Sink or swimby Rebecca Macfie
The global fight against catastrophic climate change demands we rapidly slash carbon emissions as negotiators from almost 200 countries head to Paris.
The Paris talks
With the stakes for civilisation so high, what’s likely to happen?
Three key numbers define the purpose of the 21st Conference of Parties climate talks in Paris in December: zero, two, and one trillion.
Zero is the net amount of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases that humanity needs to be emitting by the second half of this century to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
Two degrees Celsius is the maximum temperature increase that most global leaders have agreed is the upper limit of tolerable warming, beyond which the risks from extreme climate change are judged to be too high. Some leaders, notably from New Zealand’s low-lying Pacific neighbours who will be among the first victims of rising sea levels, argue a maximum of 1.5°C should be the goal. Global temperatures have already risen an average of just under 1°C since 1750, and the impact of even this amount of warming is being felt in record-breaking droughts, increased wildfires, more ferocious hurricanes and massive loss of ice from ice sheets and glaciers, including from the Southern Alps.
One trillion tonnes is the maximum amount of carbon (a way of counting CO₂) that can be emitted before the planet will be pushed to more than 2°C of warming. Because CO₂ stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, that trillion tonnes can be thought of as humanity’s total carbon “budget”. Two hundred years of fossil fuel-powered economic development has already burnt through well over half the budget and, at the current rate of carbon expenditure, the rest of the budget will be blown in the next 20 to 30 years. A website dedicated to tracking the carbon budget (trillionthtonne.org) says that trillionth tonne will be emitted on January 5, 2039. As Barack Obama has said, “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it … I believe there is such a thing as being too late.”
In in a new book, Time of Useful Consciousness, Victoria University’s Ralph Chapman, who has worked on climate change policy since 1988, has borrowed an aviation term to underscore the urgency of the crisis. This is the period between when a person loses oxygen and when they pass out – a brief window of “useful consciousness” during which life-saving action is possible. The parallel with climate action is vivid: the longer we delay deep cuts in emissions, the harder it will be to make sound decisions, as political systems and communities come under acute pressure from more frequent and damaging climate extremes.
If we continue on a “business as usual” path, climate models suggest the world will warm by more than 4°C over the next 100 years. This would redefine the physical and human geography of the planet, writes the influential UK economist Lord Nicholas Stern in his latest book, Why Are We Waiting: The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change. The last time the world experienced temperatures 4°C hotter was about 35 million years ago, during the Eocene period, when Earth was entirely ice free.
There is no certainty that humanity could adapt to such a profoundly altered world, with the World Bank warning that “communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation … It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal, than today.”
So, for the representatives of 196 countries heading to COP21, the stakes are enormous. Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says it’s “the most important negotiation that has ever been held … If we do not succeed, the future of our civilisation is very gravely imperilled.”
The negotiators’ task is to seal a new deal involving all nations (unlike the Kyoto treaty, under which only developed countries took on binding emission goals) to apply from 2020. All countries are expected to submit their emission reduction pledges (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) before the conference. Among the most significant, the European Union has committed to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels), the United States has promised a 26-28% cut compared with 2005, China has pledged to begin lowering its emissions from 2030, and India has pledged to source 40% of its electricity from renewables and to cut emissions per unit of GDP (emissions intensity) by up to 35% by 2030.
INDCs are the building blocks for a new international climate deal. Analysis of the 147 country INDCs lodged by the start of October shows the collective emission reduction pledges fall well short of what’s needed to deliver the 2°C goal – an outcome that the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, has been warning of for months. But with pledges in from countries responsible for 90% of global emissions, there is hope a worthwhile Paris treaty will still be reached. “You won’t achieve a pathway to 2°C in Paris,” says Adrian Macey, New Zealand’s former top climate-change negotiator, now at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University. But he says Paris will be a success if it produces a deal that is “durable, has all countries on board, doesn’t require negotiation every few years and provides for regular reviews and increasingly ambitious emission reduction pledges”.
