In this, my fourth, article I argue that the Climate Change Commission needs an education and information role if it is to achieve its objective of holding success governments to account for climate change outcomes that benefit New Zealand. Ultimately it is voters, rather than the unelected commission, who hold governments to account. But the Commission can play a key role in ensuring voters understand the difficult tradeoffs their elected officials have to make.
PCE’s Report on Implementing a Zero Carbon Bill
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) -Simon Upton, has recently issued a very good report on the issues to be considered in implementing a Zero Carbon Bill which would bring into existence a Climate Change Commission. The role of the Commission is broadly to recommend long term carbon budgets and to provide transparency around how successive governments perform against this. Thus providing consistency, transparency and accountability to the process.
Voters Hold Governments to Account
The PCE’s report very carefully spells out the boundaries between the Climate Change Commission and governments and leaves the difficult economic tradeoffs involved in setting a carbon budget to the elected officials, where it rightly belongs. They have the best information on how prioritise between competing calls for the scarce tax payer dollar. And governments are the ones ultimately held to account by voters, not the unelected Commission.
Education and Information Helps Voters Hold Governments to Account
To hold governments to account voters will need good information on what sort of tradeoffs the government is having to make. For example to evaluate whether the government has adopted an appropriately aggressive carbon budget target, and performed against it, the voters need information on costs of the meeting the carbon budget, and what the consequences of different targets, or not meeting targets might be. These are quite complex issues and part of information provision might also be education and profile raising.
This is not to day MfE and others are not already active in this information provision and education space but I am sure they would agree much more information dissemination and education is needed.
Key Will Be Information on Costs of Mitigation , Costs of Adaptation and Where Costs Fall
The sort of information voters will need will be the costs of different carbon budget trajectories, where those costs will fall, and what alternative approaches could be taken, e.g. more adaptation versus more mitigation, and where each of those costs might fall.
Oil Gas Exploration Permits Debate as an Example
This can easily be illustrated with the current debate around whether the government should issue new oil and gas exploration permits or not. There are competing claims about whether this will achieve anything towards our Paris Climate Change commitments and what the cost might be, particularly for the Taranaki region and NZ electricity consumers. There would be advantages in having an independent commission able to provide an assessment of such policies, in a transparent and consistent way.
Local Body Costs of Adaptation as another Example
Similarly there are debates about the magnitude of costs of climate change adaptation and where those costs will fall. With Local Government NZ rightly pointing out that most of the costs will fall on local bodies (rate payers). Again the Climate Change Commission could be an honest information broker in helping educate and publicise this sort of information. So voters can make their own assessment of different priorities and how different political parties perform.
Don’t Inherit UK Problems
Our proposed zero carbon act and climate change commission are based on the UK experience. The PCE rightly points out that the UK is now facing headwinds in holding to agreed carbon budgets and in agreeing the next carbon budget. Mainly because of increasing costs in achieving these budgets, and where these costs are starting to fall (electricity consumers mainly). They also point out that NZ will face even stiffer head winds right away as we are already largely renewable in electricity and there are few easy options in other areas (agriculture and transport). I would argue that the difficulty the UK is now facing is because voters did not fully understand the costs of a given carbon budget, or what the alternatives, particularly wrt adaptation, might have been. So the NZ approach should learn from this and aim to provide better transparency up front, if it wants to achieve long term stability in policies.