Because honest emissions cuts are staggeringly hard to make, achieving carbon neutrality anytime soon is an empty ambition. But countries continue to make big promises and massage their numbers to give a false sense of progress

Because honest emissions cuts are staggeringly hard to make, achieving carbon neutrality anytime soon is an empty ambition. But countries continue to make big promises and massage their numbers to give a false sense of progress

Around the world, ever more countries and regions are promising to stop emitting carbon dioxide sometime in the future. The European Union is winning plaudits from green activists for aiming to be “carbon neutral” by 2050. Cities from Adelaide to Boston to Rio de Janeiro are announcing similar goals, with Copenhagen saying it will get there already in 2025.

Such promises should be greeted with a healthy dose of scepticism. Copenhagen, for example, will likely miss its target, even after spending twice the planned cost of going carbon neutral. In fact, we can learn a lot about the emptiness of these promises – and how governments fiddle with their emissions numbers – by examining the little-known story of one of the first countries that vowed to achieve zero emissions.

This was New Zealand. In 2007, a year before she left office, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark set out her vision for the country to become carbon neutral by 2020. The United Nations duly hailed her as a “Champion of the Earth.” But cutting carbon is not as simple as gaining attention.

The latest official statistics show that New Zealand’s total emissions will actually be higher in 2020 than they were when Clark set her carbon-neutrality goal. And there has been an “increasing trend” in emissions since 1990, as the government itself admits. Yet successive administrations have consistently trumpeted climate success, by relying on what authoritative assessments charitably call “creative accounting.”

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, New Zealand promised to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2008-12. Although much less ambitious than Clark’s vision a decade later, the Kyoto pledge still entailed a meaningful cut of almost 13%.

But reducing emissions is hard, because it leaves countries worse off. Emissions are largely byproducts of productivity, and curtailing them implies higher costs. So when 2008-12 arrived, New Zealand’s annual emissions had actually increased by more than 20% since 1990. Despite this, the country’s climate change minister claimed, “New Zealand meets Kyoto climate target.”

How? From 1990-2002, New Zealand’s private forest plantations increased by more than 1.4 million acres. Although not planted for climate purposes, these trees soak up carbon dioxide. New Zealand successfully negotiated to include this specific emission offset in its overall figures, neatly balancing the actual increase. For safety’s sake, the country also bought lots of foreign offsets, including highly dodgy ones from Russia and Ukraine.

But growing forests also reduced New Zealand’s emissions in the comparison year of 1990. If we – more honestly – include the impact of forests and land use on emissions across the entire period from 1990 to 2008-12, the country’s net emissions during this period actually increased even more, by 38%.

These days, New Zealand is promising to cut its emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2020 – still 95% away from Clark’s earlier target. Real emissions in 2020 will in fact be more than 23% above 1990 levels. But by continuing to include the forest effect and the other leftover offsets from Kyoto, the government is already projecting that it will achieve its goal.

This tells us two things. First, when it comes to climate change, the important thing is to look like you are doing something. Countries that manage that can get away with massaging the data.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement is a great example of this. Countries made a grandiose commitment to keep the global increase in temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but all their promises together add up to less than 1% of what’s needed. New analysis shows that only 17 countries – including Algeria and Samoa – are actually meeting their commitments, in most cases because they promised very little.

The second lesson is that because honest and deep carbon cuts are staggeringly hard, achieving carbon neutrality anytime soon is an empty ambition for almost every country.

Strip away the statistical legerdemain, and New Zealand will be a whopping 123% off Clark’s vision of zero emissions in 2020. Current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now promises to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. That’s three decades later – but it won’t happen by then, either.

A government-commissioned report by the respected New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) shows that just reducing emissions to 50% of 1990 levels in 2050 would cost NZ$28 billion ($19.2 billion) annually by 2050. For a country like New Zealand, with a population the size of Ireland or Costa Rica, that’s a big deal, about what the government spends now on its entire education and health-care system.

