Sunday, October 29, 2006

Clark on climate change

Labour is having its annual conference this weekend - something which is dominating political commentary at the moment - so I thought I'd highlight a piece of Helen Clark's keynote address. Speaking about climate change, she said:

I believe it’s time to be bold in this area.

Why shouldn’t New Zealand aim to be the first country which is truly sustainable – not by sacrificing our living standards, but by being smart and determined?

We can now move to develop more renewable energy, biofuels, public transport alternatives, and minimise, if not eliminate, waste to landfills.

We could aim to be carbon neutral.

I believe that sustainability will be a core value in 21st century social democracy.

  • I want New Zealand to be in the vanguard of making it happen – for our own sakes, and for the sake of our planet.
  • I want sustainability to be central to New Zealand’s unique national identity.

This is a strong signal that the upcoming New Zealand Energy Strategy (a draft version of which is due out in the next few months) will include a strong commitment to renewable energy, and possibly even the goal of 100% renewable or carbon neutral electricity generation mooted in the government's "way ahead" cabinet paper earlier in the year. This would be good news if it happens, but at the same time it displays the same flaw which has characterised New Zealand climate change policy from the beginning: excluding agriculture. The problem can be clearly seen in the graph below (taken from the Climate Change Office's annual report):

Agriculture is responsible for 49.4% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation is responsible for 8.1%. While reducing electricity sector emissions to zero by switching to renewables or requiring generators to plant trees would make a significant dent in our net position (and be a remarkable step forward), doing so while allowing agricultural emissions to continue to grow unchecked will make it a futile effort. We cannot continue to wall off agriculture and pretend that it is not part of the problem - it is the problem in New Zealand.

This doesn't mean that we need to start shooting cows and throwing them in a ditch. But it does mean that the government needs to do a hell of a lot more to target the agricultural sector. Taxing nitrogen-based fertiliser (responsible for both greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our waterways) so that farmers pay the full price of its environmental effects rather than dumping them on the wider community would be a good start. Capping stocking levels so that farmers couldn't overstock their land (which worsens both problems) would be another. On the methane front, there are currently few abatement options - so the government needs to work harder on finding them. Doubling the funding for research into reducing ruminant methane would improve our chances of solving this problem in the future. Unfortunately, so far they're not making much noise about any of these measures.

Finally, the agricultural sector has to come to the party on this. They are the problem, and they need to acknowledge that fact and start cleaning up their own mess rather than spouting denialist rhetoric. Otherwise, the rest of us just might get sick of the massive environmental subsidy we are paying them...


Here's a thought, let farmers keep their own carbon credits.

And by whose definition do you say land is overstocked, some desk jockey in wellington or the guy who has to make a living off the land?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 03:25:00 PM

It's strange they've taken so long to start branding on this. In writing a Listener cover story this year I discovered that sustainability is the keynote of science and technology policy, for sound economic reasons, and the people in those sectors are generally very supportive of the strategy (the bggest cheerleader I spoke to was an engineer). It's actually a good news story for Labour, and they obviously need one of those.

Posted by Russell Brown : 10/29/2006 03:54:00 PM

I think the Greens are actually a huge problem here. They have a tendency to a luddite and 'noble savage' approach to sustainablility; that we should all live the in the Coromandel and compost our poo.

We could be carbon neutral. But technology, innovation and market signals are the key. We need to follow the money, not sentiment, to see what works and what doesn't.

One of the big things we need to do is stop business being able to dump costs through externalities. We may face a problem of global competitiveness there, but not an insuperable one.

Another thing government can do it help make production of green products economic, through incentives or subsidies or by acting as a bulk purchasers. Many innovative technologies for reducting energy use, for example, probably only a whisker away from being able to be pratically commercialised. A big nudge might make them viable.

However, in my opininion, the nudge should be on the demand side, not the supply side. I think supply side subsidies are completely ineffective. Unfortunately, the government hasn't learnt that lesson.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 04:50:00 PM

Anon: the question here isn't credits - its liabilities. Cows emit, those emissions cost money, and it should be farmers paying it rather than the taxpayer.

(As for forests, the bit that most people seem to miss is that such credits must be repaid immediately upon harvesting. This means that there's just no point in devolution unless the forest is permanent. But those calling for devolution don't seem to want to look at that side of the equation at all - a side of the equation which means that there's just no profit in getting carbon credits for clearcut rotation forestry unless the forest-owner plays Enron games to steal the credit and dump the liability on the taxpayer...)

