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False progress … FALSE ALARM

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Tom Belford17 July 2020

Two bits of writing about climate change caught my attention in the past week. One said we’re  not doing enough to mitigate climate change; the other said we’re doing too much. Where do you stand?

The first was by reporter Marc Daalder writing in Newsroom, NZ’s excellent national news service. The piece was titled, Boris Johnson has done more for the climate than Jacinda Ardern. [Link below]

His concern, as I read it, is that heroine Jacinda (with appealing lead man, Green Party’s James Shaw) has lulled New Zealanders into thinking this nation is making actual progress in reducing its carbon footprint, when that is not in fact the case.

Instead we been given a plethora of goals and frameworks and future timetables – “milquetoast” he calls it – while our emissions continue to grow and we fail to take meaningful action.

He notes that: “While, for example, the United Kingdom has reduced net emissions by 42 percent since 1990, New Zealand’s net emissions over the same period have almost doubled. There’s also little indication that will change any time soon – the farthest projections, for 2035, show net emissions in New Zealand will still be 52 percent above 1990 levels.”

Daalder points to two particularly glaring failures to come to real grips with our biggest problems, cars and cows – backing off announced plans to introduce mandatory fuel efficiency standards for cars, and continuing to delay the imposition of meaningful constraints on agricultural emissions.

On the first of these, I strongly agree (and wrote about it here) – the Labour/Green car emissions policy, as limp and uncourageous as it was, was stalled by NZ First.

The second, I believe, is a bit more complicated, but I share his disappointment. Three more years will now be devoted to nursing along the cow industry, with the industry charged with determining what sorts of interventions and on-farm practices might provide solutions to lessening farming’s emissions impact. Clearer and firmer policy signals should have been sent by Government already, but again there’s NZ First ‘putting the brake on’ as they like to say.

To me, the answer is pretty straightforward … incentivise the movement to so-called ‘regenerative farming’, which is all about soil health, including carbon sequestration. Maybe you saw NZ Geographic’s cover story on regen agriculture. More on that another time.

The broader point in Daalder’s argument is that – because Jacinda and James sound so good – we New Zealanders think our climate progress is really – dare I say it – pretty hot stuff. We’re speeding along the right highway, throw in a bit of recycling and tree planting in the local reserve, and we’re all good to go.

Daalder cites polling data comparing NZ, US, UK, Canada and Australia attitudes that indicate Kiwis’ appetite for doing more lags behind other countries. I looked into this data and indeed, despite rising emissions, Kiwis, expressing the highest levels of trust, show the most satisfaction that their government is performing well on the matter (56%), and are the least likely to say their government should do more.

Which brings me my other reading, a review of FALSE ALARM: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts The Poor, And Fails To Fix The Planet. There are plenty of nonsense books around ‘proving’ that global warming is a hoax (or if not a hoax, at least not the fault of humans). I’ll confess, I’ve pretty much stopped reading them … I’m satisfied with the daily-augmented photographic evidence.

But I’ll make an exception for this book, because it’s written by a Danish statistician named Bjorn Lomborg. During my first week at my last real job, back in 2002 for the Environmental Defense Fund, I went to a Manhattan think tank presentation by this young fellow, who was a sort of antithesis to present-day Greta Thunberg. He was building a reputation as the cleverest debunker of global warming, getting heaps of media attention. But then he pretty much disappeared off the radar … the science became overwhelming.

So, why pay attention now? Back then, Lomborg was arguing that the science was wrong. Today, that argument is foolish to anyone who really matters to governmental and corporate policy-making on the matter.

Instead, today the challenge posed by climate ‘moderates’ or ‘closet skeptics’ against more aggressive counter-measures to rising greenhouse emissions relates to cost. They argue that the proposed interventions – like shutting down coal-fired power plants and eliminating petrol-guzzling vehicles – will stunt the growth of, if not crush, our economies.

There are mountains of evidence – not the least of which relate to the creation of new sustainable industries – that rebuts this claim. But in our Covid-moment in history, any policies or actions that can be painted as ‘job-killing’ – or in our HB councils’ context, add costs to ratepayers or any sector — are vulnerable to the rhetoric.

And that’s why Lomborg’s book requires attention … he’s a great rhetorician and manipulator of numbers. For climate doubters and avoiders, his book will be as popular as a ‘reveal-all’ penned by a Trump cousin.