And that’s only the cost of getting halfway to the carbon-neutrality target. According to the NZIER report, getting all the way will cost more than NZ$85 billion annually, or 16% of projected GDP, by 2050. That is more than last year’s entire national budget for social security, welfare, health, education, police, courts, defense, environment, and every other part of government combined. The report says Kiwis would need to accept a carbon tax of almost NZ$1,500. This is equivalent to a gasoline tax of NZ$3.50 per liter.

Other countries aiming for carbon neutrality face similarly eye-watering costs. The main economic models assessing the EU plan to reduce emissions by “merely” 80% by 2050 show average costs of $1.4 trillion per year. And Mexico’s pledge to cut emissions by just 50% by 2050 will likely cost 7-15% of GDP. Climate campaigners may cheer today, but these policies will be abandoned when voters start feeling the pain.

We need to move away from a response to climate change that relies on stirring but undeliverable promises of carbon neutrality. Rather than forcing the rollout of currently inefficient green energy, governments should invest much more in research and development to make it cheaper for the future.

Feel-good promises are easy politics, but they don’t actually help the planet.


Bjørn Lomborg, a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. His books include The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World, and, most recently, Prioritizing Development. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, and published here with permission.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

38 Comments

I do believe we need to drastically cut emissions world wide but I am at loss with this article and its refusal of the Forrest effect. Carbon needs to be treated as a equation of carbon produced - carbon absorbed = total climate impact. There also needs to be a tangible incentive for private companies to reduce their footprint (tradeable carbon credits similar to cryptocurrency come to mind). Leave this to governments and you wont get anywhere.

If you really want to fix our carbon issues then just bulldoze all of NZ's trees into landfill. Would be close to 500tonnes of Carbon sequestered per person - which would cancel out all emissions of NZ ever. And then replant it all in fast growing exotics like pine and do it again in 30 years.

Because planting trees is only a short term thing. Once you pull that carbon out of the ground it becomes part of the carbon cycle. One way or another those trees will eventually decompose and most of that carbon will return to the atmosphere.

Only becomes part of the cycle if you burn the wood or let it decompose. If you stick it in a building or transform it into paper, then it eventually ends up as landfill and gets sequestered.

So you reckon things don't decompose in a landfill? Id say the harvesting of methane from landfills would indicate otherwise, the fact its methane that is produced would point to it being one of the worst scenarios climate change wise.

50-97% of wood products (type dependent) get sequestered, the rest decomposes and we capture 90% of the methane to use as fuel instead of pumping more crude. What is not to like?

Carbon reduction is only going to happen on a global scale. But it's also clear all these international agreements are a compplete waste of time. But still -- it's great fun flying to Rio in a (big fuel burning) plane, with the other 20,000 people to demonstrate how concerned we are. Rio is a cool place to visit. When is the next big meeting to fly to ? Can't wait.

So it’s impossible to cut emissions huh?

https://twitter.com/drsimevans/status/1102564345098260490?s=21

“The UK's CO2 emissions fell again in 2018, for a record sixth consecutive year of declines.

They're now the lowest since 1888, barring general strikes.“

The UK outsources industrial production to China and then imports their consumer goods from China. Their emissions decline, yay?

End user should be the one responsible for emissions from what they buy. They would pull us up in our tracks.

Yeah, true.

I used to juxtapose a neo-Thatcherite response to climate change. Carbon consumption taxes, eliminating income tax and slashing government borrowing were all top of the tree.

You know what would really help? Replacing Imported fossil fuels with LNG and CNG - it would save about 30% of CO2 emissions. If only we had a natural gas industry to speak of. Thank the our clueless PM prodded along by ignorant Greens for shutting down oil and gas industry and creating higher CO2 emissions.

Aside from that the economics of battery electric vehicles and pv continue to improve, driven by manufacturing learning curves, and are projected to undercut IC engines for all transport by about 2026. We can expect a steady transition away from petrol/diesel over next 20 years for purely economic reasons.

