Emissions and immigration policy

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.

PLT 2019

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.

 

Destroying the economy in one fell swoop

When I got to page 7 in this morning’s Dominion-Post I wasn’t sure at first that my eyes weren’t deceiving me.    I read it again, and even then wondered if what I was reading was a typo.  But these people seemed to be deadly serious.

open letter

Their demand is there in bold: that the government take steps to reduce (net) greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025.  Their demand doesn’t appear to be conditional on other countries doing anything.  It is simply flagellation –  but not self-flagellation (in which these individuals themselves commit to reducing all direct and indirect emissions associated with their own consumption and production to zero by 2025)  but a brutal whipping delivered to everyone.   Not even our government, evincing no concern for productivity or for lifting the performance of the underperforming New Zealand economy, would be that stupid or (electorally) suicidal.  (In fact, that left me half-wondering if this was really intended as a piece of political theatre –  get together a group advocating something so recklessly stupid and costly that the government’s own proposed net-zero by 2050 target will seem moderate and reasonable.   But many of the names of the petition –  a couple of hundred visible in the advert, and another 2000 or so who’ve signed –  appear to be “true believer” types.  And all their rhetoric suggests they are in deadly earnest.)

It all comes complete with the typical zealot’s demand –  “this is no time for party politics” (further down the advert) –  as if their propositions (and time frames) were so self-evidently (or by revelation) true, that no further debate should be countenanced.  End of story.   And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, of the key figures in this organisation one is the former leader of the Green Party and another is a former Greens Regional Councillor (I didn’t recognise the other names, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a quick search revealed other strong Green Party ties).  Green Party politics is just fine it seems, but not anyone else’s?

It is now March 2019.  That means these crusaders claim to seriously believe that in just six (and a bit) years we should reduce all (net) emissions to zero.  Sure, the trees that are already growing will offset a bit, and a few more trees will be planted in the coming years (but any tree planted today is still going to be rather small in 2025).    The offsets (the LULUCF bit) just don’t make that much difference (as this MFE chart illustrates).

emissions

They seem to be calling for probably a 70-75 per cent reduction in gross emissions (animal, energy or whatever) in a mere six years.  Being true believers I presume they will also be wanting international air (and sea) travel emissions –  which aren’t included  in the official framework but are just as polluting  –  radically slashed in six years.

I noticed in their advert a comment that “Solutions DO exist”, so out of curiosity I looked up their website.    Here is the Deeper Thinking section.  From the introduction

We will not accept action on climate change that further increases inequality, takes away democracy [but it was “no time for party politics”?], destroys our natural ecosystems, or compromises human rights. Some scientists think they can geo-engineer the planet by blocking the sun or changing the chemistry of the oceans. That is not our vision. In fact, this kind of change will make it even more difficult to reduce emissions.

We need a change of values that puts the everyday rights and needs of people before the profits of corporations. A change that values Nature, and respects its limits. A change that truly honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, by which we mean recognizing the holistic world views of tangata whenua, their perspective of being intrinsically connected to the earth, the role of mana whenua in discussions and decision making, and the importance of environmental integrity to the health and wellbeing of communities who sustain themselves from it.

Make of that what you will.

There was a promise that one day (before 2025?) their website will have some more concrete material on “better alternatives”, but it isn’t there yet.  In fairness, they do finally mention economics.

Climate change is about economics. That is why it is hard. It is not possible to address climate change without changing our economic system. Resources and the ability to absorb pollution are limited. We cannot keep growing the economy without growing environmental damage. Much has been written over the last 40 years about the economics of ‘enough’ rather than ‘more’ which can give us a better way of life with less damage to the climate, the water, and each other. Aiming at human wellbeing rather than industrial growth, accepting the limits of nature and natural resources and valuing things other than just money is the basis.

Take that third sentence.  It would probably be better, and more honestly, reframed as “it is not possible to cut gross emissions by 70 per cent in six years, especially when half your emissions are from animals, without destroying New Zealand’s economy, severely undermining material living standards and [see the first block of their text], and (most likely) materially increasing inequality”.  But, perhaps, the signatories would feel better.

So what would this involve?  Well, first it would almost destroy our tourism industry (and our export education industry), which relies on air travel, and where there are as yet no commercially viable replacements for emitting fuels.   Then it would destroy our pastoral industries –  animals emit and, whatever the technological innovations, will still substantially be doing so six years from now.

I presume the signatories have dreamy visions about electric cars, trucks, and trains.  But, as of now, almost the entire stock is powered by petrol or diesel.  What do they propose?  Confiscation of all existing vehicles, with or without compensation?   And while it is fine to talk up the possibilities of wind (and the dreadful visual pollution it entails) or solar, we’ve yet to see anywhere the sort of (economic) large-scale battery storage deployed in ways that suggest a quick replacement of the full fleet is in any way sensible, or economic.   Many of us –  old fogies like me, but more importantly poor people – don’t want to buy new vehicles, which are very expensive (petrol or electric).

Presumably much of the building and construction industry is also a gonna –  a lot of emissions involved in producing cement.   That will be a bit of an issue in a country with one of the fastest population growth rates in the advanced world.   Perhaps raupo cottages are an alternative?

One is rather left wondering how New Zealanders earn their way in the world –  literally, profitable activities competing on world markets –  in this vision.  It wouldn’t “just” be a matter of sustaining growth –  a concept that seems distasteful (at best) to these people –  but of sustaining even the material living standards we have now, which lag well behind those in leading advanced economies (and thus constraining all sorts of personal and government choices).  Run through a list of New Zealand exports, and there won’t be that much left (a bit of wine, some fruit, a few services (ones that don’t rely on consultants jetting in to other countries, and……?).  I guess the exchange rate would plummet, but –  given the constraint of zero net emissions –  it is hard to see what viable new outward-oriented business would be likely to spring up here, so far from the rest of the world (and distance means, among other things, emissions).

The current government has talked of a commitment to a net-zero by 2050 target (although after their consultation process we have yet to see the final form of that commtment).  I wrote last year about the potential economic consequences of adopting such a goal, drawing mainly on the NZIER work commissioned for the consultation process by the Ministry for the Environment themselves.

The Minister for Climate Change has made the public claim that his net-zero target (by 2050 –  which would give us six times as long to adjust) would be a “massive economic boost“.    But that isn’t what the NZIER modelling showed.  This quote is from the government’s own consultative document

The analysis by NZIER suggests that GDP will continue to grow but will be in the range of 10 per cent to 22 per cent less in 2050, compared with taking no further action on climate change.

As I noted at the time

Those are breathtakingly large numbers (future GDP gains) for a government to simply propose walking away from. 

The hair-shirt the government proposed to compel all to wear was going to be astonishingly costly.

And then there were the (in)equality implications.  Recall that this was for a net-zero target by 2025 (still 31 years away, not six).

In my previous post, I quoted the MfE text

Our modelling suggests the households that are in the lowest 20 per cent bracket for income may be more than twice as affected, on a relative basis, than those households with an average income.

Which is quite bad enough. But it is all the more stark when you see the chart in the NZIER report, drawn from some work done for them by Infometrics  (in this chart they are looking only at the additional estimated losses from moving from the 50 per cent target to a net-zero target).

emissions distribution

Specifically, people in the bottom two income quintiles will be hit six times as hard as people in the top quintile.    Like MfE in the consultation document, NZIER rush to the client’s defence and suggest that redistribution policies could alleviate this.   You wouldn’t thought that sort of advocacy was their role –  having been commissioned to do modelling –  but more importantly, they should know as well as anyone that when governments adopt policies to materially shrink the economy, it is even harder than usual to persuade voters in the upper quintiles to agree to give up even more to mitigate the losses the worst off are exposed to.   Redistribution tends to win more favour when everyone is getting better off.

