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Tim Groser, the new Minister for Climate Change Issues, is adamant in his defence of the intention to further delay bringing the agricultural sector into the Emissions Trading Scheme beyond the current date of 2015 unless there are adequate abatement options open to them by then and unless other countries step up to the mark with mitigation measures.  His remarks on Morning Report on Thursday made it clear that the interests of the overall economy were more important than mitigation of the 0.2% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that New Zealand is responsible for.  He spoke of the difficulty of managing the economy through tough times.

But he also claimed New Zealand was playing a very significant role in the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases and in the reform of fossil fuel subsidies. Indeed we’re probably playing a larger role in international negotiations than any single country.  It’s absurd, he concluded, to charge that we’re not pulling our weight.  The part New Zealand is playing in the international negotiations was also highlighted in a NZ Herald report on Thursday.

 With Kiwi diplomat Adrian Macey chairing last December’s Durban talks, Groser claims New Zealand “ended up with 100 per cent of the responsibility for the mitigation equation,” the core of the climate change debate.

As a long-serving diplomat and ambassador before entering Parliament, the International Trade and Climate Change Negotiations Minister said this achievement was “quite extraordinary in terms of my experience of international negotiations and New Zealand’s contribution.”

One can only be pleased if New Zealand is playing a positive role in international negotiations and the other initiatives Groser draws attention to. And it’s true that this is a global problem which needs global agreement to be dealt with effectively. But that doesn’t mean we should therefore be happy with the go-slow policy at home. Groser appears to be saying that action on emissions will put strains on the economy and that we will therefore only act when everyone does.  His stance is outdated and unhelpful. The economy can flourish with a different orientation. Why should the mild pressure that the ETS would put on agriculture not lead to changes in farming practice that would enhance New Zealand’s competitive position in world trade as well as lower our greenhouse gas emissions? What expert opinion says that lower emissions mean lower farming income? And even if it was lower, how much lower would it be, and how would that stack up against the benefits to the economy overall of reduced emissions?  Groser speaks of the government’s over-riding responsibility to manage the New Zealand economy soundly, and says dismissively that extravagant or overly costly solutions will not fly. No one will argue with sound management, but does that mean business as usual? There are plenty of reasons to say that business as usual is unsound and leading down a blind alley. It’s too easy to throw around adjectives like extravagant or overly costly. Groser is over-assertive.

Compare Groser’s stance with what Nick Clegg had to say in the UK this week.

There is a myth doing the rounds in political debate today: that, here in the UK, environmentalism has hit a wall, that green is for the good times, that we cannot up our efforts to protect our environment while simultaneously growing our economy, that we have to make a choice.

…this new wisdom, however widely held, is utterly wrong. Yes, right now climate change may be lower down some people’s thoughts. Yes, we need to be sensitive to businesses’ needs. But in so many ways, for so many consumers, for so many firms, going green has never made so much sense.

There is no choice, Clegg concludes, between protecting the environment and growing the economy. Groser, and the Government he represents, appears stuck with the notion that there is.

The other factor that weighs against Groser’s gradualism is the magnitude of the threat of climate change. Groser has made it clear in the past that he has no argument with the science. He will know then that global warming doesn’t slow down while the negotiators catch up. These aren’t leisurely trade negotiations working towards useful improvements. They are urgent, and if we are playing the significant role in them that Groser claims then our own actions at home ought to reflect that urgency. The science is pretty clear that if emissions reductions don’t begin very soon it must be doubtful that we can stay below a 2ºC temperature rise. It will be little cause for congratulation to have played an important role in negotiations which allowed that state of affairs to develop.

There was a suggestion in the radio interview that the smallness of our share of global emissions lessens any need for us to be overly concerned with mitigation. That is a contemptible notion. Anything New Zealand can offer by way of example, particularly in the area of agriculture, is of value and will surely only add to whatever status Groser claims we have in international negotiations. But in any case it can only be a solemn human duty to take every reasonable measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with all possible urgency. The continuing dilution of an already weak ETS is not the responsible economic management Groser asserts. It’s an evasion of responsibilities which we should be facing up to determinedly.