"We need to move away from a response to climate change that relies on stirring but undeliverable promises". NO. We need to deliver. And that ones most affected are taking a day of school. Just get in with it.

Wow you're advocating for style over substance and defending it but okay then

There are three camps of countries in the world when it comes to dealing with climate change:
1. THE SMART (cutting emissions is only a by-product)-- use the issue to solve their own problems such as developing new tech on green energy to increase energy security and reliance on traditional fuel, battling air or water pollution

2. THE HARD (simply ignore the issue and not admit linkage between man made GHG with climate change) -- do nothing

3. THE DUMB -- take climate change as its face value with the ONLY goal being foolishly committed to reduce GHG emissions at whatever costs without considering any other more urgent domestic problems

You know what NZ falls into, right?

Yeah, we should be super smart and hard like these places:

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/05/health/100-most-polluted-cities-2018-...

Lomborg has spent most of his writing career being a weasel.

Some fall for his line, of course, scrape them and you find a need to believe.

His style is not to deny - it's craftier than that - he acknowledges then says 'wait'.

But he's right with one thing - without fossil energy, growth-requiring economics is dead. No other comes close - but we have to realise that we will end up without fossil fuels well before her (and Key's) 2050. So we have to go alternative anyway - and do so without what we temporarily called 'an economy'.

Gonna be an interesting morph.

The problem with this article and comments is talk about annual emissions but the climate change effect is not annual but dependant on the cumulation of CO2 over many years. CO2 absorption takes time that is measured in multiple centuries. Another way to say the same: if every human activity stopped today and all our domestic animals died the atmosphere would still be overloaded with CO2 and the climate change effect would continue warming the earth for centuries.
So the UK seems to be doing well - except it has released about the highest CO2 emissions per capita of any country because it started earlier. And developing countries have barely started - who will stop our PI neighbours buying cars and out board motors and eating burgers and creating CO2 emitting landfills?

pdk,

I found the article to be revealing. Lomborg,without being explicit, has obviously shifted his position from outright denial, a stance which is increasingly untenable in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, to where? Perhaps lukewarm is the best description and he shares this with Matt Ridley. In his book Rational Optimist,he downplayed the whole issue, but he too has moved and was described as a Lukewarmer by no less than Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now-a truly wonderful read.
Since Ridley is well right of centre,this will not go down well with his American buddies.

Lomborg has always been a lukewarmer - why suggest otherwise? He rightly recognises there are more pressing, and readily solvable, needs in the world than inter-glacial warming.

No need to wait for Government to do something.

Individuals can start tomorrow. NZ’s total emissions are just the sum of our individual emissions.

No more motor cars. No more international travel. No more plastics. No more power as we need gas fired generators for over 16% of our power today.

Some things aren’t going to happen - and this is one of them.

No point in comparing UK who simply shut it’s coal fired generators - an option we don’t have.

Average international flight emits roughly the same per tourist as one Kiwi living for 10 months. So are we stopping tourism?

Well, now that you mention it, tourism is a notoriously low-wage industry, with shocking productivity, with significant negative externalities including faeces in every rest stop on tourist routes, and it all depends on the economics of long-haul air travel. So, yes, perhaps it's first up agin the wall when the Green Nude Eel strikes......

I believe international travel is exempt from global climate change accords.

I believe it too. So it would be optional for our govt to include it. If they do then it proves they believe the climate science but if they don't include it then can we assume it is all meaningless virtue signalling?

We planted 3.5 acres in Pines 6 years ago .Didn't really think about it at the time but I can see the day when you have to own or have stakes in a piece of forest to truly offset your personal carbon footprint. You will be forced to move to an electric vehicle if you don't front for some forest.

We planted 25 years ago and chose not to sell carbon credits. But there isn't the horizontal acreage for everyone to do that.

Lomborg is and always has been a Lukewarmer - 'He does not deny the physics of the greenhouse effect, but instead cherry-picks information to deny that the risks of climate change are large enough to justify strong and urgent action.'