But, never mind, I guess, the signatories will feel better, and it is –  so they tell us –  no time for party politics.  Just destroy material living standards with one fell swoop, no doubt hoping –  with the best of intentions no doubt – that something will turn up.

(Of course, if they were at all serious about doing all this, in a way that hurt New Zealanders least, among their policy prescriptions would be a sharp and permanent cut in immigration numbers.  I made that case to the Productivity Commisson inquiry.   But since the Green Party also likes to position itself as the equal-top most pro-immigration political party, one can only assume –  again –  that the point of the exercise, in practice (whatever their best intentions) is to maximise the pain of the sort of adjustment they propose.  Flagellation in other words.)

Economics of climate change

I’ve written a few posts here about the economics of climate change, and of the sorts of goals the government proposes to adopt in response.  On the one hand, OECD and IPCC work has suggested that, if anything, the New Zealand economy in aggregate is likely to benefit a bit from warming (albeit with sectoral and regional ups and downs –  the sort of thing that is a normal part of economic life).  And, on the other hand, the government’s own modelling, undertaken by NZIER, suggests a very high real economic cost to New Zealanders from pursuing a net-zero target.

And so I was interested to see a headline on the Wall St Journal website this morning

U.S. Government Report Warns of Economic Losses From Climate Change

The story noted

Its conclusions are at odds with statements by President Trump, who has been skeptical of global-warming trends, questioned the validity of climate science, and challenged federal regulations designed to control greenhouse-gas emissions.

“There has been no external interference in the development of this report,” said David Easterling, director of the technical support unit at the National Centers for Environmental Information, who helped prepare the 1,500-page assessment.

That’s good.

But what did it have to say about these economic costs?

The impact of global climate change is being felt across the country and, unchecked, could cause U.S. economic losses totaling hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century, says a new U.S. government report released Friday.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars a year” is a lot of money, but then (a) the US is a big economy, and (b) the end of the century is a long time away (especially once you apply any sort of discount rate).

How big?  Well, US GDP last year was US$19.4 trillion dollars.

I clicked through to the report document itself.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a distinct economics chapter (although there are sixteen separate topic chapters). But the summary did report these comments.

Some aspects of our economy may see slight near-term improvements in a modestly warmer world. However, the continued warming that is projected to occur without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century, especially in the absence of increased adaptation efforts. With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states.

All of which made me even more curious, as I’d had the hazy impression in my mind that US emissions had already peaked, and yet this report talks of the economic costs of emissions continuing to increase at historical rates.

And sure enough there was this chart on the EPA website

us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-1990-2016

In other words, whatever the historic rates of growth of emissions were, there has been no growth since the early 1990s, and the trend appears to have reversed in the last decade.

I guess the report has in mind global emissions rather than US-specific ones, but then these days China’s choices (and non-choices) are the bigger issue.

And what about the size of the US economy at the end of the century?  If we assume very conservative numbers (no population growth and perhaps 1 per cent per annum productivity growth) then in real terms an economy of US $19.4 trillion in 2017 would be one of about $44 trillion per annum.  If the real economic costs of climate change are “hundred of billions of dollars per annum” by the end of the century that must mean a number less than one trillion dollars. In other words, the scary headline reduces to a cost that is, at most, 2 per cent of GDP.  Not nothing.   But it is (a) long time in the future –  discounted back to today at any reasonable discount rate, it will be equivalent to a lot less than 2 per cent of GDP, and (b) the discussion on the economic impact in the summary does not mention at all the potential economic costs of policy measures to accelerate the reduction in emissions already underway.   Those costs are likely to be materially smaller than those facing New Zealand (the 10 to 22 per cent of GDP estimate from the government’s NZIER modelling, falling most heavily on the poorest) but they aren’t likely to be trivial either.

Whatever the case for doing something dramatic, and potentially quite economically costly, on climate change, it doesn’t seem reasonable or sensible to base any such argument on the economic consequences for rich countries of doing nothing.   It is easy to produce big dollar numbers far enough into the future, but no credible modelling I’ve heard of suggests that climate change is a material long-term economic threat to existing advanced economies –  and certainly not to New Zealand.

A new paper critiquing net-zero targets

I wrote a post a few weeks ago responding, in part, to absurd claims made in a TV interview by the Green Party co-leader and Minister for (against) Climate Change, James Shaw about the economic impact of pursuing the net-zero emissions target he and the Labour Party are championing.

He says investing in meeting our climate change goals will be a massive economic boost, rather than a burden.

“What we’re talking about here is a more productive economy, with higher-tech, higher-valued, higher-paid jobs. It’s clearly a cleaner economy where you’ve got lower health care costs, people living in warmer homes, congestion-free streets in Auckland.

“It’s an upgrade to our economy. It’s an investment, you’ve got to put something in, in order to generate that return. If we don’t, the clean-up costs from the impacts of climate change will well exceed the costs of the investment we’ve got to make to avoid the problem in the first place.”

The same tone had been evident in the officials’ Executive Summary to the government’s document consulting on the emissions targets and related issues.

This is our chance to build a high value economy that will hold us in good stead for the future. By upgrading our economy and preparing for the future, we can help make sure quality of life continues to improve for generations to come.

Believe all this, and there are no hard choices, no trade-offs, just stepping into the sunlit uplands in which enchanced prosperity and feeling good go hand in hand.

In my post on the alleged “massive economic boost” on offer, I quoted some extracts from a draft paper by my former colleague (and now Tailrisk Economics) Ian Harrison.

Ian has now put the final version of his paper on his website under the heading

The price of feeling good

A review of the emission targer options in “Our climate your say”

It is well worth reading for those who want to dig a little deeper into some of the specific issues than I have done (or had the energy for).

Here are Ian’s key conclusions.

The Zero emissions by 2050 target is a $200 billion ‘feel good’ project.  Compared to the alternative, zero carbon, target, the zero emissions target could cost an additional $200 billion; is unlikely to have a material impact on the behavior on the rest of the world; on innovation in New Zealand; or generate significant ‘co-benefits’.

The major benefit will be a ‘feel good’ factor for some people, at least until the effects of the policy start to bite.

The consultation on the options was a sham.  Our Climate did not provide an assessment of the pros and cons of the three options: zero carbon; zero carbon with a cap on other emissions; and zero emissions, that were presented. The document only promoted what appears to be the preferred option of zero net emissions by 2050. The reporting of the economic analysis was fabricated to make it appear that the three options had been considered.

The economic modelling was manipulated to reduce the economic impact of the zero emissions target.  The marginal cost of emissions reductions falls with a tougher target. This doesn’t make sense. Lower cost emission improvements should occur first, so the additional reductions under the tougher target will have a higher cost. The lower marginal cost outcome was achieved by restricting the amount of afforestation offsets (which are costless in the model) for the 50 percent reduction target, and giving the zero emissions target twice the allocation. The effect of this was to push most of the economic costs into the lower target option, reducing the marginal cost of the zero emissions option.

The reporting of the economic analysis obscured many of the negative economic impacts. Most of the results were presented as the difference between a 50 percent emissions target and a zero emissions target. This obscured the losses in getting from our current position to a 50 percent fall in emissions. Some of the modelling impacts, with prudent assumptions about technical change, are severe. For example, pastoral farming outputs fall by 60 percent, and household incomes could fall in absolute terms as the policy bites.

