SciBlogs

Archive September 2011

A lecture not to miss Bryan Walker Sep 17

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Tim Naish’s lecture, of which we gave notice recently, is now recorded on the Climate Change Research Institute’s website. I warmly recommend it for viewing. Naish is one of the lead authors for the paleoclimate chapter for working group 1 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report due in 2013. In this lecture he uses paleoclimate material to provide perspective for the projections of rising global temperature and climate change. We are headed for climates and temperatures that haven’t been seen on the planet for more than a million years and the paleoclimate record helps us to understand what we might expect in terms of polar ice behaviour and sea level rise.

In fact we have to go back 3 million years — to the mid-Pliocene —  before we see temperatures like those the models are projecting, 2 to 3 degrees warmer by 2100. The atmospheric CO2 level then was about 400 parts per million. This Pliocene warm period is becoming an important window into what we might expect incoming decades.

The lecture addresses the importance of polar amplification of global warming, its impact on the ice sheets, and their impact on sea level rise.  It covers a range of questions, including the difficulty of dealing with any non-linear response of ice sheets, and the difference between West Antarctic ice sheet melting where warmer seas will affect the parts of the ice sheet which are below sea level and Greenland where the melt-down is from above and where it is difficult to estimate the likely consequences. The jury is really out on Greenland. We are committed to a certain amount of loss from West Antarctica because it’s the ocean that is responsible. We could potentially still save Greenland because it’s melting from the top down. But at the moment both are contributing at equal rates to sea level rise.

Observations of sea level rise are consistently higher than the IPCC projections. Naish explains Rahmstorf’s recent work on the semi-empirical relationship between temperature rise and sea level rise, which without considering any non-linear ice sheet dynamic estimates 2-3 degrees of warming will lead to about a metre of sea level rise. He produces a map showing the uneven distribution of the rise, remarking that New Zealand is likely to get more than a metre and the Pacific Islands more again, with disastrous results for them.

He notes surprise that when the world was 2-3 degrees warmer 3 million years ago there was a 20 metre rise in sea level. Even more surprising is the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago: although CO2 concentration was at pre-industrial levels and temperatures were not much higher than today sea level rose 6 to 9 metres.

The last part of the lecture deals with the expected rate of sea level rise.

Here is the slide summary of his conclusions:

  • Paleoclimate models and geological records provide important constraints on ice sheet response and sea-level rise for global temperatures projected for coming centuries.
  • Best estimate from models and observations is ~+1m±0.5 by 2100.
  • Geological data and models suggest a ’most likely’ rate of 1m per century
  • The detailed trajectory of sea-level rise of the coming centuries will be controlled by non-linear ice sheet dynamics —a major modelling challenge
  • The last time Earth had ~400ppm CO2atmosphere, it had an average surface temperature of 2-3C higher than today and Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets melted!

This just a sample from the lecture, intended to encourage listening to it. It is well worth 45 minutes of time. Naish is admirably clear and accessible, and his material is presented in the context of developing scientific understanding; there’s full recognition of uncertainties but no doubting the direction in which the science is pointing.

Here’s the recording, and here’s the pdf of the slides. Be warned that the first minute of the recording — the introduction — is very poor quality sound, but thereafter it’s fine.

The Lesson from China Bryan Walker Sep 15

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Environmentalist Lester Brown is a competitive long-distance runner even into his late seventies. There’s something of the dogged persistence of that sport in the way he keeps delivering the message that humanity must change course, and backing up what he has to say with masses of data.  The latest email I received a few days ago from his Earth Policy Institute underlined that message yet again, along with stark figures. It’s a short article headed Learning From China. I was taken with its directness and simplicity and thought it worth sharing here. He reflects that for as long as he can remember his own country, the US, with 5 percent of the world’s population has consumed a third or more of the earth’s resources. But today China consumes more basic resources than the US does. China uses a quarter more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is double that of the United States. It uses three times as much coal and four times as much steel.

