An alternative perspective on emissions and immigration

I’ve now got off my chest my annoyance at some of the “playing distraction” rhetoric David Hall used in his Newsroom piece responding to my column urging that the Productivity Commission inquiry into a transition to a low-emissions economy should at least consider the potential role of immigration (in boosting emissions in the past, and perhaps in offering a lower-cost abatement tool in future). But I wanted to come back to some of the more substantive issues Hall raises.

Bear in mind that my column was based on a submission to the inquiry the government asked the Productivity Commission to undertake.  The terms of reference which the Commission is operating under are focused on New Zealand’s own policy responses, and how to (maximise the benefits and) minimise the costs of meeting the target which the government has set.    The focus is –  rightly in my view – on national interests (costs and benefits to New Zealanders) now that the New Zealand government has already factored in its response to the (actual and perceived) global imperatives, in establishing an emissions reduction target under the Paris climate agreement.    Having determined how much reduction in emissions we will aim for, and made those commitments to other countries in an international context, the challenge now is how best to adjust, and what mix of policy instruments might enable us to deliver on those commitments.

Hall argues that “what matters from the perspective of Earth’s atmosphere is what people emit, not where they emit it”.  Maybe so, but the New Zealand government is not now making policy for the “Earth’s atmosphere”, but around an emissions reduction target it has signed up to for New Zealand.  In that context, where the emissions happen matters.

My submission was firmly set within that sort of framework –  one set by the government and recognised by the Commission.  In fact, in the Terms of Reference the three ministers were using exactly the same sort of analytical framework I was.

New Zealand’s domestic response to climate change is, and will be in the future, fundamentally shaped by its position as a small, globally connected and trade-dependent country.  New Zealand’s response also needs to reflect such features as its hjgh level of emissions from agriculture, its abundant forestry resources, and its largely decarbonised electricity sector, as well as any future demographic changes (including immigration).

The focus of my submission was, in many respects, that the Commission had simply ignored that last phrase.  Population growth matters to emissions, all else being equal, and in New Zealand –  where non-citizen immigration is so (a) important, and (b) fully within government control –  population growth can, via immigration policy, and should be considered as an instrument to reduce emissions.    It might be uncomfortable for MBIE (champions of immigration), or for the Ministry for the Environment, but the point of Productivity Commission inquiries isn’t to make life comfortable for established interests.

Hall is clearly uncomfortable with the idea –  the pretty basic fact –  that increased populations increase emissions, all else equal.   But again, discomfort doesn’t change the stylised facts.  As he acknowledges, “road transport emissions have increased by 78 per cent since 1990”, but…..

But the fault here lies with New Zealand’s over-reliance on private vehicles. Migrants (and citizens) contribute to road traffic by necessity, because alternative means of transport are less available, indeed far less so than many migrants are used to, coming from places where travel by trains, trams, cycles and footpaths is not unusual. If low-carbon alternatives in places like Auckland were more serviceable, migrants would doubtlessly utilise them, as indeed would citizens. And if the excuse for underinvestment is the lack of markets of sufficient scale, then population increase and cultural change will drive progress.

In other words, if governments and people did things differently than they actually did, emissions would have been lower.  No doubt, but that isn’t really the point.   Each of the alternatives Hall proposes would have had both public and private costs –  and the point of the exercise is to keep those costs to a minimum.  Perhaps he’d prefer a world of light rail and trains.  Most citizens don’t seem to, at least when confronted with real world costs –  and the economics of such proposals in New Zealand is generally shocking.    Actual transport emissions would have been a lot lower than they are now if, at the extreme, the population had been constant since 1990.  And if –  and it is a proposition for debate –  the immigration that so substantially boosted the population had few, no, or even negative productivity gains for New Zealanders, those emissions reductions could have been achieved at little or no economic cost at all.    There are plenty of ways to reduce emissions, but the challenge is to find the most cost-effective ones or –  in markets –  to set up the instruments in a way that allows private agents to identify the most cost-effective means of adjustment.

In my column and submission I had noted that it is generally accepted that New Zealand typically faces quite high marginal abatement costs to reduce emissions, relative to those faced by most other advanced economies.  When I wrote that, I wasn’t even thinking of it as a controversial proposition.  But Hall wasn’t happy with the claim.

This contradicts Reddell’s claim that “all informed observers recognise that the marginal abatement costs in New Zealand, through conventional means, are high”. I’ve written for Pure Advantage about the potential of forests – both production and permanent forests – to offset agricultural emissions in a way that isn’t only cost-effective but potentially profitable. This is corroborated by other “informed observers”, such as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Vivid Economics. The latter’s Net Zero in New Zealand report highlights other low-cost opportunities in energy efficiency, heating technologies, agricultural efficiency, and technological advances in methane vaccines and cheaper electric vehicles.