The economic modelling is deficient and needs to done again from scratch. The critical variable in any analysis is the rate of conversion of farmland to forestry, but this has not been modelled. There is no analysis of the optimal timing of emission reductions. The implied carbon prices appear to be unrealistically high which makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the analysis,

Climate change may have positive effects on New Zealand this century.  The Ministry has not produced a report on the costs of climate change. Our assessment is that climate change may have a small positive impact this century. The main reason is that more CO2 in the atmosphere promotes plant growth and increases output, which is significant for an economy with a large land based sector. This outweighs the economically relatively minor impacts from changes in weather patterns, and the cost of mitigating the impact of sea level rises.

Changes in the incidence of extreme weather events have been exaggerated.  Only moderate changes in extreme weather events have been projected in the UN Intergovernmental report on Climate Change. For example on the incidence of storms the report says ‘ Increase in intensity of cyclones in the south in winter but decreasing elsewhere. Increase in conditions conducive to convention storm development is projected to increase by 3-6 percent by 2070-2100 compared to 1970-2000.’

The benefits of innovations that will give New Zealand an ‘early mover’ competitive advantage have been exaggerated.   Most of the reductions in emissions will come from forest plantings, imported technology (such as electric cars), closing businesses such as New Zealand Steel, and by reducing livestock numbers. Most of this does not involve much innovation. A Ministry consultant described this innovation optimism this way. To presume that climate policy could make the difference would be a kind of exceptionalism and a serious leap of faith.

Economic costs of zero emissions target are significant.  The economic cost of the zero carbon target could be in the order of $75 billion. The additional cost of the zero emissions target, which requires twice the net abatements at a higher average cost, could be around $200 billion.

New Zealand’s sacrifice unlikely to change the world.  The argument for zero emissions is that it will encourage other countries to meet their commitments. The argument that going from a zero carbon target to a zero emissions target will make a material difference to the actions of other is at best another ‘serious leap of faith’. Depending on your viewpoint the zero emissions target is either a $200 billion vanity project, or a noble sacrifice. There are much cheaper ways of trying to influence world opinion.

Cheaper ways to influence world opinion.   Four ways of getting international attention and promoting the fight against climate change are suggested. They are: Taxes on international air travel; a ban on official business class air travel; virtual attendance at climate change conferences; travel to Wellington airport by bicycle by officials.

Or, more seriously, perhaps even to chip in an additional billion dollars a year in animal science research, to focus on the most difficult – and potentially costly – aspect of New Zealand’s emissions.  It is a great deal cheaper, on the government’s own numbers, than going full-tilt for the arbitrary self-imposed net-zero-by-2050 target.

And a couple of other extracts

Emissions framework fairness. It can be argued that the emissions measurement framework is not fair to New Zealand. Nearly half of our emissions relate to agriculture, but most of the output is exported. If the assessment was done on a consumption, or carbon footprint basis, our abatement responsibilities would exclude exports and account for the emission content of imports and would be lower considerably lower than under the current system.

By contrast, Norway is a large oil and gas producer and exporter, but does not have take responsibility for the emission consequences of its exports. Norway has just
announced that it plans to be emissions neutral by 2030 (mainly by buying international carbon credits) while planning to increase its oil exploration.

New Zealand’s emission record is often painted as poor. For example, the Productivity Commission, in its Low Emissions Economy report presented a figure showing New Zealand to have the fifth highest gross emissions per capita. If the emissions were calculated on a net footprint basis, we would be well down into the low emission end of the figure.

and

Many other countries are not doing as much as New Zealand.  As an example, consider the case of Singapore. As a high-income country [much more so than New Zealand], which is directly in the climate change firing line, we might expect a sense of urgency and substantive actions. So what is Singapore doing?

First, it signed up to a fairly soft ‘developing country’ Paris agreement target, promising that their emissions will peak in 2030. To our knowledge they have made no commitments beyond that date. In terms of what they are actually doing, we have relied on a January 2018 report from the Singapore Energy Studies Institute.   The main action is the introduction of a carbon tax, apparently to be at a fairly low level, for large companies from 2019. Between 30 and 40 companies will be affected.

In addition:

  • 2018 has been declared the year of climate action
  • Singapore will host a special ASEAN Ministerial meeting on Climate change
  • There will be some financing subsidies.

Food for thought.  And no sign –  not in the consultative document, not in the Productivity Commission report –  of any “massive economic boost” in prospect.

 

The Productivity Commission’s zeal for net-zero

Among those holding the reins of power –  and their supporters –  there appears to be an almost passionate commitment to a goal of eliminating (net) all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  So passionate as, it seems, to care very little about the consequences for New Zealanders.  And since some of the easiest and least costly (probably actually net beneficial) ways to make big inroads on New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions run head-on into other passionately-held ideological commitments, those options simply get ignored as well.  None of this seems based on any robust analysis, either of the specific issues facing New Zealand, nor of the way in which the substantial costs of adjustment would be likely to fall most heavily on the poorest in our society.  Some, who should know better, seem to want to pretend that a major coerced reorientation of our economy would actually be net beneficial (in economic terms) to New Zealanders.

We’ve had another display of this sort of attitude today, with the release of the Productivity Commission’s final report into making a transition to a low emissions economy.   There is more than 600 pages of it.    In its evangelical tone –  not much detached analysis here – much of it could have been written by the Green Party.

There is, for example, no sign of any recognition that New Zealand may well benefit from global warming (consistent with previous OECD modelling and IPCC analysis). And yet, according to the the chair of the Commission in his Foreword.

We make that effort as a member of a global community with a shared interest in overcoming this challenge to our collective well-being. We cannot expect to influence others of the need to change if we cannot ourselves demonstrate the willingness and ability to play our part, to offer our assistance and to share the benefits of our experience.

It seems laughable to suppose that the world will be looking to a lead from New Zealand on these issues (if only because the pattern of our gases is so much different).  But even if they were, why would we sacrifice ourselves –  and our own lower income people –  on the altar of some issue which may well pose significant risks in other countries, but if anything is likely to make New Zealand a more pleasant, and productive, climate in which to live?  Mr Sherwin gives us no clues on the answer to that.

The report itself open with this claim on the first page of the Overview.

It is difficult to estimate accurately the economic costs of climate change, due to many uncertainties. Even so, broad estimates of the economic costs of escalating climate risks are daunting. Even at 2°C of warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates the annual economic cost at between 0.2% to 2% of global GDP, even if strong measures are taken to adapt to such change.

Deep in the body of the report, the Commission  –  which seems to have commissioned no modelling of the GDP impact of emissions reductions targets itself –  downplays the NZIER modelling results published in the recent official consultative document on a net zero target, which suggested GDP losses for New Zealand of 10-22 per cent if we pursue a proper net-zero by 2050 target.  But even half the potential losses NZIER estimated would be a lot larger than 0.2- 2.0 per cent (benefits) –  and recall the OECD modelling suggesting that the economic costs of climate change itself are concentrated in already warmer countries, not in temperate places like New Zealand.