That’s national consumption. What if per capita consumption in China were to catch up with the US? That will happen by 2035 on the conservative assumption that China’s economy slows from the 11 percent annual growth of recent years to 8 percent.

If the Chinese spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then things get pretty well impossible.

If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2035 China’s 1.38 billion people will use four fifths as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.

If Chinese grain consumption per person in 2035 were to equal the current U.S. level, China would need 1.5 billion tons of grain, nearly 70 percent of the 2.2 billion tons the world’s farmers now harvest each year.

If we assume that in 2035 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The entire world currently has just over one billion. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would have to pave an area equivalent to more than two thirds the land it currently has in rice.

By 2035 China would need 85 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 86 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.

It’s hard to gainsay his conclusion:

What China is teaching us is that the western economic model–the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy–will not work for the world. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2035 is projected to have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the ’American dream.’ And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.

Who in the world of planners, economists and politicians actually stops to think about this? These days there’s a plethora of interviews and discussions and reports by experts on the emergence of China as a new economic force and the extraordinary rapidity with which it is happening. But it is hard to find in the mainstream media any reflection on the factors Brown draws attention to.

He never utters warnings without also pointing to solutions.

The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy–one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress.

And he finishes with that haunting question on which so much depends.

But can we muster the political will to translate this potential into reality?

Note: Two of Brown’s books have been reviewed on Hot Topic here and here.

Natural Gas is Not a Green Fuel Bryan Walker Sep 14

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My heart sinks when I read enthusiastic acclamations of natural gas as a substitute for coal. It releases less CO2 on combustion, we’re told. It is a good bridge to the time when renewable energy is sufficiently developed to take over. And latterly, with the development of fracking, that’s going to be a very long bridge. There are claims that if we can extract all the shale natural gas there’s enough to keep us supplied for 200 years. And in addition there’s the wonderful supply awaiting extraction from methane hydrates in the ocean once we find out how to do it.

The oil and gas companies even hail it as a green fuel. It’s no such thing. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It releases CO2 when it is burned. It may be preferable to coal, but it is no solution to the crisis we are confronted with. And there is in any case doubt being cast on its superiority to coal, especially when it is obtained by unconventional means. In a paper published in Climatic Change Letters earlier this year Howarth et al evaluate the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas obtained by high volume hydraulic fracturing from shale formations, focusing on methane emissions.

Natural gas is composed largely of methane, and 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas.

And here’s what that means:

Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

The paper points out that emissions are far lower for conventional natural gas wells, since conventional wells have no flow-back and no drill out. They estimate average fugitive emissions at well completion for conventional gas as three orders of magnitude less than for shale gas.

The paper’s analysis does not consider the efficiency of final use, and acknowledges that if fuels are used to generate electricity, natural gas gains some advantage over coal because of greater efficiencies of generation. ’However, this does not greatly affect our overall conclusion: the GHG footprint of shale gas approaches or exceeds coal even when used to generate electricity.’

And the bridge?

The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming.

In fact relying on natural gas of any provenance as a major source of energy is no solution to climate change, as the Guardian reported when a new IEA report was issued in June:

Natural gas is not the “panacea” to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Gas is likely to make up about one-quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2035, according to the study, but that would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, told a press conference in London: “While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

More recently a new paper, also in Climatic Change Letters, written by Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has been described by Joe Romm as a natural gas bombshell.  Wigley takes not only leakage into consideration, but also the fact that when coal is burned it releases, along with CO2, comparatively large amounts of sulphates and other particles that, although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight. Natural gas emits lower levels of these pollutants.

From the accompanying press release:

’Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem,’ says Wigley, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. ’It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.’

From the paper’s abstract:

Here we consider a scenario where a fraction of coal usage is replaced by natural gas (i.e., methane, CH4) over a given time period, and where a percentage of the gas production is assumed to leak into the atmosphere. The additional CH4 from leakage adds to the radiative forcing of the climate system, offsetting the reduction in CO2 forcing that accompanies the transition from coal to gas. We also consider the effects of: methane leakage from coal mining; changes in radiative forcing due to changes in the emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbonaceous aerosols; and differences in the efficiency of electricity production between coal- and gas-fired power generation. On balance, these factors more than offset the reduction in warming due to reduced CO2 emissions.

