To boldly go…

targetThis article was first published in The Press on July 16. It’s a less technical version of my thoughts on where the government should pitch New Zealand’s emissions targets.

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 Australia’s climate policy:

“Climate change is a diabolical policy problem. It is harder than any other issue of high importance that has come before our polity in living memory”.

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, it’s a truly global problem. A solution is in no one country’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 won’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 weren’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 Devil’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 that’s on the agenda — a cap at 450 ppm CO2-equivalent, designed to limiting warming to 2ºC, achieved by cutting global emissions to 50% of 1990 levels — doesn’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: we’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 National’s pre-election commitment to “50 by 50”. 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 Zealand’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 NZ’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 country’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%? I’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 it’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.

26 thoughts on “To boldly go…”

  1. Now I wonder…… the science on global warming has been unequivocal for some time now. Yet major polluters, such as the United States of Denial, have done nothing, basically what the tobacco industry did when confronted with overwhelming evidence that smoking caused cancer.

    Well not exactly nothing, there was a concerted and prolonged practice of sci-quackery put forward by a number of “supposed” scientists acting on behalf of the tobacco industry. Of course carried out to cause confusion and doubt amongst politicians and the public. A tactic of delay, delay, delay. Essentially what big oil & coal are currently engaged in now with climate change denial.

    Would there be some sort of legal recourse available to countries rendered uninhabitable by global warming?. Could they drag the US government to court to face charges?. Would such a thing be even technically possible?.

  2. I wonder about the strategy of appealing for people to consider 2020 targets without detailing simple steps individuals can start with. Most people wouldn’t know how to start on 40% reductions.

    For most people, day-to-day existence is their main issue. Perhaps offering examples of convenient smaller steps that can have immediate economic advantages ( eg downsize car, reduce impulse travel, reduce energy ) will get the public started.

    Issues like agricultural emission reductions probably need more intervention, as there will be serious implementation costs, even when the technology is available. “Cow farts” or tree planting aren’t things that most townies have control over..

    The public generally want to help the planet, and make it better – provided the costs are reasonable and shared equitably. Continued whining about irresponsible attitudes to climate change, or even celebrity endorsements of targets, probably are a big turn-offs for most people today.

    1. Issues like agricultural emission reductions probably need more intervention, as there will be serious implementation costs

      The original cost is the actual emissions. Spending money to reduce them is attempting to recoup the cost.

    2. Oh hello Bruce.
      How are you? I haven’t really been paying much attention here for the last few months. Have I just missed seeing you?

      I think it is more about moral high ground. Asking for big cuts now and not getting them gives “them” the right to say “I told you so” when even more drastic cuts are required. Just like membership of some activist groups: you get a bumper sticker and pay someone else to worry for you. (Douglas Adams wrote of a future form of prostitution where rich people pay to be told it is OK to be rich).

          1. But seriously, is it emissions you have a problem with or just rich people/nations?

            Anyone with a half a brain can see the UNFCCC adaptation and mitigation funds will become global socialist funds.

  3. Hi Doug,
    “How are you? I haven’t really been paying much attention here for the last few months. Have I just missed seeing you?”

    No. I’m just starting to raise my profile a little in the blogosphere , but it’s rather depressing that sanctimonious preaching, rather than effective implementation, is the only visible outcome of the recent climate change concerns. This site is an obvious exception, but the messages aren’t always….

    “The original cost is the actual emissions. Spending money to reduce them is attempting to recoup the cost.”

    No. The mitigation would be to reduce future agricultural emissions, and the existing CO2 atmosphere concentration would not be a cost of that practice. But it’s claims like yours that will discourage ordinary people from taking the correct message and actioning it.

    In my opinion, the message should be to minimise further harm now by reducing emissions where-ever we can, not planting trees to buy time. We currently have no simple, economic method to perpertually sequester historical emissions.

    As I’ve been saying for over a decade, we don’t need 1000-2000 kg cars to transport one or two 100kg people. People understood that, but still bought ” just-in-case” SUVs, only slowing when crude oil price looked as though it was only trending up. SUVs and large vehicles are, once again, popular purchases – an oppurtunity missed.

    People need incentives ( eg more credit when replacing old and inefficient vehicles, small cars only lanes ) or discouragement ( no SUVs stopping within 200m of schools, reverting to registration fees based on fuel consumption, no large company cars etc. ) .

    Lots of small steps to get everybody walking in the same direction, rather than ” let’s have 50 tonne trucks without costly anti-intrusion barriers, so we can take out careless/unlucky motorists in small vehicles that are cluttering up the highway “.

