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A tale of two hemispheres Gareth Renowden Jul 27

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Jim RenwickAt the end of June, Professor Jim Renwick of Victoria University gave his inaugural lecture. As you might expect of a climate scientist, it concerns what we know about the climate system and where we’re heading. He pulls no punches. Jim has been kind enough to put together a text version of the lecture for Hot Topic: it follows. You can watch the full lecture, with accompanying slides, on the video embedded at the end of the post.

We live in a golden age of earth observation. With a few clicks of a mouse on a web browser, any of us can see the state of the global ocean surface, the current condition of the Greenland ice sheet, how much rain is falling in the tropics today, and on and on. Plus, the International Space Station (ISS), and a series of satellites such as MODIS give us wonderful images of our home planet. The climate science community can tell, with unprecedented coverage and timeliness, just what is going on in the climate system. It is a great time to be a climate researcher, but also a worrying time, in both cases because we can see exactly what is changing.

One thing the ISS pictures emphasise is just how thin the atmosphere is, a thin blue layer between the solid earth and the blackness of space. Not only is this life-supporting envelope very thin, some of the key gases in the atmosphere are there in only trace amounts, so we can change the properties of the atmosphere easily, by targeting the right gases. The discovery of the ozone hole 30 years ago brought this home with a bang. And we’ve found that build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere can have a profound effect on the climate system, right down to the bottom of the oceans.

Carbon dioxide is important because it’s a crucial control on the surface temperature of the earth. It is very good at absorbing heat (infrared radiation) welling up from the earth, then re-radiating both up and down, in the process warming the earth’s surface. The effect is very like a blanket put on a bed – what’s under the blanket warms up. More CO2 is like putting another blanket on the bed and less is like taking away a blanket. No CO2 and the earth freezes – temperatures like we had in the South Island in late June would be the norm everywhere, all the time. While there are several other “greenhouse gases”, carbon dioxide is the most important since it stays in the atmosphere so long, hundreds to thousands of years.

Since direct atmospheric measurements began in the late 1950s, CO2 concentrations have gone from 315 ppm to about 400ppm (0.04%) now. Concentrations of CO2 are rising steadily, but the numbers hardly sound “dangerous”. But one thing to realise is that many natural changes take place over thousands to millions years. So instead of human time scale of the last 60 years, we must look on the planetary time scale… Luckily, ice cores store bubbles of ancient air that can tell us what CO2 concentrations were, far back in time. If we join the ice core record up with the observations from Hawaii, we get a very different picture – and now it does look alarming!

CO2 in the atmosphere has increased blindingly fast, by planetary standards. We have really put a lot of it up there in a handful of decades. For many thousands of years before the present, back to the beginnings of agriculture and modern civilisation, CO2 concentrations have been fairly steady, between 260 and 280ppm. Suddenly (in geological terms) they are 40% higher at around 400ppm.

So, how far back do we have to go to find the last time CO2 was this high? The answer is about 3 million years. We are making changes in decades that left to its own devices, the earth system might take hundreds of thousands of years to effect. Back then, in the “mid-Pliocene warm period”, temperatures were around 2-3°C higher than present, but sea levels were around 20m higher. That much sea level rise takes time, but it will happen again if we allow CO2 levels to stay up there.

How do we know about what was in the atmosphere 3 million years ago? From the chemistry of rocks – no ice core goes back far enough so we must look at the chemical composition of the rocks laid down then, as they carry the fingerprint of the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That is, we can read it in the earth itself. The flip side of this is that sediments being formed today will tell the story of today’s big CO2 spike. In other words, our actions today are being written into the crust of the earth and will be visible for millions of years to come, if there are any able to read it.

But what about what happens in our lifetimes, what’s happening now? The geological record is no help there – we must just experience it as we go. Global mean temperatures are going up, just what we’d expect from increased carbon dioxide levels. Things are simple at that level: more CO2 = higher temperatures. But climates vary strongly around the world, and so does climate change, as a result of geography, latitude, land mass size and so on.

For example, surface temperatures are changing at wildly different rates in different places. Over the last 60 years or so, the global average warming has been around 0.6°C. The Arctic has seen much more and the southern oceans and Antarctica much less. This brings up the issue of “Polar amplification”, the observation from the geological and paleoclimate record that both poles always warm or cool about twice as much as the global average. This is visible for the cooling at the last glacial maximum, and for the warming during the mid-Pliocene warm period. We know from the past that this always happens, but we are now learning that the two poles do not respond at the same rate. The Arctic, with its thin layer of sea ice and snow, can warm quickly. The Antarctic, with its massive ice sheets and turbulent circumpolar ocean, warms only very slowly, over centuries.