And its conclusion:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades – out to the mid 22nd century for the 10% leakage case. This is in accord with Hayhoe et al. (2002) and with the less well established claims of Howarth et al. (2011)…

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

The only sure way of reducing the magnitude of future climate change is to forsake fossil fuels in all their forms as soon as we can possibly manage it. Carbon capture and safe sequestration may allow their continued use, but there is little sign so far that this is capable of being put into effective operation. The excitement over new reserves of natural gas may be justified on the balance sheets of fossil fuel companies and in the minds of shallow politicians, but for humanity’s future it’s an irrelevant sideshow.

Climate Change: The Long View Bryan Walker Sep 14

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Professor Tim Naish, Director of the Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, and Principal Scientist, GNS Science, is giving a lecture tomorrow, Thursday 15 September, from 12.30-1.30 at VUW’s Pipitea Campus, Railway West Wing 501. It’s part of the NZ Climate Change Research Institute’s Seminar Series. Recommended to Wellingtonians, and worth attention from the rest of us for its sobering content indicated below.

Climate Change: The Long View

Computer models can now reliably reconstruct Earth’s climate over the last 150 years, including the rise in average global temperature of 0.7º C in the last century. When they are used to project Earth’s climate to 2100 under a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios they indicate average global temperature increase will likely be between 2 and 5ºC. Even at the low end, which requires an aggressive reduction in emissions, this is higher than at any time in the last million years, based on well established paleo-temperature records.

The last time Earth experienced such a climate was 3-5 million years ago. During this  period known as the warm Pliocene Epoch, atmospheric carbon dioxide was near present day levels and average surface temperature was  ~3°C warmer, but sea-level was up to ~20m higher, largely from ice sheet melt. In the last 50 years the polar regions have warmed at almost twice the global average, and the last decade the ice sheets have begun to melt. One of the key questions being addressed by the scientific community for the IPCC 5th Assessment Report is improving estimates of future sea level. This talk will outline progress in the use of past temperature, ice sheet reconstructions and sea level records in addressing this issue.

It isn’t the sun Bryan Walker Sep 13

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The recent CERN paper  in Nature on cosmic rays and cloud formation has caused considerable excitement in the denialist world.  Canadian columnist Lawrence Solomon in the Financial Post declared “The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun – not human activities – as the controller of climate on Earth”.  For what the paper really said readers can turn to the welcome and discussion it received on RealClimate. There’s also a useful response to Solomon’s claim on SkepticalScience.

It’s a complex picture, but today I came across this short video which sets it out straightforwardly and with a light touch. (Thanks to The Carbon Brief website.) Put together by Australian science journalist Potholer, it is both an explanation of the science and a picture of how misinterpretations travel in the denialist community.

SOS Roadshow: Final Days Bryan Walker Sep 13

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Here’s the latest update on the Jim Salinger, Rod Oram and Caroline Saunders road show. It contains more complete information on venues and two or three additions to the list we published three weeks back. By the time the tour finishes in November they will have given 35 seminars. That’s a sterling effort which hopefully will have engaged interest from the farming community. I detected, when watching a TV panel discussion recently which included the new Federated Farmers president, reason to hope that under its new leadership Federated Farmers will be more willing to understand and share the concern over climate change than has been the case heretofore. As the road show makes clear there is economic benefit for them in facing the reality. 