I’m happy to alter “all informed observers” to “most observers”, but I’m not resiling from the basic point.   Warwick McKibbin of ANU, who has done a lot of modelling on climate change and emissions abatement first produced estimates 20 years ago showing that that the “marginal abatement cost in New Zealand amongst the highest in the world”.  I’ve heard him repeat the point in various seminars and lectures over the years.    Why are the costs higher here?  Among other things, because a very large chunk of our emissions are agricultural, and there aren’t yet good technologies for reducing the emissions while keeping the animals.  And because our power generation is already largely hydro-based, so can’t easily be switched to alternative fuels to reduce carbon emissions.   This is an expensive place to reduce emissions –  an equal marginal cost approach would see us adopt a less aggressive emissions reduction target than most countries.    There are papers on the web from government agencies making exactly this point.

The Productivity Commission themselves recognise these points. For example, from their issues paper, on animal emissions.

Moderate emissions cuts are possible from certain agricultural technologies (eg, low-emission feds). However, a low-cost technology that delivers dramatic reductions in biological emissions appears far off, and may not emerge. While a methane vaccine could reduce CH4 emissions by up to 40%, no successful trials of such a vaccine have so far occurred.

Actually, for all the talk of alternative technologies, the Vivid Economics paper Hall links to makes much the same point about the sorts of constraints New Zealand faces.  Here is text from the Executive Summary (of a report funded by various MPS, foreign embassies and other donors).

In meeting this challenge, New Zealand is distinctive in at least three respects: its significantly decarbonised energy sector; its large share of difficult-to-reduce land sector emissions; and its large forestry sector. Elsewhere in the world, more focus has been devoted to reducing emissions from the electricity sector than from any other sector. Huge efforts and costs are now beginning to translate into progress. But for New Zealand, these challenges are of less significance. Its power sector consists primarily of hydroelectric and geothermal resources, providing firm, reliable capacity. Even with the challenge of decarbonising other parts of the energy sector (transport fuels, heat), the resulting relatively low-carbon energy mix provides the country with a considerable competitive advantage in a world that is placing increasing constraints on emissions. Yet, at the same time, the importance of the pastoral agriculture sector to the economy and social fabric of the country creates a huge challenge, although one that is laced with opportunity. Biological emissions from agriculture account for almost half of New Zealand’s gross emissions, a higher proportion than in any other developed country. While other developed countries may choose to not prioritise reducing these emissions in the short term, following suit would have important repercussions for New Zealand in meeting future targets.

Wishing it were otherwise does not make it so.  Marginal abatement costs are typically higher here than in other countries.  Those costs may well be falling –  as eg new battery technologies for example open up new options re transport emissions –  but those technologies are available to other countries too. They don’t change the specific challenges New Zealand faces relative to other advanced countries.   The emissions target we’ve committed to, whether through belief or interest, represent a new constraint on economic performance, and that constraint is more severe for New Zealand than for most, in a country with a long-term history of real economic underperformance.

Against that backdrop it would be irresponsible to simply wave our hands and pretend that immigration isn’t an issue (for us, as New Zealand, and our governments), ploughing on oblivious to the potential real economic costs of doing so.     Immigration policy needs to be considered as one strand in thinking about how best to design a New Zealand policy response, to minimise the net adjustment costs to New Zealanders.

I’d simply taken for granted what seemed like a fairly obvious point (even Hall reluctantly acknowledged it) that increased populations will have tended to increase emissions, all else equal. But until now I hadn’t had a look at the cross-country data to see if the relationship was actually there in the data.  It might not have been –  after all, countries might have responded to the rising populations by finding techniques and market instruments to lower per capita emissions sufficiently that there was no relationship left in the observed data.

Fortunately, we have quite detailed data on gross emissions for almost all OECD countries from 1990 to 2015.  In a few cases, the data are only up to 2013 or 2014, and in all the scatter plots that follow I’ve lined up the population changes with the emissons data (eg if for a country there is emissions data for 1990 to 2014, I’ve used percentage population change over that period).  But for 30 countries there is full data for all the variables I looked at.

None of these relationships are particularly tight –  these are simple bivariate relationships, and lots else was going on in each of these countries (eg in the former Soviet bloc countries, production processes had been extremely inefficiently energy-intensive).

I start with transport emissions (actually to 2015 despite the label). As Hall noted, transport emissions in New Zealand have increased a lot, as has our population.

transport emissions

Unsurprisingly, the relationship is upward sloping.

What about manufacturing and construction emissions?

manuf emissions

(That outlier up the top is Korea, which has still been massively industrialising.)

Total gross emissions?

total emissions

Hall seemed particularly perplexed, or perhaps outraged, by my points about agriculture

As I understand him, he argues that New Zealand’s high living standards depend upon dairy exports, which makes it politically infeasible to impose costs for environmental damages. The greater the population, the greater this reliance upon the dairy sector, and so the greater the reluctance to make polluters pay.

