I've been trying to understand why Prime Minister John Key is so reluctant to go to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen.  He has offered a range of excuses and they simply don't stack up.  The latest one seems to be that there'll be no binding deal in Copenhagen so there's no point going.

That might sound plausible until you realise that his Government appears to be one of the main opponents of a binding climate treaty in Copenhagen.  According to reports from the recent APEC conference, where prospects for Copenhagen were discussed, John Key was one of a group of developed country leaders opposing a binding agreement. What's more, since a breakfast in Singapore between the Danish Prime Minister and APEC leaders, other world leaders have started reaffirming their commitment to a binding deal.

So why won't he go?

An astute negotiator at the climate change negotiations told me earlier in the year that when US President Barack Obama visits, it means the US has something to offer, but when the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton comes, it means that the US is going to demand something.

Perhaps that principle of diplomacy explains the real reason why Prime Minister John Key doesn't want to go to Copenhagen.  It's because New Zealand has nothing to offer.  So Environment Minister Nick Smith and Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser are going instead.  Possibly, they're going to make demands, but given that they lack the power of Hilary Clinton, they're more likely to be pleading for special treatment for New Zealand.  It's not an edifying role for a Prime Minister.

Taking an amended emissions trading scheme (ETS) to the negotiations in Copenhagen would be a mistake.  The proposed changes to the scheme make it an insult to the rest of the world, and all indications are that the world suspects this.  Copenhagen is about reducing emissions, but New Zealand's scheme is about allowing emissions to increase, not reducing them.  In fact, when you look at the country's current plans, from cut backs in public transport to dairy expansion and proposed coal lignite mines, it's clear the Government has no intention of cutting emissions.

At pre-Copenhagen talks in Barcelona recently I was talking with a negotiator from another country (a key player in the talks I might add) who was very interested in the changes to New Zealand's ETS currently being rammed through Parliament.  As I explained the changes, he burst out laughing.  He laughed so much it took a while for him to stop.  At this point he said "but New Zealand's emissions will just keep going up and up" and burst out laughing all over again. It goes without saying that other countries will only find New Zealand's climate failings funny for so long.

Vague talk of an ETS for "all sectors all gases" won't work at Copenhagen, where people will want to know, "how much will it actually cut emissions?"  Telling them that it'll allow emissions to keep going up won't endear New Zealand to anyone except perhaps Russia. New Zealand negotiators already carefully skirt around the subject by saying it's impossible to know for sure how much emissions will change under our ETS.

As for taking the proposed agricultural research programme to Copenhagen,  if New Zealand's plans were all they were cracked up to be, surely John Key would be very keen to attend.  New Zealand's current 'leadership' on agricultural research  looks more like a way of getting other countries to fund New Zealand's research agenda rather than a noble contribution to the cause. 

This particular point doesn't appear to be lost on the Scots.  At Barcelona I asked the Scottish Climate Change Minister whether Scotland had advice to offer New Zealand on cutting emissions from farm animals.  He replied that when they have made developments in reducing emissions from cows and sheep, they will be happy to sell the technology to New Zealand.

Other countries have announced increased commitments that they'lltake to Copenhagen.  Norway boosted its target to 40% by 2020.  Scotland now has a target of 42%.   Russia recently announced an improved target and is currently passing energy efficiency laws. Even Japan, once a laggard in New Zealand's camp, has increased its target to 25%. The EU will reduce emissions by 30% as part of a global deal.

Despite having far lower per capita emissions than New Zealand, a range of developing countries are announcing plans, such as halting deforestation, putting in place vehicle emission standards, investing in renewables and developing energy efficiency programmes.  China has a domestic climate change programme in place and will bring a target to Copenhagen.  What makes these poorer countries different to New Zealand is that they can see which way the world is moving and they don't wish to be left behind.

So what can New Zealand take to Copenhagen, given our ETS is worthless and our agricultural plans which look self-serving?  John Key could take a 40% by 2020 target for New Zealand and protect our reputation on the world stage..  Now, there's something that would make the trip worthwhile.

- Geoff Keey

(This article was originally published as an opinion piece in the Dominion Post)