Why we are Global Warming Criminals

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

Given the natural assets we have – a small population with plenty of natural resources at our disposal, and plenty of scope for renewable energy – New Zealand should really be doing better at dealing with climate change. Instead we are laggards.

New Zealand enjoys over 75% of its electricity being generated from renewable sources. This is the fourth highest out of OECD countries behind Norway, Iceland and Austria, although many other poorer countries including Brazil have higher percentages. We also have a substantial forestry industry which saw our land sector remove an estimated 27 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in 2013 – an amount equivalent to roughly one third of what we’re currently emitting each year.

And yet on a per capita basis NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions are 18 tonnes, putting us amongst the 5 worst emitters in the developed world. And even if we count the carbon stored in those forests, our net emissions are 12 tonnes per person which still puts us amongst the 10 worst offenders in the developed world.

How come we are so bad?

Well agriculture has a lot to answer for. They tell us that our methane emissions from livestock are equivalent to 28.4 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. Let’s assume for a minute that calculation is crap and in fact a tonne of methane is not equivalent to 25 tonnes of CO2 but only 4 tonnes (using the alternative ‘Global Temperature Potential’ metric). Then agriculture – a pretty important industry for us right? – would only emit 4.5 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents per annum.  Then our per capita gross emissions would be 12.8 tonnes – still in the top 10.

Not that flash is it? It’s mainly our high emissions from transport and industrial heat (like all that coal Fonterra is burning to dry milk) that are letting us down.

What to Do?

This whole bruhaha about climate change took off in earnest back in 1992 when the first multinational agreement to do something about this came about. That treaty saw the world agree to collectively avoid “dangerous” levels of climate change, which has over the years been nailed down to keeping global temperature rise under a maximum of 2 degrees. Many countries including our Pacific neighbours are still pushing for a tougher limit of 1.5 degrees. We’re already up about 0.9 degrees.

The Kyoto deal was signed in 1997 and signatories agreed that the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere had to be cut, and developed countries had to lead. Participating countries set binding emissions targets for the 2008-2012 period relative to their emissions in 1990 (New Zealand’s was just to return to 1990 levels). Unfortunately the deal was seriously undermined when Bill Clinton couldn’t get support from the US Senate, and once George W. Bush took office it was game over for any US involvement.

In the context of the impact of climate change, the costs of taking action are relatively small. However, this doesn’t stop politicians squabbling over who should take action – nobody wants to be the schmuck who acts first and penalises their economy. Free riding is easier.

Negotiating a ‘fair’ solution is tricky and faces a number of barriers. One example is selecting a starting point – the year chosen under Kyoto was 1990. This was a boom year for some economies (which means lots of emissions) and a crap year for most (emissions were cyclically low). So to tell everyone you need to cut your emissions by x% from 1990 meant different things for different economies. For some (like the former Soviet bloc) it meant they had to do nothing. For others – those in recession already – it meant “try Depression”!

There are several such questions without easy answers. Who should pay to fix climate change? The people that caused the problem (rich countries), the rapidly growing economies (China and India) or the countries that will be affected (low lying nations near the equator?). Getting the rules right is also difficult – witness New Zealand who has so far been able to meet international obligations without actually doing anything to reduce emissions (by exploiting the 1990s boom in pine plantations and buying cheap, dodgy carbon credits from poor countries).

No wonder Copenhagen was a bomb out and since then several economies have decided they don’t want to play this game at all – they’d rather sign up to the school of thought that holds climate change is a load of croc. Of course they would – no politician worth their survival instinct is going to sign up to enforcing recession on the economy.

Hitting Planetary Limits

Here’s the fact though. Since the stuff is long lived, we have to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere at some point otherwise we will blow past the 2 degree threshold and start to slowly simmer. The latest IPCC report put the challenge most clearly yet: for even a two-in-three chance of staying under 2 degrees (science can’t give us a precise answer, only probabilities) we can only emit another 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 – total. At current rates, that carbon budget will be totally gone by 2035.

So we need, as a world, to transition to zero carbon emissions – yes that’s right, at some stage to be adding no more at all to the total already up there (remember carbon in the atmosphere is long-lived, very long-lived). This is the global responsibility. But how the hell are we going to achieve it?

There are new plans – New Zealand’s like many other countries is a shadow of its former undertakings. We just don’t want to play this game, it hurts too much. If every other country undertook to do the same as New Zealand has by 2030 we would be on track for a 3-4 degrees rise in global temperature – yes that’s right, we’d be pretty well buggered.

So what next? Everyone is chickening out – the politicians just aren’t up to this. Jobs are on the line – their jobs! So we are left with a collection of insipid commitments like Tim Groser has served up and meanwhile the world can go to hell in a handbasket as far as these career politicians are concerned.

Thankfully the private sector knows there’s trouble at t’ mill and some are busting their balls to come up with technological improvements that might, just might arrive in time to stop the rot. From Tesla’s Elon Musk and his electric cars and home batteries, to the algal photosynthesising carbon sequestering biofarm that Algenol has in Florida which produces ethanol and biomass, to the plunging price of wind turbines there are all manner of changes that provide the prospect of displacing coal-generated energy and fossil-fuelled vehicles. Who knows whether they’ll become economically viable in time to avoid blowing the carbon budget and leaving a mess our kids will condemn us for?

The issue for populations is whether we are happy with politicians kicking for touch on this issue, whether we have indefatigable faith that technology will save us, or whether we need to give politicians clearer instructions.

Why we are Global Warming Criminals was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.