Again it seemed pretty descriptively accurate to me (whether it is an outcome he –  or I –  like or not). But even though agricultural emissions are much more of an issue for New Zealand than for most OECD countries, I was curious as to whether there was a relationship (across countries) between population growth and growth in agricultural emissions.  I didn’t have a prior expectation, but in fact this is what I found.

ag emissions

It is actually one of the tighter relationships, so I’ll repeat the proposition from my submission/column: with fewer people it seems quite plausible that we’d have had (tighter environmental regulation and) fewer cows and fewer emissions.

I could go on showing you charts all day, but I won’t try your patience.   Somewhat to my surprise there is actually even a (weak) positive relationship between population growth and per capita emissions and emissions per unit of GDP.  I’m not quite sure why that would be, although in New Zealand (and Australia’s) case, the migrants are moving to some of the OECD countries with, already, the highest emissions per capita and per unit of GDP.

The bottom line for New Zealand is that our immigration policy, which has very substantially boosted our population, has also substantially boosted our emissions over the last 25 years.   Our experience doesn’t look out of line with that of the rest of the OECD: growing populations are associated with more emissions, whether in transport, agriculture or just in total.   Given that marginal abatement costs, even if falling, are still high here relative to those in other advanced countries, it would frankly be irresponsible for any government, concerned primarily about the interests of New Zealanders, not to have the levers of immigration policy considered when assessing the best approach for New Zealand to take to meet its commitments.   The Productivity Commission should be doing so.

In the end, though, I suspect that the real difference between me and David Hall isn’t about any of these numbers.   He concluded his article

Because when it comes to global warming, it’s the carbon intensive economy, stupid. The only genuine solution is to transform the world’s high-emissions economies into low-emissions economies, so that anyone entering them by way of birth or migration can lead a prosperous low-carbon life. Our national emissions targets are a means to this global end. Focusing on peripheral issues like migration only distracts from the work that needs to be done. But that’s what happens when you tell the story of a global problem through a nationalist lens.

But all policy is national, and there is (fortunately) no supra-national government.  We’ve played our part in the international process with our emissions reduction commitments, which are ambitious given the high marginal abatement costs here.  But Hall’s approach suggests he doesn’t really care if there are cheaper, less costly, ways for New Zealand to meet its commitments, and thus reduce costs to New Zealanders (residents and voters); what he cares about is the global.  It is certainly one perspective, but it isn’t the one the government used in setting up the Productivity Commission inquiry.  In practice, it almost certainly isn’t the one New Zealand residents and voters will be using in assessing how governments handle these issues over the next 20 years and beyond.

My own column ended this way

The aim of a successful adjustment to a low-emissions economy is not to don a hair shirt and “feel the pain”. It isn’t to signal our virtue either. Rather, the aim should be to make the adjustment with as small a net economic cost to New Zealanders – as small a drain on our future material living standards – as possible. Lowering the immigration target looks like an instrument that needs to be seriously considered –  including by the Productivity Commission – if that goal is to be successfully pursued.

I’m probably less idealistic than David Hall. Perhaps 30 years as a bureaucrat does that to one.  But in responding to a comment on my earlier post today I noted

My take is that, as a high cost abater, we should impose as little cost on NZers as possible to be seen by friends and trading partners to be making our token contribution (because obviously in global terms it is only token).

Giving serious consideration to cutting our (unusually large) immigration targets looks as though it  should be good economic policy and good (national) emissions-reduction policy.

 

 

 

A researcher responds to Reddell on emissions and immigration

I’m sitting here a bit puzzled at what approach to contesting or debating policy they now teach and model at Oxford University, or practice at Auckland University of Technology.

A few weeks ago, I posted here a submission I’d made to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into how New Zealand might make a transition to a low-emissions economy, and arguing that immigration policy should at least be considered by the Commission as one material influence on total New Zealand emissions, and as a potential tool to facilitate a cost-effective pursuit of the goverment’s emissions target.   Late last week, Newsroom published a column of mine based on that submission.       In that column I noted that

New Zealand has committed to a fairly ambitious emissions reduction target as part of the Paris climate agreement.  Of course, some political parties think the target isn’t ambitious enough, but New Zealand faces an unusual set of factors that affect our ability to reduce emissions here at moderate cost.  Appropriate policy responses, and the choice of the mix of instruments we choose to deploy, need to take account of that distinctive mix.

and concluded

The aim of a successful adjustment to a low-emissions economy is not to don a hair shirt and “feel the pain”. It isn’t to signal our virtue either. Rather, the aim should be to make the adjustment with as small a net economic cost to New Zealanders – as small a drain on our future material living standards – as possible. Lowering the immigration target looks like an instrument that needs to be seriously considered –  including by the Productivity Commission – if that goal is to be successfully pursued.

