Atlas shrugs off climate change – a New Zealand policy failure of monumental proportions

Our record on climate change has come to rank as perhaps the greatest policy failure in New Zealand history.

The latest figures for this country’s greenhouse gas emissions were released on Monday.  They project an extraordinary blowout in our emissions over the next quarter-century – the critical period of global and national emissions that will determine the fate of the Earth, and therefore our children.

The latest projection is for our net emissions to continue to grow from its present level (56 m.t. in 2011) to peak at about 98 m.t. in 2028.   By 2040, they are projected to be 85 m.t.

This embarrassing projection sits on the worst track record of any developed country between 1990 and 2010. As reported to the UN,[1] our net emissions went from 32.4 m.t. in 1990 to 57.5 m.t. in 2010, a 60% increase in 20 years.[2]  The next worst OECD country, Canada, recorded a 46% increase.  The EU reduced its collective emissions by 17%.  Norway cut its emissions by 49%.

New Zealand’s past record is abysmal.  Its future projections are worse.

Back in 1992, the (National) Government signed the legally-binding UN Framework Convention in which we undertook to bring our emissions down.  The increase from 34.6 m.t. that year to a projected 98 m.t. in 2028, an almost three-fold increase, is an obscene failure in policy.

In 2009 the current Government adopted a target of 50% off 1990 emissions by 2050.  Because of Kyoto accounting rules, this is a gross-to-net target – so the accepted challenge is to reduce from 60 m.t. gross emissions in 1990 to 30 m.t. net emissions in 2050.

Clearly, on current trends, New Zealand will be around 70 m.t. to 80 m.t. in 2050 – twice to three times the stated target.  This is not an acknowledgement of past failure; it is an announcement of future failure.

Has anything so shameless been perpetrated in NZ policy before?  How did we get to this abject position?

Through a series of self-deceptions:

  1. By thinking, early on, we could use our forestry as the primary, if not sole, way of meeting targets;
  2. By flip-flopping, in serial manner, between carbon tax and unit-trading as the economic instrument;
  3. By surrendering, shamelessly, to sector and pressure group demands for exceptional treatment;
  4. By failing, especially the current Govt., to understand the macro-economics of climate change policy.

This last failing was dramatically illustrated by the Prime Minister in his post-cabinet press comments on Monday.   Journalists queried him about the implications of the future emission statistics.  John Key gave a puny version of Atlas shrugging.

Mr Key warned against focusing too much on long term projections when half of New Zealand’s emissions come from farm-produced nitrate and methane.  The New Zealand-led global alliance researching how to reduce livestock emissions could ‘quite possibly’ come up with a scientific solution to cut those emissions dramatically.

“It’s not necessarily going to be a kind of slow linear reduction”, he said. “So actually, I’m of the view science is going to be our friend when it comes to this area.  I’ve never been of the view people are going to dramatically change their lifestyle. They’re not going to stop eating protein, they’re not going to stop wanting New Zealand to produce that protein, but science can actually assist us.”

Suffice to note that it is the scientific community which has shown the need for fast linear reductions, commencing now, for there to be a 50% chance of averting dangerous climate change (the 2°C threshold).

With leaders like this, New Zealand needs no enemies.  As other nations will point out before long, we are our own worst enemy.

[1] FCCC/SBI/2012/31, pp.14, 15 (16 November 2012)

[2] This latest MfE figure for 2010 is higher than that recorded to the UN for 2011 cited earlier in the blog: a case of revised figures (upwards…) as greater knowledge is acquired.

11 Comments Posted

  1. mokmonster.

    looks like the roaring 40′s are lower than they should be, thus offloading NSW rain onto the west coast of the South Island,


    I we look at any atlas we see that the West Coast lines up with Bass Strait and Tasmania, not NSW.

    Very bottom of NSW is in line with Cape Reinga.

    Simply geography will tell you why the West Coast is wet (and by the way has ALWAYS been wet. Maybe you could study the Southern Alps topography and realise that wet cold air hits the alps and deposits its content there?

    Still, dont let geographical location facts get in the way of a wayward assumptions regardign lack of rainfall in NSW.

    Plus the roaring forties are way way below Stewart Island (and Tasmania) so not sure what they have to do with NSW lack of rainfall

  2. Allow more marginal land to revert to bush, plant it as native forest or convert it to managed forests, even if only for firewood or a source of biomass for processing. Forest and bush in a state of equilibrium lock up a certain amount of carbon, depending on the average density. If the forest can be harvested, it becomes a source of carbon (in the form of wood or biomass) and extracts an ongoing amount of CO2 from the air each year. This gives a net benefit in terms of negative CO2 emissions providing the wood or biomass stays unburnt (used in buildings, or converted to charcoal for soil improvement). If the wood or biomass is burnt, then it is neutral with respect to CO2 emissions, but could displace fossil fuels and therefore still be advantageous.

    We can also expand our use of solar water heating for commercial applications where low temperature heat is needed or for preheating in applications requiring higher temperatures. (Solar power can generate high temperatures but only when clouds are not scattering the sunlight – an issue in the land of the long white cloud.) How much hot water is used in shopping malls, schools, industry and rest homes which could be heated using solar panels?


