“Beyond the Barricade” – The backstory from a musical tribute to emissions trading

In September 2018, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) marked its first decade of operation. I was part of the core group of government officials who designed the system back in 2007 and 2008. Since then, I have continued to work both inside and outside of government to advance its progress. Having decided that the dramatic story of heartbreak and hope deserved nothing less than a little musical theatre, I filmed a short musical tribute on my iPhone. It made its debut at a birthday party for the NZ ETS at the Ministry for the Environment, and was posted online for fun together with a media release from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

The idea came to me when I was washing the dinner dishes and puzzling over how to help people understand the story of what happened. Say the words “emissions trading” and many people glaze over and tune out. Most of the rest of them say something about “dodgy carbon credits,” recalling how our emission price dropped very close to zero because of unlimited overseas units. The system has had no significant impact so far on domestic greenhouse gas emissions by the government’s own admission. It has taken most of a decade for the emission price to recover to the point where we started.

Relatively few people appreciate that the NZ ETS is now a domestic-only system and with some practical reforms it could support our transition toward a successful net-zero-emission economy. It has been painful to observe for how long we have been so close to, and yet so far away from, placing an effective price on emissions to drive strategic investment decisions.

Yet all is not lost!

The basic architecture of the NZ ETS is sound and the market is functioning well. It covers the stationary energy, transport, industrial production and waste sectors, which account for about 51% of our gross emissions. The inclusion of biological emissions from agriculture (the other 49%) is back under discussion. Our market price is currently sitting at NZ$25 per tonne (about US$16), and waiting to break through the fixed-price ceiling. Forestry participants are already exposed to the full price signal. Non-forestry participants will move from facing 83% of the price now to 100% of the price starting in January 2019 (not taking into account output-based industrial free allocation provided to some participants).

As the suds mounted, I was thinking melodramatically that the story is worthy of Victor Hugo. The phrase “We schemed a scheme” popped into my head. The rest of it came tumbling out.

This was probably aided by the fact that I have had a 30-year obsession with the musical of Les Misérables. Just to illustrate what I mean: I bought the original West End cast recording, original Broadway cast recording, very first French recording, and the French re-recording after the amped-up version returned to its homeland. And of course I have the video from the magnificent 10th Anniversary Concert recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall.

The response to my song has been both warm and delightfully overwhelming. The tribute came from my heart and was born of frustration, emerging at the sacred intersection where Climate Change Policy Geek meets Les Mis Geek. I had figured that perhaps ten people in the world would appreciate why that combination of story and song makes perfect sense. Instead, the video has had 1700+ global views online so far.

Okay, so that is not going to rival “Baby Shark” anytime soon. (In case you don’t have a young person in your life right now, that video featuring adorable children dancing against animation has had over 1.7 billion views.) But this is a video about emissions trading. From New Zealand. Carbon Pulse declared it “Very likely the best Les Misérables-inspired carbon market ballad you’ll ever hear.” The International Carbon Action Partnership cleverly quipped about “Les Mis-sions trading systems.” And as you can imagine, I was over the moon when it was re-tweeted by New Zealand’s current Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, as well as the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who had led the development of the system. Only in New Zealand!

What has really touched me is the range of emotional responses people have shared. While some have found it creative and funny, others report having cried at the loss of a decade of decarbonisation. One particularly tragic insight is that the same song could be sung by so many national and local jurisdictions that have struggled to sustain policy continuity with carbon pricing. I’m thinking of the experiences in the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, and now possibly the UK among others…

One viewer posted the comment “Wtf,” and at one level I kind of have to agree. I mean, who sings about emissions trading? But I am convinced there are some insights to be gained here about climate change communication. A song can condense complex ideas into simple messages conveyed with genuine feeling. Serious action on climate change will begin with a change of heart. Perhaps “#climatekaraoke” could be added to the toolbox for helping to educate and inspire people about why and how to help. The possibilities are endless.

I still “dream the dream” that with cross-party support, our NZ ETS can deliver. Let’s give this musical a happy ending!

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