Climate Tour September — November 2011

Dr Jim Salinger, Professor Caroline Saunders and Rod Oram

’Maintaining farm productivity and profits in an uncertain climate’

 

Christchurch

Thursday 22 September

Christchurch 12 noon to 2 pm, University of Canterbury, North Arts Lecture Theatre A3

Title: Preparing for White Swans: Climate change and opportunities for the economy

Contact:  Bronwyn Hayward

Kaiapoi 5.30 to 7.30 pm Enterprise North Canterbury, Riverview Restaurant, Kaiapoi Club, Raven Street, Kaiapoi

Contact: Heather Warwick

 

Central Otago

Friday 23 September

Omakau 3 to 5 pm Central Otago District Council, Matakanui Rugby Clubrooms, Omakau

Contact: Jonathan Gadd

 

Whakatane

Wednesday 28 September

Whakatane Environment Bay of Plenty 1 to 3.30 pm, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi Conference Room 1 McAlister Street entrance, Whakatāne

Contact: Ben Banks

 

Palmerston North

Friday 30 September

Horizons Manawatu 11 am to 1 pm (morning tea 10.30 am) Palmerston North Convention Centre, 354 Main Street, Palmerston North

Contact: Ally Koehler

 

Monday 10 October

Oamaru

Oamaru 12 noon to 2 pm Inkbox Theatre, Oamaru Opera House (Waitaki District Council)

Contact: Richard Mabon

Palmerston 6.30 to 9 pm East Otago High School Library

Contact: Dugald MacTavish

 

Dunedin

Tuesday 11 October

  1. Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food and Environment CSAFE, University of Otago

Title: Preparing for White Swans: Climate change and opportunities for the agricultural economy

Dunedin, 10. 30 am to 12.30 pm Edgar Centre, Portsmouth Drive, Dunedin

Contact: Chris Rosin

  1. Centre for Theology and Public Issues, afternoon, University of Otago

University of Otago, venue TBA
Contact. Andrew Bradstock

The second seminar will look at ethics and intergenerational issues

 

Southland

Thursday 27 October

Invercargill Environment Southland 1.30 to 3.30 pm Invercargill Workingmen’s Club, 154 Esk Street, Invercargill

Contact: Michele Poole

 

Wellington

Tuesday 1 November

Wellington 4.30 to 6.30 pm Victoria University of Wellington Hunter Building Council Chambers, Climate Change Research Institute

Title: Preparing for White Swans: Climate change and opportunities for the economy

Contact: Liz Thomas

 

Hauraki Gulf

Waiheke Island Date and venue TBA. Either 23 October or 5/6 November.

Contact: John Stansfield

 

Marlborough

Monday 7 November

Blenheim 3 to 5 pm Marlborough Wine Research Centre, 85 Budge Street, Blenheim

Contact: Rob Agnew

 

 

Jolting Contrasts Bryan Walker Sep 12

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I read this morning yet another dismal report on the extraordinary lengths to which Republican politicians hopeful of nomination as presidential candidate in America are going in their denial of climate change. Then I watched an excellent PBS television interview with a couple of intelligent and knowledgeable American scientists which regular Hot Topic commenter Bill had recommended.

It was an extraordinary juxtaposition, all the more surreal because both relate to Texas. How does a country like the US, with scientists and scientific institutions so advanced, manage to throw up leading politicians so wilfully ignorant?  (That’s a rhetorical question unless your answer has nothing to do with money.)

Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, a current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, had this to say in a recent televised debate between the nominees:

Harris (moderator): Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that, weekly and even daily, scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

Perry: Well, I do agree that there is – the science is – is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at — at- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just – is nonsense. I mean, it – I mean – and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. But the fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

His campaign communications director confirmed afterwards that this wasn’t just an off-the-cuff response:

…we shouldn’t jeopardise the jobs and the economy and the future of this country on science that’s not proven. That’s what the governor has said, said tonight and will continue to say going forward.

Well, if the Governor really had any interest in finding out what the science ’truly is’ he could have started by watching the July television interview right in his own state. It was on Houston PBS. Two scientists, Andrew Dessler, (pictured) Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University and David Bieler, Chair & Associate Professor Geology, Centenary College of Louisiana responded to questions. I’ve embedded the interview below, but I’ll give an edited transcript of a few of their responses here for those who can’t spare the 25 minutes to watch it.