The backdrop of course –  and a point made in both the submission and my column – was the arguments I have been running for some years now suggesting that immigration policy itself been damaging to our economic performance, and thus has come at some net economic cost to New Zealanders.

But one academic reader decided that rather than engage primarily on the substance of the arguments I’d made –  the bottom line of which, after all, was simply that the Productivity Commission shouldn’t just ignore the issue –  he’d try to muddy the waters with some slurs.

David Hall is a young academic researcher at AUT, having returned to New Zealand relatively recently after doing a D. Phil at Oxford.   While he was in the UK he, for a time, had a regular Listener column.   His academic background appears to be in politics rather than economics, but he has been writing about climate change policy and was the editor of the recently-published BWB Texts book Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, a collection primarily about aspects of New Zealand’s approach to and experience of immigration.  I’ve written previously about a couple of chapters in the book (here and here).  As I noted in the latter of those posts

As much as I can, I try to read and engage with material that is supportive of New Zealand’s unusually open immigration policy.   One should learn by doing so, and in any case there is nothing gained by responding to straw men, or the weakest arguments people on the other side are making.

Newsroom has published a response by Hall to my column (they even illustrated it with a photo of my own suburb, Island Bay).    There are some points of substance in Hall’s response, and I want to come back to them in a separate post.

But it was these two paragraphs that really annoyed me

What’s striking about all this is not only Reddell’s argument is from the perspective of climate change, but also economics. He resists the orthodox view that migration has a modest positive impact on national GDP. I’m no enemy of disciplinary iconoclasm, but it does beg for robust positive arguments. Reddell’s appeals to uncertainty (economists cannot prove definitively that migration increases GDP, therefore it might not be true) do not count. Climate scientists are all too familiar with this kind of denial.

So if economic evidence cannot always carry his arguments, one can only conclude that non-economic reasons are doing some of the work. To Reddell’s credit, he is explicit about his concerns for cultural cohesion, or that “Islam is a threat to the West, and a threat to the church wherever it is found”. These are real reasons for wanting to reduce immigration, but should be debated on their ethical and sociological merits, not couched in an idiosyncratic take on climate policy.

This is frankly pretty scurrilous stuff.

Apparently, when it comes to the economics of immigration, all I’m doing is “appealing to uncertainty” not advancing any “robust positive arguments”.  This is, so he claims, the economics equivalent of “climate change denial”.

First, lets look at what I’d actually said in my column

Of course, if there were clear and material economic benefits to New Zealanders from the high target rate of non-citizen immigration (the centrepiece of which is the 45,000 per annum residence approvals “target”) it might well be cheaper (less costly to New Zealanders) to cut emissions in other ways, using other instruments. But those sort of  gains –  lifts in productivity – can’t simply be taken for granted in New Zealand. Despite claims from various lobby groups that the economic gains (to natives) of immigration are clear in the economics literature, little empirical research specific to New Zealand has been undertaken. And there is good reason – notably our remoteness – to leave open the possibility that any gains from immigration may be much smaller here than they might be in, say, a country closer to the global centres of economic activity, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America.

Even many of those who are broadly supportive of New Zealand’s past approach to immigration policy will now generally acknowledge that any gains to New Zealanders may be quite small. And for some years now, I’ve been arguing for a more far-reaching interpretation of modern New Zealand economic history: that our persistently high rates of (non-citizen) immigration have held back our productivity performance (i.e. come at a net economic cost to New Zealanders).

It isn’t controversial to suggest that there has been little empirical research specific to New Zealand on the contribution of immigration policy to New Zealand’s economic performance.  It is simply an accepted fact –  and the chair of the strongly pro-immigration New Zealand Initiative accepted as much in an exchange here last year.   I also don’t think it is controversial to suggest that any economic gains to New Zealanders may be quite small –  it was, as I recall, the conclusion of Hayden Glass and Julie Fry (both generally pro-immigration) in their BWB Texts book last year.   Remoteness is generally accepted as an issue in New Zealand’s economic performance –  even if reasonable people differ on the implications and appropriate policy responses.

And then there was the reference to “and for some years now I’ve been arguing”.  Since the point of the emissions/immigration column was to argue that the connection should be considered, not to attempt to demonstrate that immigration has been economically costly, I didn’t elaborate in that column.  But it would, to most readers, have been a hint that there was a bit more to the argument than “appealing to uncertainty”.  If Hall himself hadn’t been familiar with my arguments, Google would willingly have helped.   There are, I see, 140 posts on this blog tagged with “immigration”, and there are plenty of speeches and papers, and a lengthy commentary on the New Zealand Initiative’s major piece earlier this year making the case for New Zealand’s immigration policy.  Only last week, in a post where I outlined some specific alternative immigration policy proposals, I linked to a recent speech outlining the economic case –  specific to New Zealand –  for rather lower target rates of non-citizen immigration.  People might disagree with my economic arguments and reading of New Zealand’s economic history, but none of those arguments is a mystery to anyone interested.