Interest.co.nz has unfortunately run several of his 'opinion' pieces. Here is the perfect antidote to this: http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/news/bjorn-lomborgs-lukewarmer-mi...

So what this article is simply saying is that the National Government did nothing (except undermine carbon trading) and that as a result it is now much more expensive to take action. In addition, the way the costs of action are measured is oversimplified. For a start one would have to also report the costs of not acting. Not an article of the usual "Interest" standard and disappointing given the importance of the issue.

Most, if not all environmentalists are huge hypocrites, and you can either join them in their hypocrisy and fill social media with your virtue signalling, or else sit back and enjoy the show as their house of lies, collapses around them.

That's probably unfair. Most are well-meaning, but they take too much other stuff for granted. Like economic growth. Like eliminating child poverty.

Few realise the extent of the global overshoot (population) problem, fewer realise the resource conundrum. Most think they can recyce a bit, drive something electric and it'll be OK.

It won't - but they are having a better effect than the rip/shit/bust echelon

This is a much bigger issue and makes climate change seem trivial:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-nu...

Climate change is definitely coming and definitely man made but we've seen no increase in the rate of sea level rise yet. It will be a slow process even if Greenland and Antarctica melt. Economic costs will be large as whole cities retreat.

So we are left with a much more violent weather systems to deal with in the meantime. More droughts, more heatwaves & more violent hurricanes.

Longer term things may get hotter much more quickly.
https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/02/26/striking-study-finds-a-climate-ti...

See https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/lying-with-science-a-guide-to-myth-d... that debunks the Guardian article.

I agree with your para 2 but fear sea-levels rise may suddenly and drastically increase.

More violent weather is unproven. After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans 2005 they said it was a sign of global warming - and then the next decade the USA experienced its lowest ever hurricane strikes. What is certain is the the world is more densely populated so the droughts, wild fires and tornadoes are destroying more homes. Note the hottest ocean is call the 'Pacific' and the regular worst storms are nearer the poles. Who knows climate change may reduce storms - we just don't know yet.

Economic costs will not be large - and will be dwarfed by bog standard economic growth. From the IPCC: "With these recognized limitations, the incomplete estimates of global annual economic losses for additional temperature increases of ~2°C are between 0.2 and 2.0% of income (±1 standard deviation around the mean) (medium evidence, medium agreement)."
https://archive.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/ar5_wgII_spm_en.pdf
and backed up by Nordhaus.
https://www.nber.org/reporter/2017number3/climate/climate4.jpg

Good job interest.co.nz posting some more balanced opinion pieces regarding global warming. Lomborg is right to point out the cash should be going to R&D not "carbon" boondoggles. Or to even better places like clean water, vaccinations and basic infrastructure.

Excellent Freeman Dyson interview on understanding the climate. Part regarding Paris: "The Chinese and the Indians are the two countries that are most important. They are the ones that burn the most coal. So what the Indians and the Chinese decide to do is actually the most important thing.

And they, in Paris, did not agree to anything substantial. They have let themselves free to burn as much coal as they want. So I think that is the main result of Paris as far as I can see. It really doesn’t matter what we do. Either in Europe or in America the quantities are comparatively small. So the Paris agreement was actually an agreement to do whatever we feel like doing and not much more. A lot of words but not really much action."
https://www.marijnpoels.com/single-post/2019/03/05/We-don%E2%80%99t-unde...

Think of it as like picking up your litter at the beach - setting an example. NZ should be doing something; so far abolishing convenient plastic bags seems to be it - but they talk a good talk about neutrality in 2050. Like the author I doubt the stats and I distrust promises made for 30 years away.

Freeman touches on the litter analogy. "The word pollution off course implies it’s an immoral judgment but in fact the CO2 is good for us, good for the plants, good for the food. The CO2 is not a pollutant. It’s actually a fertilizer.

In most of the time during the history of the earth, CO2 was much higher than it is now. The world at the moment is sort of half way starved for not enough carbon dioxide. Vegetation would like it better if there was three times as much."