Where this difference between the hemispheres is really visible is in sea ice. In the Arctic, sea ice is disappearing at a rapid rate, while it is increasing (slowly) around the Antarctic, especially over the last 5-10 years. How can Antarctic sea ice extent be increasing, in a warming world?

The number one reason is geography. The Northern Hemisphere features ocean at the pole and lots of land in the middle latitudes. At the pole, there is only a thin cover of sea ice, a few metres thick. The Southern Hemisphere is almost the exact opposite, a big continent over the pole and almost no land in the middle latitudes. At the pole, vast ice sheets have built up, thousands of metres thick.
Following from that, the winds in both hemispheres are quite different in form too. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winds are strong over the oceans but not so much over land, and over the Arctic, the winds are very light on average. So the Arctic Ocean is mostly quiescent, with weak currents and little vertical mixing. Any extra sunlight absorbed when Arctic sea ice melts stays in the upper ocean, warming the surface quickly and promoting more melting.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the westerlies are very strong and unimpeded over the southern oceans, the most turbulent region of ocean in the world. Here, water is mixed down several hundred metres, so the heating from absorbed sunlight gets drawn down to depth quickly, leaving the surface temperature mostly unchanged while waters warm at depth. So that “ice albedo feedback” works less well for the sea ice over the southern oceans.

The Antarctic sea ice grows out around the edge of a continent, over very turbulent waters, with strong winds and storms above. It seems almost miraculous that it manages to grow to such an extent, so regularly every year. The westerlies, their strength and position, are very important for determining how the sea ice grows. And those westerlies have been strengthening and contracting farther south over the last few decades.

The strength of the westerly winds and the turbulent storm tracks that accompany the strongest winds, are controlled by the north-south temperature gradient, the difference in temperature between the tropics and the poles. A bigger difference means stronger winds. How that is changing is a key to understanding what’s going on with Southern Hemisphere winds, and with the sea ice. There are several things that affect the north-south gradient…

  • The ozone hole (surprisingly!) – removing ozone from the atmosphere over Antarctica cools the polar region (since ozone absorbs sunlight), so increases the north-south gradient.
  • CO2 (GHG) increase – away from the earth’s surface, greenhouse warming increases temperatures faster in the tropics than at high latitudes, so also increases the gradient.
  • El Niño/La Niña (ENSO) – an El Niño event warms the tropics and increases the north-south gradient, while a La Niña does the opposite, for a few months. Crucially though, the ENSO cycle puts kinks in the westerly flow, making it more southwesterly in some places and more northwesterly in others.

Putting it all together, it adds up to the non-uniform pattern of sea ice change we have seen in the last 40 years: increases over the Ross Sea (south of New Zealand) and over the Weddell Sea in the far South Atlantic, where the winds have trended more southerly (colder), and decreases near the Antarctic Peninsula, where the winds have trended northerly (warmer). Other factors in the overall sea ice trend include the melting of ice from the Antarctic ice sheets, putting easily-frozen fresh water into the southern oceans, and changes in ocean surface waves that have affected the break-up and merging of ice floes.

Meanwhile, back in the Arctic, we have a fairly quiescent situation with the sea ice melting away at an accelerating rate, as the ocean surface soaks up sunlight. The differences in what’s happening with sea ice at both poles has a lot to do with the detail of geography, winds, the nature of the ocean circulation, and even El Niño and the ozone hole. What we are seeing from year to year are intermediate steps along the way to that generally warmer world, with less ice all round and “polar amplification” at both ends of the earth. We will get there, if we wait long enough.

So what’s in store for the future? The last IPCC report demonstrated clearly that the amount of global warming we experience depends a lot on how much more CO2 we emit. The two extreme scenarios considered by IPCC were the low-carbon future of scenario “RCP2.6” and the high-carbon future of scenario “RCP8.5”. I call these the blue future and the red future, from the colours used in the IPCC report. Under the blue future, emissions are projected to go to zero by around 2060, then become negative after that (CO2 removal, using technologies we haven’t quite invented yet). That scenario stops the warming before we get to 2°C change, and is the only one considered in the IPCC report to do so.

The red future is “business as usual”, just keep burning the coal and oil like we have the last few years. That results in global change beyond anything seen for probably 50 million years. This is the “crocodiles swimming at the North Pole” scenario.

So, what about that blue future…? The one all the governments signed up to in Copenhagen a few years ago? There is a clear illustration of the situation in the Ministry for the Environment’s “Discussion Document” issued in May as part of the brief and poorly-publicised public consultation round on what our future national emissions targets should be. That document shows that we have a limited budget of CO2 we can emit, since the stuff stays in the atmosphere so long and just builds up. To have a good chance (67%) of staying under 2°C of warming, we have a limit of 2900 Gigatons (2.9 trillion tons) of CO2. The bad news is that we have already used two thirds of the budget, and at current rates it will be all spent within 20 years. So some really significant action is needed if we are serious about reining in climate change.

