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Media coverage of emissions trading legislation was patchy

Oct 6th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, News

By Reesh Lyon and Alexandra Johnson

The Emissions Trading Scheme was passed in Parliament on September 11, 2008.  What kind of attention did it receive from the media in the immediate lead-up?  NewsWire reporters look at media coverage in the week leading up to the Act.

Media attention given to the emissions trading scheme in the week leading to its enactment in Parliament was wide-ranging in bias, length and depth of coverage.

The most extensive coverage came from the NZ Herald with its three-part series focusing on the economic outcomes of the scheme. The articles were lengthy and in depth and were given a high profile in the newspaper on page two. The Herald also invited people to participate in an on-line forum.

While the Dominion Post ran in-depth opinion pieces showcasing the polarity of views about the scheme, news journalists paid it scant attention throughout the week.

An opinion piece by Federated Farmers President Don Nicolson outlined detrimental effects the scheme would have on farmers and agriculture, while Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons argued how important the scheme was for sustainability and the future of New Zealand.

Of the two Dominion Post news articles about the scheme, one focused on business and National party criticisms, the other on costs that would be passed on to householders and job losses the scheme is expected to incur.

A Dominion Post editorial on the subject was unequivocally damning of the scheme.

Radio NZ coverage was well rounded and succinct, while Scoop published press releases from various parties and lobby groups on the Emissions Trading Scheme.

TVNZ did little on the scheme over the designated time period, as did the country’s third largest metropolitan paper, the Christchurch Press.

WHAT THE MEDIA SAID

New Zealand Herald

The New Zealand Herald ran nine ETS-based items and a further six items briefly alluded to it.
On September 7, an editorial outlined Ngai Tahu’s worries about the loss of value of its forest under the ETS.

The editorial criticised the idea of examining new policies in relation to the treaty:  “The consequences would be farcical. Governments and tribes would forever be examining the consequences of each and every policy.”

An article the following day criticised John Key for his stance and was critical of the business sector for scrambling to oppose the scheme at the last minute: “The point is this: climate change policy is foreign and trade policy, as well as economic and environment policy. Key seems not to get that yet.”

An online forum established by the New Zealand Herald on September 9, “What do you think of National’s energy policy?”, gives some brief detail of National’s policy, and says: “Labour says the policy shows a lack of commitment to combatting climate change. What do you think of National’s energy policy?” and invites people to have their say.

By early October, there were 18 pages of peoples’ comments on the issue.

Between September 9 and 12, the Herald ran a three-part series on the ETS. These items were given high visibility, appearing on the second page of the paper. On two of these occasions the entire page was devoted to the ETS.

All three parts of this series related the bill to economic outcomes. The first item in the series, “Bill makes polluters pay the cost” (September 9), said the scheme would “have economy-wide effects on inflation and growth as well as on the Government’s finances.”

The article weighs outcomes for industrial polluters and taxpayers, and is presented with balance. “What the ETS does is devolve that responsibility from taxpayers to the firms and individuals whose decisions ultimately determine how large those emissions are.”

September 10 saw the second of the Herald‘s ETS series, with page two taken up by three items.
“Kyoto power costs pass to consumers” detailed what the ETS would mean to electricity consumers. Electricity producers’ added costs would trickle down to consumers, the article said.

Various politicians gave their views damning the government for rushing the legislation: “National said the Government was rushing through with reckless irresponsibility. The bill has implications for every household.”

On the same page were two briefer items. “New rules unfair, say large industries” portrayed large industry figures complaining about the ETS. An attempt at balance was given at the end of the article, with Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society saying “industry always had an incentive to overstate the costs…and pass those costs onto someone else.”

The third, briefer item, “Just one more step to go,” outlined the final stages of the legislation, which was passed later that day.

The final of the three-part series appeared on September 12, once again taking up all of page two. The lead item, “Farmers fear being hung out to dry,” was self explanatory in its headline. It was an extensive article, and detailed the effects of the ETS on farming, giving a balanced account of the government’s treatment – through the ETS – of the farming sector.

“It’s hard to see how the Government could have struck a much fairer deal short of largely absolving farmers – and even that door still waits further down the track.”

An article appearing on the same page, “Expensive flip side to forestry”, explored the dichotomy the forestry sector faced under the ETS. While forestry was one of the main benefits for NZ in terms of the Kyoto protocol (more trees = good), once those forests were felled “the country will have to account for those emissions.” It was a concise item explaining forestry outcomes and the Government’s role in this area.

The third item was a brief analysis of the results of an online poll. It did not provide details of the ETS, but explained that while there was a lot of support for the scheme, many people were ill-informed about it: “There are widely varying levels of comprehension.”

Christchurch Press

The Christchurch Press had no ETS-specific articles during the week assessed by NewsWire, although the scheme was mentioned briefly in an article covering the Prime Minister’s announcement of the election date: “They also finally managed to pass the landmark Emissions Trading Scheme legislation after months of wrangling.”

Radio NZ National

Radio NZ National had three ETS items from the week in question available on its website.
On September 10, Checkpoint ran a brief item about the bill’s imminent passing.

It said Parliament was called into urgency to pass several bills including the ETS. Reporter Chris Bramwell predicted a 9pm passing of the bill and said the Greens were concerned at the rush.

The item gave an overview of when the scheme would come into practice and explained that there was more time to develop specific regulations, as the passing of the bill was “only the beginning of the process”.