Climate Change Minister Tim Groser expects that “unless things break down in chaos”, Paris will produce a “framework agreement” setting out the legal form of a new deal, financial assistance for green development in poor countries and robust transparency, monitoring and surveillance. The latter is essential for the maintenance of political support for emission reductions, which will otherwise evaporate if any country thinks “we’re the only idiots on the block” taking action, Groser says.
He predicts Paris will also produce an ongoing work programme on the rules for forestry and access to carbon markets – areas he says are essential for New Zealand, which will need to buy international carbon credits to meet its pledge of a 30% emission cut compared with 2005 levels.
Wasn’t this supposed to be sorted out years ago at Copenhagen?
True, a new deal to replace the Kyoto protocol was supposed to be sealed in 2009, but the Copenhagen conference broke down in disarray and acrimony. There is reason to fear that history could repeat, given what vested interests have to lose from ambitious emission reduction policies. To stay within the carbon budget, it’s estimated that 80% of the world’s known coal reserves, half the gas reserves and one-third of the oil reserves can’t be used, which would make them worthless to their owners.
It’s no coincidence that, according to research by UK group Influence Map, oil giants such as BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and the US’s Koch Brothers are among the most active lobbyists against climate change regulation.
According to a recent study, enormous sums have been spent on lobbying to delay action on climate change. Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle analysed the US tax data of philanthropic funders and the incomes of groups opposed to climate change and found almost US$1 billion a year had been spent on a “climate-change counter movement” that had succeeded in “institutionalising delay”.
The Copenhagen talks also fell victim to what Australian scientist Tim Flannery says was a deliberate campaign of destabilisation. Just before the conference, thousands of emails and documents from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit were hacked and selectively released. The resulting “Climategate” scandal put the scientific basis of the talks “under a cloud”, writes Flannery in his latest book, Atmosphere of Hope. Subsequent investigations found no evidence of scientific malfeasance, but by then “the damage was done”.
But things seem different this time. Global leaders from Pope Francis to Archbishop Desmond Tutu are appealing for urgent climate action. Islamic leaders have called on their 1.6 billion followers to fight global warming.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Chinese and US leaders last year forged a game-changing pact, promising deep cuts in emissions, and Obama has rammed through dozens of emission-reduction measures this year (while also opening up Arctic waters for oil drilling). China has announced it will bring in an emissions trading scheme as part of its climate response.
And the main argument against cutting fossil fuel use – that it will damage economic growth – has been shot down by some of the most influential voices of the global financial establishment. In a recent report, Citibank said the cost of investing in low-carbon energy to fuel future economic growth (two-thirds of which will occur in developing countries) would be slightly less than continuing to invest in “business as usual” fossil fuel-dependent energy. Further, it puts the cost of dealing with the calamitous climate change that will occur if the carbon budget is breached at US$44 trillion by 2060.
Flannery told the Listener the political impact of those who deny climate change is caused by human activity is dwindling.
“The denialists have gone through a series of phases: the first was that [emission reduction] can’t be done, the second was that it’s too expensive and the next was ‘no one else is doing anything, so why should we bother’. All of those have been cut away – it’s seen that it can be done, it’s not that expensive and the world is acting. So they are retreating now to just ignoring it and going ‘da-da-da’ in the face of the evidence.”
Europe’s growing refugee crisis may also be a reminder to the Paris negotiators that the consequences of failure are dire. French President François Hollande has warned if a new climate deal is not reached, “it won’t be hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next 20 years, it will be millions”.
It has been noted that the refugee crisis engulfing Europe has been fuelled, in part, by climate change. Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that before the Syrian uprising beginning in 2011, the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent suffered a three-year drought that was the most severe on record, triggering the migration of 1.5 million rural people to cities and contributing to unrest that has continued to escalate.
Power in investor protest
Should the world stop using fossil fuels?
If all known reserves of fossil fuels were burnt over coming decades, it’s estimated the carbon budget would be exceeded by three times. So yes, most of it (about US$100 trillion worth, according to Citibank) has to stay in the ground.