We have all heard of the 2°C limit, the “safety guardrail” that we don’t want to cross. Yet 2°C is nothing magical, no guarantee of safety. Already we have had nearly 1°C of warming and we know already that floods and heat-waves are more likely than they were 50 years ago. Still, keeping under 2°C of warming may stop the big ice sheets from melting too much and would avoid the really extreme changes that are possible.

Whatever happens with the total warming, things are bound to play out differently around the globe. For instance, we can look at how long it would take to get to 2°C warming in different places, assuming “middle of the road” emissions. A paper in 2011 by Manoj Joshi and co-authors did just that, and found that much of the Arctic will have passed 2°C of warming within the next 10 years. Going by the huge increase in wild fires in Alaska in recent years, the Arctic may have already over-achieved. Farther south the changes are slower, and over New Zealand and the southern oceans, we’ll have to wait until late in the century. Most of the climate change issues for us will come sooner from what happens to our neighbours and trading partners. There are economic, social, and moral issues associated with climate change impacts in other countries that will put pressure on New Zealand, well before the climate turns nasty here.

More importantly than temperature change, rainfall patterns are shifting. It is becoming drier in the subtropics and wetter nearer the poles (and on the Equator). At the latitudes of Australia and northern New Zealand, we are likely to see a lot of drying over coming decades. In the Northern Hemisphere, a very worrying sign is the drying out of the Mediterranean region, from North Africa to the Middle East to southern Europe. This is already a place with lots of issues – political unrest, terrorism, war, economic crises, huge flows of refugees… beyond its direct effects, climate change is an aggravator of all these things. Organisations like the World Economic Forum and the World Bank, even the Pentagon, recognise this and list climate change as an immediate threat to social order worldwide

And let’s not forget sea level rise – another big worry, largely because it is so inexorable, and so much of the global population lives close to sea level. Once perturbed, the ocean circulation and the big ice sheets take a long time to respond, so we are in for a long period of sea level rise regardless of the emissions future. Going back to the blue and red futures, the models show sea level rising steadily through this century and beyond under both scenarios. Even on the zero-carbon track, we are set for at least 1m of further sea level rise, over centuries. And as the geological record says, we will see 8, 10, even up to 20m or more if we carry on as we are going now.

So, what are the consequences, the impacts? Key ones that concern me are:

  • Drought – recent droughts and heat waves in North America and Russia have led to partial crop failures and price spikes for corn, wheat and other staples. Future droughts have obvious impacts on food security and water availability for large fractions of the global community.
  • Flood – as we have seen three times in New Zealand in the past two months. Warmer air holds more water, and the near-one degree of warming so far globally has put about 5% more water vapour in the air compared to the 1950s. So it’s fair to say that some of the rain that fell on Dunedin, Kāpiti and Whanganui was there as a result of the warming we have already had. Further warming just means more moisture and an ever-greater chance of heavy rain.
  • Coastal inundation – higher sea levels, even small-sounding amounts like 30cm or so, lead to dramatic increases in the chance of inundation events when there are big swells and strong winds.
  • Health issues – as the globe becomes more “tropical”, tropical pests and diseases can spread farther. Malaria, dengue fever and other diseases are broadening their range right now. The same goes for plant and animal pests. And the health dangers of heat waves are only too apparent, as we have seen in India and Pakistan lately.
  • Fire – the incidence of wild fires, and the length of the fire season, is increasing almost everywhere. Siberia and Alaska are now experiencing major forest fires regularly, events that were almost unknown 30 or 40 years ago.

This is what we face. In fact, this is what we are starting to experience already. So how do we get on top of it? Can we get on top of it?

Yes! There are many technologies and ideas on the shelf that we can use right now. Renewable energy is an obvious one (go China!). For all their coal-fired power stations, China is leading the world on solar panels and wind power installation and technology. New Zealand can ride on the coat-tails of the Chinese and go to 100% renewable energy – despite a high base, we can go a lot further here. And if we wished, New Zealand could be a world leader on renewable technology – are we content with being a “fast follower”?

Same story with electric vehicles (go Tesla!). The transport sector a big one in New Zealand and transport emissions have grown rapidly in the last two decades. We love our cars – which is fine, if they aren’t burning fossil carbon. Let’s see moves to bring electric vehicles in to the country in much greater numbers, while at the same boosting public transport and making the most of renewable power sources. That could cut our emissions significantly in just a few years.

In the agriculture sector, continued intensification of dairy farming is exactly the wrong direction to be going. It is just not sustainable, especially in dry regions like Canterbury, in terms of water quality, water availability, and greenhouse gas emissions. A much better approach in the short term would be intensified afforestation, which would at least buy us some time to do the research on ruminant emissions.

