NZ government to consult on Paris emissions target

NZemissionsconsult.jpgClimate change minister Tim Groser announced yesterday that the government is to consult on a post-2020 emissions target to present at the UNFCC conference in Paris in December. The consultation process is open to written submissions now, and there will be a series of public meetings and hui starting in Nelson on Wed May 13, finishing in Christchurch on May 20. Submissions close on June 3. In his press release, Groser said:

“New Zealand wants to set a target which is environmentally credible and reflects our particular circumstances.  But we also need to consider the possible impacts and costs to our economy.”

Reasonable enough, but Groser then starts a pitch that sounds suspiciously as though he’s preparing the ground for an unambitious target:

“Increasing our commitment after 2020 will be a big challenge, as nearly half of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture and 80 per cent of our electricity already comes from renewable sources. The easy gains have already been made. But we are expected to make a fair contribution to combating this global problem.”

This impression is confirmed by a quick reading of the discussion document issued by the Ministry for the Environment to accompany the process. Much is made of the difficulties of cutting emissions, and the costs they will impose on the economy, but there is no apparent effort to quantify the risks of inaction, or the benefits to be delivered by the economic transformation to a low-carbon economy.

One of principal reasons that cutting emissions will be “challenging” is of course that Groser and his cabinet colleagues dismantled a comprehensive set of emissions policies inherited from the previous Labour-led government, mismanaged the emissions trading scheme so as to create a laughably low effective carbon price, stymied new forestry planting, and refused to bring agriculture into the ETS. It’s always harder to get somewhere if you’ve spent the last six years pedalling in the wrong direction.

I’ll be commenting further on the discussion document in due course, but as Brian Fallow in the Herald notes, I am not alone in finding Groser’s approach unpersuasive.

Being a cynic, I suspect that this whole rushed process is being offered as a fig leaf for a lack of ambition — about managing expectations downwards, rather genuinely seeking ideas with a view to creating good and effective policy. In the meantime, I urge Hot Topic‘s readers to prepare submissions, make an effort to attend one of the public meetings, and lobby the government for an ambitious set of emissions targets. We can but try…

Milk cow blues: dirty dairy costs NZ dear, but methane cuts might work

There’s good news and bad news for New Zealand’s dairy industry this week. On the one hand, research has found a number of compounds that can cut methane emissions from ruminants (cows and sheep) by up to 90% by reducing populations of the bacteria that produce the gas. On the other hand, research into the external costs of dairying — the costs not currently born by dairy companies — suggest that dairying’s value to the NZ economy may amount to a “zero sum” game. At the very least the national income generated by dairy sales is significantly offset by the costs of remediating the environmental impacts caused by that farming — costs that are born by the general tax payer, not agribusiness — according to a team from Massey University.

The good news on methane was announced this week at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Conference 2015. Agresearch Principal Scientist Dr Peter Janssen told Radio NZ:

It’s a very exciting result but there’s still a lot of checking to be done before you actually get something that a farmer can use safely.

Interviewed by the NZ Herald, Dr Rick Pridmore, chairman of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, was upbeat:

The results are significant for two reasons. First, because they work on livestock consuming a grass-based diet and, second because the short-term trials showed such dramatic results,” he said.

However, it might take up to 5 years for these treatments to reach farmers, as the compounds are tested for the possibility of residues in meat and milk.

Cutting methane emissions might reduce diary farmers’ liability under an emissions trading scheme that included agriculture — they are at present excluded — but would have no impact on the other external costs calculated in a new paper, New Zealand Dairy Farming: Milking Our Environment for All Its Worth, which suggests that the costs of repairing the environmental damage done by intensive dairying approaches the value generated by the activity.

One of the authors, Dr Mike Joy told Stuff:

A strong message from the study is that avoiding pollution is far cheaper for everyone than trying to clean it up afterwards and there is now ample evidence that farmers can make more profit and pollute less when not myopically chasing increased production.

Unsurprisingly, the costs calculated in the paper are vigorously contested by farming organisations and some academics, but will chime with New Zealanders concerned that the rapid expansion of industrial dairying is significantly degrading important rural environments and chipping away at what’s left of NZ’s so-called clean green image.

[The Kinks]

NZ’s emissions target scam – Groser & Co’s creative accounting exposed

Simon Johnson (aka MrFebruary) looks at how climate change minister Tim Groser and the National-led government intend to use creative carbon accounting to ensure that New Zealand meets its 2020 climate change target (a five percent reduction) in spite of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) projected to increase to 2020 and beyond.

On 10 April 2015, when he was releasing the latest inventory of greenhouse gases, the Minister for Climate Change Issues Tim Groser made this very confident statement about the NZ 2020 climate change target; “We’re well on track to meet our 2020 target”

That target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to five per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

When this was announced in 2013 the target was criticised as useless, pathetic and inadequate.

The five percent reduction stands in stark contrast to the Ministry for the Environments projections of increasing emissions out to 2020. The Ministry estimates that the increase in gross (total) emissions in 2020 will be 29% above the 1990 baseline (from 60 to 77 million tonnes) and the increase in net emissions (gross less any increase in the stock of carbon stored in forests) to 2020 will be 130% (from 33 to 75 million tonnes). So why is Tim Groser so confident that the target will be achieved?

Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council has commented on the ‘kicking the can down the road’ features of the Government’s climate change policies: the mismatch between the emissions target and the predicted emissions, the absence of a credible plan or carbon budget approach and the deferring of liabilities into the future.

