Gluckman on science and the environment

Professor Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s science advisor, delivered a speech today about “Bringing science and policy together for good environmental outcomes”. While he touches on many issues some positive others not so much I wanted to focus on a particular issue he addresses. Part way through his speech he highlights that “[s]cience and technology can help us find ways to use resources more efficiently [.]” Unfortunately all too often efficiency and the actual real impact are confused. It is great that Professor Gluckman clarifies his statement with a follow up highlighting that using resources more efficiently means using more resources for the same impact or creating less pollution. Unfortunately this is described by Professor Gluckman as a win-win solution. While it might be a win for the environment, this is not always the case. National’s weakened ETS which allows more actual pollution as long as it is done more efficiently is the obvious counter example.

50 Comments Posted

  1. Andy,

    Methane concentration had been levelling off up to 2006 but have since been increasing again, more so in the Arctic region but also noticeably elsewhere. If you feel you can ignore the GWP for methane, that’s up to you, of course.

  2. I agree with BJ up to a point. If we are to raise cows for milk and meat, we can’t stop them belching methane. However the type of feed and the way we stock them can influence the amount of methane released per cow, and there may be other ways to improve the efficiency of cows in turning grass into food rather than methane. It is certainly worth looking into, but a tax on the methane released may not be that workable. If it were based just on the number of cows per farmer then it would do nothing to encourage efficiency improvements.

    While I certainly don’t want a vegetarian future, raising cows is not the best option for some areas of New Zealand. There will always be a market for grains and in drier areas, growing grains rather than grass may be more sensible.


  3. Tony – the figures I have are 10-12 years for decay and GWP of 21 (the official figure) This is expressed over a 100 year time frame.

    If you look at the formula for GWP, you can get higher figures for shorter timeframes

    PS the 7 figure is from some calculations we did based on various studies.
    It is not pulled out of a hat
    shows a graph of methane emssions. As you can see it is tailing off

    The calculations for GWP seem fairly meaningless to me. They seem more to do with “carbon accounting” rather than any physical science basis.

  4. Interesting page about the various global warming potential estimates of methane, versus CO2. Over a 20 period, it seems, methane is 72 times as powerful as CO2. If the level of methane keeps rising, this latter factor would seem to be a better guide.

    I’m not sure why Andy S thinks the estimates are arbitrary or why he thinks his finger in the air estimate of 7 is the best.

  5. If we are concerned about ruminant methane then maybe we can persuade the Indians to kill all their sacred cows, since they don’t hold any economic value, and are still emitting methane

  6. To inexplicably return to the subject of Gluckman, his role with Key, and his advice (or the lack) on climate change science and emissions trading – I share Frog’s concerns.
    Gluckman seems to pay lip service to the science, then he takes a diversion into what I call ‘post-normal science/science-policy facts-values interface/uncertainty/leave it to future generations/cornucopian techno-optimism’.
    In other words, Gluckman agrees with the climate science and then finds other social cultural and political reasons, to be equally valid in deciding to acquiesce in ‘business-as-usual’.

  7. Trevor – I think you’re right but… it doesn’t help. 🙂

    I agree that the CH4 produced by additional ruminants is indeed “extra” and that in its lifetime it adds to the warming burden…. but there are two parts to my argument that the cows should simply be excluded. The one has to do with the CO2 emitted, which we’ve covered.

    The other has to do with the difficulty of doing anything about the methane besides eating the beasts, and the real effect on the world food supply of reducing the number of ruminants, unless we expect the world to go vegetarian which might be a necessary option if things get a lot worse.

    The rock vs hard-place aspect of this is pretty nasty.

    Basically I regard the agricultural methane from the cows as one of the last things I would try to address, after insulating everything and replacing all my power generation and most of my vehicles with low CO2 emitting variants.

    OTOH, if one doesn’t get to use fertilizer and the palm-kernel feeds, and other stuff, one cannot I think, support quite so many cows per hectare – anyway, and those things should still incur the tax.

    The actual sustainable population of livestock, and overall output of farms here is a question. I suspect it might be worked out by market forces if we do the tax on CO2 right.

    In the coming decade I expect the world to come up pretty hard against food issues. The result will be a real need for “as much production as sustainably possible”, and in this I regard the CH4 being belched as needing to be offset by reductions elsewhere, to provide milk and milk solids to the rest of the world, rather than a symptom of a temporary oversupply of beef here. The vegetarian option is for an extreme I can only hope we never reach.

