Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Climate change: making 40%

Today the Greens released a report [PDF] on how we can achieve a 40% by 2020 climate change target, and I've spent some time this afternoon digging through it. Unlike the government - whose policy basically seems to be flinging up their hands in helplessness while emissions rise - the Greens set out to identify where emissions could be reduced and how to make it happen. The result is a package which gets us most of the way to 40% by 2020. We would still have to rely on buying permits on the international market for some reductions, but we could commit to an internationally credible target.

Given the business-as-usual projections for 2020 emissions, we will need to reduce emissions by 48 million tons by 2020 to make a 40% target. According to the Greens' proposals, a quarter of this will come from planting new forest, a quarter from management of native forest, a quarter from emissions trading (giving s an effective domestic target of 24% below 1990), and a quarter from everything else, including energy efficiency, shifting to renewables, and changes in agriculture.

Planting more trees is a no-brainer, and something the government should have started doing a long time ago. Native forest management is more troublesome. The short-term goal here is to improve pest control in areas where it will help scrubland naturally succeed into forest and so store more carbon. The problem for us is that at the moment this doesn't count towards our Kyoto balance - when we joined Kyoto, we chose not to account for management of native forests, primarily because the government thought that it would have an adverse effect on our emissions balance (all those possums eating trees...) We could reverse that decision, but if done honestly, it would involve an unpleasant change in our Kyoto liability - and it would mean that there would be additional emissions offsetting some of the benefits the Greens are relying upon.

The "everything else" changes are all sane and sensible measures. Increasing the amount of renewable generation while shutting down Huntly and relegating the Taranaki Combined Cycle to winter reserve would take a big chunk out of our emissions while being a manageable transition. Switching half of industrial coal use to wood sounded dubious, but having browsed around, its easily doable and would not require a vast increase in forest coverage. General energy efficiency is again a no-brainer - but requires the government to resource it properly to produce real savings (something Labour never did). And vehicle fuel efficiency standards and a greater emphasis on public transport in Auckland are similarly things the government should have been doing a long time ago.

The really controversial proposal is to reduce dairy farm stocking rates. The farmer-government is viscerally opposed to this, as - like primitive barbarians - they equate cows with wealth, while completely ignoring their environmental costs. But those costs are real, and the massive growth in the dairy industry is helping to kill the planet (and our lakes and streams as well). OTOH, if AgResearch's work on the economics of overstocking stands up, then low milk prices will mean the problem will solve itself. Sane farmers will reduce their stocking rates, while stupid farmers will go bankrupt. Either way, the environment will benefit.

Overall, the Greens have produced a credible document, which shows that we can commit to and make credible progress toward the tough targets necessary to solve this problem (though we may need to plant more trees to get there). Meanwhile, the government's response is to highlight the costs of 100% renewable electricity - something the Greens aren't even advocating. And that speaks volumes about their commitment to real emissions reduction and their level of engagement with the problem.