In the absence of coherent political action, this message is being hammered home increasingly effectively through investor protest. The global divestment movement says 400 institutions (including universities, churches and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund) have sold off US$2.6 trillion of shares in oil, gas and coal companies. The University of California recently announced it had sold US$200 million in coal and oil sands holdings because they were too risky.
Flannery describes the divestment movement as a powerful challenge to the fossil-fuel industry. Investors are looking at the “carbon risk” of their holdings. He says ambitious plans to exploit the vast coal reserves of Australia’s Galilee basin are stalling, in part because the industry is losing its “social licence to operate”. “Galilee is a victim of a constellation of changes, from increased energy efficiency and awareness of the health impacts of coal to the development of alternative energy, through to the disinvestment movement,” he told the Listener. Stern argues the rapid decarbonisation of the global economy calls for nothing less than a “new energy-industrial revolution”. Even in the absence of a realistic price on carbon, the cost of renewable energy has fallen further and faster than expected. Flannery points to a boom in green-energy innovation, with the number of annual patents relating to renewables quadrupling in the past 15 years. Improvements in turbine manufacturing are expected to cut the cost of wind energy by 50% in the next five years, while the cost of photovoltaic panels, which has plunged 80% in the past five years, is expected to fall further. The Economist has described advances in solar energy as a “dagger in the heart of the fossil-fuel industry”.
But fossil fuels are still propped up by enormous subsidies that vastly outstrip financial support for renewables. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), US$548 billion was spent by governments on consumer subsidies to reduce the cost of fossil fuel energy in 2013 – four times the value of subsidies to green energy.
The recently launched global Apollo Programme – fronted by naturalist Sir David Attenborough – wants COP21 to back a major international research effort to make clean energy (including battery storage for solar power and smart grids) cheaper than coal within 10 years. It calls on governments to pledge 0.02% of annual GDP to fund a research effort equal to that which succeeded in putting a man on the moon.
But there is much more that can be done now. Ralph Chapman cites IEA research showing 40% of the required emission reductions could come from energy efficiency, while city design and transport policies that encourage cycling, walking and public transport could make a huge difference to our carbon footprint.
No sense of urgency
How’s New Zealand doing ?
Ahead of the Paris talks, the New Zealand Government has pledged to cut emissions by 30% compared with 2005 levels, which equates to a reduction of 11% compared with 1990 levels – and it has attracted severe criticism.
Macey describes it as the “minimum credible position”, which has been cobbled together without proper analysis of New Zealand’s carbon profile or the costs and benefits of emissions cuts.
Paul Young, co-founder of Generation Zero, says it reflects a government policy of “coasting along and doing nothing for 15 years and then hoping to make up for it later”.
Chapman condemns New Zealand’s pledge as “one of the worst in the developed world. Canada is the only one dramatically worse. The global average is to reduce by about 30% compared with 1990 … We are lagging behind at a time when we should be exercising leadership. Sure it’s hard, but we can do things like set a decent price on carbon, we can go for 100% renewable electricity by 2025, which is entirely achievable, we can target 100% renewable energy by 2050 and we can get to work on electric vehicles.”
The pledge has also been judged “inadequate” by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a consortium of four international research organisations. CAT’s Bill Hare said it was “not in line with any interpretations of a ‘fair’ approach to reach a 2°C pathway; if most other countries followed the New Zealand approach, global warming would exceed 3-4°C”. Per person, New Zealand’s emissions were set to be larger than in the US in 10 years’ time.
Groser naturally rejects such criticism, dismissing CAT as “green activists talking to each other” (although they also apparently talk to luminaries such as Stern and Attenborough, with whom Bill Hare is a co-signatory in pushing the Apollo project. Given New Zealand’s emissions profile (lots of methane-belching cows, an already-high proportion of renewable power), the Government argues it’s hard for us to make cuts.
New Zealand is relying on technology to be able to make bigger cuts in future, says Groser, but in the meantime the pre-Paris pledge is “enough to indicate our direction of travel”. He points to agricultural greenhouse-gas research and the rapid advances being made in electric vehicles (Listener, September 26) as reasons for optimism that our emissions footprint could improve dramatically “without screwing the economy into the ground”.