The solutions that already exist can work in New Zealand and can be applied world-wide. We need all of the above, and we need to find new and better approaches every day. As put so eloquently by the Pope just last month, there are moral dimensions, questions of equity, of love for one another, that must take centre stage. Narrow economic considerations must be secondary, as no known economic modelling framework can cope with the true realities of climate change.

What is lacking across the board is political will. Governments set the scene for a country’s economic and social activity. All countries, including New Zealand, need to tackle climate change head-on through legislation, through incentivisation of desirable investments and behaviours, through economic instruments that encourage research and innovation in the sectors that we need to boost.

The recent ruling by the Dutch courts that their government is harming the population if they do not adopt stringent emissions reductions (25% reduction in 5 years) is exactly right. Governments the world over are indeed putting their citizens more at risk every day by not dealing effectively with climate change. Where is the sense of urgency? Sure there are many worries and concerns in the world, but unmitigated climate change exacerbates almost all our short-term concerns, and ultimately trumps everything. Do we really want to put billions of lives at risk through hunger, thirst, disease, dislocation and conflict, in order to appease the corporate sector and win the next election?

As a global community, we have squandered the last 25 years. The Paris meeting in December (COP21) is a critical opportunity to really get good things happening on a global scale, and on the home front. Greenpeace’s protest at Parliament in June was spot-on – what we really need is climate action, now!

Climate Action Tracker analysis: NZ emissions targets inadequate, not doing our fair share Gareth Renowden Jul 13

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TimGroser.jpgClimate Change Minister Tim Groser’s claim that New Zealand is doing its “fair share” of climate action has been blown out of the water by an international analysis [Full policy brief here (pdf)]. Once one removes what the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) calls the “creative accounting” of rules around land use and forestry, New Zealand’s newly announced 2030 target translates into an 11 percent increase by 2030. It’s even possible that we won’t have to lift a finger to cut emissions and yet still meet both our 2020 and 2030 targets.

They say our emissions are projected to head in the opposite direction from the world’s biggest emitters such as China, the United States and the European Union.

The CAT has rated New Zealand’s target “inadequate” – meaning that if everybody else made the same effort as NZ, warming would exceed 3-4ºC. And we’re not on track to reaching our (also rated inadequate) 2050 target. If we were even on the same track as the US’s 2050 goal, we’d have to increase our target to 45% reduction by 2030 below 2005 levels (30% below 1990).

It gets worse: in just ten years, CAT projects that the average New Zealander will have a bigger carbon footprint than a US citizen — worse than some of the most carbon profligate people on the planet.

The analysis also points out one of our biggest secrets: that the only substantial action taken on climate change by the Government since 2008 has been to weaken the ETS.


The main points of the CAT analysis are (from the press release):

  • Based on current policies NZ emissions per capita, while likely to remain stable at around 17 tonnes of CO2e per person (or decrease slightly), are set to surpass those of the US by around 2025. US per capita emissions in 2012 were 20.6 tonnes of CO2e per person and decreasing steadily. This reflects the underlying reality that while the United States is taking action on climate change with a wide range of policies, New Zealand has few policies in place to cut emissions, and has no emissions cap in its domestic Emission Trading System (ETS).
  • If New Zealand applies the rules it is proposing to use after 2020 to account for its Kyoto surplus and forestry credits, its overall agriculture, energy, waste and industrial greenhouse gas emissions could increase to 11% above 1990 levels by 2030;
  • New Zealand’s proposed 2030 INDC target is not on a direct path to its 50% reduction by 2050 goal, unlike other major economies such as the EU and the USA. But New Zealand’s 2050 goal is also insufficient, and would require a 45% reduction by 2030 below 2005 levels (30% below 1990).
  • There are virtually no policies in place to address the fastest-growing sources of emissions in New Zealand from transport and industrial sources, which comprise over 50% of the growth in emissions (excluding forestry) in New Zealand since 1990.
  • While New Zealand has not agreed to accept a legally binding commitment for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, it appears to be planning to apply accounting rules that carry over surplus units from the first commitment period. This is something that is available to countries with commitments under the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, but not those without a commitment, like New Zealand. The legal basis upon which New Zealand is seeking to rely upon these accounting rules is therefore unclear.

The CAT analysis of current government policy is damning. Groser’s “fair and reasonable” spin was never credible, as domestic critics have pointed out, but it is now clear that in international policy circles Groser will be rowing against the tide.

When the Key government took office in 2008, it inherited a full suite of climate policies that if left alone would have set NZ on the path to a low-carbon economy. It has since weakened every aspect of emissions policy to the point where the Emissions Trading Scheme is so weak it in effect subsidises agriculture and big emitters. From being a world leader, it appears we now aspire to pariah status – joining the likes of Canada and Australia in the dunces corner. Terrible policy, terrible legacy.