The zeal to lead the world continues a page or two later

Further, by achieving a successful transition to a low-emissions economy, New Zealand has an opportunity to influence others in pursuing a low emissions economy. That influence can help reduce the risk of other countries failing to pursue mitigation pathways because they either do not know how to, or do not think it can be done while continuing to grow incomes and wellbeing. Such influence is likely to be particularly relevant in areas where New Zealand has expertise and experience (eg, techniques for pastoral GHG mitigation) and by implementing innovative policy solutions (eg, to reduce biogenic methane (CH4)).   New Zealand’s capacity to influence will be the greater if it can point to its own credible and substantial mitigation progress.

So, even though climate change won’t particularly adversely affect New Zealand, we should take a gigantic gamble –  that others might be hesitating about taking –  on the off chance that we can influence the world.   And all premised on the spurious benchmark that a net-zero target can be achieved “while continuing to grow incomes and wellbeing”.  The people who run the Commission really should know better than that: the benchmark shouldn’t be whether people in 2050 are better off economically than we are, but what difference the proposed policy initiatives will make to the outcomes we would have had otherwise.  Anything like a 10 to 22 per cent loss of GDP (relative to baseline) is enormous, and appears to be a risk the Productivity Commission has little interest in engaging with, such is their emotional commitment to the net-zero aspiration (or their political commitment to keeping onside with a new government).

And, of course, the Commission has a great deal of confidence in the ability and willingness of governments and public servants (people like them), to “get things right”, never once engaging with the generations –  centuries –  of records of government failure, or the limitations of human knowledge.  Thus we are earnestly told that one of the “problems” is

Discounting climate change pushes responses to it into the future. There is a tendency to punt policy choices into the future because of near-term costs and a belief that some disincentives will reduce in the future (eg, cheaper technology or increased cost of inaction). Yet as the future approaches (when action was due to occur), the salience of the short-term costs returns, creating a vicious cycle.

And yet in a country that has almost certainly benefited, probably modestly, from  global warming to date, it is almost certainly beneficial for us not to have taken action generations ago, when the technologies were not there to support such adjustment.

They more or less recognise some of this just a little later, in a rather incoherent paragraph

So, an important theme in this inquiry is that the long-term perspective must be introduced into politics and policymaking, domestically and internationally. Added to the long horizon is deep uncertainty about many aspects of the future. The combination of these two features requires political commitments and durability that spans many generations. Without durable and ambitious policies now, the signals for firms and households to move their production and consumption towards less emissions-intensive options will be weak, at best. The challenge is therefore how best to design the political and governance architecture in a way that effectively signals future policy intentions and provides a commitment to such intentions.

Long horizons and “deep uncertainty about many aspects of the future” in combination are not simply a good recipe for getting (good) “durable and ambitious policies”, or the sort of aspiration the Commission seems to have to make such issues –  with huge economic and social implications –  something bipartisan or even transcending politics.  But politics is about the sphere in which hard choices should be debated.

Ultimately though, laws and institutions will not endure unless underpinned by political consensus. Support across political parties is therefore vital; climate change is the ultimate intergenerational issue, and governments change. So, substantial cross-party support for the core elements of statutory and institutional arrangements will help provide policy permanence regardless of the make-up of the Government.

Even though, on the government’s own modelling, the adjustment costs are very large (and probably uncertain), the distributional consequences are severe, what other countries are doing in largely unknown and subject to change –  oh, and New Zealand itself isn’t particularly adversely affected by climate change.

A big part of the Productivity Commission’s vision of the path forward is afforestation on a huge scale.  At least they recognise –  unlike the NZIER modelling, which assumes the new forests are effective all a net gain –  that if this were to happen it would mostly displace existing uses of land for sheep and beef (although the Commission barely touches on the transitional economic implications of that –  there is, for example, no mention of the exchange rate in the entire report).  And even the Commission knows that this approach has its limits

Expanding forestry can achieve large reductions in net emissions up to 2050. Yet heavy reliance on forestry will create challenges in the longer term because it is not possible to expand without limit the land area under forest. With continued emissions reductions required after 2050 to achieve and maintain net-zero or negative emissions, New Zealand will need to find mitigation options for hard-to-reduce emissions sources.

Which might leave you wondering why we should massively reorient the economy now –  at likely considerable real economic cost –  to achieve an artificial goal of no specific relevance to New Zealand, net-zero by 2050.  The feel-good dimension might be fine for the Green and Labour parties, but we should expect more from the Productivity Commission.

Towards the end of their Overview, the Commission verges on the dishonest. There is a section headed, in big  bold letters

Many benefits from the transition
Investment and job opportunities

They note

An important framing point is to think about the potential cost of transitioning to a low carbon economy as an investment, rather than as a net-cost on the economy and taxpayers. With all nations playing their part, the return in the form of avoiding damaging climate damage is substantial.

Except that (a) the numbers don’t back this up (say a 2% of GDP global loss from climate change and a 10-22 per cent loss of GDP in New Zealand to get to net zero by 2050 (again, on the government’s own numbers)), and (b) thinking of something as an “investment” doesn’t make it a good call.  There was plenty of stuff the national accountants called “investment” during the Think Big era in the 1980s –  and actually late in any boom –  that was simply wasted resources.

They prattle about much of the investment being undertaken by the private sector, as if again somehow this was a good thing, or a sign of it being well-justified.  Regulation and taxes often force businesses to undertake investment spending that has little or no societal economic benefit.  Skewing the economy to achieve a net-zero target is not obviously different.

As for jobs

A low-emissions economy has the potential to be a major source of jobs growth in the future, with many jobs yet to be defined. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), for example, says that taking action in the energy sector alone to limit global warming to 2°C by the end of century can create around 24 million new jobs by 2030, more than offsetting losses in traditional industries.

But we already have something close to full employment.  We had something closer to full employment in the dark days when New Zealand protected every industry under the sun.  Market economies will generate jobs, and technological change mostly isn’t a threat to overall employment levels (any more than in the Industrial Revolution). The issue is what those jobs pay, and that is largely determined by productivity.  The Commission is curiously, conveniently, silent about the likely overall productivity losses –  those GDP losses NZIER identified will mostly be lost productivity.

I could go on quoting the politicised blather, but here is just one last quote from the Overview

New Zealand can achieve a successful low emissions economy, but there will be tough challenges. Delaying action will compound the transition challenge, making it more costly and disruptive, and limiting viable and cost-effective mitigation options in the future. If New Zealand fails to act, it risks being locked into a high emissions economy and missing potential future economic opportunities.

Mostly this is just rhetoric.  If we face difficult adjustments, including around animal emissions for which there are as yet few decent technological options –  beyond getting rid of the animals (and shifting production to other countries –  might it not make a lot more sense to delay adjustment, take advantage of economic new technologies as they arise, and so on.  After all, despite the rhetoric, neither Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, nor anyone else is looking to us to commit some sort of economic suttee, on the off chance of rising phoenix-like from the ashes.  The Commission, for example, is dead keen on electric cars, but presumably technology in that area will continue to improve, perhaps rapidly, and we might mostly be better off not leaping now, but waiting until the prices come further down.  Individual firms will make their own choices about long-term global market opportunities, and officials at the Productivity Commission are unlikely to be able to give them any useful guidance, about balancing costs and risks, opportunities and threats.

Longstanding readers will know that I had complained that the Commission’s draft report had entirely ignored the role that immigration policy had played in driving up New Zealand’s total GHG emissions in recent decades, and –  in particular – the way in which current immigration policy, if persisted with, will compound the economic difficulty of meeting any sort of low emissions target, let alone net-zero by 2050.  Population growth was treated as an exogenous constant in the draft report.   I made a submission on the draft report, again highlighting the issue and the fairly strong cross-country relationship between population growth and emissions growth (not only in total, not only in transport, but even in agriculture).