Bieler: We have extracted carbon stored inside the earth and the only place we can probably put that carbon is into the atmosphere. We have undertaken a massive re-allocation in terms of the Earth’s carbon budget. We’ve moved carbon from storage inside the earth to storage into the atmosphere. Some people will argue, oh but the oceans are going to absorb some of that. But that ocean chemistry that absorbs that is also very very fine. It’s not going to take care of the complete volume of carbon that we’ve moved.

Dessler: The premise of your question was based on this common-sense idea that humans are small, but you can’t really use common sense to understand earth science. It’s too massive. Your intuition fails. We think humans are insignificant. Humans have affected everything on the planet…

Humans have loaded the atmosphere with so much carbon at this point that essentially no weather that occurs is unrelated to climate change any more. In many cases we can’t specifically say with accuracy how climate change has affected; in other cases — the weather we’re having in Texas right now — we do have a pretty good idea of how climate change is impacting that. We can say pretty clearly that we’re making the present weather in Texas worse and that, I think, is the best way to think about it. Climate multiplies weather so if you have a heat wave, climate change makes it worse. I wouldn’t think about particular events being caused; I would think about particular events being worsened…

It’s bad news for just about every living thing on the planet. The reason is that humans as well as ecosystems adapt to the climate So we are adapted to our present climate We build cities that are on the coastline, we farm in regions where it makes sense to farm because you get the right growing season temperatures, you get the right growing season precipitations, and if that changes you’re no longer adapted to the climate. We’ve built our world around this climate…There is simply no change in the climate that is going to make the world as a whole better off. Change is bad when it comes to climate.

Bieler: Certain areas are going to be impacted in harsher ways than others. If you think about our situation — the Gulf Coast — very flat; a small rise in sea level brings sea level very far on to the continent. One has to ask questions about how long does it take an eco-system to respond to that change in sea level…Can our marshes keep up with the way sea level rise is encroaching on the continent? And the answer is probably no. The length of time it takes to establish a stable ecosystem that’s going to be productive and be able to sustain itself over long periods of time takes longer than the rate at which the sea level would be encroaching…so what the geologic record tells us here, looking back a long way, is that this is in fact what happens when sea level changes: the continent gets flooded as sea level rises and those ecosystems don’t move, those environments don’t move. They simply get swamped now by marine sediment from the shelf. That would mean that all the salt marshes, things like that, which are so important to economic activity in the Gulf region would be destroyed.  They wouldn’t move northwards so that the economic base would move northward and we wouldn’t really know how to manage recreating those things. So for coastal environments that are flat like ours we’re talking about a simple sea level rise being extraordinarily bad news for the ecosystem.

They go on to point out that the changes are already under way and how bad they eventually get will depend on our response to the need to restrain greenhouse gases. The interview is well worth watching in full, and a welcome antidote to the fevered and foolish denial of Perry. On the other hand it’s also a reminder of how serious for humanity the consequences are and will be if we put in political office people with no capacity to comprehend the magnitude of what we have unleashed.

The Case for a Carbon Tax Bryan Walker Sep 12

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The case for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions from human activity is not arguable. It’s undeniable. But what is arguable is the best way of achieving it in the working of a modern economy. Shi-Ling Hsu, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, argues for a currently less popular way in his newly published book The Case for a Carbon Tax. ’There is no policy instrument that is more transparent and administratively simple than a carbon tax.’ Unfortunately its overtness tells against it politically because voters, politicians and emitting industries see the price very clearly and can calculate what they think it might cost them. But in Shi-Ling Hsu’s view environmental measures that purport to be painless are either misleading or set to accomplish nothing.

His book is grounded in the recognition that climate change is a serious problem with unacceptably high risks of catastrophic consequences that must be addressed immediately. It is alone among environmental problems in posing the risk of such vast environmental changes that the effects could destabilise entire economies, countries, and regions.