See also:

CAT analyst interviewed on Morning Report.
Radio NZ News report.
NZ Herald.

Renwick on NZ’s 11% cut: follow us down the path to catastrophe Gareth Renowden Jul 09

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RenwickThis guest post is by Carbon News editor Adelia Hallett, published with permission.

New Zealand will face droughts, floods, fires, social upheaval and catastrophic global economic damage if the world follows the country’s lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, says one of our leading climate experts. Dr James Renwick – Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University, an International Panel on Climate Change lead author, and formerly a principal scientist at the National Institute on Water and Atmosphere – says that cutting emissions at the rate that New Zealand proposes would lead to at least 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

That’s warmer than at any time in the history of human agriculture and settlement, which started around 10,000 years ago.

The Government announced on Tuesday that New Zealand would go to international climate change negotiations in Paris later this year with a post-2020 emissions reduction target (known as an Intended Nationally Determined Commitment, or INDC) of 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s the same as 11.2 per cent below 1990 levels. New Zealand also has a target of halving emissions on 1990 levels by 2050.

Warmer world

Renwick says the targets will not prevent warming of more than 2 degrees, something the Government has said it wants to do.

“The science says, compared to 1990, we need about a 40 per cent reduction by 2030, 90 per cent by 2050, and 100 per cent by 2060 – and then negative emissions (removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) for the rest of the century,” he said. Cutting emissions at the rate New Zealand is proposing would see the world warmer than it has been for at least 100,000 years, and probably for two to three million years, he says.

“Drought frequency in the east and north of New Zealand would be occurring with double or triple the frequency we experience now,” he said.

“The fire season would be several weeks longer. The chance of heavy rain and flooding such as we’ve seen the past couple of months would increase by a factor of roughly five to 10. The ski industry would be limited to the higher fields in the South Island only. And so on.”

But the biggest issue the country would face would be problems with trading partners, he says, as crops failed in the United States, China, Russia and Australia.

“This would incur huge costs, including the costs associated with shifting the agricultural regions to follow the rains,” he said.

Rule of law

“Damage to food security and to major economies would destabilise our ability to trade internationally, and has the potential to eat away at the rule of law.”

New Zealand could also face waves of migrants fleeing climate-related problems in other parts of the world.

“The World Economic Forum’s latest global risks report places climate change at the forefront, saying it poses risks for ‘profound social instability’, i.e. wars,” Renwick said.

“This is essentially what happened in Syria – three years of drought kicked off the fighting.”

Even holding warming to 2 degrees might not be adequate to prevent many of these impacts, but it would reduce the likelihood, he says.

Renwick says that New Zealand has a responsibility to make serious emissions cuts.

“New Zealand is one of the highest emitters in the world on a per-capita basis,” he said.

“Our dependence on agriculture and our already high fraction of renewable electricity are not valid excuses for avoiding serious action. There are many things we can do, many of which will bring economic opportunities, as spelled out in the submissions made under the recent public consultation process.”

Short-sighted

Renwick says that the New Zealand target is identical to the Canadian INDC, and similar to that of the US, but well below those of European countries.

“The Chinese INDC is hard to decipher as it is tied to future GDP growth,” he said. “In contrast some European countries are showing the way: 50 per cent reductions (compared to 1990) in Switzerland, 40 per cent reductions in Norway.

“New Zealand could be showing leadership on this issue, but it seems our policy-makers are too timid and too short-sighted. When it comes to climate change and emissions reductions, it’s a case of the slower we go, the bigger the mess”.

NZ emissions target announced: unambitious, ineffective and morally repugnant Gareth Renowden Jul 07

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ASTargets.jpgClimate change minister Tim Groser today released New Zealand’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (pdf) to emissions reductions after 2020 — a 30% decrease on gross emissions in 2005, equivalent to an 11% reduction on 1990 levels. Groser’s press release described this as a “more ambitious climate change target” and “a significant increase on our current target of five per cent below 1990 emission levels by 2020.” This can only be true for definitions of “ambitious” and “significant” that include doing sweet Fanny Adams. The minister is spinning like a top.

Groser was given free reign to continue his dissembling by Radio New Zealand’s political editor Brent Edwards on Checkpoint this evening. Just before the end of the segment, Groser waxes lyrical about the costs of action — “$1,270 a year” — and then makes this amazing counterfactual statement (roughly transcribed):

The burden of advice from our officials and the independent think tanks that have done the modelling is that this is all cost and it has to be born by someone.

Some facts for the minister: the modelling released by his officials as part of the consultation process, the results of which have been so comprehensively ignored, did not consider the costs of inaction, did not model the co-benefits of action or of innovation, and modelled costs were compared to an unrealistic baseline of no government action to reduce emissions at all.

