Thursday, September 03, 2015

Climate change: No, they can't

The Greens launched an ambitious new climate change policy today, aimed at showing that we could do better than the government's pathetic target of an 11% reduction (by carbon trading) and achieve actual domestic emissions reductions of 40% (on 1990) by 2030. Its an important policy: climate change is the challenge of our age, and one we have to do our bit to solve if we don't want our lives to get significantly worse. And its an opportunity for the Greens to show that they have serious solutions to this problem. Unfortunately, when I started digging into their numbers, they just don't add up. There are some very serious and credible policies in there, but some appear to be pure fantasy.

First, the good bits of their proposal:

  • Cutting 4.8 MT from electricity emissions by moving to 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030: This is ambitious, but achievable. The market is heading in that direction already, shutting down fossil fuel plants while building renewables, so its pushing with the trend. To get there, we need to ban new thermal generation, and shut down Stratford, the rest of Huntly, and Whirinaki. That's not as hard as it sounds - the Stratford Combined Cycle is nearing the end of its life and will shut down before 2030 anyway, and Whirinaki hardly ever runs. For the newer Huntly turbine and the Stratford peakers, it will mean shutting down significantly earlier than planned. But as part of the proposal is to shut down Tiwai Point, freeing up 10% of our generation, the market will probably kill them anyway.
  • Cutting 2.2 MT from agricultural emissions: At the moment, farmers do nothing towards our climate change target (except for spewing nitrous oxide and methane into the air). The Greens would tax their emissions, giving them an incentive to pollute less. 2.2 MT is about 6% of current farming emissions, and a cut of that magnitude by 2030 seems perfectly doable given the technology we have and those in the pipeline. The ambition here is in bringing farmers in at all.
  • A mass tree-planting program to sequester 180 MT by 2030: This requires planting 50,000 Ha a year of permanent pine forest on marginal land. Planting native forest would require more land, as would planting for future harvest. It sounds like a big ask, but we achieved higher rates in the early 1990's, so its certainly do-able (and that was without government intervention); the question is one of political will. The problem though is the time-curve - the later we start, the more we need to plant.
  • Reducing industrial process emissions by 2.1 MT: Half of this comes from adopting EU regulations on fluorinated gases (used in refrigeration systems and air conditioners), which outlaw the most dangerous gases and require servicing, containment and recovery. These are expected to reduce emissions from this sector by two thirds, or 1 MT in NZ. Of the rest, half comes from closing Tiwai Point, something which looks likely anyway - that's another 0.6 MT. Finally, they think the efficiency of the iron and steel industry - which means the Glenbrook steel plant - by about a third, saving another 0.5 MT. The last bit may be questionable, but the rest is solid.

The slightly dubious bits:

Cutting 7.7 MT of transport emissions by improving public transport and improving vehicle fuel economy: The problem here is that total 2013 road transport emissions were only 12.5 MT, so the Greens are proposing a ~60% cut in 15 years. Which seems insanely ambitious. And breaking it down it doesn't get any better. The best number in there is to halve road transport emissions through using 50% biofuels, which would give a solid 2.8 MT cut - but requires building a 40 PJ a year biodiesel industry in just 15 years. Policywise that means some sort of biofuels obligation like the one Labour passed and National shitcanned out of spite, but instead of a gentle-ramp up, it requires annual growth rates of more than 25% a year. And I am not sure that we can do that (OTOH, if we can, then someone is going to make a hell of a lot of money).

They propose doubling the decrease in car use from 1% to 2% per annum by better public transport and urban form. This would mean a 26% decrease in car emissions, saving 1.8 MT. Its a nice dream, but I'm not sure whether the measures proposed will hit that target, especially in the timeframes involved: urban form is a very long term project, and serious public transport infrastructure like Auckland's City Rail Link has lead times of a decade. While I think the CRL will make a huge difference to Auckland, I doubt it'll mean that half the city stops using their cars overnight, which is what's needed for the Greens to hit that target when the thing is built. For other cities, Wellington has good public transport, and would be hard-pressed to have a solution for the south of the city built by the target date of 2030. And Christchurch is still settling after the earthquake.

Finally, there's a suggestion of improved fuel efficiency standards (a policy I support), with a quick implementation of the EU 2020 fuel efficiency standard and a move to require that new vehicles be electric by 2030. That's do-able, and would have a serious effect; the average age of NZ's car fleet was 13 years in 2012, so it would mean a serious increase in average fuel efficiency. But not enough to save the 3.1 MT they want, because cars hang around for a long time and people buy used as well as new. Their solution to this is "an increase in our vehicle turnover between 2020 and 2030". That's right: the Greens want to save the environment by forcing us to buy more cars. I'm not sure that that's a good solution.

Still, there's some good stuff here which will make a big difference. Some of the assumptions about how much of a difference and how soon are a little heroic however.

Then there's the outright bad:

  • Reducing industrial fossil fuel use by 3.7 MT: This is supposed to come about by cutting coal use by 90% and liquid fossil fuels by 40% through carbon taxes. Great! The problem is that industrial coal use is only 2 MT, and liquid fuel useage 1.3 MT. Even if they eliminated those entirely, it still wouldn't be the cut they're after. There's 2.5 MT of gas too, but they want to keep that steady (and presumably some of that coal and diesel would switch to gas, so it would likely increase unless users move to biomass).
  • Cutting 3.6 MT of emissions from waste: The Greens point to the example of the UK, which managed to cut its solid waste emissions by 2/3rds since 1990 through reduced input (driven by a landfill tax) and increased methane capture. Based on this, they say that "it should be achievable to reduce New Zealand’s waste emissions by 40 to 70 percent by 2030". But their number is 78% of our 4.6 MT emissions from solid waste - well beyond what they say they're estimating, and beyond the UK example. They also note that 55% of those emissions come from small farm dumps, but that these could be reduced by regulating them. The problem is that those dumps will continue to emit, while small farms dumps aren't so good for doing methane capture on. There are definitely improvements to be made here (and we even have the legislation to drive some of them, in the form of the Waste Minimisation Act), but I'd like some more credible numbers based on the NZ situation rather than the UK one of vast, centralised landfills.

On the positive side, the economy wide measures: replacing National's bullshit ETS with a carbon tax, establishing a climate change commission to report on progress, and a Green Investment bank to drive change, are all sensible. But their numbers just don't add up. And that's a serious problem, because it undermines the credibility of the credible solutions they do offer, while providing National with further excuses to do nothing. And this isn't the first time they've done this: every Green climate change policy has had this same problem of letting ambition get ahead of the numbers.

We can do this. We can beat climate change. Its going to require ambitious policies to drive massive technological and economic change. But we're not going to do it by overestimating the effects of our policies and lying to ourselves about how easy its going to be.

[Numbers drawn from the 2013 Inventory Report and CRF tables]