    1. In my opinion, the message should be to minimise further harm now by reducing emissions where-ever we can, not planting trees to buy time. We currently have no simple, economic method to perpetually sequester historical emissions.

      We have to do both (small steps and trees). Preferably without 50 tonne trucks, too. I like the idea of incentives to encourage replacement of old/inefficient vehicles. When I replaced my old V8 with a French diesel, my carbon footprint became more like a carbon toeprint.

      I haven’t done the sums, but i would suspect that tree planting and bush regeneration (dead possums) could handle any irreducible emissions NZ might have, provided that they are not used as an excuse for not reducing emissions in the first place.

      In one sense, you’re talking about the difference between top down and bottom up approaches to emissions reductions — and you need both: you need the solar hot water and switching to efficient vehicles, and the big decisions on energy infrastructure etc.

  4. (me) “The original cost is the actual emissions. Spending money to reduce them is attempting to recoup the cost.”

    No. The mitigation would be to reduce future agricultural emissions, and the existing CO2 atmosphere concentration would not be a cost of that practice. But it’s claims like yours that will discourage ordinary people from taking the correct message and actioning it.

    Hmm. Perhaps I’m getting the terminology wrong. I agree that the COâ‚‚ in the atmosphere isn’t a cost – not directly, indirectly it comes into it on a global level – it dictates the global threshold as to how many credits or allocated, or must be made up.

    I’m just saying that all emissions come at a cost – looking at merely the balance of costs vs mitigations (or allocated credits) and calling that the cost is hiding the real problem.

    In my opinion, the message should be to minimise further harm now by reducing emissions where-ever we can, not planting trees to buy time. We currently have no simple, economic method to perpertually sequester historical emissions.

    This “forestry only buys time” meme is one that Nick Smith was using and really must die. It is only true if you’re planning on burning down the forest the instant that it comes of age (as Kyoto rules currently state). Leave it up, the carbon is permanently sequestered. This could buy us enough time to reduce world COâ‚‚ levels to 350ppm. Also, with enough untouched forest worldwide it will continue to sequester carbon – even without the simple and economic (but perhaps unproven) approach of Biochar. If milled timber products are also viewed to sequesterr carbon for their lifetime, then this can help even further – buying another 100 years (for building timber, eg) would be significant.

    1. But if we reduce our emissions by 40% by planing forests, this only buys time.

      As we (NZ inc) can not just keep planting permanent forests forever, as we will run out of land. Sooner or later we will need that technological breakthrough or that sociological change that is going to reduce our gross emissions.

  5. Samv…
    “Leave it up, the carbon is permanently sequestered. This could buy us enough time to reduce world COâ‚‚ levels to 350ppm. Also, with enough untouched forest worldwide it will continue to sequester carbon – even without the simple and economic (but perhaps unproven) approach of Biochar. ”

    I suspect we differ on “permanent”. Forests are dynamic, once mature they will degrade/renew – no more sequestration, just an equilibrium.
    If you’ve ever walked through tropical rainforest for a few days, you will hear falling branches, timber etc.

    The issue of nitrogen constraints, nitrous oxide production, soil, litter etc. from mature forests adds complexity to climate change calculations.
    The forestry industry should be sustainable, and may temporarily sequester CO2, but a couple of decades of growth shouldn’t be an excuse for procrastination. Whilst the trunk might last a little while longer after harvest, the rest of the tree will be emitting CO2 back to the atmosphere.

    My concern is that 40% nett target may smother choice. Yes, we should plant forests, but the maximum rate sequestration species ( eg 28 year cropping pine etc ) will be favoured by bean counters. They may, in the long term, be less beneficial to the ecosystem than long life, slower growth, natives.

    I agree that we should have both top down and bottom up solutions, but I’m still concerned that, after nearly a decade, climate change hasn’t got much buy-in from Joe Public. There is an air of complacency, and procrastination will always be a preferred option.

    If NZ showed some leadership, first in the small scale ( individual actions ), then in the larger scale ( eg agricultural ), we will be less likely to be held hostage by future greenmail for our vital exports.

  6. For R2 at #9:

    Anyone with a half a brain can see the UNFCCC adaptation and mitigation funds will become global socialist funds.

    That explains a lot… because those of us with the full complement of brain cells can see that’s nonsense.

  7. R2D2

    “Whats not OK about being rich?”

    Hervé Kempf, the environmental editor of Le Monde, has written a book called How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, which offers at least one answer to your question. I didn’t review it on Hot Topic because its scope is a little wider than that normally covered by the site, but I did review it on Celsias here if you’re interested to have a look.

