Polar ice keeps melting – whichever way you look at it Andy Reisinger Oct 15

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At the risk of banging on and on about it: another research article just out today from the prestigious journal Nature has used satellite-based measurements to show that the thinning of glaciers that are draining the Greenland and key parts of the Antarctic ice sheet is increasingly widespread. A quote from the abstract:

“We find that dynamic thinning of glaciers now reaches all latitudes in Greenland, has intensified on key Antarctic grounding lines, has endured for decades after ice-shelf collapse, penetrates far into the interior of each ice sheet and is spreading as ice shelves thin by ocean-driven melt. [...] Our results show that the most profound changes in the ice sheets currently result from glacier dynamics at ocean margins.”

This study, led by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, nicely complements (if ‘nice’ is the right word for such news) recent results showing that the total mass of both Greenland and Antarctica has been shrinking as a result of ice loss from surface melting and the accelerated flow of glaciers (see the original study and my blog about it).

The widespread and enduring acceleration and thinning of glaciers at all latitudes around Greenland and key parts of Antactica is of major concern, because it suggests that what we are seeing is increasingly unlikely to be only a temporary hickup of the system. The current rates of ice loss would not have to increase by much more before sea level rise will exceed the top end of the figures provided by the last IPCC assessment.

Is agricultural trade liberalisation bad for the climate? Andy Reisinger Oct 14


A Dutch research team has analysed the effect of agricultural trade liberalisation on global greenhouse gas emissions. Their study finds that a full liberalisation of agricultural trade (ie, removal of all trade barriers, quota and subsidies globally) would result in a 6% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

Most of this emissions increase would come from land-clearing in developing countries to create new land for agricultural production, and increased numbers of cattle in extensive farming regions that produce meat less efficiently than in high-intensity production countries. By 2030 and beyond, the global increase in emissions would level off again as increased emissions from countries benefiting from trade liberalisation would be balanced by reduced emissions in countries negatively affected by liberalisation.

This study raises some interesting problems for New Zealand and in particular Tim Groser, who is Minister in charge of both trade and international climate change negotiations. New Zealand is a strong advocate for trade liberalisation, but what if free trade increases the risks of damaging climate change?

The recent study provides some interesting regional details: for example, under a scenario where only trade barriers are removed but existing milk quota are retained, dairy production in Australia and New Zealand increases more than under a full trade liberalisation scenario, as well as leading to a much smaller increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. This shows that specific details about trade liberalisation could matter for both New Zealand’s economy and the global environmental impact of trade agreements.

Perhaps the biggest problem for New Zealand is that at present, we have a very limited capacity in this country to engage in such modelling and to test the various assumptions and conclusions coming out of overseas studies. Work by Caroline Saunders at Lincoln university is probably the most advanced in this regard, but their most recent study on the same subject did not simulate the global changes in greenhouse gas emissions associated with land-use changes, let alone the interaction between agriculture and deforestation under alternative trade agreements.

This lack of domestic capacity to fully understand the interactions between agricultural and trade policies with climate change presents a major challenge for New Zealand, particularly if the government wants to make a science-based case in international fora such as the Doha trade talks on how to combine liberalising agricultural trade policies with the urgent need to limit the growth in global greenhouse gas emissions. Having to rely on research carried out in countries that act as competitors in a global market may not be the most robust strategy.

Incidentally, Caroline Saunders from Lincoln university will give a talk on carbon footprints, life-cycle analysis and foodmiles as part of a seminar series organised by the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute on 15 October 2009 in Wellington. (Disclosure of conflict of interest: I work for the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute)

Polar ice keeps melting — at a faster and faster rate Andy Reisinger Oct 12

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A key reason for concern about climate change is that it could lead to gradual melting of the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, resulting in an inexorable rise in global sea levels. A new set of high-precision measurements (paper in press with the journal ‘Geophysical Research Letters‘) now confirms that the ice sheets are not only melting but that their melt rate has more than doubled over the past seven years. This suggests that sea levels could rise a lot faster than indicated in earlier studies. Increases in sea level by more than 1m during the 21st century now have to be seriously considered.

Numerous studies since the early 2000s indicated that several glaciers that drain the polar ice sheets into the ocean have accelerated as a result of local warming. These observations triggered concerns that the polar ice sheets could loose ice more quickly and sea level could rise more rapidly than climate models had suggested. But it was unclear how representative these rather striking changes were — was it just a temporary ripple running through some glaciers or were the entire ice sheets loosing ice at an increasing rate?

High-precision measurements of the change in the total mass of the polar ice sheets, using a pair of orbiting satellites (the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), have now revealed that both ice sheets are indeed loosing mass, and at an accelerating pace. The satellite data capture the changes in total ice mass and hence give a truly comprehensive picture of changes in the polar ice sheets rather than only spot measurements for particular glaciers.

The assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in 2007 found that over the period 1993 to 2003, Greenland and Antarctica had both lost about 75 billion tonnes of ice every year. If this loss of ice continued at that rate for a century, this would result in sea level rise of 4.2cm. The new satellite data now reveal that by 2002/2003, the Greenland ice sheet was already loosing as much as 137 billion tonnes of ice per year, and that this rate more than doubled again to 286 billion tonnes of ice per year during 2007-2009. Meanwhile, Antarctica’s ice loss had increased from 75 to 104 billion tonnes per year during 2002-2006, and more than doubled to 246 billion tonnes per year by 2006-2009. These most recent rates of ice loss would raise global sea levels by 15cm if they continued at current rates over a century.

The trouble is of course that there is little reason to assume that the loss of ice will continue only at current rates while the atmosphere and oceans continue to warm. It would be extremely surprising if the observed melting processes did not increase further, implying a significant risk that sea levels would increase by more — and potentially a lot more — than the 0.6m that the IPCC had projected for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, we still do not sufficiently understand all the processes that take place within and underneath the polar glaciers to understand which aspects of warming are responsible for this acceleration. Candidates for the accelerated ice loss include warming of the atmosphere, increases in local ocean temperatures, and the creation of meltwater on top of the ice sheet that is draining into its base and acts as lubricant for the glacier flow. Until those processes are better understood, extrapolations of the recent trends have to be treated with caution.

However, these recent data are consistent with a raft of other observations and model studies that suggest that we now have to seriously consider that sea levels could rise by more than 1m during the 21st century as a result of climate change. A report earlier this year by Professor Will Steffen at ANU for the Australian Department of Climate Change advised that sea level rise could lie somewhere between 0.5 and perhaps up to 1.5m by 2100. It’ll be a busy time for cartographers as we are in the process of re-designing the world’s coastlines.

So we’re aiming for 2 degrees – yeah right! Andy Reisinger Sep 29

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It’s exactly two decades since the first scientific warning in 1989 that global warming should be limited to no more than one or two degrees. Every year since then, the scientific evidence for climate change has become firmer and the message that greenhouse gas emissions have to be reduced substantially to avoid unmanageable changes has become more urgent (for examples, see here and here in the 1990s, and here, here and here in recent years).

The European Union announced as early as 1996 that the ultimate goal of global climate change agreements should be to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. Given that the Earth has already warmed 0.74 degrees over the past 100 years, this leaves very limited room to manoeuvre and is the basic reason why global and comprehensive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are now urgent.

Over the last few years, an increasing number of governments agreed to this long-term target (this includes the G8, ie, the eight most influential industrialised nations, which collectively are responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions). The recent Major Economies Forum has also ‘recognised the scientific view’ that warming ought not to exceed two degrees. The countries represented in this forum make up about 70% of global emissions.

The assessment of climate change science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 found that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak before 2020 and be reduced to less than 50% of their 1990 levels by the year 2050 if we want about a 50/50 (or even lesser) chance of limiting warming to two degrees. Beyond 2050, emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have to fall close to zero by the end of the 21st century. Taking the uneven levels of development of different countries into account, these global emissions reduction targets imply that developed countries as a group would have to reduce their emissions by 25 to 40% by 2020, and by 80 to 95% by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels). Developing countries as a group would need to reduce their emissions by 10 to 30% below business as usual by 2020 — the most advanced developing countries such as China, South Korea and Mexico would need to reduce their emissions significantly more.

These numbers and timeframes are not political negotiating cards — they simply follow from the lifetime of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the time it takes to replace long-lived carbon-intensive infrastructure with new low- or zero-carbon technology. If we are serious about a target of two degrees, this is what needs to be done. If we delay emissions reductions while waiting for a new miracle technology, but meanwhile continue to build coal-fired power plants, these plants will continue to emit carbon dioxide for many decades into the future and thus accumulate a stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will make it next to impossible to keep warming to two degrees Celsius.

So far the cold facts. Recent assessments of how real actions measure up against the goal of two degrees are sobering and can make you rather hot under the collar. A recent study found that based on all the emissions reduction pledges by both industrialised and developing countries in the lead-up to the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, the probability that warming will remain below two degrees is extremely small. The best estimate for future warming is closer to four degrees. And that’s using the optimistic interpretations of what the various pledges really mean. This is not just a matter of a couple of degrees more — it’s the difference between changes that are (barely) manageable and a train wreck. Facing up to the reality, a scientific conference in Oxford this week is exploring what a world that is four degrees warmer might look like. It’s not a pretty picture.

Perhaps even more tellingly, another study estimated that the costs of achieving these (insufficient) reduction targets are also predictably miniscule for industrialised countries — they amount on average to less than 0.1% of GDP in the year 2020, with no country facing a cost of more than 0.6% of GDP. Given that the GDP of industrialised countries is expected to grow on average by about 42% between 2009 and 2020, these costs are nothing but trivial. And yet, the costs of mitigation are persistently the most widely used reason for not implementing stronger mitigation actions.

In a forthcoming blog I will look at how the pledges and costs of emissions reductions for different countries compare (including New Zealand), and the possible reasons behind the differences. Regardless of those details though — we are serious about limiting warming to two degrees, aren’t we? Yeah right!