The final version of the report represents a very modest improvement.  There is no still no reference to immigration policy, past or present, in the entire document.  There is some more discussion of the contribution of population growth, and a single piece of sensitivity analysis that makes the rather obvious point that a lower population growth rate would lower the carbon price required to meet a net-zero target, but no recognition that in New Zealand – unlike many countries –  trend population growth is very directly influenced by specific policy choices around immigration.       As even the Commission notes, achieving a net zero target by 2050 will be “challenging”. Against that backdrop it seems remiss –  and highly political –  not to even put on the table the question of whether the target rates of non-citizen immigration should be revised down.  If the government and the Commission were serious about mitigating the costs of meeting such a target –  rather than pretending that there are real net economic gains –  they’d be taking a hard look at all the things that compound those costs, without providing much benefit to New Zealanders as a whole.  High rates of immigration –  to a country more remote than almost any other, with no demonstrated productivity gains over decades, and about to be put through the wringer of large structural changes undermining the competitiveness of much of the tradables sector –  look like a clear example.    But touching on such issues would challenge the priors of the elite, and we can’t have that it seems.

Productivity Commission documents come with this statement

The Productivity Commission aims to provide insightful, well-informed and
accessible advice that leads to the best possible improvement in the wellbeing
of New Zealanders.

Perhaps they think they aim to.  It doesn’t look as though they’ve done so with this report.  On the government’s own numbers –  ignored by the Commission –  the wellbeing of New Zealanders will be jeoparised.  But quite probably their advice will have improved the standing of the Commission with the new government.  Which is not at all the same thing.

This was the chart, from the government’s own modelling, that I included in a recent post

Six times the adverse impact on the bottom quintile as on the top quintile.  Breathtaking…..

 

Net-zero carbon emissions: a “massive economic boost”?

James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party and Minister for Climate Change (surely Minister against it?), tells us he is working his way through 15000 submissions on the recent climate change consultation document.  I’ve done a couple of posts here on the document, and on the NZIER modelling used extensively in it, and I’ve chided both the Minister and his department, NZIER, and the Productivity Commission for simply ignoring the fact that our large-scale non-citizen immigration policy is a discretionary policy measure that drives up New Zealand’s carbon emissions, further increasing the economic cost of any variant of a “net-zero” target the government might choose to adopt.   But I didn’t make a submission: there are only so many hours in the week, and it seems pretty clear from some recent broadcast remarks from the Minister that he thinks his own Ministry (for the Environment) is altogether too pessimistic.   A net-zero target is, he claims, a huge economic opportunity for New Zealand.   Never mind that there is precisely no analysis to support such a claim.

In any good policy development process, one wants to see evidence of a proper cost-benefit analysis having been undertaken.    What is the value of the benefits of any actions it is proposed to take, what are the costs of those actions themselves, how uncertain are each of those sets of numbers, and (not unimportantly) how might those costs and benefits change if we were simply to wait a while, or respond gradually (in ways that might, for example, give us more data).     That sort of analysis –  with inevitable imprecisions –  is perhaps all the more important when crusaders are champing at the bit to launch a really major, far-reaching, change in our economy and society, and one with –  on the government’s own numbers –  really big, adverse (ie falling most heavily on the poorest) distributional effects.

The government consultation document, drawing on the NZIER modelling (with all its limitations), did attempt to outline the costs of adopting a net-zero by 2050 emissions target.  The Ministry, in particular, was keen to play down the numbers, but they did report them: best estimates from NZIER were for a loss of GDP of 10 to 22 per cent (ie lower than otherwise).   As I noted in my earlier post, I doubt any democratic government has ever consulted on a proposal to reduce the wealth and incomes of its citizens by quite so much.

But the consultation document made no attempt to assess the economic costs (if any) to New Zealand, and New Zealanders, from the sort of climate change that is likely to occur in the absence of (global) policy responses.   There doesn’t seem to be any such analysis that has been done anywhere in, or for, the New Zealand public sector.   Former Treasury and MBIE official (and now a consultant) Jim Rose highlighted this in a recent Dominion-Post op-ed.

Estimates of the cost of global warming as a percentage of GDP to New Zealand are elusive. I drew a nil response when I asked for that information from James Shaw, the Minister for Climate Change, and from the Ministry for the Environment. Both said such an estimate was too hard to calculate.

As he notes

Fortunately, the OECD rose to the challenge in its 2015 report on The Economic Consequences of Climate Change.

Rose included this chart, drawing on the OECD’s modelling work

climate change 2

Very cold countries are expected to see an economic gain from climate change over the next few decades, and for temperate climate countries it looks like roughly a wash.  New Zealand is modelled with Australia, but Australia is a much hotter country, and it seems quite quite reasonable to suppose that the New Zealand numbers is isolation would be basically zero.  Given the importance of agriculture in our economy, and that warmer temperatures would improve crop yields etc in many areas, some overall economic gain seems not implausible.

Now, it is quite reasonable to point out that, in some respects, 2060 isn’t that far away, and climate effects seem to be slow to unfold.  So the OECD –  hardly a bunch of climate change sceptics – also did some modelling on the effects out to 2100.  This is from their Executive Summary

climate exec summary

Presumably the adverse effects still differ quite markedly by geographic region.  But notice two things.  First, this OECD modelling suggests that some of these modelled costs are now sunk costs anyway (would happen even if emissions fall to zero as soon as 2060).  And second, and more importantly, recall the range of economic costs to New Zealand of adopting a net-zero (by 2050) target: 10 to 22 per cent of GDP.  In other words, even if New Zealand were exposed to economic costs of climate change at the upper end of the OECD estimates (10 per cent of GDP by 2100), it still wouldn’t be economically worthwhile to pay a price of 10 to 22 per cent of GDP 50 years earlier to prevent such outcomes.  That is basically what the government’s own numbers say.

And it is all even worse than that.   After all, on these OECD estimates, getting to net-zero (globally) by 2060 would only prevent half the losses.   And since much of modelled adjustment in New Zealand relies on sequestration (planting lots and lots of new forests, almost exclusively on land not currently used for economic purposes) –  and that can really only be done once –  it isn’t implausible to suppose that the economic costs of maintaining net zero emissions beyond 2050 would only increase further.

But somehow none of this –  material from his own ministry, from their consultants, or from the OECD –  seems to have any impact on the Minister.   He tries to draw strange parallels with the internet

“I think the New Zealand of 2050 will look as similar and as different as the New Zealand of today does to the New Zealand that we had 30 years ago. You’ve got to remember 30 years ago, the same period of time that we’re talking about, the internet did not exist. Didn’t exist, right? But you try and run your school or your home or your community group or your business without the internet today, it’s unimaginable.

“The internet has had a profound impact on our economy, on our lives. Whole new industries have been built off the back of it… but the New Zealand of today still feels in many ways a bit like the New Zealand of 1988.”

All of which is largely true (and the further into middle-age you are, the more 1988 seems like yesterday anyway), but irrelevant.   The internet (and associated applications) has been a series of new technologies that have materially changed elements of peoples’ lives.  But that is (largely) private sector innovation, and consumer adoption (or not) of the opportunities and technologies.    Perhaps a more important comparison the Minister might like to reflect on are areas of demonstrable underperformance since 1988? Our economy (per capita) is better off than in 1988. But, for example, we’ve had among the very worst rates of productivity growth of an advanced country in that 30 year period.  Productivity is what opens up options to deal with poverty and all those social issues the Greens say they care about.   Or house prices – which have moved from more or less affordable to highly unaffordable in large chunks of the country (largely as a result of well-intentioned policy choices by people with noble aspirations).

