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The disappointment of Copenhagen, hardly eased by Cancun, has prompted the question: ‘Now what?’ One possible answer lies in The Hartwell Paper: A new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009, jointly written by a group of academics in February 2010.

The recommendations of The Hartwell Paper emerge from the revision of some basic climate concepts.

Firstly, the authors resist the conception of climate change as One Big Problem. The conception that they prefer is of climate change as ‘a persistent condition that … can only be partially managed more—or less—well.’

Secondly, the authors resist the notion that climate change demands One Big Solution—namely, the reduction of carbon emissions through a globally binding agreement. Not only does this conception overlook the peculiarities of other greenhouse gases, they argue, it also treats issues such as clean energy, environmental protection and developmental justice as only incidental benefits, goods that hitch a ride on a ratified treaty.

The authors invert this conception, putting these ‘subsidiary’ issues at the forefront of climate policy. Here, the reduction of carbon emissions is regarded, rather, as a happy upshot of winning more manageable battles—specifically, adequate energy provision, sustainable development, and the mitigation of risks associated with climate change. Importantly, this strategy reflects a sensitivity to the political—to the short-sighted nature of democratic will and the practical importance of real-world progress.

The Hartwell Paper intends to provide a comprehensive alternative to the top-down models of Kyoto model and the cap-and-trade schemes (although for some doubts, read here). One attraction of the Hartwell approach, however, is that it can be implemented in parallel to large-scale negotiations. While diplomats strive for the king hit of a globally binding agreement, governments, councils, businesses and citizens could work simultaneously on a patchwork of more modest, more tangible issues, all of which contribute indirectly to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

So, how might this approach apply to the New Zealand context?

As it stands, New Zealand already has a top-down strategy in place, its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Given political inertia, this won’t be upturned any time soon, in spite of the ETS’s questionable effectiveness, so any new strategy will have to occur alongside existing policy. To some extent, however, the sorts of initiatives The Hartwell Paper approves of are already on the national agenda—either as current initiatives or ongoing ambitions.

Take, for instance, the country’s air quality strategy. This has encouraged a shift from open fires to log burners in domestic homes, and limited particulate emissions from industry and transport. While principally driven by local health concerns, the net effect is to reduce emissions of soot or black carbon, an emission thought to have about 600 times the warming effects per equivalent ton of carbon.

Similarly, insulation schemes have been in place since 1996. The current Heat Smart scheme plans to retrofit 188,500 poorly insulated homes throughout the four years since 2009. The policy is justified by appeals to health and reduced electricity costs, yet the consequent increase in energy efficiency could reduce the demand for electricity—Jevon’s paradox notwithstanding—about one-third of which is produced by non-renewable resources.

A salient topic yet to be resolved is water quality. New Zealand’s dairying boom has accelerated the degradation of waterways, particularly due to the run-off of nitrates, an issue that jars with the nation’s recreational and environmental values. Any success in addressing this problem—through nitrate inhibitors, new breeds of grass, revegetated waterway edges, or land use limitations—could reduce agricultural emissions of nitrous oxide which account for one-sixth of New Zealand’s total emissions.

Finally, The Hartwell Paper recommends public investment into research and development of clean energy technologies. New Zealand politicians have long paid lip service to technology and innovation, although to little consequence, the nation’s R&D investment being about half the OECD average. The much-touted ‘knowledge wave’ is a ride New Zealand is still to catch, despite its natural advantage as a top performer in education. The centre-right National Government has recently reiterated its desire for innovation and technology to drive the economic recovery; investment into clean energy R&D could satisfy this goal as well as fulfilling environmental obligations.

Which leads to one final strength of the Hartwell approach: its hospitality to a range of political ideologies. In New Zealand, where major parties agree on the existence of the problem, less so the appropriate response, it is important that climate politics are not ideologically exclusive. A singular top-down response, heavily reliant on state intervention, grates upon certain political mentalities, irrespective of their stance on climate science. In a worst case scenario, discontent with policy style can explode into outright denial of the problem—as appears to have occurred in the United States. A decentralized approach enables political parties to advance environmental goals in a way that is ideologically appropriate, pursuing policies and objectives that are near and dear to the hearts of their electorate.

So, for those disappointed with the grand plans of Kyoto and cap-and-trade, it might just be fruitful to divert one’s energies into more oblique strategies—both those mentioned and those yet to be put forward. The major question left begging is this: Can such small steps ever add up to a great leap forward?

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