Taking Simon Terry’s work as a starting point, I am going to look at how the Government intends to apply the accounting rules for carbon credits to achieve the 2020 target in spite of the likely predicted increase in gross and net greenhouse gas emissions.

So how is NZ going to reduce emissions by five percent by 2020?

Continue reading “NZ’s emissions target scam – Groser & Co’s creative accounting exposed”

The encroaching sea: new NZ sea level rise maps

This guest post is by Jonathan Musther, who has just published an amazing series of highly detailed maps projecting future sea level rise scenarios onto the New Zealand coastline. If you live within cooee of the sea, you need to explore his maps. Below he explains why he embarked on the project.

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The effect of 10m sea level rise on Christchurch: say goodbye to St Albans, prepare to paddle in the CBD. Full map here.

For humans, sea-level rise will almost certainly be the most directly observable effect of climate change, and specifically of global warming. As the climate changes, many of the effects will be subtle, or if not subtle, they will at least be very complex. Summers may be warmer, or cooler; we may experience more rain at some times of year, and less at others; tropical storms may increase and they may be sustained further from the equator, but all of these changes are complex, and not necessarily obvious against the background complexity of any climate system. In contrast, there is something obvious and unstoppable about sea-level rise, there is no question that it will send anyone in its path running for the hills.

For some time I have been involved in searching for land appropriate for specific uses such as arable farming, water catchment, and off-grid living. When searching for land in this way, there are many, many criteria to consider, and of course one of these is potential future sea-level. Using GIS (Geographical Information System) software, and elevation models of the New Zealand landscape, it is possible to visualise sea-level rise, and select sites accordingly. Naturally, the next question is what sea-level rise to consider. It is possible to place an upper-limit on sea-level rise – after all, there’s only a finite amount of ice that could melt – but beyond that, we’re limited to informed guesswork.

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25m sea level rise: a sunken city and Banks Island. Full map here.

What is the maximum possible sea-level rise? It depends who you ask. Many sources place the maximum potential sea-level rise at around 60-64 metres, but these figures are rarely referenced, and don’t concur with the latest research. Other sources place the figure at around 80-81.5 metres, and while this appears to be well referenced and researched, it is based on work that is somewhat out of date. The best estimates I’ve been able to locate, based on recent measurements (and lots of them) are around 70 metres, but quite what the margin of error is remains uncertain. Of course, when considering future sea-level, we must remember that here in the South Pacific, we will likely experience increased numbers of more powerful tropical storms, with associated storm surges.

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At 80m, West Melton is a seaside township. Full map here.

The maps I created showing sea-level rise for the whole of New Zealand depict rises of 10, 25 and 80 metres. I have certainly received criticism for not focussing on more modest sea-level rises (e.g. 1 or 2 metres), but there are some good reasons for this: firstly, the resolution of the elevation models of New Zealand do not allow accurate predictions of such small rises. Secondly, larger sea-level rises pose a huge threat, and are therefore worth considering. I made a point of avoiding time frame predictions when producing the sea-level rise maps, partly because the time frame is largely irrelevant (if 80% of our homes are flooded, it’s bad news, no matter when) and partly because the range of expert estimates is huge. Study after study shows that we have underestimated ice-sheet instability, and it is almost universally accepted that large sea-level rise will be a consequence. Unfortunately, most studies place this sea-level rise at some unspecified time in the future – when, we’re not sure, but it’s far enough away that we needn’t worry…

So is a 10 or 25 metre sea-level rise likely? Unfortunately, the broad answer is yes. The Greenland, West and East Antarctic ice sheets are showing growing instability, and many researchers agree that they may have past a ‘point of no return’. Remember, the Greenland ice sheet alone, if completely melted, would lead to approximately a 7 m rise in global sea-level. Of course, we return to the issue of when this is likely to happen, and on that, the jury is out.

I firmly believe that to be good scientists, we must investigate the possibility of large sea-level rise, and its consequences. The time frame is unclear, the absolute rise is also unclear, but there really is something unstoppable about rising oceans. We are now well outside the sphere of collective human experience and expertise, and we should be very careful to prepare, as best we can, for a range of scenarios.

Blink and its gone – spectacular time-lapse of ice retreat at Fox Glacier

This spectacular time-lapse video1 captures the dramatic retreat of the Fox Glacier in Westland over the last year — 300 metres between January 2015 and January this year. As the ice retreats, the hillside becomes unstable and collapses down into the valley. To get a sense of the scale, you can see people watching from a safe point on the bottom right.

The rapid retreat of both Fox and its neighbour Franz Josef has led to the abandonment of guided walks on the glacier tongues. The ice is now only accessible by helicopter on to the upper reaches.

The collapse of the walls of the valley at Fox (as well as rocks and sediment transported by the ice) has caused the valley floor to rise by a metre over the last two years, as measured by Massey University scientists (see also NZ Herald). They’ve also photographed the retreat over the last decade, but the most marked loss seems to be in the last few years.

NZ’s west coast glaciers are amongst the most dynamic in the world, fed by huge snowfalls in their nevées under Mt Cook — as much as 6 metres a year in the snowfield feeding the Franz-Josef, as Mauri Pelto notes here. At the moment, ice melt in the tongues of both glaciers is outpacing the ice input above, and so the glaciers are retreating fast, but a run of years with heavy snowfalls could reverse the process — at least temporarily.

  1. Created by Victoria University of Wellington with the support of Fox Glacier Guides, Department of Conservation, Snowgrass Solutions, University of Canterbury and the Marsden Fund. []