Just listened to an RNZ interview with National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller, around the silly question of whether or not a “climate emergency” should be declared. Muller called it symbolism, but symbols have a place – it is much worse than that, just empty feel-good virtue signalling (whether or not you think our governments should be more aggressive in doing something to lower New Zealand emissions).
But Muller introduced his comments referring back to a sense as early as 1990 that something needed to be done. And it reminded me of the single worst policy National and Labour have presided over for the last 30 years, in terms of boosting emissions from New Zealand: immigration policy.
New Zealand’s population in 1990 was about 3.3 million. Today it is almost five million. And here is a chart, using official data (which has some weaknesses, but the broad picture is reliable) of the cumulative inflow of non-New Zealand citizens since 1990.
That data series was dumped last year, but you can add another 60000 or so people in the year since then. Almost all of them needed explicit prior approval from New Zealand governments – more than 1.1 million of them.
Over such a long period, the cumulative inflow becomes a little misleading. It understates the impact. Of course, over 30 years some of the migrants will have died, but many more will have had children (or even grandchildren). Those children will (mostly) be New Zealand citizens, but that doesn’t change the fact that their presence – and their emissions (resulting from their life and economic activity) – results from explicit immigration policy choices.
Those who are made uncomfortable by all this but simply wish to dismiss it will say “oh, but emissions and climate change are a global problem, and it doesn’t really matter where the people are”. Strangely, this is not usually an argument the same people invoke when they favour (say) New Zealand oil and gas exploration bans, or other New Zealand specific actions that will have either no impact on global emissions, or only a trivial impact.
As you will no doubt recall, it is not as if New Zealand is already some low-emissions nirvana. Per unit of GDP (average) emissions in New Zealand are among the very highest, and per capita (average) emissions are also in the top handful of OECD countries. The typical migrant to New Zealand is not coming from a country that has higher emissions than we do. Rather the reverse. Of course, it isn’t easy to distinguish (empirically) the marginal and average emissions, but it is simply silly to suggest that the policy-driven rapid population growth has not had a material impact in boosting total New Zealand emissions – migrants drive cars and fly, migrants live and work in buildings (that often use concrete), migrants have even helped maintain the economics of the dairy industry. On a cross-country basis, I showed in an earlier post the largely unsurprising relationship betwen population growth and change in emissions over decades. New Zealand’s experience was not an outlier (except perhaps in the sense of much faster – policy-driven – population growth, reflected in the emissions growth numbers. If anything, and at the margin, New Zealand’s immigration policy has probably increased global emissions.
Of course, there would be a reasonable counter-argument to all this if it could be confidently shown that the high rates of immigration – highest in the OECD for planned immigration of non-citizens over the period since, say, 1990 – had substantially boosted average productivity in New Zealand. Then the additional emissions, and associated abatement costs (not small), would simply have to be weighed against the permanent gains in material living standards from the immigration itself. But even the staunchest defenders of high – or higher still – rates of immigration can’t show those sorts of productivity gains and (since demonstrating it would be a tall order) can’t even come up with a compelling narrative in which large productivity gains from immigration go hand in hand with the continued decline in our productivity performance relative to other advanced economies.
If the government (or the National Party) were serious about “doing our bit” (or just “being seen to do our bit”) about emissions and climate change, and if – at the same time – they really cared much about living standards of New Zealanders (‘wellbeing’ if you must), they would be taking immediate steps to cut permanent immigration approvals very substantially. Not only would that lower population growth and emissions growth relatively directly, but it would result in a materially lower real exchange rate, which would greatly ease the burden on competitiveness that other anti-emissions measures are likely to impose over the next few years, would ease pressures on the domestic environment (and might even, thinking of my post earlier this week, ease the economic pressures on the dairy industry, while providing margins to deal directly with the environmental issues around that industry).
For the country as a whole – New Zealanders – it would be a win-win. That isn’t to pretend there would not be some individual losers – we’d need fewer houses, potentially developable land would be less valuable, and some industries (particularly non-tradables ones) that have come to rely on migrant labour would face some adjustments. But, and lets face it, there is no sign the existing model – in place in some form or another for several decades – has worked well for the average New Zealander – the productivity performance has been lamentable, and we’ve created a large rod for our own back on the emissions front.
But our political parties – every single one in Parliament, based on words and on their records in government – would prefer to pretend otherwise, and keep on with the failed, corrosive, immigration policy, which hasn’t worked for us, is unlikely to ever do so (given our remoteness etc) and is so far out of step with what the bulk of advanced countries do.