Renwick on NZ’s 11% cut: follow us down the path to catastrophe

RenwickThis guest post is by Carbon News editor Adelia Hallett, published with permission.

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.

Warmer world

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”.

8 thoughts on “Renwick on NZ’s 11% cut: follow us down the path to catastrophe”

  1. Squawk-ZB’s resident “expert” – the esteemed Leighton Smith – has been mouthing off about NZ’s target(s) – presumably he and his business-Right pals think even that miniscule commitment is too great … someone should give the guy a good dressing down.

    1. The report on the “consultation” makes it clear that such people had an almost vanishingly small presence among the 17000 submitters the vast majority of whom would agree with the views expressed in this Carbon News article.

  2. What gets me is the lack of imagination, the lack of vision, from our political leaders. Maybe you have to be immersed in the science for 30 years to “get it”, but I don’t really think so. If history is anything to go by, we will just keep accelerating until we power over the cliff. Awesome.

  3. It’s called cognitive dissonance:

    In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

    Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. my bold.

    The Government is really only wanting to listen to the people who are their supporters – namely the farming lobby and the “employers and manufactures” although there are precious few manufactures in NZ (most manufacturing jobs having been exported to China these days). If you think your livelihood is dependent upon practices that emit GHG’s, then you really are not that interested in wanting to find out that emitting more, is causing problems.

  4. I wish the press would call Tim Grosser out on the questionable legality at international law of NZs decision not to lead but to follow on climate change commitments.

    In the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 NZ committed, along with other developed countries, to take the lead on climate change and assisting developing countries, including small island states vulnerable to sea level rise.

    Pre-UNFCCC resolutions, for example, resolution 44/228 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1989 stated that:
    9. Notes that the largest part of the current emission of pollutants into the environment, including toxic and hazardous wastes, originates in developed countries, and therefore recognizes that those countries have the main responsibility for combating such pollution.

    Then the UNFCCC itself says that NZ, as an Annex I country, agrees to undertake mitigation efforts beyond those of developing countries, and further, as an Annex II country, undertakes to provide financial and technical assistance to ‘developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change (Article 4(2) and 4(3)-(6).

    Now Minister Grosser says NZ cant lead because it needs to provide technical assistance to its own agriculture sector to reduce methane emissions and protect NZ’s high impact dairy sector. That seems to be the antithesis of NZ’s undertakings in 1992. It means NZ’s INDC, developed to fulfil the intentions of the UNFCCC, isnt consistent with international law which NZ has ratified.

    1. Interesting points Tom, particularly after the Dutch court ruling on the subject:
      Court ruling (English) here

      Nature News Commentary here

      From the Nature article”

      “This is a landmark ruling,” says James Thornton, the London-based chief executive of Client Earth, an international group of environmental lawyers. “Most remarkably, it is based in essence on established science and the ancient principle of a government’s duty of care. That reasoning is applicable in any legal system and will certainly be used by courts in other countries.” A similar lawsuit has been filed in Belgium, he says.

    2. “I wish the press would call Tim Grosser out on the questionable legality at international law of NZs decision not to lead but to follow on climate change commitments.”
      Sorry, Tom, the press are in it up to their ears. The ChCh Press appeared to support the Guardian’s move to stop publishing erroneous denial claims, but still allow Joe Fone to slobber his customary bib-full or denial ordure.
      I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they are going to call Grosser out & don’t know if the other dailies are any better.

      1. RadioNZ did on this morning’s news quoting a group of overseas climate scientists on NZ’s 30%=11% target, not in line with USA and Europe, and a method of accounting relying on forestry that is likely to turn into emissions.

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