Far from being an international pariah, New Zealand has “huge influence” in climate negotiations, he insists, noting that he is one of six special advisers to the International Energy Agency on climate change.
This country is seen as having shown “amazing leadership” by setting up the global research alliance on agricultural emissions, he says.
But New Zealand has also been shamed by Pacific Island nations, particularly those at most immediate risk from sea-level rise.
Prime Minister John Key resisted criticism at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum, mounting the oft-cited argument that this country’s contribution to global emissions is so small (0.15%) that “you could close New Zealand down and it would be a statistical error from a climate change point of view”.
But, as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has noted, every city in China and every state in the US could make the same argument to defend inaction.
Young, whose master’s in physics was in ocean wave power, says there are many easy emission-reduction gains available to New Zealand. Fonterra, for instance, is still using coal to fire its milk driers (although it recently canned a proposed new coal mine in Waikato).
Auckland’s inner-city rail link has the potential to transform the city’s public transport, but the Government has been reticent on funding. He applauds recent moves to lift funding for cycleways, but says we could be moving faster, and central and local government could lead the way on electric cars by choosing them for their fleets.
“But there’s no real sense of urgency driving the policy response …
“It’s pretty hard to distinguish what we’re doing from business as usual.”
Still chewing the cud
Are we any closer to dealing with emissions from farming?
Not really, but not for lack of trying. Forty-eight per cent of New Zealand’s emissions are from agriculture – chiefly methane from the rumens of cows and sheep, and nitrous oxide from animal urine, dung and fertiliser applied to agricultural land. This makes our emissions profile unique among developed countries. About $15-20 million is being ploughed every year into research at Crown Research Institutes and universities to find ways to reduce agricultural emissions. Although there are some hopeful lines of inquiry, there have been no major breakthroughs.
According to Harry Clark, director of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, the most promising areas of work are in animal breeding and chemical inhibitors. Research into sheep has shown it is possible to breed animals that produce lower emissions, with no disadvantage to growth rates. But the gains are “relatively modest”, he says. “We’re talking a 7-10% difference between the high [emission] and the low [emission] animals.” Researchers are now looking for ways of identifying low-emission cattle – a more critical challenge, given that dairy cows and beef cattle are responsible for 54% of New Zealand’s agricultural methane.
But, as Clark points out, unless there is a production benefit, under current policy there’s little incentive for farmers to grow low-methane animals because farmers don’t have to pay for agricultural emissions.
Research into chemical inhibitors is focused on suppressing rumen bugs – called methanogens – that produce methane. Benign chemicals that can do this have been identified, and short-term New Zealand trials on animals have produced encouraging results. Longer-term trials are getting under way and are showing “promise”, says Clark, but the research is still some way from producing a commercial product that farmers could use.
US researchers have identified a chemical inhibitor that reduces cows’ emissions by 30%, but Clark says this has most success if fed continuously to the animal, and it doesn’t appear suitable for a slow-release delivery mechanism such as a bolus. Still, it is likely to be trialled in New Zealand next year to see how it performs when fed intermittently to pasture-grazing animals.
Research into a vaccine to slow the growth of methanogens has not so far produced success beyond the lab bench, he says. On the nitrous oxide front, it had been hoped that commercial dicyandiamide-based nitrification inhibitors would make a major dent on emissions. But this was dealt a blow when residue was found in milk and the products had to be withdrawn from the market.
Clark says work is under way to find alternatives to dicyandiamide.
So, years of research and no breakthroughs: is veganism the only sure way of solving the problem of agricultural emissions?
Clark insists we don’t need to go that far but he acknowledges the point, saying part of the solution for the developed world may be to “look critically” at what and how much we eat, and how much we waste.
Emissions from the production of meat and out-of-season greenhouse vegetables are significantly higher than those from pulses, says University of Aberdeen’s professor of soils and global change Pete Smith, who spoke this year at an agricultural greenhouse gas conference in Palmerston North.