    1. Not surprising. While there are many right wing enviromentally inclined people like myself, it is the left that embraces environmentalism with religious zeal because the of socialistic opportunities.

      Gareth, you laugh at my comment. Do you disagree that the funds being proposed under the UNFCCC negotiating process will result in a transfer of wealth from rich nations to the poor? Is this not socialism?

      If you don’t believe that the UN is a socialist organisation watch the following clip:

        1. Is it equitable for hard working New Zealand farmers to pay for wind farms in Africa?

          Does our government not already spend money on foreign aid?

          Equity does not mean the rich give money to the poor, it is where deals are fair and equal. Is it fair NZ is punished for producing food? While Russia is rewarded for dirty industry in the 90’s, and an economic collapse after the USSR collapsed?

          The path to hell is paved with good intentions. These funds may be intended for the good of the world, but I fear they will become bureaucratic slush funds. Impossible to have the necessary oversight, susceptible to corruption. Where are we going to be in 20 years (don’t answer something about warming- im talking politically)? Is the UN going to have larger revenues than most nations?

          My thoughts are if we want to engage in this we run it out of NZ. Fund from the government level. We then have oversight and control.

          (replying to Gareth, regards adaptation and mitigation funds)

  8. …we run it out of NZ. Fund from the government level.

    Ahem. Are you now arguing for massive government intervention?

    International linkage is supposed to deliver access to least cost emissions reductions, and thereby minimise the cost to NZ. Doing it all within NZ is a nice idea, and I certainly think we should do as much as we can within our own borders, but not if the most cost-effective reductions are available overseas…

  9. Yeah your right, running it from NZ would be the lesser of two evils. Nothing at all would be better.

    Your second point is confused. Yes international linkage will allow least cost solutions. But it is the CDM that I am critical of. These are a disaster. I do not believe the CDM works to minimise global emissions at least cost.

    You could also address some of my other points, ie the massive UN revenues, oversight and control issues.

  10. CDMs have not been perfect, but they are a start. A very large amount of money (I seem to recall it was of the order of $30B) has gone to help clean development. Something similar has to be a feature of any K2 deal…

    There will be no “massive UN revenues”, because CDMs etc are counter party deals. The rules for such may be set by protocols mediated by the UN, but the UN does not hold or intermediate funds. These things are designed to work within the current system, not impose a new one. Unless, of course, you’re wearing a tinfoil hat.

    1. As usual you have misrepresented what I have said.

      Read: “other points”. Not CDM’s.

      Massive revenues will come from adaptation fund and mitigation, and possibly technology fund. Proposals for how these will be funded vary, they could be assigned units and then auction them off, or there may be a charge (suggested US$2) per unit etc

      Tin foil hat. Yes very mature.

      Its actually all contained in the text (if you would read it instead of just proclaiming to have a superior understanding of UNFCCC):

      http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/awglca6/eng/inf01.pdf

      Try Section 4, titled “Enhanced Action on Financing”

      For example, this dozey:

      “the level of the new funding is initially set at between o.5 to 1per cent of the GDP of developed country Parties and other developed Parties included in Annex II of the Convention; and
      (d) the Executive Board, established to govern and manage the financial mechanism shall determine the allocations for mitigation and adaptation, to be periodically reviewed, taking into account the historical imbalances in and the urgency of funding for adaptation.”

      SO does this not suggest we are giving aid (climate aid), but are losing oversight and control to the UN ‘Executive Board’?

      These are all only alternative proposals at this stage, sure. But I am fine to be worried that even if they are not accepted this time around they are sure to pop up again, and even a compromise would be significant, I imagine 0.1% of GDP of developed country parties is a significant number.

      (But para 173 and alternative options are the real killers – I urge you, please read them, and stop dismissing this as crazy talk (option 1: 0.5-2% of GDP, option 2: % of all aau’s, option 3: US$2 per unit levy, option4: international travel and transport tax (would hurt nz exports more than US tariff bill), option 5: travel tax, option 6: share of trading proceeds, option 7: A 2% TAX ON ALL FOREX TRANSACTIONS (again would hurt trade), option 8: penalties and fines on developed countries for not meeting targets, plus domestic ETS leverage and 3rd world debt relief in exchange for mitigation) some list right?)

      1. The UN has a role to play in setting up the structures, but I think it’s safe to assume that the big players (ie US, Russia, China, EU etc) will not be ceding control of anything to anyone except themselves.

        The options for funding are just that, options. What finally emerges from the all the negotiations remains to be seen, but international taxes/levies of any kind look very unlikely.

        The “crazy talk” comes from you: “the UNFCCC adaptation and mitigation funds will become global socialist funds.”

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