Monday, October 17, 2005

Grossly dishonest

The Greenhouse Policy Coalition have released a report [PDF] claiming that meeting our Kyoto obligations will stifle growth. While it could be pointed out that the GPC - a collection of New Zealand's worst carbon polluters - have just a smidgen of self-interest in claiming this, and that the author, Alex Sundakov, is one of New Zealand's highest-paid prostitutes, I think it's better to focus on the real problem: the report is simply grossly dishonest. It makes a number of highly questionable assumptions and uses some frankly shoddy mathematics in order to vastly overstate the scale of the problem and build a straw-man argument that we cannot meet our target solely from emissions reduction and that therefore we shouldn't bother.

Questionable assumption number one is that no energy savings can be made in the household sector. 75% of household energy use goes on water and space heating, and due to the poor quality of our housing stock, most of this is simply wasted. There are a number of simple measures - insulation and (in many areas) solar water pre-heating - which can produce significant savings in this area, as anyone who has lived in a properly insulated house will attest. These are ruled out on the basis that they reduce the cost-per-square-meter of heating, and therefore will result in increased energy demand. Perfectly rational, if your knowledge of the world is limited to the supply-demand curve, but if we take this seriously, it is telling us that the way to reduce household energy demand is to ban insulation, thus ensuring the price is high and usage is low. Running it in reverse like this exposes the flaw: our demand for heating doesn't fluctuate much with price - instead its fairly sticky, and there's a concrete limit to how much we want to use set by basic comfort issues. Which means that efficiencies are real savings, rather than invitations to greater use.

Questionable assumption number two is that no energy savings can be made in the transport sector - despite this being the easiest area to make savings in. As with household energy use, the assumption is that any efficiency gains will be eaten by increased consumption (in this case, driving more and bigger cars). This may have held when petrol prices were falling in real terms, but its certainly not holding now - the recent high prices have seen people changing their transport patterns and ditching their SUVs in favour of cars that are cheaper to run. Change clearly is possible, and it is just a question of driving it with the right policies.

Which brings us to the shoddy mathematics. The report rightly points out that we cannot expect to make savings from the agricultural sector, and that industrial processes tend to be covered by Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements - which means that any savings have to come from the domestic transport and domestic and commercial energy sectors (commercial transport being mysteriously excluded). Together, these sum to around 36% of our total emissions. The report then continues:

By 2012, New Zealand's emissions are expected to exceed its Kyoto target for the first commitment period by about 35% [footnote]. In other words, if we were to try to meet our targets through a substantive attempt at emissions reductions (as is expected under the Kyoto Protocol), the emissions from the target categories would need to be almost entirely eliminated. This is clearly not plausible...

(Emphasis added)

And its not. But it's a straw-man, because the government has never suggested that we try and meet our target solely through emissions reduction. The Kyoto Protocol allows emissions to be offset by land use changes - basically, forest sinks - and new plantings will absorb around two-thirds of our gross emissions increase. Our true target is a reduction of 36 MT CO2-equivalent, or 12% - not the 35% the GPC claim. This is still a big target, but with the right policy mix - biofuels, carbon taxes, changes to the building code, forest planting and high petrol prices - it is perfectly achievable.


Why can we not make savings from the agricultural sector? We already have problems from too many animals; surely it would make sense to switch some of our farms from livestock to crops? Like, biofuel crops to reduce our dependence on oil, perhaps?

And is there any reason we can't renegotiate the NGAs?

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 10/17/2005 03:18:00 PM

I object! Many sex workers are honest, decent people, and do not deserve to be associated with anti-Kyoto petrochemical industry junk scientists.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/17/2005 03:34:00 PM

There is scope for significant improvements in that area, through the use of nitrogen inhibitors to reduce NO2 emissions from fertiliser and animal runoff - but its uncertain. If it works, and more importantly, if we can convince the other parties that it works, and if we can get farmers to actually use the stuff, then that's our emissions problem gone in one fell swoop. Plus, we limit runoff into waterways and get a valuable export industry (or at least some IP revenues) into the bargain.

The other option (as you suggest) is to reduce the number of animals - but given the importance of farming to the economy, the government would rather not do that.

IIRC, the NGA's generally last until 2012. We can't really renegotiate them unless the appropriate indstries fail to keep up their end of the bargain (which is generally to pursue international best practice for energy efficiency - sounds small, but its not).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/17/2005 03:43:00 PM

Well done I/S - you've just demolished that report. the question is if you can see the obvious flaws in it why can't a few of the countries journalists????

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 08:35:00 AM

hmmmm...and the second question is what has happened to my spelling and punctuation at this time of the morning - oh well...

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 08:37:00 AM

Terence: because the flaws a) aren't obvious from the press release, which is all journalists usually have time to read; and b) require a bit of background knowledge of the topic, which journalists usually don't have and do not have time to acquire for a tiny story on page whatever. Neutrality may rule out picking apart people's numbers as well - I'm not sure to what extent the NZ media views it as their job to poke holes in people's numbers (even if they had the time, which they usually don't). If someone who works in media (Matt?) could enlighten us...?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/18/2005 09:40:00 AM

Hi there I/S,

Then that begs the question: does the media really serve the role it ought to in a democracy (and I'm not saying that that is the only role it should serve, but it strikes me as one important role).