    Andy is right about a fixed herd size giving us a constant CH4 level… which would be OK if the herd size for NZ were fixed, but it hasn’t been fixed for quite a while, HAS it Andy?? 🙂


  8. Trevor – I thought it was about a decade for methane to break down to CO2 and water.

    Methane is considered a more powerful GHG than CO2 by a factor know as GWP( Global Warming Potential) which according to the IPCC is around 21.
    (That is, 21 times the warming potential of CO2)

    However, having looked at the calculations and reasoning, this figure seems arbitrarily high and maybe a figure of 7 applies.

    Irrespective of these figures, however, lies the fact that for a fixed herd size, after a period of around 10 years, the whole system is in equilibrium. i.e a given quantity of methane being created at the start of the cycle gets taken out by the atmosphere for methane that was put in 10 years ago.

    This is quite a different problem – as you say – to CO2 addition via fossil fuels which does not have this short term balancing mechanism.

  9. Cows are not actually carbon-neutral. The CO2 effect is neutral, but the methane they generate and release takes around 20 years to break down, during which it has a much higher green-house effect than the CO2 that it started as (before the grass turned it into cow food) or became once again. However this 20 years is a transient effect. CO2 released from burning fossil fuels (or released from being trapped underground) has a long term effect before it is finally captured and buried again by plants or other removal mechanisms.


  10. I concur, mr chip. Blunt claims make it easy for the industry to rail against what is otherwise the correct direction. Nuanced thinking and broadcasting of ideas from the Greens would be valuable to those of us on the ground, arguing the toss.
    Andy S – first the strawman – I’m not arguing against fertilizers. I’m an organic grower and use all manner of fertilizing ‘agents’ to augment the ‘natural’ processes in my garden/orchard: natural guano-fall, soil biota creation, fallen-leaves-as-mulch etc. None of those things are fossil-fuels sucked from their repositories under the earth. leave those things there and keep the carbon in the ground. It just makes sense, Andy. There are better systems for fertilizing the soil, that don’t threaten human existence by stuffing up the climate. It’s all about management and scale. Just increasing efficiency would be a good place to start. Dairy farmers used to pour the effluent from their cowshed into creeks to ‘get rid of it’. It’s wonderful that they now have systems to retain and apply cow shit to pastures in order to utilize those nutrients, but they are still well behind what’s really needed. That example shows that farming needs to and can, do things better in terms of fertilizing the soil. They and you, by the sound of your comments, think the job is done. I say it is far from done and has to improve quick-smart. Your defence od urea is stalling progress. Think smart. Abandone the conventional model. Do better. It’s important.
    I won’t argue the present ETS. It’s a crock, but as bjchip implies, there is need of a behaviour-changing tax, because behaviour has to change and present incemntives won’t do it at all.

  11. Given that there seems to be some agreement here that a cow is essentially “carbon neutral”, it is worth pointing out that when Don Brash made this statement at the leaders debate during the last election, the other leaders just laughed

    This shows something about the level of scientific literacy amongst our parliamentarians

  12. I think that I’ve reached that as a conclusion Greenfly… there are some things that can get taxed/counted and others that should not, and we as a party would do better to distinguish the two as we set up a proposal to tax carbon properly (replacing the ETS with something that can work).

    One doesn’t tax the cow, but one must definitely tax the Urea, the other fertilizer, the transport etc, for its emissions of CO2.


  13. So if you are against urea or fertilizers, why don’t you tax them or find better alternatives?

    The currently proposed agricultural ETS is a flat rate on stock units
    There is no incentive whatsoever to reduce emissions, other than reducing stock numbers.

  14. The ‘urea’ factor in the cows-are-carbon-neutral debate is the one that I despair over and have never had addressed by any farmer or other anti-ETS campaigner. Gas that’s drawn from its sequestration below ground, turned into urea then broadcast in huge quantities over NZ farmland to either off-gas or convert to grass and then methane through the cows stomach network, must add to the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases, surely!
    It’s additional. It came from a place separate from the atmosphere. It wouldn’t have got there on its own. It’s human-induced increase of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, isn’t it?
    We do a lot of this in NZ, and pretend it’s all part of a natural cycle.

  15. Thanks for reminding me of the fertilizer. I wouldn’t exclude farming from the ETS (or the Tax that should replace the ETS), but I would exclude the impact of the animals themselves. Just as I would exclude growing trees for firewood. Net change has to be negligible from THAT activity, but the fuel use, the fertilizer… a raft of other things that we do… those are things we can do something about.