Just like James Shaw and the government of which he is now a part.  This is what he says about the economics of his proposed net-zero target

He says investing in meeting our climate change goals will be a massive economic boost, rather than a burden.

“What we’re talking about here is a more productive economy, with higher-tech, higher-valued, higher-paid jobs. It’s clearly a cleaner economy where you’ve got lower health care costs, people living in warmer homes, congestion-free streets in Auckland.

“It’s an upgrade to our economy. It’s an investment, you’ve got to put something in, in order to generate that return. If we don’t, the clean-up costs from the impacts of climate change will well exceed the costs of the investment we’ve got to make to avoid the problem in the first place.”

But where is his analysis?  Where are his numbers in support of this?   There is nothing of the sort in the consultation document, or in the NZIER modelling.   Without something of that sort –  tracing through the mechanisms he expcts to see these effects –  this is all dreamtime stuff, arguably either delusional or worse.   There is nothing to demonstrate why we should take seriously the Minister’s claim that markedly shifting pricing (or using regulation to the same end) against key sources of energy, and skewing pricing against our handful of large internationally competitive industries (even, unlikely at this stage, if our competitors were going to do the same thing) would mean we’d all end richer (“massively” so apparently) than if the government hadn’t adopted such policies.  It simply doesn’t ring true.

Perhaps the Minister is (deliberately?) confusing two things.   The centuries-long era of technological innovation shows no sign of having ended.  There will be technologies 50 years from now that few of us can even dream of today.  In some cases, they may leave our grandchildren considerably wealthier than we are.  In some cases, they are likely to markedly ease the costs of adjusting away from an economic structure that involves large-scale carbon emissions. But that is a quite different thing from supposing/assuming that heavy government intervention, of the sort the government is proposing, will itself make us all a lot richer.  And, as I’ve noted previously, even the NZIER modelling numbers already assume into existence big improvements in technology, in turn assuming away what would otherwise be very large economic costs of adjustment.

Perhaps those technology assumptions will themselves prove to conservative.  But wouldn’t we be a lot better off waiting to see how the technological opportunities unfold, rather than racing ahead, wishing upon a star, when –  on the OECD’s own numbers, the economic costs to New Zealanders of waiting appear likely to be modest (at worst).   And lets no forget –  and in any circumstances the Green Party rightly wouldn’t let us do so –  the distributional impact the government’s own commissioned modelling revealed.

emissions distribution

Six times as heavy a burden on the bottom 20 per cent as on the highest-income 20 per cent.  Six times.

In his enthusiasm for rushing ahead, beyond any sort of current international commitment, James Shaw cites public opinion

“New Zealanders do want us to lead on climate change. They think our response so far has been inadequate. They think that New Zealand should act even if other countries don’t,” he told Newshub Nation on Saturday, citing a recent survey by IAG.

That survey showed while three-quarters of Kiwis think New Zealand should take action even if other countries don’t, only one in 10 percent think the rest of the world will.

More details of that survey (or not the exact wording of the questions, probably rather leading given the commercial virtue-signalling purposes it appears to have been  commissioned for) are here.

Public opinion matters, a lot.  The public elect, and oust, governments.  But what proportion of the public does the Minister honestly suppose has any sense –  even the vaguest sense – of the sort of cost-benefit calculus implicit in combining the OECD estimates (economic costs of climate change) with his government’s own published estimates of the costs of fast New Zealand moves to zero emissions?   And the fact that the answer is likely to be well under 5 per cent isn’t really an adverse reflection on the public –  ignorant voters and all that –  but a reflection on our political parties and official/bureaucratic classes, which have fallen over themselves to avoid sharing such perspectives more widely.  The feel-good response to the end-of-the-world-is-nigh rhetoric is hard to stand against; easier to go with the flow, and if anything cheer it on.  But pointing out this pretty basic considerations –  and they aren’t hard arguments to explain –  should perhaps be something political leaders (if the word “leader” means more than just holding office) should do.

My former colleage Ian Harrison, now at Tailrisk Economics, makes a bit of a speciality of digging more deeply into some of the dubious claims that government ministries, and the like, often make (a collection of his papers is here).    He has been digging into some of the claims, and the modelling, regarding possible New Zealand emissions targets, and sent me the other day a draft of a paper he is working on, with permission to share a few excerpts.

Ian’s draft paper draws attention (more than I have, and more than the report itself does) to the pretty significant reductions in exports in the NZIER modelling.   It seems unlikely that a small economy doing less trade with the rest of the world is going be achieving a “massive boost” to prosperity.    Ian also draws attention to a point I’ve also made in earlier posts, about where the new forests are likely to go.  NZIER assumes that the new forests are on land that currently has little or no economic use.  But if agriculture is brought into an ETS (even partially and gradually) and there are substantial carbon credits from forestry sequestration, we could see a large amount of existing farmland converted to forestry.  Whatever the possible merits of such a conversion, it would further reduce exports over the decades in which the trees were growing, which in turn would be likely to have implications for the exchange rate (something not dealt with in the NZIER modelling at all).

Ian also draws attention to the way in which both the IPCC’s most recent report on Australasia (a summary of the New Zealand bits is here) does not support the notion that the economic impacts of global warming itself “would be strongly negative, or at least negative at all” this century.  He draws attention to a 2012 Ministry of Primary Industries report on the impact of climate change on land-based sectors.

The main purpose of the report was to look at adaptation and resilience issues rather than make an overall assessment of the economic costs and benefits, but two major themes suggest that the overall impact would be positive. The first is that C02 fertilisation will have a major positive impact. The second is that New Zealand farmers are very good at adapting both tactically and more strategically to climate events, which would help mitigate some of the adverse impacts, which are in any event, less quantitatively significant.

Recall that the assumed warming over the 21st is less than the temperature difference between Invercargill and Auckland (and, even setting aside growing conditions, most people would count such a shift as an improvement in the amenity value of their location –  certainly true of Wellington).

Much of the thrust of Ian’s paper is scepticism about the case –  touted by the government, with public opinion support for the time being –  for acting early and aggressively.   One argument made in official papers is that acting early reduces the risk of later sudden drastic shocks, but the basic logic of this argument seems flawed, given the absence of technology to deal with some of the major sources of New Zealand emissions.

Logic would suggest that in New Zealand more time would reduce those risks. In particular, reducing animal methane emissions per animal is challenging and will take time. The NZIER report shows that if we pursue a zero emissions target without a technical solution the impact on the pastoral sector would be devastating with output falling by 70 percent, from baseline projections, by 2050.

Another argument is that by acting early by will get economic advantages from being early into emerging technologies.

This argument is overblown and reflects wishful thinking rather than hard analysis. The reduction in emissions will not involve (much) marketable technological innovation. We will mainly grow more trees. The rest of the world already knows how to do that. We will import electric cars leveraging off innovation elsewhere.  Norway has been an earlier adopter of electric cars but no one has suggested that Norway has innovated to produce better electric cars.  We may close down some carbon intensive industries such as iron and steel and cement manufacturing. Painful, but doesn’t require much innovation that we can sell to the rest of the world.

And then, of course, there is the incredible “moral leadership” argument, recently also advanced –  stepping well out of his field –  by the Reserve Bank Governor.