In other words, the minister was being grossly misleading in what he said. If he does not know that’s what his department’s economic modelling said, then he is failing in his ministerial responsibilities on this most serious of issues and should be held to account. If he does know that’s what the modelling said, but was prepared to misrepresent it to RNZ’s political editor and the wider National Radio audience, then he is guilty of telling a deliberate falsehood, and should resign. Either way, Groser was being glib, arrogant and ignorant — an unedifying sight in a senior minister.

There is no sign in the target announcement made today, or in any part of this government’s climate policy that they understand the true seriousness of the issue that confronts NZ and the planet as a whole. They appear to have no appreciation of the strategic and management blunders they are making, all in the name of keeping semi-mythical costs down. The new target, described by Professor Ralph Sims as “low ambition”, doesn’t even set NZ on course for the government’s own 50% reduction by 2050 commitment, let alone address the need for a more credible 100% reduction by that date.

The legacy that Groser and the Key government will leave to the future will not be a new flag, it will be a New Zealand crippled by their smug, arrogant and morally repugnant climate inaction.

See also:

MfE page on new target.

Summary of submissions made to the consultation process.

NZ Herald: Climate change pledge “highly conditional”

Green Party: Govt’s emissions reduction target 100% pure spin

Labour: Government has no credible climate change plan

Science Media Centre: expert reaction

For more reaction, see Scoop.co.nz

NZ’s Paris emissions commitments should be 40% by 2030 and 100% (or more) by 2050 Gareth Renowden Jun 08

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Submissions for the New Zealand government’s half-hearted consultation on post-2020 emissions targets closed last Wednesday. I managed to sneak my contribution in just before the 5pm deadline. It remains to be seen whether it will be read. I heartily recommend reading the Royal Society’s submission – a very clear statement of the issues and NZ’s responsibilities. The Generation Zero submission is also well worth a look (pdf here). Morte than 4,600 people used G0’s automated submission tool, which should ensure that the MfE is well aware that this is an issue people take seriously. In the meantime, here’s what I had to say…

Context

New Zealand’s Climate Change Target: Our contribution to the new international climate change agreement, the discussion document produced by the Ministry for the Environment to accompany the consultation process, is in my view misleading and misguided. It presents a distorted and unhelpful view of the dimensions of the challenge NZ faces. In order to arrive at a pragmatic understanding of how NZ’s domestic policy settings on greenhouse gas emissions should be adjusted to best align with a solution to this huge global problem, it’s necessary to consider the scientific and geopolitical context. NZ’s policy solutions should flow from, and work with, our best understanding of the science that underpins the need for action to cut emissions and to stabilise and reduce atmospheric CO2 loading. NZ also needs to consider the direct climate and strategic risks it faces as a result of inevitable climate change and design policy that limits those risks and increases resilience to them.

Science

Evidence from studies of past climate conditions suggests that the last time atmospheric CO2 stood at 400 ppm — 3 million years ago, during the Pliocene — global sea levels were around 20 metres higher than today, and global average temperature was 2-3ºC above pre-industrial (the global average temperature of 200 years ago). As atmospheric CO2 continues to climb above 400 ppm, the only practical question is how long it will take the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic to melt. It may take hundreds to thousands of years to see the full extent of the sea level rise implicit in current CO2 levels, but it’s worth noting that for every 1 ppm we add above 400 ppm, we add to the warming and the final amount of sea level rise. We have already committed future generations to a world with radically different shorelines. We are already heading for substantial warming and increasing damages from climate change.

 

Emissions policies are usually expressed as percentage reductions in emissions compared to an historical or projected baseline. This presents emissions cuts as a flow problem. If we can turn the tap down a bit, we can address the problem. But atmospheric carbon — as the paleoclimate data shows — is not a flow problem, it’s a stock problem. Every tonne of carbon we add to the atmosphere makes two things worse: long term warming and the sea level rise that results from it, and ocean acidification.

The best evidence available to us from modelling studies suggests that it is possible for the world to limit warming over the next century to between 1.5ºC (the target endorsed by 100+ of the nations of the world) and 2ºC (the target endorsed by the rest of the world – including NZ), but that the reductions in emissions from current levels will have to be steep and start now. The carbon budget left — the amount we can burn and still hit those targets is not big, and the world is getting through it at great speed.

In order to have the best chance of hitting those temperature targets, we will have to go beyond cutting emissions to creating a global economy which is below net-zero emissions (this is explicit in the most aggressive IPCC emissions scenarios). This means that to limit near term warming, in the second half of this century we will have to start reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Every tonne of CO2 we emit today will eventually have to be removed from the atmosphere. If we want to prevent the full extent of the sea level rise suggested by the historical data we will have to return atmospheric carbon loading to near pre-industrial levels — a huge task for us to bequeath to our children.