(In – very  – short, (a) extreme remoteness makes if very difficult to build many high productivity businesses here that aren’t natural resource based, and (b) in a country with modest savings rates, rapid population growth has resulted in a combination of high real interest rates and a high real exchange rate, discouraging business investment and particularly that in the tradables –  internationally competitive – sectors, on which small successful economies typically depend. I add to the mix how unusually large our immigration target is and how, despite the official rhetoric, the skill levels of the average and marginal migrants are not particularly high.)

But Hall’s rhetorical strategy rests on making as if none of this extensive body of argumentation and analysis exists, that I’m playing distraction, and then falling back on the “Muslim card”.

In parallel to this blog, I maintain a little-read (and these days, little written) blog where I occasionally write on matters of religious faith and practice, and sometimes on a Christian perspective on public policy issues.  If there is a target audience it is fellow Christians and in writing there I take for granted the authority of the Bible, and of church teaching and tradition over 2000 years.  I very rarely link to it here, as there is typically little overlap in subject matter and I know that most of the readers of this blog don’t share those presuppositions.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts about refugee policy, prompted by some domestic commentary on the possible economic case for taking more refugees (in particular from Syria).   On this blog, I wrote something fairly short and narrowly focused on the economics, noting that there were unlikely to be net economic benefits to New Zealanders.  I concluded that

None of which is an argument for not taking refugees.  Doing so is mainly a humanitarian choice, not something we do because we benefit from doing so.  I don’t have a strong view on how many refugees New Zealand should take, but I don’t think possible economic benefits to us should be a factor one way or the other.

We do good because it is right to do so, not for what it might do for us.  Whether “doing good” in this case involves taking more refugees, or donating more money to cost-effectively assist in refugee support in the region, is a more open question.

A day or so later I wrote a longer post on my Christian blog on the refugee issue through the lens of the gospel, and included a link to that post at the end of the “economics of refugees” post.   At the end of quite a long post, aimed at Christian readers (and none of which I would resile from now) I included the phrase Hall now seeks to highlight.  Here is the full text

Islam is a threat to the West, and a threat to the church wherever it is found.  Political authorities in the West were right, and well-advised, to resist in the past, and at the Battle of Tours, at Lepanto, and at the gates of Vienna, to begin to turn the tide.    We owe it to the next generations of our own people to resist the creeping inroads of Islam.  If New Zealanders convert to that faith, there is of course little we can do, but neither compassion nor common sense requires, or suggests it would be prudent, for Western countries with any sense of their own identity to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees or migrants.

Frankly, I was a bit puzzled as to how Hall –  an apparently secular academic – was aware of this obscure post, with perhaps 100 readers in total, but not of the substance of my economic arguments.  But in an email exchange overnight, he tells me that he is actually familiar with this blog, and presumably with its economic arguments, and found the Christian post on refugees through this blog.   At least that answered that question, even if it doesn’t explain his attempt to pretend that I’m not raising substantive, or developed, economic arguments.

And as he acknowledges that he is familiar with this blog, perhaps he might have considered looking at the material I’ve posted here on the issues around culture, diversity etc.      There was, for example, this address to a Goethe Institute event on diversity etc.   Or a post earlier this year where I explicitly laid out some thoughts on culture and identity issues in response to one chapter of the New Zealand Initiative’s report.

I began the post by making the point I often use

My focus has tended to be on economic issues –  and thus to be largely indifferent on that count whether the migrants came from Brighton, Bangalore, Beijing, Brisbane or Bogota.  Almost all of my concerns about the economic impact of New Zealand’s immigration programme would remain equally valid if all, or almost all, our immigrants were coming from the United Kingdom –  as was the case for many decades.

Nonetheless, I noted that there were many groups of people who I would not have welcomed large number of migrants from

So long as we vote our culture out of existence the Initiative apparently has no problem.  Process appears to trump substance.  For me, I wouldn’t have wanted a million Afrikaners in the 1980s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, not breaking the law to do so.  I wouldn’t have wanted a million white US Southerners in the 1960s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, and not break the law to do so.  And there are plenty of other obvious examples elsewhere –  not necessarily about people bringing an agenda, but bringing a culture and a set of cultural preferences that are different than those that have prevailed here (not even necessarily antithetical, but perhaps orthogonal, or just not that well-aligned).