Again this is wishful thinking. Does anyone seriously expect the countries that matter: the US, China and India, to be influenced by what New Zealand does.

And if, in some sense, rich countries probably should take some sort of lead in dealing with global problems

It is generally accepted that the rich countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse emissions. However, New Zealand is not really a rich country, sitting on the margin of being an upper middle-income country. This weakens the case for New Zealand bearing a disproportionate share of the mitigation burden, particularly if the result is to push us more firmly into middle-income territory.

And there is a reminder of the elephant in the room that not even the Greens seem yet to be willing to address. Emissions from international travel and shipping aren’t in the international emissions numbers, but it doesn’t change the facts.   There are no good alternative technologies are present, and yet international shipping and aviation are probably more important to New Zealand (given distance, and being an island) than for most advanced countries.

Setting out to, in some sense, “lead the world” in this area is a recipe for severely impairing the future living standards of our own people.   Perhaps the warm inner glow of the “feel good” –  which would no doubt linger long among Greens supporters, well after most New Zealanders were living with the economic consequences –  should be added to Treasury wellbeing dashboard?  But it is likely to take an awfully large amount of “feel good” to compensate for the lost opportunities –  for rich and poor alike –  of wilfully giving up 10 to 22 per cent of future GDP (on the government’s own numbers).

Putting a price on the hair shirt

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the government’s consultative document on its proposal to target net-zero emissions by 2050, and particularly the commissioned modelling NZIER had undertaken on the likely consequences of each of several options for future real GDP.    As the consultative document itself put it

The analysis by NZIER suggests that GDP will continue to grow but will be in the range of 10 per cent to 22 per cent less in 2050, compared with taking no further action on climate change.

Those are breathtakingly large numbers (future GDP gains) for a government to simply propose walking away from.  As one comparison, high end estimates of the GDP gains from preferential trade agreements (such as CPTPP or the proposed new one with the EU) tend to be about 1 per cent each.

A couple of days ago NZIER’s final report itself was released, making it a bit easier to make sense of the reported modelling results.    There is a great deal of detail (the report is 90 pages), a considerable number of (necessary and inevitable) caveats, as well as quite a bit of editorial advocacy for their client’s wishes.

The centrepiece remains this table which I ran in the earlier post.

emissions NZIER

From reading the final report, and a few exchanges with NZIER, they would encourage people to focus on the final three columns.   In those scenarios, relative to the baseline (the first column, which is built from The Treasury’s longer-term economic projections/assumptions), the net-zero target sees productivity growth fall quite substantially, such that average annual GDP growth falls by 0.3 percentage points.  Over 33 years, that cumulates to a sacrifice of about 10 per cent of GDP  (real GDP –  per capita, since the population assumptions don’t change – in 2050 is about 10 per cent lower than it otherwise would be).     These are serious numbers: 10 per cent of today’s GDP is about $28 billion.  And the loss isn’t just for one year.  Depending on various possible assumptions, the cumulative loss the next generation would experience could easily be a couple of hundred billion dollars (in today’s dollars).

(Perhaps encouraged by their client) NZIER try to play down these numbers a bit by encouraging people to focus only on the difference between the third to last and last columns.  They argue that the 50 per cent net reduction is already government policy, and so the relevant metric is the marginal additional losses from moving to net zero.   But, of course, actual policies to deliver the previous government’s own vapourware objective (the 50 per cent reduction by 2050) aren’t in place, and that target itself is not binding in any real sense.

Some readers might think that a 10 per cent loss of future GDP isn’t too bad –  big as it is. it certainly isn’t as large as the 22 per cent loss referred to in that quote above.

But the 10 per cent of GDP annual cost by 2050 (the final scenario in the final column of the table) relies on some really rather optimistic assumptions  (and assumptions they all are, as is clearly identified in the NZIER report).

First, they assume quite a lot of technological innovation in some sectors that might be most exposed to a higher carbon price.  For example, it is assumed that by 2030 methane vaccine is readily available, commercially viable, and widely used, which would reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent.  It is also assumed that global demand for dairy and sheep/beef products falls quite substantially (even though, all else equal, this would make New Zealand poorer, it would make farmers more ready to shift away from emitting-animals).  It is also assumed that much faster improvements in energy efficiency are achieved and that (without subsidies or regulation) electric vehicles make up 95 per cent all light vehicles on the road in 2050 and 50 per cent of all heavy vehicles.

No doubt a much higher carbon price (globally) would encourage additional R&D in affected sectors, and so some of these innovations may well occur.  But in my earlier post, I described these assumptions as assistance from the “magic fairy”, because while it is probably fine to assume that big changes in relative prices, imposed by governments, will foster innovation to economise on what is being taxed more heavily, it is unreasonable to assume –  as is done here –  no offset in the rest of the economy.   On these assumptions (presumably developed jointly by MfE and NZIER) a government-driven huge change in the structure of the economy (driven away from the market baseline) is a net positive source of new economic innovation.  It doesn’t seem very likely.  It isn’t at all obvious what precedents could be cited in support of such an assumption.  On that basis, for example, putting on import licensing and exchange controls after 1938 might have been hugely positive for business innovation in New Zealand.   Enthusiasts at the time probably hoped so, but the typical reading of the evidence would suggest not.

In the consultation document these “assume innovation” scenarios were all described solely as technological innovations (as described above –  and the text is reproduced in my earlier posts).  But what becomes clear, and quite explicit, in the full NZIER report is that much of what is going on in these “assume innovation” scenarios is in fact different assumptions about increased sequestration of emissions by a permanent increase in land used for forestry.  The model can’t cope with generating increased afforestation endogenously, and so assumptions have simply had to be imposed.

In the net-zero scenario (far right column), so much additional sequestration is assumed that the authors state that it would require a 140 per cent increase in the land area devoted to forestry (a really big increase, and the baseline presumably includes not just plantation forest but forests in, eg, national parks).  The big step up in the assumed forestation between the 75% and net-zero columns is the reason why the GDP growth rates are the same in the two scenarios.

It does seem reasonable to suppose that a much higher carbon price (and in the NZIER modelling, the carbon prices goes very high on some scenarios) there will be changes in land use in favour of forestry.  But here again, the magic fairy is at work.

We assume that additional forestry planting does not materially reduce the amount of productive land available for other uses. This could be seen as assuming that additional planting occurs on scrub land, rather than substituting for sheep and beef or dairy land.
If afforestation occurs on productive land, the economic costs of imposing emissions targets will increase, as the productive capacity of the agricultural and horticultural industries will decrease, which will also have negative flow-on effects for downstream primary processing industries.

In other words, NZIER is assuming that a big change in relative prices (the carbon price) makes economic a whole lot of resource that has not hitherto been used for anything much.  I’m sure there is such land – a considerable portion probably Maori land, with all the issues around title/collateral that make it difficult to use  – but is it reasonable to assume that all, or even most, of the land newly devoted to forests will be land that wasn’t previously being used for anything?  Why, for example, wouldn’t one assume that land that has been converted from forestry to dairying in recent decades (eg much between Taupo and Tokoroa, and Taupo and Rotorua) be among the first that would be converted back to forestry?  If so, as NZIER acknowledges, there will be additional real economic losses.

As in the Productivity Commission’s draft report, this NZIER modelling makes no allowance for the possibility of a lower population growth rate (by lowering our annual immigration approvals targets).  It is quite an extraordinary omission, given the cross-country data I’ve shown previously illustrating (the rather obvious point) that more people tends to mean more emissions.  If they are your own people, there isn’t much governments can do about it, but in New Zealand a large (and increasing) part of trend population increase is about discretionary immigration policy.