Asked how consumers would be affected, Bramwell said the insulation of homes would begin next July. She also cited higher power bills and fuel prices as likely outcomes.

At the end of the piece, Bramwell mentioned National’s desire for more submissions on the bill and its worry that New Zealand’s and Australia’s schemes might not be compatible, although officials from both countries have said they are.

Morning Report ran a well-balanced item, “Emissions Trading Scheme Bill Passed”, on September 11, as well as a shorter item detailing the effects of the ETS on consumers.

The excerpt for the first item read: “The legislation is said to herald the most significant change to the economy since Rogernomics.”

Sean Plunket provided a brief explanation of the bill, and said “it was largely ignored in its early stages”.

Catherine Baird from the Greenhouse Policy Coalition (representing business emitters) was critical of the current scheme and suggested better alternatives. She said big polluters would simply end up overseas.

Victoria University’s director environmental studies Ralph Chapman did not agree with Ms Baird and said NZ businesses and the public would adjust. He did not feel people would be overwhelmed by sudden power bill price increases, as electricity companies would ease in changes rather than raise prices abruptly in 2010.

The second item was presented by Chris Bramwell and focused on the effect of the ETS on consumers. Consumers would not realise the impact of the ETS until 2010 when there was expected to be a 7.5% increase in electricity prices. She reported the government had said it would give a rebate to equal this price rise.

The item explained the Green Party had obtained – as part of a deal with the Government – a guarantee $1 billion dollars would be made available over the next 15 years to use for insulating homes.

Listeners were also told ETS would result in increased petrol and farming costs, leading to a higher price for goods.

Radio New Zealand’s treatment of the issue was balanced and gave sufficient detail to ensure listeners would be well-informed. Information was provided in a to-the-point manner, omitting unnecessary detail.

Dominion Post

The Dominion Post carried five articles about the Emissions Trading Scheme between September 7 and 14, three of which were opinion pieces.

On the September 8, it had an editorial which said: “…it is absurd that Labour believed it needed to stitch together a series of backroom deals and then pull out all the stops to rush through an emissions trading scheme in the final few days of Parliament before the election…”

The world would gain little from New Zealand’s rush, but we risked losing a lot through a flawed scheme, it said.

The business section on September 8 featured a damning article on the scheme written by the Federated Farmers president of Don Nicolson. It said Parliament had made a bad mistake by passing it.

“NZ produces food which is becoming scarce globally. It doesn’t make sense to push our farmers out of business,” he wrote.  “The ETS jeopardises the NZ economy and it will have little, if any chance of achieving the global environmental outcomes suggested.”

On 9 September, the Dominion Post opinion section had a lengthy piece by Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

She began on the defensive in response to the extensive criticism of the scheme, particularly of the changes that were rushed through before the act was passed: “…we negotiated our improvements to the bill openly, told the country what we were seeking, listened to submitters at the select committee, and persuaded the Government to take their advice.

“Carbon price will stimulate innovation, technology, change and wiser behaviour so that we turn around out rising emissions and head down to a sustainable future,” she wrote.

Two days later, a news report titled “Emissions bill passes despite opposition”, appeared in the paper’s first section.

“Controversial climate-change legislation that forces polluting industries to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions has passed into law, with far-reaching consequences for the public.”

The story said most big businesses shared National’s concerns and many had expressed disappointment that appeals for the legislation to be reconsidered was ignored.

He quoted National’s climate-change spokesman, Nick Smith, who said the bill had been rushed and could do serious damage to the economy, lowering living standards: “This bill in its current form represents a hospital pass for whoever forms the next government.”

On 9 September, in a page two lead, headed “What is it?”,  journalist Emily Watt looked at the costs the scheme would bring to the public.

“The scheme will cost households about $3000 a year by 2025, according to a report by the Institute of Economic Research.”

The article made some strong statements about the implications of the scheme, including increased unemployment, but with little to substantiate them.

TVNZ

The day before the act was passed, TVNZ presented a magazine piece on how well New Zealanders understood the scheme.

“The new ETS is so important the politicians have been arguing about it for months while most of us have no idea,” the reporter said.

People on the street were interviewed and they said unanimously they had no understanding of the scheme whatsoever.

On the 11th of the month, TVNZ broadcast a piece on the passing of the act being hailed by the Kyoto Forestry Association.

“Forestry was always going to be New Zealand’s least-cost answer to reducing our Kyoto liability and genuinely fighting climate change…the legislation will kick-start new planting from 2009 onwards,” said KFA spokesman Roger Dickie.

Jeanette Fitzsimons was also quoted in the piece: “We must also work in international forums to get the United States and the larger developing countries to sign up to an international agreement on climate change.”

Another perspective came from the Federated Farmers president, Mr Nicholson.

“The reality is it will cost New Zealand significant real money. And [it] is unlikely to achieve the global outcomes sought…For some politicians, the passing of this bill is seen as a clever political public relations stunt.”

In another brief piece on the same day, Federated Farmers warned New Zealanders to expect soaring food prices.  Head of the federation’s dairy division, Frank Brenmuhl, said the Government had done a poor job explaining how the ETS would affect everyday New Zealanders.

Scoop

Scoop presented many perspectives, by running a number of press releases from a variety of sources, including the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, the Government, and the Business Council for Sustainable Development.

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