Modelling showed that fewer animal products in global diets would allow the planet to be fed and leave more land available for energy and nature conservation.
Pinus radiata, a saviour
Wasn’t our emissions trading scheme meant to solve our carbon problem?
The ETS was supposed to put a price on carbon and create an incentive for polluters to find cleaner methods. But the scheme has been progressively weakened and is so flawed that some critics claim it has done more harm than good by effectively paying companies to pollute. It doesn’t appear to have made a dent in our emissions, which were up 21% in 2013 compared with 1990.
Per person, New Zealand’s emissions are the fifth highest in the developed world. One of the most persistent critics of the ETS has been Environment Commissioner Jan Wright, who has railed against successive decisions that have rendered it “almost toothless”. Big polluters (milk-drying plants, fuel companies and steel manufacturers, for instance) are given free carbon credits; polluters have to account for only half of their emissions; agricultural emissions are excluded from the scheme indefinitely; and the number of carbon credits in the system is uncapped.
On top of this, until a few months ago polluters were allowed to pay for their emissions with imported carbon currency technically known as Joint Initiative (JI) credits, but more descriptively referred to as “hot air”. Research by the Stockholm Environment Institute into the JI projects that produce these credits found in 80% of cases they have little or no environmental integrity.
Chapman argues that a floor price on carbon needs to be at least $50 a tonne (which would lift petrol prices 10-20c a litre), and a price of $100 a tonne (and rising) is needed to bring about a strong shift away from fossil fuels. But until May companies were free to import hot air credits for just a few cents a tonne, while hoarding the good-quality credits handed out to them for free by the Government.
All this has seriously undermined the incentives for forestry, which has a key role to play in soaking up carbon. University of Canterbury forestry professor Euan Mason says New Zealand has 1.3 million hectares of erosion-prone land which, if planted with radiata pine, would sequester all our emissions for some years. And while pinus radiata may not be everyone’s favourite species, Mason argues if it’s accepted that we’re on a “war footing” with climate change, it is the best species because its fast growth means it sucks up more carbon than other species. “We also have to cut emissions,” he says, “but afforestation would buy us time.”
The Government has promised to review the ETS, which Groser says will start this year.
‘It’s like wilful ignorance’
Is there hope or is the world already buggered?
Recently we were told the vast East Antarctic ice sheet – long thought to be relatively stable – is being melted from below by warming waters. We already knew the West Antarctic ice sheet was thawing and some researchers think it has already passed the tipping point for runaway melting. Three years ago researchers warned that the Greenland ice sheet may pass an irreversible melting threshold at about 1.6°C of warming. This week Nature Geoscience published research predicting a doubling of Antarctic melting by 2050, with the possibility of ice-shelf collapse by the end of the century. In other peer-reviewed news just in, scientists report it’s too late to prevent some cities – including New Orleans and Miami – from being submerged by sea-level rise.
Heat and drought records keep on getting smashed: July was the hottest month ever, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, California is frying in the worst drought for 500 years.
Some researchers believe it is already too late to prevent at least 2°C of warming. Tim Flannery thinks even if “by some miracle we reduce emissions fast enough to preserve our climate safety”, we will also need to use what he calls “third way” techniques to soak up excess carbon. Much of his latest book is devoted to outlining potential mass sequestration methods such as seaweed farming and biochar manufacture, and even carbon negative cements and plastics.
As one who has been immersed for years in the detail of climate science and policy, Ralph Chapman’s tone is one of quiet rage at the lack of urgency in the face of potential catastrophe, leavened with a determination to remain optimistic. “Is it fair to future generations to sleep-walk to climate instability, for a temporary extension of this generation’s current prosperity?” he demands in Time of Useful Consciousness.
And what of those future generations? Paul Young, 30, says he fears for his five nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom is a few months old. “When you look at some of the time frames, by the end of the century on business as usual, 4°C is possible, and that’s in the lifetime of people born now. By the time my youngest nephew is 18, on the current path the carbon budget for 2°C would be completely gone … It’s totally unjust. We know enough about the consequences and the solutions. We’re not so much sleep-walking. It’s more like wilful ignorance.”