One would need to have NZIER rerun their models to get really good estimates (and since they ran and published sensitivities on a variety of other alternative assumptions, there is no good reason not to have done so as regards population growth –  although no doubt to have done so would have been unwelcome at MfE and in the Minister’s office).  But since the increased afforestation assumptions are a bit like a free lunch (raise the carbon price, and a whole lot of previously unused land is brought into play, sequestering carbon emissions), one can get a sense of what a difference a similar free lunch assumption might make.  Lowering the projected population growth by 0.7 per cent per annum (the difference lowering residence approvals from 45000 to 15000 per annum would make) would reduce expected future emissions enormously, without needing the see the carbon price driven sky-high.  Perhaps then a net-zero target –  on this definition – might really be feasible with a 10 per cent sacrifice of annual GDP per capita, or perhaps even something a bit smaller.

However, even then there are areas where the NZIER numbers are underdone if the government is really serious about a true net-zero goal.  I checked the Labour Party’s and Green Party’s climate change policies, and the net-zero goal is there in a pretty stark and unqualified way.  There is no suggestion that they are only interested in net-zero emissions on some UN definition –  and fair enough, for them this is a moral cause, not a bureaucratic one.

But what isn’t always appreciated among the wider public is that emissions associated with international aviation, real and substantial as they are, are not included in the UNFCCC (UN framework convention on climate change) definitions (neither is international shipping).   This wasn’t because of any high science.

The international aviation and shipping sectors are not included in the recent Paris Agreement, which was negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The precedent for excluding these sectors from global climate agreements was set in 1998, when both sectors were excluded from national targets established under the Kyoto Protocol. This was largely due to a lack of agreement on how emissions should be attributed to particular States.

From the planet’s perspective, it doesn’t appear to matter whether the emissions comes from your car, or from Air New Zealand’s aeroplane.  In the UNFCCC numbers –  the base NZIER uses for their modelling –  it does.  But if you “care about the planet”, and want to give a strong “moral lead”, in the way the governing parties claim to, surely you need to offset international aviations as well.   Domestic aviation is included in the ETS – so I learned, New Zealand was among the first to do so –  but not international aviation.

There was a government document published on this issue a couple of years ago.  As it points out, at present the numbers aren’t unduly large

Domestic aviation accounts for 1.1 percent of New Zealand’s total emissions.

and international emissions are about 2.5 times domestic

aviation 1

International tourism has been booming since then.   And here are Ministry of Transport projections.

aviation 2

Even if we take the middle two lines, international aviation emissions would almost double by 2050.

Remember too that fuel costs are a very large proportion of airline operating costs (especially for long-haul operations) and that tourism spending is quite price-sensitive (you might be determined to take a holiday, but price affects location choice).  If the government is really serious about a moral crusade for net-zero they can’t but include international aviation in the framework (and in the goal) –  and if others were to follow their moral lead, the industry will have to have been included globally by 2050.  And what will that do to the viability of our international tourism industry –  almost everywhere is closer for almost everyone than New Zealand is, and we don’t have many unique offerings?   Given a choice between taking your electric vehicle to the Croatian coast or flying to New Zealand, the economics won’t favour New Zealand.

In other words, if the government is serious about a genuine net-zero target, they really need to start factoring in international aviation emissions, especially as these are set to rise absolutely and (especially) as a share of total emissions.  Perhaps they can just assume into existence some more forests, at no cost to other production, but it would seem highly risky to just do so.

For all these reasons, the 10 per cent sacrifice (a deliberately chosen act) of annual GDP estimated by NZIER seems to be very much at the low end of the plausible range, especially if they are serious about offsetting all emissions, not just ones that international convention negotiators happened to agree on.  The 22 per cent number comes from MfE and NZIER and doesn’t seem implausible.  Of course, any modelling, and any estimates, are inevitably highly imprecise.  Something could turn up to set all these costs at naught, but it would seem rash –  to say the very least –  to set out upon such a journey in the idle hope that something will turn up, and if not well –  never mind –  our children will simply be up to a quarter worse off than otherwise.    Productivity growth in New Zealand hasn’t been rapid in recent decades, but lopping a quarter off future incomes would be the equivalent today of simply giving up all the economic gains (in real GDP per hour worked) of the last 20 years.  Simply breathtaking.   And meanwhile people lament child poverty concerns, constraints on the health system, and so on.   Productivity is about new possibilities.  Are we really happy to give up such possibilities for the next few decades?

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in the NZIER report, but I wanted to end with the chart on the estimated distributional impact.   In my previous post, I quoted the MfE text

Our modelling suggests the households that are in the lowest 20 per cent bracket for income may be more than twice as affected, on a relative basis, than those households with an average income.

Which is quite bad enough. But it is all the more stark when you see the chart in the NZIER report, drawn from some work done for them by Infometrics  (in this chart they are looking only at the additional estimated losses from moving from the 50 per cent target to a net-zero target).

emissions distribution

Specifically, people in the bottom two income quintiles will be hit six times as hard as people in the top quintile.    Like MfE in the consultation document, NZIER rush to the client’s defence and suggest that redistribution policies could alleviate this.   You wouldn’t thought that sort of advocacy was their role –  having been commissioned to do modelling –  but more importantly, they should know as well as anyone that when governments adopt policies to materially shrink the economy, it is even harder than usual to persuade voters in the upper quintiles to agree to give up even more to mitigate the losses the worst off are exposed to.   Redistribution tends to win more favour when everyone is getting better off.

Has any government anywhere ever consulted on policy objectives that, if seriously pursued could cut future GDP per capita by anything from –  on their own numbers –  10 to 22 per cent?  If so, I can’t imagine when.  It is a huge price to propose for what seems to be mostly a moral crusade –  hence the title about pricing the hair shirt.  If you doubt that interpretation, check out Labour climate change policy.

New Zealand must do its part, along with the rest of the world, in reducing climate pollution. It is not good enough to say we are too small to matter – most countries individually could claim the same. We must take our share in the effort however small, just as we did when dealing with CFCs, or opposing apartheid, or fighting fascism. Kiwis are not shirkers. 

Opposing apartheid will have cost almost nothing to New Zealand GDP (albeit some utility losses for some rugby supporters) –  same goes no doubt for opposing French nuclear testing in the Pacific.  And I’ve never seen any large estimates for the cost of dealing with CFCs.

What of the World War Two comparison?  I alluded to it in the my earlier post observing

Wars, of course, come at a very considerable cost –  and sometimes are worth fighting –  but again, I doubt any democracy (or perhaps even any tyranny) ever entered a war thinking that as a result of doing so they would be so much poorer 30 years on.  

Awful as wars are –  and with staggering losses of life in some countries –  there is simply no way that any of the Anglo countries, that voluntarily entered the war to resist Hitler, were 10 per cent poorer, let alone 22 per cent poorer, thirty years on as a result.

Perhaps there is a legitimate moral cause at work here, but the government is inviting citizens to offer up a fearsome price –  in lost incomes and opportunities –  all while refusing to even consider the lowest cost option for substantially reducing the volume of emissions in New Zealand.   For a country that has done so badly as regard productivity, under successive governments over many decades, it seems breathtakingly reckless.  It seems all the weirder to be proposing to take some global moral lead in a country where, as even the IPCC reports have noted, there are both gains (eg better crop yields in many areas) and losses apparently on offer from rising global temperatures.