Equity

The available carbon budget has to be allocated equitably between nations. NZ, as a rich developed country with high per capita emissions will be expected to shoulder a greater burden than rapidly developing and underdeveloped countries. This is both a moral and an ethical issue, as well as a matter of realpolitik in relations with China, India, the US and Europe.

Risk

There are two sorts of climate risk that face New Zealand. The first is of direct and indirect climate change impacts. Climate change is already being felt all round the world in increasingly damaging extreme weather events, and this will only get worse as warming continues. NZ may (or may not) escape the worst of those direct impacts, but our trading partners almost certainly won’t. We are at least as vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on our key export markets as we are to — say — an outbreak of foot and mouth disease damaging our beef and dairy exports.

Some of these direct impact risks are unavoidable. Due to the huge heat capacity of the global oceans, initial “fast” warming lags behind CO2 levels by up to 30 years. If we could somehow freeze atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm, the planet would continue to warm for another three decades. Every year we delay cutting emissions adds a year to the end of the process — when the damages being experienced both here and overseas will be much greater than today.

The only way to deal with the unavoidable warming is to increase national resilience to the direct impacts of extreme weather, sea level rise and climate warming, and to create an economy that is less vulnerable to climate shocks in export markets.

There is also risk associated with the accuracy of our projections of future change. Paleoclimate tells us where we’re heading, but modelling gives us our best guess of how fast we’ll get there. Essentially, this risk can be characterised as three options:

  • Climate change turns out be slower and less damaging than currently projected
  • Climate change turns out as we currently project (IPCC AR5)
  • Climate change happens faster and is more damaging than expected

The preponderance of scientific and expert evidence is handily summarised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its regular reports. The most recent, published last year, makes for grim reading, but also makes it clear that it is possible for the world to limit the worst impacts of climate change, and do so at affordable cost.

To assume that the IPCC is wrong, or “alarmist” as some would like to suggest, and that future climate change will be less damaging than currently projected, is to fly in the face of the evidence. From a risk analysis perspective, basing climate policies (global or national) on a gamble that the experts are wrong could have terrible consequences in both the near and long term.

However, it should be pointed out that the IPCC is itself regarded by many in the climate science community as a conservative presentation of the evidence. Since the publication of the Fifth Report, for instance, it has become clear that large parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may already have passed the point of no return and could be committed to large scale melt over the next century. In other words, it might be wise to assume that we should be planning to avoid the worst case. It is often suggested that we should prepare to cope with 4ºC of warming, but mitigate (by aggressively cutting emissions) to give us the best chance of staying under 2ºC.

The second dimension of climate risk facing NZ is the geopolitical risk – the consequences that our climate policy actions have in terms of our international relationships. The present government has defined itself as a “fast follower” — not seeking to lead on actions to reduce emissions, but prepared to follow overseas efforts as they ratchet up. The recent agreement between the US and China on emissions demonstrates that the overall level of global climate ambition has increased. Any target that NZ sets has to be seen to be both ambitious in that context, and should represent a significant increase on the targets currently tabled.

In the wider context, if international action to cut emissions is going to accept the reality that the global economy will have to go beyond net-zero emissions in the second half of this century, then NZ should be positioning itself to reach net zero emissions by 2050 — preferably earlier — and perhaps aim to be a global centre of excellence for carbon sequestration.

From a strategic perspective, the government needs to realise that climate policy is not an optional extra. The climate problem is not going to go away, and while it may be possible to delay implementing effective policy for a few more years, the longer it is left the more expensive introducing those policies will be because faster and steeper cuts will be required. It will be much more economically efficient to make sure that a wide range of policy tools are put in place and their impacts ramped up over time, than to try to slam on the brakes in a few years time when international action — perhaps as a result of damaging climate impacts — really ramps up.

Costs versus opportunities

The discussion document issued by the MfE makes considerable play of the costs to NZ taxpayers of actions to reduce emissions, though as I and others have pointed out, the assumptions underlying the economic modelling are flawed and unhelpful when considering any sensible cost benefit analysis of emissions policy settings.

In one respect – and one respect only – the economic modelling commissioned to examine the costs of various emissions targets is very useful. If we take the emissions targets currently adopted by the government as the baseline (rather than the ridiculous base case of no action to cut emissions by anyone, anywhere), then we can see that the costs of increasing the ambition of targets is actually rather small.

If the necessity for emissions reductions were to be spread across the whole economy — rather than excluding half of national emissions by assuming that the rest of the economy is prepared to subsidise agricultural emissions, then the costs would likely drop further.