  16. Andy S – One of the reasons for including farming in the ETS is that farms use significant amounts of nitrogen fertilisers. These are broken down releasing nitrous oxide which is also a green-house gas. Studies which I do not have to hand have shown that reducing the rate of application of these fertilisers and applying them more carefully results in less quantity of output but better quality and this results in a small reduction in farm income but has little effect on farm profitability due to the reduced fertiliser costs. The health of the plants and cows is also better. The lower fertiliser usage also leads to significant reductions in green-house gas emissions – and better water quality.

    Including farming in the ETS will therefore encourage this better use of fertilisers.


    PS: There is also a significant CO2 emission reduction from the reduced fertiliser usage stemming from the fossil fuels used in the fertiliser manufacture.

  17. I was away all day, and missed Andy’s string of comments and as a result my reaction is delayed. Now that I’m back home,

    ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    Nice one, Andy, you wag!

  18. BJ – I am glad we managed to find some common ground. Maybe you can convey that to the party faithful and we might be able to move forward


  19. I think you are just missing out on the word “extra”.

    You may have noticed that I don’t agree with the party about agricultural emissions in general?

    A Cow *IS* effectively a Carbon-Neutral object… I think I need to work on this point, as it is essentially correct. Presenting it as an argument is tougher.

    ..but the 100 years residence? That’s just a result of putting too much CO2 into the atmosphere too fast.

    We’re adding it 50 TIMES faster than any known natural event in the past, and 20 THOUSAND times faster than the natural sequestration processes.

    So we really do have to cut back a bit.

    But not with a CO2 tax on farmers for having Cows/Sheep/Pigs or any other particular animal. Their fuel usage and the shipping and the rest… sure, but not the animal emissions.

    Bio-exclusions are the only CO2 tax exclusions I can accept but I DO accept them. The animal’s consumption and temporary storage and release of CO2 into the atmosphere is (in my opinion) logically similar to burning wood for heat.


  20. Why is it absurd?

    Your statement was: ‘So you regard all CO2 emissions as “pollution”
    Does this include breathing?’

    The implication of this to me was that you were talking about humans, as humans exhale CO2 and because that is in turn given as a reason for CO2 never being a bad thing by some who do not accept that the current level of atmospheric CO2 is causing problems for humanity.

    No, “light pollution” is fairly unambiguous. However, no one is proposing to limit light via global taxes.

    That’s because too much light isn’t what’s changing our climate.

  21. Add extra CO2 to the atmosphere and it remains for 100 years. Go through the scientific literature about this and it’ll be clearer. It doesn’t get sequestered directly.

    The grass that the cows eat doesn’t care where the CO2 comes from. It all reaches equilibrium. This idea of a 100 year lag is ridiculous.

  22. Add extra CO2 to the atmosphere and it remains for 100 years. Go through the scientific literature about this and it’ll be clearer. It doesn’t get sequestered directly.


  23. Yet in one respect I do agree with you Andy. Sort-of….

    The problem with taxing the methane from the cows is that there is stuff-all that can be done about it really, except reducing the number of cows… and we actually do pretty well in terms of the efficiency of our agriculture.

    I tend to depart somewhat from the party line here, as I don’t think this is the most appropriate answer. Not while Huntley is still burning coal and we’re still mining it and the world is pumping out massive amounts of CO2 on stuff that people do NOT need.

    I regard survival of the civilization as paramount, so there is a REAL need to provide people with food. We should produce as much food as we sustainably (without destroying our rivers and lands) can as long as our production is efficient and our export-transport is low CO2 impact.

    We might do better with grains and the like in terms of the number of people we can support for the CO2 emissions we produce, but the world hasn’t gone vegetarian (yet) behind this problem and we haven’t even really started on the low-hanging fruit.

    To say it more briefly, I’d put off much of the agricultural methane/CO2 taxation until we come up with something the farmer can do about it.

    I divide the emissions into necessary and unnecessary categories, and reductions into easy and difficult categories. The farmer’s methane problem is in the necessary category and is difficult to reduce. It is thus much LESS likely to be done cheaply, well, soon or successfully.

    We need some points on the board, not empty gestures. Greens DO need to prioritize better .

  24. The Co2 and water then go back into grass which the cows eat

    – after another 100 years… sure. Left out that part you did.

    I’m sorry, you are telling me that it takes 100 years for grass to grow. How does this work?

    Where did you get this idea from?

    CO2 and water combine via photosynthesis. I would imagine the effect is almost immediate. I don’t see any 100 year time scales involved.

  25. The Co2 and water then go back into grass which the cows eat

    – after another 100 years… sure. Left out that part you did.

  26. Actually Andy, unless the cooling towers are attached to a nuclear plant, they are a good proxy for the carbon pollution going on.

    It is after all, difficult to see Carbon Dioxide, Methane or Carbon Monoxide… and the Media is all about images… people are not notorious for reading a lot anymore. That’s the MEDIA, not the science.

