Climate change post-Durban: Still “punching above our weight”…?

Yesterday was just one of those days.

I experienced, yet again, one of those apocryphal exchanges with Dr Nick Smith on climate change.

Those who perceive global climate change as a competitive sport will be heartened to hear Minister Smith assure Parliament that New Zealand is punching above its weight in the negotiations. This is through the footwork and skill of Mr Groser.

The reason for the question was my concern that New Zealand had missed the deadline in sending its submission to the UN about increasing levels of ambition in greenhouse gas emission reductions.  At the Durban conference last December, parties had invited themselves to do so by 28 February.

The response was that only a few had met the deadline and New Zealand’s response would be sent before long.  This is OK – the real issue was not a few days here or there.

The real issue was the underlying gravity of the global emissions ‘ambition gap’ that has emerged since Copenhagen in 2009.  The question – the question of all time – is whether the NZ Government, even Ministers Groser / Smith themselves, accurately comprehend the enormity of the challenge before us all.

So, the critical third question I asked was – had he drawn to Cabinet’s attention the size of the required global cuts by 2020 for the planet to have half a chance of staying within a 2°C temperature rise?  No, the Minister essentially said, but he and his colleague read all sorts of reports, so not to worry.

The fact is that, as the UN reports, annual global emissions, currently hovering at about 50 Gigatonnes (50 billion tonnes) and projected to rise under BAU to 56 Gt. by 2020, must in fact fall to 44 Gt. in that year.

That’s a 12% drop in total emissions of the global community.  The UN has pointed out that the rich ‘developed’ countries of the North should cut by 30% (range: 20% – 40%).

New Zealand is one of these.  What has it committed to?  A 15% cut (range: 10% – 20%) provided other countries do the same.*

So, in short, we are committing to half what is required of us to ‘do our fair share’ in global emission reductions to save the planet from dangerous climate change.  But averting dangerous climate change is a binding legal obligation we signed up to in the Framework Convention in 1992.

And do we have any special obligation to our Pacific island neighbours, given that sea-level rise will force their total relocation some stage in the future?

Well, yes, thinks the Minister, but let’s not forget one thing: we are remarkably unimportant.  And despite that, Minister Groser is achieving extraordinary things out there and we truly are punching above our weight.

Besides, Minister Smith has never yet seen any credible plan to achieve that scale of reduction without extraordinary pain.  His colleagues nod widely.  I seek to table the Green Party’s 2009 plan, Getting There, which explored how this could be achieved.  The Speaker moves to prevent the document being tabled, lest it waste the time of the House.

Yet another enlightening exchange on the most critical challenge confronting God’s own.

Our current gross emissions are some 75 million tonnes (net = 60 m.t.).  This is projected to rise, under BAU to 88 m.t. in 2020 (net = 63 m.t.).  If we are to reduce by 30%, as the UN prescribes and the EU has committed to, we would cut from 75 m t. to 52 m.t.

If we achieved that, we would not be a leader, nor would we be a follower.  We would simply be doing what the UN prescribes in the interests of saving the planet – or, more accurately, protecting humanity from a very angry planet.

Instead, we are halfway short of the prescription – punching, you understand, above our weight.

Let’s see what the NZ submission says to the UN – when it enters the ring.

*Annex I cuts of 30 percent and NZ of 15 percent are off 1990 baseline. Whereas global cut of 12 percent is off 2010.

35 Comments Posted

  1. “The response was that only a few had met the deadline and New Zealand’s response would be sent before long.”

    12 days later, has New Zealand’s response been sent?


  2. If that’s what Nick Smith is saying then he truly is an idiot, or incompetent. One could cut the world down into regions, counties, towns, etc., to get down to 0.2 percent of global emissions and then say each of those areas doesn’t need to do anything because their emissions don’t matter in the global scheme of things. Result? What we have now, nobody does anything and so we will undoubtedly reach some tipping point or at least leave a hell of a world for future generations.

  3. Nick Smith is relying on what we can call two PR-framed climate policy denial arguments.
    1. “New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions are only 0.2 percent” (and are therefore too small too matter). Lord Monckton has made a similar claim for Australia. Thats debunked at Skeptical Science. In reality, New Zealand has an unambiguously ‘First World/Developed Country’ greenhouse gas footprint. The 2007 State of the Environment report says New Zealand per capita emissions of the six greenhouse gases were 12th highest in the world and were exceeded in the OECD only by Australia and Canada.

    2. “New Zealand is going to comfortably meet its Kyoto obligations”. In reality, NZ’s total (or gross) GHG emissions increased from 1990 to 2009 by 19%. Net emissions (after subtracting forest sequestration) increased by 23%.