I went on, talking about the Initiative

They take too lightly what it means to maintain a stable democratic society, or even to preserve the interests and values of those who had already formed a commuity here.    I don’t want stoning for adultery, even if it was adopted by democratic preference.  And I don’t want a political system as flawed as Italy’s,even if evolved by law and practice.   We have something very good in New Zealand, and we should nurture and cherish it.  It mightn’t be –  it isn’t –  perfect, but it is ours, and has evolved through our own choices and beliefs.  For me, as a Christian, I’m not even sure how hospitable the country/community any longer is to my sorts of beliefs – the prevalent “religion” here is now secularism, with all its beliefs and priorities and taboos – but we should deal with those challenges as New Zealanders – not having politicians and bureaucrats imposing their preferences on future population composition/structure.

But the New Zealand Initiative report seems to concerned about nothing much more than the risk of terrorism.

A commonly cited concern in the immigration debate is of extremism. The fear of importing extremism through the migration channel is not unreasonable. The bombing of the Brussels Airport in 2016, in which 32 people were killed, or the Bataclan theatre attack in Paris where 90 people were murdered, shows just how real the risk is.

The report devotes several pages to attempting to argue that (a) the risk is small in New Zealand because we do such a good job of integrating immigrants, and (b) that the immigration system isn’t very relevant to this risk anyway.

The point they simply never mention is that in many respects New Zealand has been fortunate.  For all the huge number of migrants we’ve taken over the years, only a rather small proportion have been Muslim.

I went on

They highlight Germany –  perhaps reflecting the Director’s background –  where integration of Turkish migrants hasn’t worked particularly well over the decades, while barely mentioning the United Kingdom which is generally regarding as having done a much better job, and yet where middle class second generation terrorists and ISIS fighters have been a real and serious threat.  Here is the Guardian’s report on comments just the other day from a leading UK official –  the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation –  that the UK now faces a level of threat not seen since the IRA in the 1970s.  Four Lions was hilarious, but it only made sense in a context where the issue –  the terror threat –  is real.

But the Initiative argues that few terrorists are first generation immigrants, and some come on tourist or student visas (eg the 9/11 attackers) and so the immigration system isn’t to blame, or the source of a solution.  I’d largely agree when it comes to tourists, and perhaps even to students –  although why our government continues to pursue students from Saudi Arabia, at least one of whom subsequently went rogue having become apparently become radicalised in New Zealand, is another question.   But there are no second generation people if there is no first generation immigration of people from countries/religions with backgrounds that create a possibility of that risk.  Of course the numbers are small, and most people –  Islamic or not –  are horrified at the prospect of terrorism, or of their children taking their path.  But no non-citizens have a right to settle in New Zealand, and we can reduce one risk  –  avoiding problems that even Australia faces – by continuing to avoid material Muslim migration.

Having said that, I remain unconvinced that terrorism is the biggest issue.  Terrorists don’t pose a national security risk.  Whatever their cause, they typically kill a modest number of people, in attacks that are shocking at the time, and devastating to those killed.  But they simply don’t threaten the state –  be it France, Belgium, Netherlands, the US, or Europe.  Perhaps what they do is indirectly threaten our freedoms –  the surveillance state has become ever more pervasive, even here in New Zealand, supposedly (and perhaps even practically) in our own interests.

The bigger issue is simply that people from different cultures don’t leave those cultures (and the embedded priors) behind when they move to another country –  even if, in principle, they are moving because of what appeals about the new country.  In small numbers, none of it matters much.  Assimilation typically absorbs the new arrivals.  In large numbers, from quite different cultures, it is something quite different.  A million French people here might offer some good and some bad features.  Same goes for a million Chinese or Filipinos.  But the culture –  the code of how things are done here, here they work here –  is changed in the process.

So, Dr Hall, despite your attempts to suggest otherwise, basically none of my concerns about New Zealand’s immigration policy have anything to do with Islam at all.  Very few of the huge number of migrants we’ve taken over the years have been from Muslim backgrounds. It simply isn’t an issue New Zealand has faced (unlike, say, Australia).   As I’ve said previously, my economic arguments are blind to which country, or religious background, immigrants have come from.  We’ve taken lots and lots of people, from wherever, and the numbers are –  on my argument –  the issue, not the origins.   Those arguments apply as strongly to the post-war decades –  when most of the immigration was from the UK –  as they do in the last couple of decades.    And – to revert to the emissions/immigration connection, all those migrants –  wherever they’ve come from –  have added to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.

(To be clear, I would be uneasy about large scale Muslim immigration, on non-economic grounds.  But I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be alone in that –  in an exchange on his blog earlier in the year, even strongly pro-immigration New Zealand Initiative Chief Economist Eric Crampton noted that his one area of concern might be migrants who would undermine our democratic norms.  Eric seems to be quite strongly anti-Christian (and probably anti all religions) but he acknowledged that large numbers of Wahhabi Saudi immigrants –  not in prospect –  would be a serious concern.)