    I’ll call it a pollutant in some contexts. CO2 IS currently a pollutant, as there is too much of it and we have to reduce our emissions back to where nature can keep up. Salt is a pollutant if it is in your drinking water supply. Human respiration, plants and animals and natural processes, are not imbalancing influences, as is clear from the record of CO2 levels on the planet.

    So the goal of painting Greens as being unreasonable and against survival of humans is clear in your statements. It is the usual campaign of lies, and it is no different in non-election years as when elections are being held.

    Regarding that sort of thing with the contempt it deserves. If you find a real argument, with real science, please bring it. This sophistry crap is simply crap. Don’t waste my time.


  27. No, “light pollution” is fairly unambiguous. However, no one is proposing to limit light via global taxes.

    The term “carbon pollution”, used in association with pictures of smokestacks, is extremely misleading.

    The public are being brainwashed into thinking that all pollution is bad, and that by association CO2 is bad.

    CO2 is only bad if positive feedbacks from water vapour (a more abundant GHG than CO2) cause significant warming of the planet that may result in dangerous extremes of climate.

    We don’t know if climate sensitivity to CO2 is high or low. If it is low, then the result of gain of CO2 may have a net beneficial effect to the biosphere. If it is high, then it may have a net detrimental effect.

    Whether you chose to do anything about CO2 emissions is a matter of public policy. However, it is misleading to refer to it as “pollution”

  28. Light is not a pollutant either, yet when people hear the phrase “light pollution”, very few would feel they were being deceived, but rather understand the reference is to there being too much light for some activity, such as using a telescope in a bright city.

    In the context of their being too much CO2 in the atmosphere, as is clearly the context is the example articles, “carbon pollution” in neither misleading nor deceptive. Perhaps “carbon dioxide pollution” would be technically more accurate, but you’d have the same erroneous complaint.

  29. Valis,
    “Carbon” is not “Carbon Dioxide”
    What I find happens is that people associate “Carbon” with soot. Which is a pollutant.Andy has a point- it is deceptive.
    Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant.

  30. Furthermore, Gluckman appears fairly clueless on matters relating to climate change, and he has used the term “denier” which signals to me that he is a narrow minded bigot with a political agenda (as does anyone who uses the term “denier” or “denialist” in relation to climate)

    he should stick to his undoubted achievements in medicine and stop advising the government.

  31. Why is it absurd? We are proposing to fine farmers for methane emissions from cows. The methane is a part of the natural carbon cycle, which breaks down into CO2 and water after about 10 years. The Co2 and water then go back into grass which the cows eat, thus forming more methane.

    Methane emissions from cattle come from them breathing, mainly.

    The only justification for fining or taxing this via the ETS is that methane is supposedly a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, by a factor of 21. However, this figure appears a little contrived to me. it does not appear to be based on any physical science.

    Irrespective of that, however, for a given herd size, there will be no net change in GHG concentrations in a steady state after the system has reached equilibrium. There is no compensation for better used of pasture, or mitigation techniques used by the farmers. NZ, alone in the world, is proposing to fine or tax its primary industry in this way.

    The Greens presumably regard this methane from cattle as “pollution” too, despite the fact that there is no evidence that there is any threat from methane to the environment whatsoever. (IPCC AR4 shows methane emissions flat-lining)

  32. How thick would someone need to be to read those three articles and think carbon polution was about breathing?

    Perhaps there is an agenda here and it’s yours.

  33. Of course not and I’ve come no where close to even slightly implying that, as you well know. Your game is going from just silly to adsurd. Stop digging.

  34. I already looked at the three examples above and none suggest anyone willfully trying to “mislead the public to suit their agendas”. The first does show cooling towers, but I expect this photo was chosen out of ignorance more than anything else. And it is not unreasonable to show a power plant when talking of carbon emissions.

    All three articles discuss carbon polution in the context of reducing CO2 emissions. I don’t like Gillard’s accent either, but this is completely correct and not misleading at all.

  35. I have just given several examples that illustrate my point. Cooling towers that emit water vapour are a case in point.

    Juliar Gillard is the worst offender. She keeps crowing on about “Caaaabon Pllushun”

  36. There is nothing misleading about the term “carbon pollution”. It is used by those who see the current level of carbon emissions as threat to humanity and it is not at all a difficult concept to understand. I think you’re the one trying to mislead, but perhaps you can post an example that illustrates your point.

  37. I guess we must be using different search criteria. I provided a few links to the term “carbon pollution” above, then I am asked to defend my patch.