As for the definition of overstocked, it clearly depends on the land in question, but scientists are capable of drawing enough conclusions to inform the RMA process and district plans.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/29/2006 05:21:00 PM

Kiwi Donkey: the Greens fully understand that markets can be a useful policy tool in this area - if you look at the Greens' Turn Down The Heat policy package, what it proposes is essentially a series of interlocking markets (in carbon emissions, in deforestation liabilities, in fertiliser use and land stocking) which overall add up to an emissions trading regime on most serious sources of emissions (except transport, which they propose tackling by regulation - which isn't a silly conclusion at all). As for subsidies and incentives, I think the biofuels obligation is a good example of the government essentially creating a market and making a technology profitable. Of course, they should be using their bulk purchase power more as well - but I think we'll be seeing that with the Govt3 program.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/29/2006 05:24:00 PM

Okay, stupid question here... If dairy farmers cover their full pollution costs what's going to happen to the price of milk in the domostic market? I assume it would rise... yes?

I ask because milk/cheese/yogurt are a pretty basic part of a healthy diet especially for growing children. Could this price low income families out of dairy consumption?

I guess the same question goes for meat.

Posted by Muerk : 10/29/2006 06:42:00 PM

I/S: Thanks, I followed your link, read the policy, and agree that it looks pretty sensible.

There is an underlying theme of reducing travel that I don't agree with. Much of our wealth comes from connections through travel. I don't think we could, or should, change our society to be a 'low travel' and thus spiritually and economically poorer.

Rather, I think paying for increased travel is part of the problem we have to solve. Although to a large extent it is probably self-funding through the externalities it delivers. For example, highly connected societies adopt innovative new ideas much more quickly. Mobility improves allocation of economic resources. People are happier if they can connect with people who are important to them.

So I think cars and planes are just great. They are highly developed technology, with heaps of ongoing R&D, and are safer and more efficient than ever. SUVs suck! Public transport in New Zealand also sucks; it seems to be a way of subisidising inefficient businesses that provide crap customer service.

I would see a role for Government, in promoting
- Efficient cars
- Efficient homes
- An efficient road network !
- Low emission energy sources
- Micro generation
- Bike lanes

Not as far from the Greens as I thought, but some substantial differences nonetheless.

PS. It's really pesky to actually have to go and read something. I always thought an opinion was all you needed in the blogosphere!

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 07:23:00 PM

Of course politicians will look for any information or argument that they can find to advance their agendas -- that is their job. While politicians may not be above playing loose with scientific truth, more often they can and will simply search out -- and find -- a legitimate expert or two who can marshal a technical argument sympathetic to the desired political outcome. It is the job of politicians to play politics, and this -- like the second law of thermodynamics -- is not something to be regretted, but something to be lived with.

Unfortunately they have picked the wrong years to identify AGW .Inconveniently it is solar minima As predicted the deepening inverse anisotropy of the solar cycle is present with the reduced global temperatures and reduction in stratospheric ozone due to GCR.

As the forthcoming grand minima in solar activity it is interesting to see how people will cope with controls on the energy complex as global cooling sets in.

Posted by maksimovich : 10/29/2006 07:34:00 PM

muerk has it right, it is not the farmer/producer that is going to pay, it is always the consumer. Farmers only get paid what the market is willing to pay.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 10:21:00 PM

Crikey, Maksimovich. Could you put that in English for me?

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 10:28:00 PM

Another area that we are lagging the UK in is legislation to force line and energy companies to purchase electricity from small mini and micro generators at reasonable rates.

In previous decades there were technical arguments against allowing poorly controlled private generators to attach to the ditribution system. Modern control systems technology has made brought effective protection technology within the reach of even small <3kW private generators.

Unfortunately the electricity industry has a vested commercial interest to hinder disributed generation. Like Telecom their monopoly needs to be broken down before we see some progress in this area.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/29/2006 10:40:00 PM

Muerk: Damn you, you shouldn't ask me questions like that - I've just spent the last half hour geeking out over an inventory. The answer was worthy of a seperate post here.

Kiwi Donkey: The Greens don't like travel, partly for philosophical reasons to do with localism, and partly due to concerns about peak oil (and they certainly have a point on that). But I agree with you that travel is a Good Thing - I have no desire to return to the middle ages where most people never went further than 20 miles from their home in their entire life (an existence which still survives in rural England). The question is how to support a travel-rich lifestyle sustainably. And there the answer has to be more efficiency and biofuels. Where I disagree is on public transport - I'd rather see it funded so that it doesn't suck. And if Auckland had the complete and electrified rail netwok ARTA wants [PDF], maybe it wouldn't suck so much (public transport generally doesn't suck so badly in Wellington and Chch).

Cheap air travel OTOH is probably doomed, at least in the medium term. There's no substitute yet for fossil fuels there, so as oil prices rise, it will once again become a luxury good, as it was before the invention of the jet engine. How long this lasts will depend on what technological alternatives we can come up with.