In reading some more of Hall’s own views on immigration, I found an interview with him in which he notes

But we also need to redistribute power and especially to give Maori greater influence over the ends and means of migration policy. I support Tahu and Arama’s call for tangata whenua to exercise greater influence on border policy as part of an emboldened tino rangatiratanga, not least because Māori have the most to lose from unfair migration.

I don’t agree with him on that, but my own thoughts on the implications of immigration policy for the Maori place in New Zealand are in the Goethe Institute piece linked to earlier and in a fairly-read post here earlier in the year, again prompted partly by the Initiative’s report.  In it I raised, for a general audience, concerns perhaps not a million miles from some of his own.

But don’t try to pretend that (a) there are not serious economic questions to be answered about the impact of our large-scale immigration programme, or (b) that I have not posed them, almost ad nauseum.   I’ll come back to some of the specifics around population and emissions targets, and the place of national policy in a wider world, in a separate post.

Immigration policy and emissions targets

I’ve written a few posts in recent months about the connections between our immigration policy – materially boosting our population growth rate – and New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions (eg here and here).  New Zealand is unusual because, as the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) has highlighted:

• we have a fairly high rate of trend population growth,
• a large chunk of our emissions are from animals, and
• much of our power has long been generated from renewable sources.

I’ve also written here about Official Information Act requests to MfE (responsible for climate change policy advice) and MBIE (responsible for immigration policy advice). It turned out that neither ministry had given any thought at all, or done any work on, possible connections between immigration policy and the economic challenges of emissions reductions target (the MfE response is discussed here).  Perhaps one wouldn’t really expect MBIE to have thought so much about emissions issues, but in MfE the omission looks less excusable, and probably deliberate.

A few months ago, the government asked the Productivity Commission to hold an inquiry into making the transition to a low-emissions economy. In August the Commission published an issues paper, trying to frame the inquiry. That document was notable for almost completely ignoring the possible population/immigration dimension. But they were inviting submissions, and so this morning I lodged mine.

Rather than attempt to excerpt, or summarise, the relatively short submission I’ve reproduced the whole thing below. It does have the feel of the sort of issue where there should be some common ground discoverable between New Zealand First (with concerns about immigration) and Labour and the Greens (proposing more ambitious emissions targets). But, equally, for the National Party it should also be something they take seriously. After all, as I note in the submission, in pursuing an emissions reduction target the goal should not be to don a hair-shirt and deliberately “feel the pain”, but to make the adjustment in a way that has as little cost to the future material living standards of New Zealanders as possible.

Submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry on a possible transition to a low emissions economy

Michael Reddell

29 September 2017 

1.      This submission is in response to the Commission’s issues paper on a possible transition to a low emissions economy, released on 9 August 2017.  

2.      My concern is that the issues paper does not touch on at all the role that immigration policy has played in driving up total emissions in New Zealand nor, relatedly, on the role that potential changes in immigration policy could play in offering a lower cost (to New Zealanders, the appropriate standard against which to measure these things) transition to the proposed low emissions economy. 

3.      As the Ministry for the Environment has noted in its most recent annual document on New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, a growing population represents a significant challenge for New Zealand in meeting the emissions targets the government has set (let alone those proposed in the recent election campaign by other political parties).  In fact, the Ministry included population as the first in its list of challenges. 

4.      New Zealand’s population growth has been well above that of the typical advanced country, even though for some decades now our birth rate has been below replacement level, and even though for some decades the net emigration outflow of New Zealanders (at around 0.5 per cent of the population per annum on average) has been very high by international standards.  The difference is accounted for by immigration policy.   Because of our distance from other countries we have near-complete control over who comes to New Zealand and stays.   And we have chosen to bring in numbers of non-citizens each year that, as a proportion of the existing population, are far in excess of what happens in typical advanced economies. 

5.      As is also widely recognised, the marginal abatement costs for reducing emissions are generally quite high in New Zealand.  First, unlike most advanced countries, animal emissions make up almost half our total emissions and, as yet and as I understand it, science does not offer methods to reduce substantially the emissions while keeping the animals (which, in turn, generate much of the export earnings of New Zealand).  In addition, as I understand it, other countries do not yet include agricultural emissions in their regimes to charge for or tax emissions.  And, secondly, much of our power generation already uses renewable (mostly hydro) sources.  

6.      An increasing population has resulted in additional emissions, all else equal, through at least two channels: 

a.      The direct effects of more people needing more transport, more heating, more energy in their workplaces etc, and

b.      The indirect effects, in which a rapidly growing population and a generally lagging export sector has accentuated pressures for increased intensification in agriculture, with associated pushback against attempts to internalise the effects of environmental externalities (whether water pollution or methane emissions).  With fewer people, it seems quite plausible that we’d have had fewer cows. 

