by Jeanette Fitzsimons
The revised “net position” of New Zealand’s Kyoto liability shows why forest sinks should never have been tradable against emissions from burning fossil fuels. This was a central argument at Kyoto in 1997 as the world struggled to set rules for reducing emissions internationally. The EU, and environmentalists, for different reasons, argued that forest sinks should not be part of the agreement at all. The EU, because they don’t have much room to plant more forests and saw it as a way of other countries avoiding reducing their emissions. Environmentalists, because of the difficulty in measuring carbon captured in vegetation, because of its impermanence, and because it blurred the focus on the need for sustainable energy policies.
But we did need to include land use change in the agreement, because it can be a big contributor to further global warming.
I remember arguing at the time that there should be two separate pools, tradable within each but not between them. Forest sequestration should be able to offset emissions from other land uses, such as animal emissions and nitrous oxide from soils, but not tradable against emissions from fossil fuels. You can trade like with like, but not between apples and oranges. Farmers could have neutralised their emissions from animals by investing in forest planting, often on their own land, or in association with commercial foresters. Deforestation would still be penalised. But the energy and industrial sector would have had to embrace new technologies faster – renewable energy and energy efficiency. They are not rocket science, and they will leave the economy stronger in the face of oil depletion and energy insecurity.
We have been told that the art of measuring carbon in trees has greatly improved since then. That may be so for a well characterised hectare of forest, but the latest figures show there are many other uncertainties. How could an annual recalculation take us from a deficit of 21mt to a surplus of 9 mt, and may well take us back again next year?
This provides fuel for those who argue, “the figures are so uncertain there’s no case for doing anything”. It hides the fact that the half of our emissions that come from industrial processes and fossil fuels are well understood and the estimates do not change from year to year. The actual emissions have grown 23% since 1990 and are set to grow more if the recession eases. That is our big risk – unlike methane, carbon dioxide is, on any human scale, permanent in the atmosphere. That is where we should be taking action first. The uncertainties around half our emissions should not stop us taking prompt action on the other half.
Stationary energy and industrial process emissions are, by law, due to face a carbon price from next January. But they won’t – because National’s delays in deciding how to change that law have now made it impossible to have the free allocation plans ready by then. Transport was originally due to come in at the start of this year, but Labour delayed it two years because of high petrol prices. Oil prices have now dropped by two-thirds, leaving no real incentive to get a smaller or more efficient car, take public transport, or cycle. Cars coming into NZ get less efficient every year because they are getting bigger.
What are our opportunities?
Bring transport in from January 2010, before fuel prices go up again, while it is still politically possible. Bring electricity and direct fuel use in from the same date as planned, but delay trade exposed industries and industrial process emissions a little longer until the allocation plans can be done.