(As for having to read things, its just easier to link than reiterate).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/29/2006 10:45:00 PM

I/S the electric rail option for Auckland has never stacked up, and that is because only 12% of jobs are in the centre city, which is what the rail system serves. Public transport does well serving central Auckland (similar mode shares as in Wellington and it is mostly buses), but the rest of Auckland has to be bus oriented. Rail fanatics which think European type cities can be replicated in Auckland have wasted a fortune on rail in Auckland for virtually no gain (most new patronage is from bus service cuts).

The biggest gains in Auckland would come from relatively low cost bus priority measures, and better traffic incident management (the cause of 50% of congestion), and then road pricing which would, in itself, make a big difference to bus travel times.

Posted by Libertyscott : 10/30/2006 10:48:00 AM

Auckland has serious problems with public transport because it's so spread out. Compare to Sydney, which has 4 times the population in a similar area, and still has inadequate public transport if you live away from central areas or the existing train network (which is much larger than anything in NZ).

Then again, Auckland transport planning probably suffers from exactly the same problem as Sydney -- the myth that people only need to get to and from the city centre. A set of local networks linked by a fast rail trunk would make more sense in both cases. This is more or less how Wellington works (or should work, if they didn't cancel trains whenever someone sneezes).

Posted by Chris : 10/30/2006 12:59:00 PM

libertyscott wrote:
"Auckland have wasted a fortune on rail in Auckland for virtually no gain"

y'joking, right?
so, can you give us some comparisons of spending on road versus rail in AKL over the last 50 years?

and any large city doesn't have a hub and spokes rail network. it has a grid network with several key interchange stations.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/30/2006 02:36:00 PM

I can't help thinking that despite the rhetoric, there will be very little action on climate change during the term of this Labour government.

The problem is, of course, Peter Dunne - who seems dogmatically opposed to carbon taxes or anything of similar ilk, presumably because God told him that climate change isn't real. Or that the rapture will happen Any Day Now. Or something.

And given the imminent departure of Taito Phillip Field, Labour's on fairly thin ice when it comes to a majority in the House, making Peter Dunne more (rather than less) important. Which leaves Helen Clarke in the invidious position of trying to talk the talk whilst being unable to walk the walk.

Russell is right - Labour potentially has a good story here, but given the current environment (no pun intended) they will need to demonstrate some actual achievement to the electorate. Which Peter Dunne will block.


- Clarke

Posted by Anonymous : 10/30/2006 04:24:00 PM

I wonder if Labour have the public good will to put into effects the real changes necessary to pull the planet back from the brink. I see a UK team of researchers have set up a network of monitors stretching across the Atlantic to warn of any sudden climate change event like the shutting down of ocean currents."The ice core records suggest sudden warming or cooling happen on a scale of about a decade. The timescale for temperature change, which are in the order of 5-10C (9-18F), also happen in about a 10-year period," he explained.

Posted by Bomber : 10/30/2006 04:37:00 PM

kiwi_donkey: Transport isn't an end in itself, but a means of satisfying those needs that can't be met locally. Apart from ensuring that our transport technologies are as efficient as they can be, the other answer is to ensuring that people's needs for work, food, entertainment, education etc are all accessible without expending a lot of energy. That relies on a very old but very efficient technology: cities.

I/S: "I have no desire to return to the middle ages where most people never went further than 20 miles from their home in their entire life" - well, not your whole life, but otherwise it doesn't sound too bad. I spend 99% of my time within about 1 mile of my home, but that's only possible because I live in a place (central Wellington) that provides most things a civilised life needs within walking distance. If I was stuck in Whitby or Albany, it would seem like a mediaeval experience!

Posted by Tom : 10/30/2006 05:06:00 PM

Tom, I take your point about urban living, and agree it is desirable. But that ancient technology - cities - has always depended on efficient long range transport networks to bring in supplies. This has been true since the time of Catal Huyuk. Cities by definition are nodes of long distance transport networks.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/30/2006 07:32:00 PM

I/H I think you misunderstand the statement I was making.There is no doubt we will enter a phase of solar reduction.The quantification and qualification is part of a 30 year study on heliophysical process and manifestation of solar phenomena.

The measurement of radioisotopes and electromagnetic fractions both extra-terrestrial and the sun-earth coupling has of course been for both civil and military means,The atmospheric radionuclide are well studied both prior and during the satellite era.

The solar process and the dissipative fractions, are of course measurable, quantifiable and replicable ie we can reproduce the phenomena and mechanistic processes on earth.The experimental research and associated engineering complex being some 100 times greater then climate science. Particle accelerators, cyclotrons, MRI ,Tokamak being some of the spin-off discoveries.

Indeed the solar cycle is well documented,the magnetic reversals predictable and the change of the solar reversal to its inverse state of course obeying the laws of the universe.

