The Paris agreement has been warmly received around the world; finally we have an international agreement that has lived up to the hype. But let’s be honest, our expectations have been surpassed only because they have been lowered over many years of disappointment.
What does the agreement mean for the world, and for us in Aotearoa New Zealand? While Paris is a step in the right direction, the world is far from safe yet. Meanwhile, back home on the farm Messrs Groser and Key assure us that all is well and no urgent action is needed. Are they for real?
1.5 or 2 degrees
A big focus of the media coverage has been the aspiration to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees only. This was in response to the concerns of the countries that will be hardest hit by climate change, such as our neighbours in the Pacific, as well as the reality that every new piece of science evidence that comes out confirms warming is speeding up and 2 degrees could be too far into the territory of unpredictable climate change. The main concern is sea level rise.
It is all great intent, but intent is not action – without that it’s hot air. The pledges made in Paris only get us halfway to the goal of staying under 2 degrees anyway, so restricting warming to 1.5 degrees is another mountain to climb. And in the case of many countries, including New Zealand, there is as yet no credible plan to deliver on the existing pledges even. In diplomatic speak, 1.5 degrees should be seen as ‘aspirational’ – in English that means ‘pretty bloody unlikely’.
The New York Times has summarised the situation facing us nicely:
A serious campaign to meet 1.5 degrees would mean that in less than two decades, the nations of the world would likely have to bring an end to gasoline cars, to coal- or gas-burning power plants in their current form, and to planes or ships powered by fossil fuels.
Countries have offered no plans that would come remotely close to achieving either 1.5 or 2 degrees and, given the current state of technology, it is difficult to see how they could be achieved. No wonder some scientists dismissed the tighter temperature targets as feel-good measures with no real meaning.
More likely, by highlighting the gulf between humanity’s stated goals and its plans to achieve them, the climate deal may spur a more intensive worldwide push.
What does it mean for New Zealand? Nothing, apparently
Both John Key and Tim Groser stress that nothing much needs to change for Aotearoa New Zealand as a result of this agreement. That’s just rubbish.
Today both Mr Groser and Prime Minister Key were defending as adequate their pledge to reduce our emissions by 11% by 2030, underlining how much of a ‘stretch’ this target would be. As we have pointed out recently, the government has exaggerated the costs of meeting the target , but the main reason the costs are so high is because we have done nothing to reduce emissions so far, so to get down below 1990 emissions levels now is just that much further to travel. Who’s fault is that? Ironically the true costs of reducing emissions are far smaller than other Government priorities which are considered affordable. So there’s more than a little selective hyperbole in this Government’s public statements about New Zealand’s high costs of emissions reduction.
Despite these hollow justifications, Aotearoa New Zealand has emerged from the negotiations with its weak target intact. This is unlikely to last however as our pledge is completely out of step with either a 2 degree target or the 1.5 degree aspiration. That will become clear in planned 5 yearly reviews of our emissions reduction pledges, which will inevitably require us to ratchet up our pathetic level of commitment. Mr Groser has in fact acknowledged that NZ will “come under huge pressure to strengthen its emissions reduction target in 2020” – but still claims the Government doesn’t have to change any policies in the meantime. He’s a dreamer.
Messrs Groser and Key’s justification for their ‘do nothing’ outcome is that technology will save us, or failing that, we will buy our way out of trouble. Yeah right.
Technology will save us!
The Ministers continue to parrot the line that technology will save us from having to take action, particularly on agriculture.
Unfortunately, the experts don’t agree with our politicians. Economist Brian Fallow has pointed out that research is all well and good, but if people don’t have the incentives to take up new technology, why would they? That is one problem with continuing to exclude agriculture from the Emissions Trading Scheme – without a price on emissions, farmers have no incentive to innovate. Do we need to wait until our products are blacklisted?
Meanwhile the scientists involved in the bovine emissions reductions research have talked down the possibility of science providing the full answer, saying that reducing methane emissions from livestock by around 30% might be a more realistic expectation. That best outcome equates only to 15% of the number required for carbon neutrality.
Or we can buy our way out of trouble
If technology doesn’t come off, never fear – we can buy our way out of trouble as we have in the past. While the Paris agreement leaves room for this sort of trading, it will need to be very different to the trading we have done in the past.
It is all very well to pay someone else to reduce their emissions instead of us reducing emissions here. But – and it is a big but – we have to be certain that the people we are buying credits off are actually reducing their emissions. The Kyoto carbon market descended into a farce, getting flooded by fraudulent ‘hot air’ credits, of which New Zealand was one of the biggest buyers.
If we are to maintain our credibility going forward we have to make sure any market we participate in has integrity. The most likely way to achieve this in the short term is for the Government to work with a handful of developing country partners to help them protect and restore their forests. This would take more of an investment than buying up cheap but illicit ‘hot air’ credits as we have in the past.
Buying our way out of trouble creates longer-term problems; it ignores the reality – enshrined in the Paris Agreement – that we need to get net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero in the second half of this century. Buying credits is at best a short-term fix – we will be paying more and more each year to bridge the gap between our emissions and our targets. This is why it’s always been regarded internationally as a supplementary measure, and not to be a country’s main act. Of course New Zealand has increased its domestic emissions, so buying credits is the only contribution we have made to combating climate change. And most of those were fraudulent. So we have contributed nothing.
The only long-term answer is to transition to a low carbon economy. The sooner the better, because the later we leave it, the more it will cost.