  4. Much of the fuel problems could be greatly reduced with the use of industrial hemp. Many of our transport problems could be drastically reduced with the introduction of the Shweeb which could also be made stronger for freight.

  5. The government has been trying to take the credit for our high (>75%) use of renewables for electricity generation while their policies have been discouraging new investment in renewables and even encouraging new investment in gas-fired generation.

    Genesis is reconsidering one of their proposed windfarms and contemplating new gas-fired generation:

    Mighty River Power are also holding back on one of their wind farms too:

    And Contact’s plans for the Clutha river are on the back burner while they look at other hydro, wind and gas-fired opportunities:

    About the only company not looking at new gas-fired generation is Meridian, who have just shelved Project Hayes.

    So none of the main generators are seriously looking at replacing gas-fired and coal-fired generation with new renewables. It looks like that 90% renewables goal will remain simply aspirational, at least while the NACTs are in control.


  6. Im still astonished that despite all the scientists saying “no doubt that climate change exists & mans carbon emmissions are contributing” or words to that effect.. that there are still many who try to deny it or say its just another cycle the earth is going through.. OR try to blame something else.

    One planet & if we dont do something to arrest this.. it maybe a different planet !! ‘Water-world’ ?

    I suspect the deniers are those that still drive the V8s or SUV gas guzzlers.. The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, people

    Kia-ora Greens

  7. No Tony, we are not talking about thousands of years… and they can be used to “burn” the waste from the other reactors.

  8. CO2 is both a forcing and a feedback. Different situations give it different roles. I have put several comments on your blog. We will see what comes of this effort. Spencer makes mistakes. Monckton simply cannot be trusted. He is very smooth, but he has sub-zero credibility with me.

  9. Tony – spend fuel rods are kept under water for years, possibly a decade or two, not centuries or thousands of years. The heat generated by these rods comes from decay of the short lived isotopes, not the long lived isotopes that you are worried about. Because of that, the heat generated falls with time so that after a decade or so, the levels of heat and radiation generated by the rods is a small fraction of what it was, allowing the rods to be removed, handled and stored much more easily.


  10. bjchip:

    Just saying that I believe that responses relating to independently derived direct quotes from my own blog should be made on my blog, not Frog blog. I feel it’s not fair on this forum. It just seems a bit like exploiting Frog as a format for an outside conversation.

    Quote: “The last time we had CO2 at these levels the planet was at least 4 degrees warmer, and the ocean lapped 30 meters higher along the coasts.”

    But is the CO2 causical?

  11. Trevor,

    What better way to keep waste cool than by storing it in pools of water for a while until it becomes less radioactive and therefore cooler? The water also absorbs some of the radiation from the waste.

    Was that a serious question? Of course, it’s better than nothing but it isn’t a long (thousands of years) solution because you can never guarantee that those facilities will remain secure and stable.

  12. BJ,

    Get back to me when thorium fueled reactors are the norm for new builds. So, the waste may be less long lived. Are we still talking thousands of years? Oh, that doesn’t matter, though, I’m sure future generations, living in future societies, will have the knowledge and technology to cope with it easily.

    Nuclear will never be seen as a bridge to anything and it is self-delusional to think it will be. Our global economy is fixated on growth; all nuclear will ever be (in the eyes of the planners) is more energy to fuel economic growth (as though there isn’t a problem with anything other than energy). I used to be a nuclear advocate but I’m now convinced more than ever that nuclear is a disastrous strategy, or even tactic, and morally bankrupt.

  13. Andrew – New Zealand/Australia, the USA and England are THREE nations that will forever be separated by their common tongue 🙂

    Damn the apostrophes, full speed ahead.

    If it were true that the earth responds to marginal increases in temperature with a positive-feedback loop (or “snowball” for common language), then we would have already turned into a Venus countless times over from temperature variations that have always (and continuously) happened throughout our ecological history.

    The “positive feedback loop” you describe is NOT how the process is explained in the IPCC, and does not apply except at the end of the glacial periods…

    This CO2 isn’t being produced by any feedback.

    Thus warming is not going to produce more CO2.

    At the end of the glacial periods there IS a feedback. It takes about 6-8000 years to complete, as CO2 which is absorbed by the ocean is released by the ocean in response to the warming. The warming in this case comes first, the CO2 is itself a feedback for the first 800-1000 years and then it becomes part of the forcing driving temperatures up and releasing more CO2.

    The climate does not run “out of control” because there is a limit to the CO2 available that the ocean can release… and the whole thing happens in dead slow motion compared to what WE have done.


    …and don’t rely too much on Spencer. He is a hopeless contrarian.