Climate change policy myopia: the ETS agreement Andy Reisinger Sep 29

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This is a re-post of an article that appeared in the Dominion Post on 18 September, co-authored with Ralph Chapman, Judy Lawrence and Jonathan Boston.  —

The deal between National and the Maori party over the emission trading scheme raises serious questions about strategic policy making in New Zealand. The agreement has positive features — a price on carbon will apply from mid-2010 in some sectors — but it raises major concerns about the capacity of our democratic institutions to serve the common good of New Zealand and avoid capture by vested interests.

The deal rests on four myths about climate change policy.

Myth 1: Doing the minimum is good enough

Is doing the minimum still credible? It might have been pragmatic while climate science was being clarified in the 1990s, and then with the US refusing to join Kyoto, but it is now clear that urgent action to cut emissions is needed, globally and nationally. The new law committing the UK to cut emissions by 34% by 2020 is one example of international responses.

The delayed entry of agriculture from 2015, and snails-pace (1% per year) adjustment path for other industries are too slow to be credible when our domestic policies are exposed in international negotiations. Other developed countries are moving towards emission cuts of 80% by 2050.  New Zealand farming and other sectors cannot afford to defer adjustment to a changing world. Our businesses are innovative; they need a chance to apply their skills within the changing world order. Sheltering them from the inevitable will increase costs in the long run and foreclose business opportunities. This is the clearest lesson from the economic restructuring of the 1980s. Minimising the exposure of businesses to the price of carbon is just poor economics.

Myth 2:            We mustn’t get out ahead, especially ahead of Australia

PM John Key has commented that ’It’s not my government’s approach for New Zealand to be way out ahead of other countries.’ There’s no chance of being ahead of Europe’s 2005 ETS and countries such as Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, which introduced carbon taxes in the early 1990s, or British Columbia which did the same in 2008. But isn’t our ETS different? Well, no. The introduction of a fixed price cap in New Zealand ($25 per tonne) makes the ETS effectively a tax.

Ironically, delaying our efforts to enable a link with the Australian scheme (not yet enacted) could damage New Zealand. An ETS works best if we can trade with bigger partners, such as the EU and the emerging US emissions trading market. In addition, by opting for an intensity-based allocation scheme aligned with the Australians we rule ourselves out of trading with not only Europe but probably also the US.

New Zealand should include the agricultural sector in the ETS as soon as possible to incentivise innovation, improve efficiency, and encourage agricultural gas-reducing technologies and processes that can then earn export dollars and ensure New Zealand’s leading role in supplying high-value markets with its own distinctive brand. New Zealand cannot afford not to be ‘out ahead’ in the sectors that shape its unique economic and international trading position.

Myth 3:            Households should and can be protected from price rises

The debate on the costs of the ETS has been woefully misleading, with exaggerated claims of direct impacts, and a failure to analyse indirect impacts, and the policy adjustments other countries are making. The focus in the agreement is on short-term direct impacts on households. Yet, when emitters are shielded from paying for their emissions, the costs fall on the taxpayer, so households still pay indirectly but in a manner that is less fair.

New Zealand has a legally binding Kyoto Protocol commitment and will likely have similar post-2012 commitments. The question is how the costs of these commitments are shared and minimised. The deal means households will pay most through higher taxes than otherwise, with no incentive to contribute to emission reductions and support innovative businesses. Placing the costs largely on taxpaying households is both inefficient and represents a significant wealth transfer to companies and their shareholders, some of whom are foreign.

Myth 4: Market principles are being adhered to

Business sector disapproval defeated the 2005 carbon tax proposal in favour of a trading scheme, yet the ETS with a price cap acts like a tax. Moreover, why should market-responsive business people prefer market signals to be muted? The international carbon price is currently about NZ$30 per tonne: why should that signal be capped? If interest rates were capped, the price signal they send would be undesirably distorted. The carbon price signal proposed is to be further weakened by the ‘2 for 1’ deal, cutting the market signal to $12.50 and halving the efficiency of the market response (and leaving the taxpayer to pay for the rest). Again, this is poor public policy.

The most egregious aspect of the agreement is the intensity-based allocation arrangement that some companies demanded. This allows emitters to increase their emissions at no cost as long as emissions per tonne of product are below the industry average. In conjunction with the slow phase-out of free credit allocations, this dramatically weakens the signal to cut emissions.

Other aspects of the agreement are problematic, such as the fuel subsidy to the fishing industry: this is sheer political horse trading. But the four myths above are the main concern, and create two problems. First, they have resulted in a low-quality public policy agreement. This may reflect the poor quality of independent climate policy analysis in this country. Second, we now have a policy hotch-potch at a time when a strategic vision in support of urgent action is needed.

Critically the deal is intensely myopic, creating escalating future costs by deferring inevitable adjustment. A far-sighted and enduring policy is required, based on a broad consensus, that benefits both the economy and the environment. The National/Maori deal is not durable as it is out of line with New Zealand’s long-term strategic needs and interests.

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