The four main options for greenhouse gas reduction are a carbon tax, environmental regulation, cap-and-trade programmes with tradable allowances to emit, and government subsidies targeted at low-carbon technologies. A carbon tax on the consumption of fossil fuels can be levied at some point at which the ownership of a fossil fuel changes hands, from the early extraction or processing point (upstream) right up to the point immediately preceding combustion (downstream).  The distinguishing feature of command-and-control regulation is that compliance is largely an administrative matter for which there can be an administrative adjudication. Cap-and-trade programmes involve issuing allowances to polluters, and compliance is determined solely by whether the emitter has enough allowances to cover its quantity of emissions. They are not dissimilar to carbon taxes in many respects, and have begun to look more and more like carbon taxes. Subsidies are of two kinds — price-oriented subsidies and funding for research and development. The author judges them on the whole as more costly and less effective than either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programmes.

A large section of the book is given to ten arguments in favour of a carbon tax. One is economic efficiency:

’The simple genius of a carbon tax is that it aggregates disparate pieces of information, transmitting a price signal at every stage in which there is fossil fuel usage, and transporting it in proportion to the carbon emissions of the production process.’

All of the four alternatives are in the business of creating a carbon price, but the book considers the carbon tax does it best. Command and control regulation is clumsy and uneven by comparison. Subsidization is a useful mechanism in some situations, such as preventing deforestation in developing countries, but on the whole it is ’mere political grease, an overused salve for the perceived pain from the prospect of economic structuring.’ Cap-and-trade programmes are generally less comprehensive in their scope than a carbon tax. A cap-and-trade programme could be as comprehensive as a carbon tax, but to do so it needs to be imposed upstream, at the point of extraction or processing of the fossil fuel. This was a particularly interesting assessment for me because a few weeks ago I reviewed Robert Repetto’s book America’s Climate Problem: The Way Forward, in which he advocates cap-and-trade as preferable to a carbon tax and I imagined that his book and Shi-Ling Hsu’s would be at odds. But Repetto is specific that an upstream cap-and-trade is best, which means there is a good deal of common ground between the two writers. And although Shi-Ling Hsu argues the superiority of a carbon tax he does so moderately and reasonably, not scorning the other instruments.

Sunk capital is often a hindrance to change, and Shi-Ling Hsu points out that power plants and coal mines can represent huge stranded costs. Government subsidies have often encouraged the formation of this kind of capital and the book argues that it is far less dangerous to spur growth by taxing that which is undesirable than to encourage capital formation around that which we think at a particular time desirable. A carbon tax is capital-neutral, one of the arguments in favour of it.

Other advantages include its ability to co-exist with the other policy measures the book considers.  It is simple to get under way and doesn’t pre-empt subsequent employment of other options.  Although both a carbon tax and cap-and-trade schemes can be effective in encouraging innovation to reduce emissions, a carbon tax has the edge. It produces a steadier price signal and the signal remains undiluted, which encourages further innovation. It is broad-based, getting at the problem of fossil fuel combustion across all sectors and activities. Cap-and-trade could also do this, but the schemes so far emerging are selective and less comprehensive than a carbon tax. A carbon tax is more readily administrable, requiring fewer delicate decisions than does setting up a cap-and-trade scheme. The book also sees better prospects for an international accord based on a carbon tax than on the capping so far strenuously resisted by China, India and other developing countries. Overall the breadth, simplicity and ability to piggy-back on existing regulatory structure which are the characteristics of a carbon tax mean it offers the greatest chance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

The book also considers the counter-arguments against a carbon tax and responds to them. To the argument that politically the carbon tax is never going to be acceptable the author suggests the fact that the proceeds go to the public purse rather than to private companies should be an effective selling pitch. The regressive effects of a carbon tax on low-income consumers should not be overstated for political purposes. Harm to low-income households can be limited, particularly by recycling at least a large portion of carbon tax increases. Such recycling is most effective when it takes the form of the lump sum distribution of money on a per capita basis.