    …and he makes mistakes

    Forbes won’t tell you that. They LIKE Business As Usual.

    The fact is that we’ve put CO2 equivalent to the total amount sequestered by natural processes over the past 3 million years back into the atmosphere…. in 150 years. The last time we had CO2 at these levels the planet was at least 4 degrees warmer, and the ocean lapped 30 meters higher along the coasts. There is no other measurable difference between THEN (just after the formation of the isthmus joining North and South America) … and NOW.

    The slow sequestration of CO2 by those natural processes is one of the reasons we even HAVE “ice ages”… the time scale differences between what we have done and are doing, and the natural processes, is scary… and the potential results are QUITE catastrophic. Just not for us.

    Our great grandchildren get to pay for this particular error in judgement.

  14. What better way to keep waste cool than by storing it in pools of water for a while until it becomes less radioactive and therefore cooler? The water also absorbs some of the radiation from the waste.

    Of course it is a good idea to ensure that the water doesn’t drain away and to have a plan ahead of time for the possibility that it does, and it doesn’t pay to have too much waste in too small an area.


  15. The currently popular Uranium reaction gives you Pu and longer lived problems. The Thorium reactions have safer waste products (less long lived) and there is much more of the fuel.

    He believes mixed thorium fuels can not only dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, but also be developed into a fuel for many conventional reactors to prevent production of any further plutonium as a by-product.

    Any country that needs to replace gigawatts of capacity based on coal to stay in shouting distance of its standard of living is going to need nukes. Not permanently but as a bridge to allow the shutdown of the coal and the orderly reduction in consumption. The power grids are not in place to carry solar from the Southwest US to the Northeast where it is needed. It is not in place to carry the wind from the Northwest to the Southwest. It is not in place period.

    The whole arrangement reeks, but there are very few ways to keep the population supplied with reduced amounts of power. Simply cutting off the coal produced power would be traumatic, and no nation can afford to do it that way.

    Building the replacement renewable sources up is a long-term expense.

    We have to survive the next 300 years for the sustainability that gives us another 2 million to be a problem. On current form our CO2 emissions will kill us all much faster.

  16. I believe Finland is building a repository for its nuclear waste. It will take about a century to build. Let’s hope they get it finished and still have the ability to safely store their waste and permanently seal the repository. No other country has a plan. Waste is currently stored in pools of water. That sounds safe, doesn’t it?

    It may not be insurmountable, Trevor, but an awful lot has to go right for the problem to be surmounted. I think that’s a bit of a gamble. For what? A few more years of living the good life?

    You’re right, coal is nasty too. We need to stop using nasty energy sources and unsustainable energy sources. Is that likely? No, not until it’s forced upon us by nature. Let’s hope all nuclear societies remain stable enough to finally deal with the nuclear problem (including decomissioning), though I don’t have much hope of that.

  17. And the heavy metals and other poisons trapped with the coal will be dangerous forever.

    Nuclear waste is a mixture of isotopes. One of the most prominant isotope is a Plutonium isotope with a half-life of around 25000 years. However this is only waste if it can’t be separated out from the other stuff. If it can be separated, it is high grade reactor fuel. The other isotopes have much shorter half lives, so the radioactivity of the waste drops off rapidly with time until only the few long-lived isotopes are present in quantity, and those ones aren’t very radioactive.

    Nuclear waste IS a serious problem but not insurmountable.


  18. Nuclear waste needs to be safely stored for 100,000 years. Our civilisation will be long gone, long before the waste is harmless. Nuclear power is just storing up trouble that we can’t possibly know we’ll be able to deal with.

    No country needs nuclear power that badly.

  19. Given that the USA would need to put in a lot more effort into solar and other renewables that they have up until now, I am afraid to say that it comes down to a choice between new nuclear plants and keeping older nuclear plants going longer, or new fossil fuelled stations. Providing the nuclear power stations are designed, built, maintained and operated properly, they are safe enough. The disasters that we have seen so far have been with plants that weren’t designed right and operated right, and in at least one case built right.


  20. I think the rest of the world needs them because they don’t have enough of the infrastructure to do anything else in the near term and the have to stop emitting in the NEAR term to get the most effect.

    Nukes are a bridge. The longer term needs to be solar and the rest, but the sort of engineering required to make the solar and wind and all the rest work for everyone not lucky enough to live here, is a lot harder to get done than the modular nukes.

  21. Trevor… Trevor… I was sorta looking forward to the scrap…. you KNOW that there aren’t many come around here with those denialist arguments any more.

