14 July 2015
I was reminded of Mark Twain’s aphorism “Lies, damn lies and statistics” in the wake of last week’s announcement of New Zealand’s new emissions reduction target, as part of our response to climate change.
For the record, our existing target is to reduce carbon emission levels by 5% of their 1990 levels by 2020. The new target is to achieve a 30% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030, which at first glance seems somewhat more ambitious. But here is where Mark Twain’s observation becomes relevant: the new target is actually the equivalent of more than doubling the original target regarding 1990 levels (11% instead of 5%), but achieving it over a 25% longer time frame, by 2030.
All up, as the critics point out, it amounts to little change, with things left pretty much where they were at the outset. The wording has been reframed to take account of the fact we are now in 2015 – not back in 1990. Indeed, some critics actually say that all this verbal legerdemain means our new emissions target is really weaker, rather than stronger than its predecessor.
Sifting through the morass of statistics and counter-statistics, it is a little difficult to divine exactly what a realistic, achievable and responsible target should be. The percentages and years keep shifting around, while the settled science about the impact of climate change is becoming more defined and conclusive. Be all that as it may, the global consensus appears to be that reduction targets of around 30% by 2030 should be what we are aiming for. In other words, almost three times more ambitious than the target New Zealand has currently settled for.
Climate change is arguably the most important issue facing us today. Its impacts are profound and will affect the future of our planet and species like no other contemporary issue. To that extent, it transcends all the normal political hullaballoo. Consequently, our policy response needs to go beyond the normal confines of consideration by Ministers and officials behind closed doors, with announcements of actions made at times of political convenience.
It is fashionable to call for multi-party accords on various vexed issues, for the laying aside of narrow political interest in favour of a wider national interest, but these are usually issues where one side or other is seeking a way of more gracefully getting off a political hook or high horse, than a serious attempt to resolve serious issues. However, climate change is probably one issue where this call can be made with true justification.
A very good case exists for there to be a full Parliamentary debate on this issue, with all parties given equal access to all the scientific and economic data available to the government on the matter, and for Parliament to then make the ultimate decision regarding emissions reductions targets.
It might disappoint the Mark Twains of this world – but it would give the public straight answers on a serious question that politicians seem a little too willing to confuse over.