The chapter on carbon tax psychology is somewhat depressing reading. What makes carbon taxation as a policy so unpopular is the obviousness of the cost.  Politicians are accordingly reluctant to embrace it. The temptation is to propose other seemingly less painful measures to address climate change. The author nevertheless believes that the arguments his book proposes in favour of carbon taxes carry the potential for the politics and psychology to change.

It is the ability of a carbon tax to penetrate into every nook and cranny of the economy where fossil fuels are burned and thus to empower everybody in the world to reduce or eliminate the amount of carbon dioxide emitted which is its chief appeal for the author.  We must have faith that markets will produce the innovations necessary to reduce emissions, and a carbon tax of sufficient size will drive that innovation.  As a first step it can be instituted immediately. And it does not preclude any of the other policies also being employed. Perhaps most importantly it stands the best chance of getting the international buy-in which is essential to global emission reduction.

It’s a strong case, well-made with a great deal of patient attention to detailed discussion which can’t be mirrored in a brief review but is a major factor in the book’s success, aided by the admirable clarity of the writing.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates: The Book Depository (UK, free shipping worldwide), Fishpond (NZ), Amazon.com.]

Breaking the deadlock on shipping emissions Bryan Walker Sep 11

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International shipping is responsible for an estimated 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to those of Germany, thirteen times those of New Zealand. On current trends they are expected to increase by 150-250 percent by 2050. They are as yet unregulated, trapped for over a decade in a familiar impasse where developed countries argue that all ships must be covered by the same regulation, the norm in the International Marine Organisation, but most developing countries insist that any regulation respects the principle that developed countries must lead the fight against climate change, known in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.

WWF and Oxfam have issued a briefing which explores how a proposed deal can overcome the impasse, drive emissions down and deliver much needed funds to the Green Climate Fund established at Cancun to assist developing countries in climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. The proposal they support is for a fuel levy or auction of emissions allowances. At $25 per tonne of carbon dioxide this could raise around $25bn per year, of which at least $10bn should be directed to the Green Climate Fund.

Such a carbon price would only increase the costs of global trade by 0.2 per cent — equivalent to just $2 for every $1000 traded. Developing countries could be compensated for the effects on their economies, and it is calculated that up to 40 percent of the $25bn raised would be needed for this purpose. South Africa, for example, whose import costs are projected to increase by 0.14 per cent as a result, would receive compensation of approximately $200 million per year while Bangladesh, whose import costs are projected to increase by 0.19 per cent, would receive $40 million per year, in addition to any revenues received from the Green Climate Fund. The briefing considers that revenues provided to developing countries as rebates should be spent on building the resilience of their most vulnerable citizens, especially women, against the much larger rises and high volatility of commodity prices they are facing.

The remaining money could remain in the maritime sector to be spent on research and development into cleaner shipping.

The briefing aims to support trends which are already apparent. I found this an encouraging summary:

 Champions for such a deal are emerging. As G20 chair, France has made innovative financing for climate change and development a high priority for the summit in Cannes in November 2011 on the eve of the Durban COP. France and Germany both called this July for revenues from a carbon price for ships to be used to compensate developing countries and as climate finance. The EU already backs a carbon price with revenues used as climate finance, and will consider its common position on using some revenues to compensate developing countries at the October 2011 meeting of EU finance ministers.

The Group of Least Developed Countries has long called for climate finance to be raised from international transport, and many Small Island Developing States have called for emissions from shipping to be urgently tackled. Mexico, which has the G20 chair after France, is also heavily invested in making the Green Climate Fund a success, having driven for its establishment in Cancun.

Unlike some of their counterparts in aviation, many players in the shipping industry are calling for a carbon price to be set.

The briefing is clear that emissions from shipping can be cut, reporting that a recent study found that negative- or low-cost technical measures could reduce emissions by 33 per cent from projected levels in 2020. Operational measures such as simply reducing ship speeds can also produce significant reductions. I’ll insert mention here of the work of the Carbon War Room on shipping emissions, which I reported on last year; they too see many opportunities for emissions reduction using existing technology.  But the WWF/Oxfam briefing sees the need for a further political signal to drive change at the speed demanded by the rapid onset of climate change.