  3. I just posted this on the 3news website but it is very relevant here. It is in relation to the out of control fires in NSW, mainly due to severe lack of rain. Right now conditions are deteriorating wrt wind, dryness etc. whilst where I am we are getting right now yet another extreme rain event>>>>
    Meanwhile the west coast of the South Island is getting drenched….and drenched….and drenched….and drenched….looks like the roaring 40’s are lower than they should be, thus offloading NSW rain onto the west coast of the South Island, so now we are getting megarain.  I wonder if New Zealand’s 60% increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the lastr 20 years is a contributing factor?  Weather is getting more extreme, extremely fast right now.  Yet governments, especially ours, including local governments (water quality issues, land clearances etc) are being lame ducks. 

  4. Increase pest control in our National Parks and other areas, so the vegetation can grow and absorb more CO2.

    Investigate co-firing biomass with coal at Huntly and anywhere else currently burning coal. I’d rather not burn the coal at all, but if we haven’t invested enough in other renewable sources of energy, burning biomass with the coal is better than burning coal alone.

    Investigate and invest in more geothermal development, for process heat, space heating and water heating, as well as for electricity generation.

    Change more traffic lights from incandescent bulbs to LEDs. As LEDs are naturally coloured (and need special tricks to generate a whitish light) whereas incandescent bulbs are naturally white and need filters to become coloured, the efficiency of using LEDs where coloured lights are needed is proportionally greater than using white LEDs where white light is needed.

    Make it easier for people to do more things on line, to cut down on the number of trips out. (Why can’t I top up my cell-phone using on-line banking?)

    That is just a start of things we can do. However many of these things are not easy for individuals to do – government (and SOE) action is needed.


  5. Yes, we’re definitely one of the badder boys. And we want to mine more of the stuff! Just incredible but par for the course.

    I’m not sure it make sense to look at emissions within the borders of a particular country. What counts is the total emissions due to the economy and lifestyles of people in a country (though the global picture is even more important). Some emissions that a country is responsible for occurs outside its borders.

    dbuckley, there is nothing that can be done that would be acceptable to either politicians or the general populace. It’s a fair question but the answer is (effectively) nothing. Look at what has to be done to have an estimated 50% chance of staying under 2C above preindustrial times, and 2C is an outdated figure with something less than 1.5C now looking to have the risks that 2C had (for example, continuous permafrost melt is likely triggered at 1.5C, further exacerbating warming).

    So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what life will be like in a much warmer world. At least it will be interesting.

  6. Good article Kennedy, It’s such a catastrophic failure.

    dbuckley asks exactly the right question. What should we actually do? What I want to know from the general public is this: Why aren’t you demanding that the engineers who design and manufacture and make their livings off all of these systems that are actually causing the problems get their acts together and change those systems?

    The architects and builders got it terribly wrong with their leaky building designs. Does it make any sense at all to ask ourselves “what we should do?” about that? No, not really. What we do is we demand that the architects and builders sort themselves out. Figure out how to fix the bad ones if they can, and figure out how to not do it again.

    The captain of the Reena got it terribly wrong out on that reef. Do we ask ourselves what we should do? Should we not buy shipped things? Actually, the people who know about maritime shipping review the regulations, penalize the negligent parties, and put safeguards in place.

    How do “we” reduce fossil carbon emissions? Nitrate fertilizer emissions? Bovine emissions?

    – Extract and import less oil, coal and gas
    – reduce number of cows
    – reduce manufacture and import of nitrate fertilizer

    It is the only way, and it is not a bad thing. Every time in history that constraints have been imposed, either by nature or through self regulation, clever people use the one real resource our species has in abundance – resourcefulness. We don’t actually get that creative during times of surplus, we just find ways to make and use more stuff.

    In fact – and I can back up this claim with analysis – the best way to get a REAL positive movement in the economy is to set the importation, extraction and production limits stated above.

  7. And I have no idea why Philip is getting downticked for just asking a question; I’ve retaliated with an uptick.

  8. Frankly, I don’t have any good ideas. Well, that’s not quite true, I have ideas, some of which may even be good, but there is a world of difference between an idea that works in my head, and an idea that can be acceptably foisted upon the populace. Especially a populace that – today – really doesn’t give a shit about the environment (I’ve posed links to sources previously). Remember the furore when Helen tried to get between people and their showers? Part of her downfall.

    I’ve taken some personal responsibility for my pollution: I have a house full of low consumption lamps and I’m taking other measures to reduce power consumption. I drive a modern, small, fuel-efficient car, I telecommute two or three days a week rather than commuting at all. Thus, compared to those fabled 1990 levels, my personal pollution contribution has reduced.

    But this is still only small beer, and isn’t going to save the planet, even if everyone adopted it. But it would be a start…..

  9. I’d really like to hear from dbuckley on this, rather that asking for someone else’s ideas. It might show that he is facing and helping to grapple with the issue, rather than continue with negative and unhelpful reactions.

  10. So what should we do? Actually do?? And I mean first order things, not second order wishy-washy ideas like carbon charges. What do we all need to do today. Like shoot all the cows? Scrap all the cars? I know these are stupid suggestions, but they are illustrations of real actions. What should John Key implement this year?

    And I’d really like to hear from Kennedy on this.

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