Climate change minister Nick Smith began his 2020 emissions target meeting in Christchurch last week by quoting Professor Ross Garnaut, the man who laid the foundations for Australiaâ€™s climate policy:
â€œClimate change is a diabolical policy problem. It is harder than any other issue of high importance that has come before our polity in living memoryâ€.
Garnaut was right. Global warming is certainly a big problem — there are none bigger — and there are three factors that make it so difficult to deal with. For a start, itâ€™s a truly global problem. A solution is in no one countryâ€™s hands — it requires all the nations of the earth to work together, in itself a heroic challenge. Secondly, we have to act now to prevent the worst effects, even though we wonâ€™t see the benefit for decades. If we wait for climate change to bite, it will already be too late to stop terrible damage. And if that werenâ€™t hard enough, we also have to make a fundamental change in the way we fuel our economies, ending our reliance on oil, coal and gas. The Devilâ€™s own problem, indeed.
Fortunately, the outline of a solution is reasonably clear. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change establishes that we have to reduce our carbon emissions so that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stops rising. The lower the point that we can stabilise those gases, the less the planet will heat up. The good news is that the international community understands this, and is moving towards an agreement on action. The bad news is that the goal thatâ€™s on the agenda — a cap at 450 ppm CO2-equivalent, designed to limiting warming to 2ÂºC, achieved by cutting global emissions to 50% of 1990 levels — doesnâ€™t look likely to work. Recent work suggests that global cuts of 70% will be needed to give us a reasonable chance of warming by only two degrees, and there is plenty of data to suggest that even if we are successful, two degrees of warming will be no picnic in the park. Some scientists suggest that we should instead be aiming to stabilise atmospheric CO2 at 350 ppm. One small problem: weâ€™re already at 387 ppm, and increasing that by 2 ppm a year. Getting to 350 means going beyond zero net emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere. This is a huge challenge, and not one the global community is likely to embark on overnight — even if the science suggests that it is necessary to prevent damaging change.
The greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere were emitted by the nations of the developed world over the last 150 years as they industrialised and became wealthy. Developing nations, most importantly China, India and Brazil, are growing fast and emitting more carbon as they do so (though their per capita emissions are still small compared to New Zealand). Those countries are unwilling to accept stringent targets and steep cuts, arguing forcefully that rich countries created the problem in the first place, and so should do most to solve it. Simple equity, together with the strong message that a deal without China and India is no deal at all, means that the developed world will have to accept steeper cuts. There are encouraging signs that this is happening, with the recent G8 meeting agreeing to an 80% goal.
New Zealand, a part of the developed world and with the fourth highest emissions per capita, has to be seen to be doing its bit. At present, the only 2050 target on the table is Nationalâ€™s pre-election commitment to â€œ50 by 50â€. To be credible in the club of rich nations, that needs to be revised downwards. If Europe and the USA are prepared to sign up to 80% by 2050, so should we. Once that move is made, the question of a suitable target for 2020 becomes clearer. Draw a straight line between 2009 and 2050, and it runs through a 25% reduction in net emissions in 2020. To me, that is the minimum credible target to which the the government should commit.
However, developing nations and Pacific island states threatened by sea level rise have called for a 40% target for the developed world — a position supported by environmental and climate campaigners, and, it should be noted, the vast majority of the public who attended the recent consultation meetings. 40% is a big ask. New Zealandâ€™s gross emissions have grown by 20% since 1990, so if the target were to be achieved by cuts alone it would be a huge and probably impossible challenge. Dr Smith, along with lobbyists for NZâ€™s big carbon emitters, are keen to ram this point home. Fortunately, Kyoto targets are for net emissions, the balance left after carbon sinks, things that remove carbon from the atmosphere — primarily forests — have been taken into account. For the current Kyoto accounting period (it ends in 2012) it looks as though forest carbon will offset all recent emissions growth and leave the countryâ€™s Kyoto carbon account roughly in balance. To get anywhere near to 40% by 2020 will therefore involve a considerable expansion of forest planting, as well as steep emissions reductions elsewhere.
So should we be bold, and aim for 40%? Iâ€™ve suggested that 25% by 2020 is the least the government should consider. It should go further, I believe, and offer to adopt a 40% target, but only if other wealthy nations commit to steep cuts. That would give our position at the negotiating table a little bit more clout, and earn the respect of our Pacific neighbours. Contingency planning for steep cuts would also be useful preparation for a world which decides — as I think will be inevitable in the future — to aim for 350 ppm CO2.
There is an additional argument — and for some itâ€™s the most powerful. Adopting a challenging target is simply the right thing to do, morally and ethically. If climate change is allowed to let rip unchecked, it will threaten the destruction of our civilisation and bring death to millions. I do not want to have to tell my grandchildren that we did too little, too late.