Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Climate change: choosing the target

This week the government is consulting on its 2020 emissions target, essentially its negotiating position at Copenhagen, with a series of public meetings around the country (though surprisingly not in Palmerston North - too many climate scientists here, I guess). Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs are pushing for it to adopt an ambitious target of 40% by 2020, the polluters are already issuing dire warnings of the cost of doing anything, and the deniers are sticking their fingers in their ears and going "La la la I can't hear you!" So what should the target be? As you might expect, I favour a high target, in the range of 30% - 40%. Here's why.

  • Firstly, the problem is urgent. The science is telling us that the situation is increasingly dire. Thanks to past pollution and a decade of inaction, we are now basically committed to the critical level of 2 degrees of warming. If we want to stop it getting any worse, emissions need to peak and decline in the next six years. If we write off the Greenland ice sheet and decide to gamble with the future of the Amazon rain forest, then we can stretch that out to 2020. Thats how urgent this problem is. If we want to turn this around, we need to start making real cuts now.
  • Secondly, the risks are not symmetric. Because of the lag in the system, action now is better than action later. If we make deep cuts now, and later find out that the situation is not as serious as it looks, then we can always slacken off (and in the process we will have greened our economy). But if we leave action till the last minute, then find out its worse, we're fucked. This again points to acting sooner rather than later.
  • Thirdly, we don't know how bad it will get. The IPCC's projections are extremely conservative, and don't account for positive feedback in the climate system. Since the publication of their latest assessment report, the risk of those has grown. We're already seeing methane bubbling up out of the ground in Siberia, and we may have hit the tipping point for Arctic methane clathrates. If we want to avoid those risks, then we need to make deep cuts sooner rather than later.
  • Fourthly, we need to show the world we're serious. New Zealand is a small country, and by themselves our emissions make little difference; solving this problem requires action from the US, EU, China and India on board. And we can't expect them to do that if we won't. For the more mercenary, then the question is purely one of financial force: the US and EU are getting very keen on border taxes. A high target will mean not being squicked by them.
The countries which are "serious" about climate change - Germany, the EU, the UK - are all committing to targets in the 30% to 40% range (Scotland is committing to 42%). We need to be up there with them, not back with the US and Japan.

Are deep cuts achievable domestically? Certainly not if the government maintains its traditional "policy" of doing little or nothing. But in some ways that's irrelevant. Kyoto-2 will continue to include international carbon trading, and so if the government fails to enact sufficiently strong domestic policy, it will have to buy credits o the international market from those who do (or back green development projects in the developing world, hopefully under much stricter conditions than at present). In other words, in the worst case, the target is simply setting how much we will pay. The question then is how much are we willing to pay to get others to act? Or, to put it back into its proper moral context, how much are we willing to pay to stop the Pacific from drowning? How much are we willing to pay to avoid global drought? How much are we willing to pay to avoid 184 million deaths? Because those are the consequences of a weak target, and they will be on our consciences if we choose not to act.