7.      Because the marginal abatement costs of conventional approaches are generally accepted to be particularly high in New Zealand, it is even more important that in undertaking its inquiry, the Commission should be willing to examine the role of immigration policy.  As Official Information Act requests to MfE (responsible for climate change policy advice) MBIE (responsible for immigration policy advice) have shown, core government departments appear to have done nothing at all to look at the possible connections.  There may have been ministerial political constraints on the freedom of either ministry to do so.   Those sensitivities should not hold back the Commission –  a more independent agency – from seriously considering the connection. (In that light, I found it disconcerting that there was no material reference to the topic in your issues paper). 

8.       The argument for using immigration policy as a potential instrument in meeting emissions reduction objectives would not be strong if there were clear and material economic benefits to New Zealanders from the high target rate of non-citizen immigration (the centrepiece of which is the 45000 per annum residence approvals “target”).    But those possible gains –  most notably perhaps a lift in labour or multi-factor productivity – cannot simply be taken for granted in New Zealand.     Despite claims from various lobby groups that the economic gains (to natives) of immigration are clear in the economics literature, little empirical research specific to New Zealand has been undertaken, and there is good reason –  notably our remoteness –  to leave open the possibility that any gains from immigration may be much smaller here than they might be in, say, a country closer to the global centres of economic activity, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America.    Even many of those who are broadly supportive of New Zealand’s past approach to immigration policy will now acknowledge (a) that the New Zealand specific literature is quite limited, and (b) that any gains to New Zealanders may be quite small.  Your staff are, I know, well aware of my alternative approach which interprets modern New Zealand economic history as suggesting that high rates of non-citizen immigration have held back our productivity performance (i.e. come at a net economic cost to New Zealanders).  I would be happy to discuss those issues with you further. 

9.      The overlay of an official emissions reduction target –  a new factor –  adds a new dimension to how best to think about immigration policy.  Even if immigration policy, on its own, was slightly beneficial, in economic terms, to New Zealanders, those assessments need to be redone in the light of the constraints posed by the emissions reduction targets.  In an economy with low marginal abatement costs through conventional price/tax instruments, the effect of any such reconsideration might be small. But in New Zealand, where all informed observers recognise that the marginal abatement costs are large through conventional means, it might well be that a lower immigration target would represent one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce total New Zealand emissions.  And as our emissions reduction target is quite similar to those of a number of other countries that have much lower population growth rates, there would be no serious basis for others to suggest that pulling back our immigration targets, to something more conventional among advanced countries, was in some sense free-riding or engaging in a “beggar thy neighbour” approach to the emissions issue.  New Zealand simply isn’t a cost-effective location to reduce emissions, but having taken on the commitment to a reduction, it doesn’t make much sense to create a rod for our own back by continuing to use policy to drive up the population, thus forcing reliance on even more costly alternative abatement instruments.   

10.   All else equal, lowering expected annual population growth rates by, say, half a percentage point (by, for example, lowering the residence approvals target from 45000 to around 15000 per annum –  in per capita terms, still about as liberal as the current US approach) would make a material difference to the projected path of greenhouse gas emissions.  Over 20 years, all else equal, the population would be 10.5 per cent lower than otherwise.  Direct emissions would, accordingly be considerably lower than otherwise projected, and the inevitable pressures to do little or nothing about agricultural emissions would be eased.   The national benefit/cost ratios look likely to be considerable higher if a lower immigration target was added into the mix of instrument used to meet the commitments the government has made.  At very least, I would urge you to think hard about, and undertake modelling as appropriate, to evaluate that possibility.  Doing so might not be easy.  There probably won’t be off-the-shelf modelling exercises from other countries you can simply look to. But in a sense that is the point of this submission.  The issues facing New Zealand in meeting emissions reduction objectives are different from those facing many other countries and we need analysis that takes specific accounts of the issues, options, and constraints that New Zealand itself faces. 

11.   In conclusion, I would urge the Commission to take much more seriously (than was evident in the issues paper) the role that rapid immigration policy led population growth has played in explaining the growth in New Zealand emissions since 1990, and the possible role that modifications to our immigration policy could play in facilitating a reduction in emissions, consistent with current or possible alternative official targets.   No doubt technological advances will offer options for relatively painlessly reducing emissions to some extent.  But those options will be available to all countries.  As official agencies already recognise, New Zealand faces some specific challenges that are quite different to those other advanced countries will be dealing with.  We make it much harder for ourselves to meet the emissions targets our governments have committed to if we persist with such an unusually large non-citizen immigration programme.    The aim of a successful adjustment to a low-emissions economy is not to don a hair shirt and “feel the pain”.  The aim should be to make the adjustment with as small a net economic cost to New Zealanders – as small a drain on our future material living standards – as possible.  Lowering the immigration target looks like an instrument that needs to be seriously considered if that goal is to be successfully pursued.