Twenty-three-year-old mechanical engineer Sam Murphy sees a future in which New Zealand will come under increasing pressure from climate refugees, including from the Pacific. Murphy, who is involved in the climate activist group 350.org, says the climate is altering faster than most people think, and he expects to witness wars over resources in his lifetime. “People will go to extremes to feed themselves.”
Although he is sometimes distraught at the outlook, it’s not in his nature to despair. He plans to devote his engineering skills both to climate activism and the development of energy efficiency and clean-energy solutions.
He has a “small amount of hope” that humanity can keep within the 2°C guardrail, and that Paris will produce a result. If not, he says, expect more disruption, protest and discontent. But, he believes, “everyday people can bring about positive systemic change with or without the politicians, through grass-roots community projects and alternative economies.”
Bridget White is 17 and is also active in 350.org. She’s “optimistic that we have the solutions to climate change, but pessimistic at the rate at which people are turning their minds to it”. She’s frustrated it’s often characterised as a crisis for polar bears rather than people and their ability to feed themselves – although the prospect of mass extinctions disturbs her greatly, too. She thinks a sense of despair lurks beneath the surface among many of her peers, and sometimes she feels that way too. “Sometimes it’s hard to care because it’s all too big, but I try to push past that.
“It’s important to remain rational … My generation will be the first to live in a world of climate change. We will be the transitional generation, for better or worse, depending on what happens in the next five years.”
Cutting back on carbs
Want to reduce your carbon emissions?
A Horizon Research survey this year found 87% of New Zealanders are concerned about climate change, but fewer than half think their actions can make a difference.
There are things you can do, but for most of us inertia and ignorance stand in the way of carbon-reducing lifestyle changes.
Independent economic consultancy Motu is trying to fill the information gap by developing a household carbon calculator that will show how much carbon is saved if, for instance, you leave the car at home twice a week and take the bus instead, or eat red meat only three times a week instead of five.
In the meantime, there are myriad small steps that make intuitive sense. Use energy-efficient lightbulbs, wash your clothes in cold water and dry them in the sun, turn off lights and appliances when not in use, buy energy-efficient appliances when you upgrade, get on your bike for short trips rather than starting up the car, reduce waste (landfills generate methane) and buy less junk.
Environmental campaigners often advocate buying locally grown food, but as Lincoln University professor Caroline Saunders showed in her seminal research rebutting the “food miles” argument against New Zealand produce, local is not necessarily better. The energy used to produce UK lamb is four times more than that used by New Zealand producers, even after it has been shipped halfway around the world. From a carbon emissions point of view, she says, it’s more important to buy from the most efficient producer than from the closest.
And what about air travel? The airline industry accounts for less than 2% of global emissions, but its contribution is increasing rapidly.
Air New Zealand is acutely aware of the mounting pressure to reduce aviation emissions, and has pledged to improve fuel efficiency and achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020.
But the problem remains that flying allows us to travel far further than we otherwise could. Overseas travel, once an expensive luxury, has become a cheap commodity. The most-committed cycle commuter can save hundreds of tonnes of carbon by leaving the car at home, only to undo all that good work with one weekend getaway to Melbourne. So, think about holidaying somewhere domestically.
But for those who want to help save the world and travel internationally, offsetting is the only option. Landcare Research spin-off CarboNZero has a robust online tool to work out your emissions and buy offsets from permanent forest projects. (As a matter of interest, a return trip to Melbourne will produce 1015kg of carbon, costing $57.50 to fully offset.)
And stick to cattle class. A World Bank study found that a passenger enjoying all that luxurious leg-room in first class accounts for up to nine times more emissions than an economy-class passenger.
Pre-Paris COP21 reading list:
Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Change, By Ralph Chapman. Bridget Williams Books
Why Are We Waiting: The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, By Nicholas Stern. MIT Press
Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, By Tim Flannery. Text Publishing
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