  22. New Zealand doesn’t need nuclear power, and neither does most of the world. However a number of smaller countries with high populations such as Japan and much of Europe would struggle to obtain enough power from renewables for their population, so it is either fossil fuels or nuclear power for now. Long term, they may be able to import enough electricity from neighbours with spare renewable resources, typically countries with lots of desert and sunshine.

    The USA could meet their needs from renewables without relying on nuclear power or fossil fuels, but they have a lot of construction to do first, on solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems supplemented with wind, geothermal and possibly wave or tidal powered generation.


  23. Actually I am not sure that Andrew meant to say “the climate change scaremonger’s lies”. The sentence makes more sense without the apostrophe, as in “The strangest thing … lies in the fact that…”.


  24. Don’t they understand that we can adapt to a warmer world, but not a radioactive one?

    That’d be a war. Which is what the warmer world may give us when it happens too fast for us to adapt.

  25. Oh yeah… the thing about nukes is that we don’t need ’em here in NZ. The rest of the world actually DOES need ’em.

  26. Andrew – “climate change scaremonger’s lies” is an interesting usage.

    If you really want whatever it is that is bothering you explained, ask the questions. The only people I know of who are actually lying are the folks who claim it isn’t happening.

    We can do this by you telling me what it is you think is “wrong” with the argument that climate change is happening… or I can provide a low-level exposition of the evidence and the theory. You get to ask questions along the way.

    Doesn’t matter which way you choose, it always ends the same way.

    However, there is another issue here that you aren’t addressing. There are in fact two theories being presented. One is the one we are well aware of here, that GCC is happening and needs to be stopped.

    The other however, is the one that people who support doing nothing are unwittingly agreeing with, which is that re-releasing the amount of carbon sequestered in the past 3 million years in the past 150 years, will have no bad effects. That releasing CO2 50 times as fast as any known natural process, will have no bad effects.

    That the climate that existed with this level of CO2 (3 million years ago), more than 4 degrees warmer and 30 meters higher sea level, will for some reason NOT do the same thing this time.

    Thats the theory that you are supporting, whether you realize it or not. You can’t prove it… not even close. There is desperately little evidence to fend off the GCC “alarmists”… much less prove that the current course, BAU, is actually safe.

    We are all living in Bhopal.

  27. Andrew – coal fired power plants release radioactive materials that have been trapped in the coal, so it isn’t a case of radioactivity or warmer temperatures. With coal, we get both.

    We might be able adapt to warmer temperatures, but those in equatorial areas or on low islands would have a tougher time, and plants and animals would find it even harder to adapt.

    The answer would lie in finding and developing renewable resources where we can and to only rely on nuclear power in a few countries that lack suitable renewable resources. Then make sure that the nuclear plants are as safe as can reasonably be achieved and ensure that corners haven’t been cut and risks have been addressed.

    We have to cut back on our use of fossil fuels anyway. Sooner or later they WILL run out – it is just a case of when. The sooner we start, the easier it will be.


  28. The strangest thing about the climate change scaremonger’s lies in the fact that they say nothing about the threat of massive radioactive contamination, coming from (apparently) hundreds of dodgy nuclear power plants, around the world, being pushed past their use-by date due to corrupt interests.

    Where are hero’s when they have something real to talk about? Don’t they understand that we can adapt to a warmer world, but not a radioactive one?

  29. I think this exchange demonstrates, yet again, that there is no hope for us. Do what you can to prepare for a very different world, folks.

  30. It is tragic that Dr Smith thinks that “punching above our weight” in talking about climate change is something to be proud of. In a sane world what would matter is what was being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions not what committees you chair.

  31. To say that Aotearoa/NZ is ‘punching above its weigh’ on climate change iniatives is a little deceitful. This nation has amongst the highest levels of private car use & lowest levels of public transport use in the OECD.

    I hear that we are a nation of 4.3 million who own about 4.4 million cars (?) more than one each for every man, woman & child.

    I dont own a car, so it shows that some have more than one each. You only have to look at the motorways in Akld during ‘rush hour’ to see YES we are punching above our weight at spewing out CO2 from all the cars, grid-locking the streets !

    WAKE-UP & smell the ‘fresh air’ !?


  32. I watched the exchange between you and Smith live, Kenneth. While what you describe is true, to the casual observer, Smith had all the answers. His fixing you with his beady eye and barefacedly delivering his ‘story’ is effective. I’d like to see you a little less gentlemanly, and considerably more cut-throat in the House. Your questions, and I’m certain this isn’t an easy ask, need to reveal and embarrass, rather than give Smith the opportunity to soap-box the issue. If you are certain, act with certainty. Yours is a far more difficult task than his, granted, but you’re the man for the job. I want to see that Nat and that issue (metaphorically) slayed!

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