The other question is what is the media's ideal - imparitality or objectivity?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 01:23:00 PM

Icehawk: I agree, they should. But in practice, such fact checking is likely to consist of asking an appropriate expert, and while they can emphasise one view over another, it's still essentially "he said / she said". And that's as good as it gets unless they're willing to come out with headlines like "Lobby group issues biased, self-serving report" (which, while true, goes against that whole attempt to be fair...)

Terence: they're never as good as we'd like them to be - but I think they generally try, within the constraints of deadlines and the media being a business, to do a decent job.

I'm still trying to scrape up journalists to comment on this...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/18/2005 04:23:00 PM

Ok. I'm a journalist. Blaze away.

New Zealand has very few specialist reporters with expert knowledge of the areas they cover. The money isn't great, and generally they have to become jack-of-all-trades. It is simply infeasible to expect them to dissect every length document that comes their way.

That said, a journalist should try to find dissenting voices and critiques where possible. Of course, with a complicated document it may not be possible to find the definitive answer if deadline is only 6 hours away.

The whole story should come out in the following days, or covered by the weekend papers or magazines.

Dailies? They're only a snapshot of debate, and a good press release can guarantee you coverage.

No journalist like being taken for a fool by lobby groups, and if they are they should devote attention to how and why the initial story was bunkum.

That said, as a guide I take this column by the New York Time's Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, to be gospel. It's titled: 'It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right.'

Link here:

Posted by Matt : 10/18/2005 04:43:00 PM

The Herald has some of that next-day balancing today: Hodgson questions Kyoto report. It wouldn't have fit with their original coverage, given that economics editor brian Fallow had simply pasted in the GPC's press release under his own byline as an "editorial"...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/18/2005 05:04:00 PM

Hi Matt, (and I/S)

Just to be clear I am not attacking you or journalists directly. Most of the journalists I've met try their hardest to do a good job. Yet they work within a system that makes this pretty difficult. And this is something that worries me - not because I am a ranting anarchist who hates the system - but because democracy matters. And democracies are only as good (or at least the decisions they make are only as good) as the information that the public gets sent. (I know, I know - I'm stating the obvious right, but the part of me that is really adverse to runaway global warming gets anxious at times).



Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 05:23:00 PM

And one other question everyone,

Living in Wellington and working in a university I'm aware that NGOs and academics (to a lesser degree) put out their own press releases quite often.

Maybe it's just my percenption, but these seem to get somewhat less media space than those release by the BRT.

Any thoughts?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 05:27:00 PM


It's probably because unless the academic or university directly contacts a reporter they get ignored.

You wouldn't believe how much fax-paper gets wasted in newsroom. Imagine printing out everything from scoop.

Reputation matters. If you ain't an established media player, you get put with the rest of the trash (mostly business pap).

Basic PR. Find the reporter who usually covers those sorts of stories, and let them know what you've found. The journalist will love you for it.

PS: I wasn't assuming my profession was being attacked. I realised I wasn't at Sir Humphries.

But a kick in the pants never hurts. (I'm especially looking forward to editorial responses to Paul Littericks' Maxim expose.)


Posted by Matt : 10/18/2005 05:31:00 PM

Terence: I think the thing to remember is that journalists are not superhuman, and the media is not omniscient. Like any one of us, they only have so much attention, time and effort to go around. So some things are inevitably going to be overlooked, and some bullshit will inevitably be transmitted.

The lessons in this are a) that you can't just abrogate your critical faculties to the media; and b) if you want a story spread, you need to do it yourself through lobbying and PR. Writing a press release is not difficult; the hardest bit is knowing where to send it and having someone pay attention to it at the other end.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/18/2005 05:52:00 PM

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the comments. I was just thinking to myself - as I cooked - dinner that, actually the academics in my school probably don't do anywhere near enough in the way of media releases (the focus is journal articles, which have their place but...). That being said though, I work in a development studies department and I still marvel at Helen Hughes' ability to publish op-eds and/or articles at will whenever she feels like bashing aid and Pacific Islanders. Yet very rarely are these articles (I know it won't be the case with op-eds) accompanied by calls to our department for a opposing viewpoint. This may not be representative though.

As for NGOs they do try, they even have conferences on how to work better with the media. Yet somehow, theyhaven't had much success yet. The dreamer in me keeps thinking of some sort of strategy which invovles progressive New Zealand working together (i.e. those sympathetic parts of the media, NGOs, and the academy)...

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 05:55:00 PM


Gotta get back to work myself - but as a rule there is a long-standing balance procedure with op-eds.

If someone argues one side, there is opportunity - if taken within the next few days - to publish one expressing a contrary opinion.

You've got to be quick of the rank, and get in touch with the editor of those pages ASAP (call the paper and asked to be put through - it ain't rocket-science).

Hell - I just emailed the Herald to get my Salient v. Vic piece published.

PS: I'm happy to give a briefing to interested folks in Wellington on how to manage the media when I get back.


Posted by Matt : 10/18/2005 06:00:00 PM

Hi there Matt,

Thanks for your comments. It may not be rocket science but I think you'd be surprised to find that - from the outside - it isn't as easy as you think. (Possibly - in the case of NGOs - this may reflect the lack of time and resources that they have to write op-eds in the first place though). However, next time Helen Hughes (the Australian Academic not the Kiwi with the same name) publishes one of her pro-business infomercials I will do as you suggest and see what happens.

Anyhow, I appreciate your comments. And thanks for your offer to help; when you do get back to NZ (assuming I'm still in the country, and working in Development) I would be interested in trying to facilitate some sort of meeting between yourself and those who would like their voices heard more often.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/18/2005 07:37:00 PM