greens would finally torpedo the scheme, whatever the provocation.

So what have the Greens actually won? Firstly, an unspecified one-off payment – though New Zealand First will also be claiming parentage of this concession. Logically, this one off payment will have to cost in the low hundreds of millions at least, if it is to provide anything more than chewing gum money. It will assist households to adjust to the higher energy costs that an ETS will inevitably bring in its wake, and the public may well be blaming the Greens for these costs long after the glow from the one-off payment has faded. There is no getting away from the fact that the ETS and its related energy costs will result in major transfers of wealth.

Other attempts will be made to soften that blow. The big ticket concession the Greens have won entails a billion dollar fund spread over the next 15 years. This will vastly expand EECA’s current work of insulating homes in New Zealand to make them drier, healthier and more energy efficient – and Greens Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says that this fund money will take the form of both income tested “straight out grants” and “heavily subsidised loans.” Some of the funds will doubtless come from recycled profits from state owned energy companies.

Thinking smarter about energy use will also be rewarded. “To avoid locking New Zealand into old technology,” the Greens explain, ” there will be a contestable pool of credits for firms with new technologies that help set our economy on a low carbon path.” Rules around the allocation of free credits under the ETS will also be tightened.

Beyond that, we are largely in the realm of targets and good intentions. Since the Greens were unable to make the government to budge on earlier entry points to the ETS for transport and agriculture, the Greens have had to make the best of it. Namely:

“A target for agricultural emissions reduction before 2013 will be gazetted with the other targets. Government has also agreed that there will be investment in a range of technologies and practices which can reduce agricultural emissions, particularly nitrous oxide. These will include not just nitrification inhibitors but also low input farming which can be just as profitable; biogas plants to convert manure to energy; and methods to control soil damage in wet conditions such as herd homes and stand off pads.”

Herd homes? Standoff pads? Doubtless, the prospect of more manure-converting biogas plants will warm the cockles of many Green hearts around the country. Unfortunately, they won’t do much to dispel the wider political problem facing the Greens – that on both the Electoral Finance Act and the Emissions Trading Scheme it is seen to be the little helpmate of an unpopular government, and is already taking hits in the polls as a result.

Substantively, there is little it can do to dispel that perception – and while the pantomine that has been played out over the past week may have won a few slices of cake from the table, the effort has looked more like a party playing at politics, rather than one acting on principle. The Greens have once again, helped rescue a prime piece of government legislation, while trying to signal its distance from Labour.

New Zealand First, at time of writing, had still to make its decision. The Greens are not yet entirely off the hook. Having won its victories and concessions, shouldn’t they now be willing to help the government pass the ETS under urgency, lest the spoils be lost through the ETS Bill failing to get passed before the election? Apparently not.

The Greens are, however unhappily, now on board with the government when it comes to the ETS. Timing wise, it might have been better to have given itself a week from last Thursday for its ‘consultation” so that it would come in after Winston Peters, rather than gifting him the decisive card.

Overall, could the Greens have acted otherwise? IMHO, I would have preferred the Greens to have taken the flaws of the ETS on the chin and declared their support weeks ago for an inadequate scheme they were supporting with extreme displeasure. That might have looked more principled than holding out for an extra payday for work that everyone knew they were going to do, regardless.

Obama faces the music footnote. For a campaign that has made such a song and dance about its appeal to youth, the musical line-up at the Democratic Convention in Denver seems unbelievably lame. The various Convention-related concerts this week in Denver include :the Dave Matthews Band ( omigod) and Sheryl Crow. Kanye West will be the big attraction. Which is fine, but hasn’t West had a recent track record of showing up late and acting…you know, elitist ?

The “indie rock” segment mooted for Denver consists of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ( two years too late, but at least you could argue they had excellent Net credentials) and Nada Surf, who have managed exactly one good song (“Hyperspace”) over the past ten years. Everclear will also be performing – presumably because their ancient leader Art Alexakis has courted Democrat politicians in northern California so assiduously over the past decade.

The point I’m making is this: for most of 2004, John Kerry mustered a far better line-up of musicians than Obama has brought to Denver. Yikes.