Productivity Commission and the path of least resistance

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on making a transition to a low-emissions economy is out this morning.   It is a 503 page document and so, of course, I haven’t read very much of it.  But electronic search is a wonderful tool.

As I noted yesterday, despite having had a fairly large (by international standards) fall in emissions per unit of GDP since 1990, New Zealand has had one of the larger increases in total gross emissions of any OECD country.  What reconciles those two observations isn’t some incredible surge in New Zealand’s productivity and GDP per capita – as is generally recognised, we haven’t done well on those scores –  but a large increase in the population.  And most of that increase in population is due to the planned immigration of non-citizens to New Zealand.  In other words, it is more or less a direct result of the policy adopted by successive governments (including the current one).

For any given set of technologies and relative prices, more people means more emissions both directly (more transport, more power) and indirectly –  people need to earn a living and so emissions associated with, for example, manufacturing or agriculture also rise.   As a rough first approximation, if we’d stayed with the rate of non-citizen immigration New Zealand had in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, total gross emissions in New Zealand now would be at least 20 per cent lower.  For governments that want to materially reduce emissions that should be something to ponder (especially as New Zealand average units of GDP are themselves quite carbon-intensive)  It is, of course, water under the bridge now.  But the same high non-citizen immigration targets are still in place and, all else equal, will continue to drive up emissions in future.    Given those immigration policy pressures, more of a (costly) burden of adjustment has to be imposed on the economy through other instruments.   As marginal abatement costs here are widely accepted to be higher than those in most other advanced countries, the likely adverse economic effects on New Zealanders are large.

But you don’t get much of a sense of any of this from the Productivity Commission’s report.  There are quite a few references to the role of population in the growth of emissions.  It even makes one of their formal findings

Finding 2.7     Economic and population growth have been important underlying factors in New Zealand’s rising emissions. Over the last 25 years, New Zealand’s emissions per person and emissions per unit of output have decreased, but the increase in population and output has caused overall emissions to increase.

Flowing from this short discussion.

Strong population growth and economic growth have been key underlying drivers of New Zealand’s rising emissions since 1990. Between 1990 and 2015, New Zealand’s real GDP nearly doubled. During the same period, population growth was higher than most other developed countries (Figure 2.10). More people means greater consumption of goods and services that contain emissions (eg, more vehicle use, and greater demand for electricity). Economic growth (and, indirectly, population growth) means more emissions-intensive goods and services are produced, leading to higher emissions.

And there is the odd passing observation, such as that

Future population growth will provide a challenge in bringing down transport emissions.

although no apparent recognition of the connections to agricultural emissions.

But the Commission has chosen to treat population growth (past and future) as some sort of exogenous given.  For example, they report some results of some commissioned modelling exercises, and in each of the scenarios exactly the same future population growth is assumed.  That might make sense in a country where population changes were almost entirely the result of developments in natural increase (or even of the emigration choices of nationals), neither of which should be any sort of policy lever.  It makes no sense at all in a country where most of the population growth (last quarter century and next) is directly the result of policy choices.

No analytical sense that is.  But perhaps it makes sense if you are a government agency feeling your way with a new government that is strongly committed to the “big New Zealand” mentality and to current immigration policy, and where much of that government seems more interested in having New Zealanders don hair shirts and feel the pain (or alternatively conjure up imaginary futures in which a forced adjustment to net-zero emissions won’t come at aggregate economic cost to New Zealanders).  The path of least resistance politically presumably led the Commission to conclude that it was better (“safer”) not to mention immigration (policy) at all.

And so they didn’t.   In the entire 503 pages there is a single reference to immigration.

But that is just part of the (reproduced in full) Terms of Reference for the inquiry, set out by the previous government.

New Zealand’s response also needs to reflect such features as its high level of emissions from agriculture, its abundant forestry resources, and its largely decarbonised electricity sector, as well as any future demographic changes (including immigration).

It feels a lot like abdication, and not at all like the sort of free and frank analysis and advice that a body like the Productivity Commission should be providing if it is to be any long-term use.  The Commission seems to have been so scared of upsetting its liberal readers –  political and other –  that it isn’t even willing to address the issue.

It would be one thing if they’d devoted some substantive discussion to the issue and concluded, whether on the basis of reasoned analysis or modelling, that the economic benefits to New Zealanders from the immigration policy were sufficiently large, and the marginal abatement costs of other approaches in a portfolio of measures to reduce emissions were sufficiently small, that winding back non-citizen immigration targets should not be part of a preferred response strategy.  Reasonable people could debate that sort of proposition and the evidence advanced for it.  But the Productivity Commission chose to totally ignore the issue.   Since as an institution they don’t seem to be gung-ho enthusiasts for the economic benefits of New Zealand’s immigration policy (see my discussion of their narrative of New Zealand’s economic underperformance) it looks a lot like playing politics, going along with a Labour/Greens (and their acolytes) narrative.  In the short run that might make it more likely they get a hearing from the government. In the long run, that sort of approach to issues won’t stand them  –  or the cause of good policymaking and analysis in New Zealand, already enfeebled enough – in good stead.

(It was also noticeable that amid all the happy talk in the document, there was no sign of any attempt to estimate, or model, the likely real economic costs of the sorts of carbon reduction policies the Commission is dealing with.   There is an entire chapter reporting initial modelling results, but –  as far as I could see –  no reference to the implications for GDP per capita (or any of the cognate national accounts measures).  No doubt, the average New Zealander in 2050 will be wealthier than we are today, but the relevant issue for policy isn’t that baseline, but the deviations from it.  In particular, they should have focused much more attention on what the economic implications of various possible policy levers –  perhaps including immigration policy –  might be, and how best to minimise the economic costs to New Zealanders of making the adjustment the government is planning to target.     And it is fine for enthusiasts for aggressive policies to talk of unpriced externalities etc, but even with those unpriced externalities our economic performance over decades has been startlingly poor, and it isn’t obvious why removing them won’t further worsen economic outcomes.  That might be an acceptable trade-off, but there doesn’t seem to be anything much in this report suggesting just how large those costs and benefits might be.)