Thursday, May 28, 2015

Climate change: Small ideas

Earlier in the week Gareth Morgan argued that continuing to drag our feet on climate change was "a short term strategy which portends awful long term consequences". Yesterday he followed that up with a piece grandly titled Three big ideas for New Zealand’s climate change target. With a title like that, you'd expect some concrete plans for emissions reductions, right? Wrong! Here's the first two:

One reason it’s so bad is that as soon as those pine forests are felled the current Kyoto approach counts them as emissions – as if we’d burnt the trees the next morning. If the forests are replanted then the carbon store slowly builds up again. This treatment of forestry under Kyoto was initially intended to keep carbon accounting simple, but it is something our Government should be questioning in Paris – after all it depends what we do with the timber – building and furniture sequesters the carbon (at least temporarily), and if we are exporting logs then it’s wrong to count these as emissions by New Zealand.

Another issue that New Zealand should question anyway is the treatment of methane. Methane is a short-lived gas – making it fundamentally different from other greenhouse gases. It is very potent, but only for a “short” time – in climate terms at least. So while we need to get global methane emissions under control and reduce them, we don’t have to reduce them to zero like we do with carbon dioxide, each tonne of which when emitted adds to the total concentration in the atmosphere pretty much, forever. Methane only adds to atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases temporarily.


Given how far astray we are off getting anywhere near the required greenhouse gas reductions, we need our officials resorting to all the tricks in the book we can come up with to get the rules changed!

Yes, two of Morgan's three "big ideas" are basically coming up with new ways of cooking the books to minimise our accounted emissions, while not doing anything to reduce emissions in reality. Don't plant more permanent forest, don't cap the dairy industry to stop it from ruining the climate as well as our rivers, don't push rapidly for biofuels and electric vehicles - just whine and plead at our international partners to let us count a lower level of emissions (while of course keeping the baseline set under the old rules). This isn't a policy, its a rort. And its just more of the same short-term thinking the current government suffers from.

But Morgan has one point, even if he doesn't recognise it: if we treat agriculture as a sacred cow (as we're certainly doing in the short term), then our emissions reductions are going to have to come from CO2. Even if we cap agricultural emissions at the level they are today, in order to meet National's 50% by 2050 target - the one they announced but have no measures or plan to actually meet - we will need to virtually eliminate CO2 emissions in NZ. Which means switching to all-electric or biofuel cars and all-renewable electricity generation within 35 years, as well as virtually eliminating (or finding some way to soak up) industrial emissions from cement, steel and methanol production. That sounds like a huge ask, but its quite doable in that timeframe if the government wants to - but if we want the transition to be low-cost, then it needs to start now rather than later.