The year 2007 is the international heliophysical year ,with some 166 countries and over 1100 research institutes involved in the publication of the most comprehensive number of scientific solar research projects we have seen.

The solar minima this year is the most intense since before WW2 ,coupled with the reduction in magnetic flux the terrestrial phenomena is fairly obvious.

The link you provided makes a number of classical errors in analysis. The scientific themes of the IHPY are what I commentated on ,the heuristic reality that the sun will enter the phase of reduced output.

Posted by maksimovich : 10/30/2006 07:52:00 PM

Maksimovich: Yes, the sun seems to be heading towards a period of reduced output. However, New Scientist Magazine suggests the impact will be quite small and temporary. It may give us a 'breather' on tackling climate change. That's all.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/31/2006 07:38:00 AM

kiwi_donkey: "that ancient technology - cities - has always depended on efficient long range transport networks to bring in supplies"

Good point. Though there are ways that some produce could be grown within cities, most will still have to come from outside. But in higher density cities, "outside" is not so far away, and looking at the way that urban sprawl continues to eat up what is or could be productive farmland, it's clear that the sort of "European" cities that libertyscott dislikes might rely on less long-distance transport for providing its citizens with fresh produce.

But I'm talking more about the day-to-day transport needs of city dwellers. So much of our transport is not strictly necessary, but forced on us by dispersed and segregated land use patterns. Giant suburban supermarkets still need the goods brought in from a distance, but with the added disadvantage that evryone needs to drive for miles to get there.

Posted by Tom : 10/31/2006 10:19:00 AM

Porcupine: The agricultural production of greenhouse gasses is a red herring at best and (more likely) totally biased pseudoscience produced by a tapeworm up a politicians arse.

Sadly, assertion does not make it true. Farming does produce greenhouse gases, from the digestive processes in the rumen, from the decay of manure, and from the chemical decomposition of urine and nitrogen-based fertilisers (which also pollutes our waterways). This is all well established science, and it seems the only people who don't believe it are scientifically illiterate farmers who don't want to pay their own way.

As for the effects of methane on historical climate, there's an interesting book by William Ruddiman which claims that methane from agriculture and the consequent deforestation have had a significant influence on climate for the past 8000 years. It's also funny that you mention extinctions, as there is at least one mass-extinction event which can be firmly pinned on methane: the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which seems to have been due to a mass release of methane stored in marine clathrates leading to runaway global warming.

None of this is to say that methane is the primary cause of current climate change - the culprit is fairly clearly carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. But it is a contributing factor (and a major one in New Zealand). And if we're going to reduce our emissions, then farmers too should play their part, rather than getting (yet another) free ride.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/31/2006 12:13:00 PM

Porcupine, this isn't Kiwiblog. Score points for analysis and argument, not "loudest wins".

"Pseudoscience"? Produce some scientific evidence of your own, then.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/31/2006 12:59:00 PM

Porcupine: the "whole area" isn't "controversial" at all - at least not among actual scientists. A survey of climate change literature published in peer-reviewed journals (itself published in Science - which rates with Nature as one of the world's most prestigious journals) found that of 928 articles published between 1993 and 2003, none disagreed with the "consensus position" that climate change was happening. The "controversy" is in the media and on flake websites, not among people who know what they are talking about.

I'm not in the business of providing a platform to climate change deniers, any more than I am to holocaust deniers (and I place them in the same category of sheer intellectual dishonesty). But it's the net, and nothing is stopping you from setting up your own blog on the topic. I'm sure it will get all the attention it deserves.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/01/2006 12:52:00 AM

Im a pretty contrary person, but, to the unbiased, climate change is right up there with evolution, the theory of gravity.

Climate change's basic mechanisms are simple and beyond dispute (ie burning coal heats up the planet), that temperature is changing and going up is also beyond dispute, etc.

All that is left to dispute is the exact magnitude of the effect, how dangerous that change is and what will be effective to stop it.

Posted by Genius : 11/01/2006 06:45:00 AM

Capping stock levels? Leaving it to Wellington-based "scientists". Sounds like "Scientific Socialism/central planning to me". We know how wonderfully economically effiecient THAT works out to be.

As for taxing fertiliser to death, please don't moan when you see the ensuing jump in price for beef, dairy produce etc, when you go shopping. Or your mortgage rate increase as this inflation feeds into the system.


Posted by Anonymous : 11/01/2006 02:39:00 PM


Christ.... you didn't think I meant it heats up the planet as a result of the heat released from the coal burning did you?

I meant it in the indirect sense of course. Do I have to assume all the readers will make the silliest assumptions?

and yes there is disagreement about the magnitude but that isn like saying there is scientific controversy regarding the age of the universe in a debate regarding creationism.

Posted by Genius : 11/01/2006 07:31:00 PM