    OK, go to Google, type in “carbon pollution” (in quotes)
    I got 825,000 results.

    If you go to images, you will be lots of pictures of smoke stacks and cooling towers emitting something other than CO2. At least, they may be emitting CO2 but you don’t see it.

    There is some “carbon pollution” that I consider indisputably bad and that is “black carbon” or soot. This can cause respiratory illnesses and also affect albedo on glaciers, hastening melt.

    However, we have techniques to deal with black carbon. Unfortunately, this distinction is never made and the MSM and political parties are happy to mislead the public to suit their agendas.

  38. I think we all know what is meant by the term “carbon pollution”, though it is only rarely used in the main stream media. The number of Google hits for NZ (only two), Oz and the world is tiny, with probably many duplicates, blogs or quotes. It certainly doesn’t support the notion that one can get “sick” of the term appearing in the media.

  39. I am not trying to say that “no level of CO2″ is a problem, but thanks for the strawman anyway.

    It’s not a strawman, it’s the issue. There’s nothing wrong with calling unwanted CO2 production “pollution”.

    What I am hinting at is that I get sick of terms like “carbon pollution”, usually linked in newspaper articles showing cooling towers emitting water vapour (i.e “pollution”).

    That’s the strawman. It was hardly a hint when you were responding to Gareth discussing ETS emissions.

    My view is that the language and imagery is deliberately intended to mislead the public.

    No, the public most definitely should think of unwanted CO2 emissions as pollution, currently one of the most dangerous kinds.

    Unless we can have a balanced view of this very complex topic (sorry, you can’t compare fossil fuels with smoking) then we will never progress politically and will be forever locked in pointless arguments.

    Fossil fuels vs smoking. Talk about strawmen. No one here has said anything like that, so why mention it? I think you’re the one desperately trying to obfuscate.

  40. I don’t follow, @greenfly. Straw man construct or not, didn’t you ask for newspaper articles? Click the link I provided and you’ll get a list full of links to newspaper articles that use the term “carbon pollution”. My own particular link might have been biased towards Aussie news sources because that’s the url it constructed based on where I searched from, but that’s the way Google rolls. Head to and search for “Carbon Pollution” (in quotes) and see for yourself.

    All this said, after putting in some more effort, there don’t seem to be many NZ-specific sources using that term. Those which exist look more like press releases. There are heaps of Australian sources using the term — read into that what you will.

  41. Doesn’t count if we can’t read the link, Mike. I see the phrase used only by people like Andy S. It’s a construct – much like a strawman.
    Come on Andy. Defend your ramparts.

  42. Andy – I don’t believe your claim that the term “carbon pollution” appears in newspaper articles. can you link to a single example?
    I don’t believe you will be able to.

    OK here’s a few examples I dredged up via Google

    “US Cutting Carbon Pollution With Fracking”
    (Note the picture of steam coming out of cooling towers)

    “”The opposition may want to keep running its fear campaign, despite the facts. But the facts are these – the facts are that the carbon price is paid by a limited number of businesses that generate the carbon pollution

    “While there have been no end to the irresponsible claims made about the impact of both a price on carbon pollution and the new resource tax arrangements, the investment figures tell the real story,” Swan said in an economic note yesterday. “”

    There’s three examples I found by Gooling “carbon pollution”

    Do you want more?

  43. Andy – I don’t believe your claim that the term “carbon pollution” appears in newspaper articles. can you link to a single example?
    I don’t believe you will be able to.

  44. Valis,
    I am not trying to say that “no level of CO2” is a problem, but thanks for the strawman anyway.

    What I am hinting at is that I get sick of terms like “carbon pollution”, usually linked in newspaper articles showing cooling towers emitting water vapour (i.e “pollution”).

    My view is that the language and imagery is deliberately intended to mislead the public.

    Unless we can have a balanced view of this very complex topic (sorry, you can’t compare fossil fuels with smoking) then we will never progress politically and will be forever locked in pointless arguments.

  45. Gluckman doesn’t mention the rebound effect, or Jevons Paradox. He also appears to be hooked on growth and believes in never-ending resources (he refers to them as “abundant” but never mentions limits) that need to be exploited efficiently.

    There’s nothing in this speech that will turn this ship around.

  46. Hi Frog – I think you have got the wrong end of this one. Your comment implies he said “using resources more efficiently means using more resources for the same impact or creating less pollution” is wrong.

    His speech is clearly implying “using resources more efficiently means using LESS resources for the same impact or creating less pollution.”


  47. I suppose it depends on whether you consider CO2 as “pollution”, since it is a compound that is essential for life, and all of us breath out about 1kg of it every day

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