Two reputable climate change scientists, Adrian Macey and David Frame, have recently published a five-part series of articles in BusinessDesk.co.nz which seriously questions the government’s climate change targets and policy. Macey is New Zealand’s first climate change ambassador and an adjunct professor at the NZ Climate Change Research Centre, while Frame is professor of climate change at Canterbury University which gives their opinions serious credibility.
At the same time Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, has issued a report which confirms the inappropriateness of planting huge swathes of pine forests to offset methane emissions and a note which questions the rationale for treating long-lived greenhouse gases and biogenic methane differently. He asks why fossil fuel emitters should be allowed to buy carbon credits as offsets, while livestock methane emitters are not. Forests remove carbon dioxide not methane from the atmosphere, but Upton argues it should logically be possible for forestry to be used as an offset against warming in general including methane. He also warned about the impossibility of planting enough trees to solve the warming problem.
In his report he states “Reducing livestock methane emissions could have real economic and social impacts on people and ways of life. A fine balance needs to be struck between having regard to economic and social dislocation and finding a position that New Zealand can defend in international climate change negotiations, while remaining competitive in global food markets with growing consumer demand for low-emissions products.” This sums up the conundrum for political consideration admirably.
Macey and Frame maintain the climate targets announced by New Zealand can only be met by buying large amounts of carbon credits on a non-existent market from as yet unknown sources at highly uncertain prices. This will achieve very little in the fight against climate warming, but will almost certainly impose an unaffordable economic cost on the country. This cost has been estimated to be as high as $30 billion or more conservatively $13 billion by Treasury, but either way it is an eyewatering waste of money, if it actually does nothing other than invest in a speculative overseas market.
New Zealand has adopted an entirely different approach to the rest of the world in an attempt to be seen to be signing up to an ambitious target which does not recognise our world-leading performance in agriculture and renewable energy sources. It is infinitely easier to adopt a virtuous target when the hard yards are still to be done, but for New Zealand to commit to an unachievable goal seems foolish, given the progress already made.
This problem goes back to 1997 when countries, including New Zealand, were finalising the Kyoto Protocol which committed to keep global warming at 5% below 1990 levels. Upton, climate change minister at the time, negotiated a 5% discount in recognition of our high proportion of renewable energy and agricultural emissions, particularly methane for which there were no mitigating technologies.
Unfortunately the small discount meant we would have to rely on international carbon markets to compensate, whereas the Protocol anticipated the vast majority of the emissions reduction would be achieved domestically. Our capacity to achieve this had already been minimised by our commitment to renewable electricity and heavy weighting towards agriculture. A further voluntary pledge in 2013 also effectively shut New Zealand off from being able to access Kyoto carbon credits with no other options to replace them.
Macey and Frame argue we should do what other countries have done and build climate policy from the bottom up by recognising the capabilities and constraints we already have instead of designing a theoretically ideal policy from the top down. Their recommendation is to submit a nationally determined contribution based on what can be done domestically without reference to international markets. The key point is the unpredictable amounts of money spent on buying carbon credits can instead be budgeted and planned for research and development into mitigating the effects of climate change and global warming.
New Zealand suffers at present from the insistence by the United Nations on treating methane like other greenhouse gases using the GWP100 measurement which vastly overstates its impact because of its relatively shorter period in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states this overestimates the effect of methane by a factor of three or four, while similarly underestimating the short-term (20 year) impact of new emissions. Scientists have come up with an accurate measurement for methane termed GWP*, although some academics have tried to dismiss it as a means of giving agriculture a free ride. Despite acknowledging GWP*’s accuracy the Climate Change Commission still sticks doggedly to its preference for GWP100 as an accurate measurement of methane, while the Ministry for Environment is reluctant to accept GWP* as the preferred measure.
Adopting a warming-centred approach, as opposed to one that is emissions-based would do away with the present inconsistency between how emissions are measured and the warming they cause, as well as clarifying the point at which New Zealand (as distinct from the world in general) stops contributing to global warming – keeping warming below 2 degrees is the key goal of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
The split gas approach proposed under HWEN is an alternative if more complicated method of differentiating between the respective effects of carbon and methane emissions, although there is some misconception about whether this will meet international expectations when New Zealand submits its 2030 target as part of our NDC. Before COP21 in Glasgow Climate Change Minister James Shaw warned the split gas approach had already caused “international reputational damage”, although there appears to be no evidence of this.
It is hard to understand why there is reluctance here to listen to sound science which enables accurate measurement of emissions, especially when the less accurate alternative severely penalises the New Zealand economy. I would have thought the duty of both politicians and government officials would be to obtain the best and fairest deal for the country and its wealth-producing farming sector; not to buy in to ill-informed pressure from local and international lobby groups.
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