New Zealand will face droughts, floods, fires, social upheaval and catastrophic global economic damage if the world follows the country’s lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, says one of our leading climate experts. Dr James Renwick – Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University, an International Panel on Climate Change lead author, and formerly a principal scientist at the National Institute on Water and Atmosphere – says that cutting emissions at the rate that New Zealand proposes would lead to at least 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century.
That’s warmer than at any time in the history of human agriculture and settlement, which started around 10,000 years ago.
The Government announced on Tuesday that New Zealand would go to international climate change negotiations in Paris later this year with a post-2020 emissions reduction target (known as an Intended Nationally Determined Commitment, or INDC) of 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s the same as 11.2 per cent below 1990 levels. New Zealand also has a target of halving emissions on 1990 levels by 2050.
Renwick says the targets will not prevent warming of more than 2 degrees, something the Government has said it wants to do.
“The science says, compared to 1990, we need about a 40 per cent reduction by 2030, 90 per cent by 2050, and 100 per cent by 2060 – and then negative emissions (removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) for the rest of the century,” he said. Cutting emissions at the rate New Zealand is proposing would see the world warmer than it has been for at least 100,000 years, and probably for two to three million years, he says.
“Drought frequency in the east and north of New Zealand would be occurring with double or triple the frequency we experience now,” he said.
“The fire season would be several weeks longer. The chance of heavy rain and flooding such as we’ve seen the past couple of months would increase by a factor of roughly five to 10. The ski industry would be limited to the higher fields in the South Island only. And so on.”
But the biggest issue the country would face would be problems with trading partners, he says, as crops failed in the United States, China, Russia and Australia.
“This would incur huge costs, including the costs associated with shifting the agricultural regions to follow the rains,” he said.
Rule of law
“Damage to food security and to major economies would destabilise our ability to trade internationally, and has the potential to eat away at the rule of law.”
New Zealand could also face waves of migrants fleeing climate-related problems in other parts of the world.
“The World Economic Forum’s latest global risks report places climate change at the forefront, saying it poses risks for ‘profound social instability’, i.e. wars,” Renwick said.
“This is essentially what happened in Syria – three years of drought kicked off the fighting.”
Even holding warming to 2 degrees might not be adequate to prevent many of these impacts, but it would reduce the likelihood, he says.
Renwick says that New Zealand has a responsibility to make serious emissions cuts.
“New Zealand is one of the highest emitters in the world on a per-capita basis,” he said.
“Our dependence on agriculture and our already high fraction of renewable electricity are not valid excuses for avoiding serious action. There are many things we can do, many of which will bring economic opportunities, as spelled out in the submissions made under the recent public consultation process.”
Renwick says that the New Zealand target is identical to the Canadian INDC, and similar to that of the US, but well below those of European countries.
“The Chinese INDC is hard to decipher as it is tied to future GDP growth,” he said. “In contrast some European countries are showing the way: 50 per cent reductions (compared to 1990) in Switzerland, 40 per cent reductions in Norway.
“New Zealand could be showing leadership on this issue, but it seems our policy-makers are too timid and too short-sighted. When it comes to climate change and emissions reductions, it’s a case of the slower we go, the bigger the mess”.