Setting a carbon price for ships — even one starting at a moderate level — sends the clearest signal to ship owners and operators that they must internalise their carbon costs in both the designs and operations of their ships. Those that do so first will gain competitive advantages over those slow to act.

Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand, urges New Zealand government support for the proposed scheme and points to the benefits it could supply to the Pacific Islands’ struggles against climate change which we were reminded of during this week’s Pacific Forum:

’New Zealand has so far failed to identify new sources of climate finance, either in the short or long term. This proposal provides a realistic way for us and other developed countries to make progress towards our agreed commitments to provide long-term finance for addressing climate change, while protecting and supporting our Pacific neighbours. Our government should support it.’

A Week of Contradiction Bryan Walker Sep 10

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We seem to have convinced the world that we’re right up in the forefront when it comes to tackling climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon came to New Zealand this week to the Pacific Islands Forum and called at Kiribati en route.

“For those who believe climate change is about some distant future, I invite them to Kiribati.

“Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.”

“We will not succeed in reducing emissions without sustainable energy solutions,” he said, and then he praised New Zealand as a global leader in sustainable development, with the vast majority of its energy coming from renewable sources.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission also arrived and had this to say:

’The European Union has adopted the world’s most stringent set of climate and energy targets to be met by 2020, known as the ’20-20-20’targets.

’New Zealand is one of the first countries to join us in tackling action against climate change, namely though its emissions trading scheme, through its pioneering role on renewables, especially hydro and increasingly wind power, and for having championed the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases.’

The Forum was an entirely appropriate place to be talking about tackling climate change, though I combed John Key’s opening statement in vain for mention of the subject. Renewable energy to replace fossil fuels was as close as he got. However a joint statement was issued on Wednesday by the Secretary-General and the leaders at the Forum which urged “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states.”

Jimmie Rodgers, director general, Secretariat of the Pacific Community said:

“The impacts of climate change are more pronounced in the Pacific Small Island Developing States. For many of their citizens, climate change touches and impacts their lives on a regular basis. For them it is about how food security can be sustained, how health is protected, how education is enhanced, how safe water supply is safeguarded, how coastal areas are protected, how human settlements are climate proofed and how the impact of high water surges and flooding are reduced.”

Some financial assistance has been offered. The US has announced a $21 million climate change programme for Pacific Small Island Developing States. The EU will make $17 million available to Papua New Guinea and East Timor to help combat climate change. Australia will spend $13.5 million on alleviating the effects of climate change in the Pacific, including the planting of mangroves on Kiribati and other water supply, agricultural and coastal maintenance projects in the region. New Zealand will invest $7.9 million to fund the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant in Tonga. Token amounts, but…

Meanwhile what’s happening back in the real world? This may be the week that we joined with Pacific Island leaders to call for “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states” and enjoyed having nice things said to us by important people about our commitment to action on climate change, but it’s also the week in which a beginning was officially made, with Bill English in attendance, on the first steps to unlock billions of tonnes of lignite from under the fields of Southland.  A factory at Mataura is expected to be completed by June. It will turn 150,000 tonnes of lignite into 90,000 tonnes of briquettes for home and industrial heating each year. If that works out a far bigger plant will be built. And then in due course there’ll be the fertiliser and diesel schemes to follow. Eleven billion tonnes of the stuff lie underground in Southland and Otago.

I’ve written often enough on lignite to be uncomfortably aware that I’m repeating myself but there is a blatant contradiction between our apparent sharing of Pacific Island leaders’ deep concern about the impacts of climate change and our determination to press ahead with a project which will add very significantly to our greenhouse gas emissions.  Behind the scenes we are acting quite differently from the sustainable development image we have evidently presented, so far successfully,  to the world audience.