The book was brought to my attention by a NY Times review of it written by Nobel prize-winner in economics, Joseph Stiglitz. He cut to the quick with a trenchant critique, then concluded:

“Written with an aim to convert anyone worried about the dangers of climate change, Lomborg’s work would be downright dangerous were it to succeed in persuading anyone that there was merit in its arguments. This book proves the aphorism that a little knowledge is dangerous. It’s nominally about air pollution. It’s really about mind pollution.”

Unfortunately, I can’t rely on Stiglitz, I’ll have to read it myself.

Meantime, where do you stand: are we doing too much or too little to address global warming?

Newsroom link: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/boris-johnson-has-done-more-for-the-climate-than-jacinda-ardern

Tom Belford17 July 2020

5 responses to “False progress … FALSE ALARM”

  1. John Blundell says:

    Simply a gross distortion of the facts to compare us to the UK’s emission reductions.

    They started with a coal fired power system in a heavily industrialized cold country with big heating.

    We started with a predominately zero emissions hydro system.

    There can be no logical comparison esteem the two.

  2. BayBuzz says:

    Electricity generation is just one part of the equation. Ruminant animals and cars are driving NZ’s continued growth in emissions. Leaving aside the UK/NZ comparison, are you satisfied, John, with how these two causes are being addressed in NZ?

  3. John Blundell says:

    No – I am not satisfied with how how we are delving with agricultural emissions – we seem to have overlooked the global nature of the problem.

    The simple facts are that the world’s ever increasing population will need ever increasing quantities of food and that will include our farm outputs – particularly for example milk products essential for healthy children.

    We know that NZ’s farmers are the worlds most efficient – delivered to market – so to reduce global emissions – we need to expand NZ’s agricultural production – thus displacing less efficient produces eg France.

    With no scientific breakthrough on the horizon that will reduce ruminant emissions – the consequence will be increased NZ emissions – but lower global emissions.

    Is that not what we are targeting ?

    Constraining NZ farm production to decrease our emissions will have the perverse effect of increasing global emissions.

  4. John Blundell says:

    Transport emissions in NZ have to be seen in the context of our unique geography.

    New Zealand is a very long thin country with very low population densities.

    Public transport – primarily Auckland and Wellington commuter systems – will always have a very limited role for the simple reason it can never match the convenience and utility of a vehicle that offers country wide point to point transport with the ability to add freight items. Think trip to the supermarket. Public transport will never be an option.

    Transport emissions are simply: Number of vehicles x Distance driven x Emission per km.

    It is not possible politically to reduce the number of vehicles or constrain where driven so the only variable is emissions per km.

    Here we are very fortunate as we have an existing nation wide electricity distribution system with a very high – but never 100 % renewable generation. ( We need to keep a coal or gas reserve to power Huntly in the dry years – the trade-off from a predominantly hydro system )

    This means that converting to electric vehicles will address transport emissions over time.

    Patience is all that is required !

    Our family V8 consumed 35 l/100 km – my Honda ~ 8 l/km – my next car will likely be an EV which will have near zero emissions. Huge progress in technology.

    The EV take-up is simply a function of economics. We would all love a Tesla Y which has more than adequate range at over 500 km – but at $ 70,000 it is the preserve of the wealthy early adaptor or the corporate purchaser.

    Using the latest Transpower report on transport electrification we need to understand that EV energy / fuel costs post Dec 2021 with road taxes included offers no saving over gasoline.

    This means that initial costs and functionality – eg lower maintenance – improved safety – will be the primary driver of take-up assuming range criteria have been satisfied.

    There is hardly a month goes by today when a major announces a new EV with improved functionality at a lower price – last week Nissan.

    EV purchase prices simply mirror battery costs which are on a sharp trajectory downwards.

    With battery technology I am a hopeless optimist and on fairly firm ground. Last week -Nissan again – announced a new battery assembly technology that purportedly offers a 90 % cost reduction with a pilot plant already underway.

    So the only rational transport emissions policy – Be patient – It is already happening.

  5. Andrew R says:

    here are two major issues with regards to responding to climate change.
    The first of these is the reduction of emissions to flatten the climate change curve. While it is a desireable goal that NZ reduce its emissions, our net impact on global climate change is dwarfed by other countries. If NZ had zero emissions, the climate would still change.
    The second is the adaptation of the country to respond to climate change. This appears to be mostly overlooked.
    While I am in favour of more nudges and incentives for the first issue, I believe as a country our major expenditure and research should be around the second.

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