There are also considerable benefits to be obtained by moving towards a low emissions economy. There will be economic benefits from technology development, innovation and transitioning to clean fuels, as well as encouraging agriculture to diversify out of high emissions farming systems and into high value, low emissions crops with greater resilience to the impacts of warming.

Carbon sclerosis

The Ministry’s discussion document makes little or no mention of the costs of inaction, despite the fact that Treasury has calculated that they could be as large as $52 billion by 2030. With current emissions policy settings — a weak ETS that effectively subsidises big emitters and deliberately excludes emissions from agriculture — there is a danger that the economy will become locked in to a higher emissions profile than necessary. If the likely future cost of carbon is not factored into current infrastructure and capital investment decisions, then NZ risks creating an economy riddled with carbon sclerosis — a disease that will be ever more expensive to cure as global action to emissions tightens.

Policy tools

The government appears to be planning to meet NZ’s current commitments by purchasing emissions reductions on the global market, and seems to expect that this will be the most cost-effective way of meeting future emissions targets. This increases the future economic risk to the country by effectively encouraging the domestic economy to take a high emissions pathway. NZ will therefore be vulnerable to any steep rises in the cost of emissions trading units. Since a tightening of future international emissions policies is practically certain if worst-case climate impacts are to be avoided, this amounts to a strategic blunder of considerable proportions.

To reduce that risk exposure, the government should as a matter of urgency put policies in place to ensure that the domestic economy is set on a low-carbon pathway as soon as possible. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Tighten up ETS settings to reduce grandfathering of emissions for big emitters and increase the carbon price signal to all emitters currently covered by the scheme.
  • Bring agriculture into the ETS as soon as possible, in order to allow farmers and foresters to make sensible investment decisions.
  • Require that a minimum proportion of NZ emissions units are used to settle ETS positions.
  • Encourage afforestation and native bush regeneration to enlarge NZ’s standing carbon stock.
  • Expand the permanent forest sink initiative and encourage co-cropping in permanent forests (fungi, plants, biofuels). Put in place rules that allow selective timber harvest that doesn’t reduce standing carbon stock.
  • Phase out all fossil fuel electricity generation as soon as possible.
  • Phase out all non-essential road building and divert funds to rail and coastal shipping and public transport networks to encourage a shift of freight from road to rail and sea, and greater use of public transport systems in urban areas.
  • Phase out all support for coal production and oil exploration.
  • Step up research into biofuels and incentivise the roll-out of practical systems to reduce liquid fossil fuel use.
  • Introduce minimum fuel efficiency standards for all imported vehicles.
  • Expand support for electric vehicle use.
  • Continue and expand energy efficiency initiatives for all buildings, domestic and commercial, and encourage insulation of existing housing stock.
  • Incentivise renewable energy installations at all scales, and fund the development and installation of smart grid technologies that allow domestic and small-scale renewable generation projects to integrate with the national grid.

These policies will require a whole of government approach to emissions management and reduction. Implementing them will need a mixture of market mechanisms (via the ETS or carbon taxes) and carefully designed regulation.

Certainty

It is important for all New Zealanders that government delivers a consistent set of policies that are designed to allow NZ to reach net zero emissions over the next 35 years. To this end, I strongly believe that climate policy should not be a political football, liable to constant change after every election. The government should work to build a cross-party consensus on emissions policy tools and settings, a “climate accord” that allows NZ to implement meaningful emissions reductions over the long term and to build social and economic resilience to the climate changes that are now inevitable.

Targets

Given the above, I believe that New Zealand should gazette a “net zero” by 2050 target, and consider all intermediate targets as waypoints on the route to that goal. As a gesture of our renewed commitment to action (and in recognition that the major international emitters are now committed to serious cuts), the current 5% reduction on 1990 emissions by 2020 target should be immediately increased to 15%, a 2030 goal be set at 40% below 1990 and a 2040 goal be set at 70%.

These targets are credible and achievable, but will require the current government to do more than pay lip service to climate policy. It remains to be seen whether that is a credible and achievable goal.

Federated Farmers: sticking their heads in the soil? cindy May 12

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Dryland farmingFederated Farmers says farmers don’t need to worry about the causes of climate change, they only need to cope with the impacts. Feds President William Rolleston says they have “no position” on whether mankind is influencing global warming, and say that looking at the causes is not that helpful. No position?

“We [farmers] need to basically adjust to the realities that are being dealt to us, and why it may or may not be happening isn’t really as important, as actually being prepared for what we actually do get dealt,” their “climate change spokesman” Anders Crofoot told Radio New Zealand today.

You can’t have “no position” on the climate science — it’s like telling your bank manager you have “no position” on your finances, despite the numbers being there for all to see. I’m calling it climate denial. I’ll come back to that later, but let’s look at WHY they’re saying that.  If you were to take a position, that is, agree that climate change is real and caused by humans, you’d have to act. You’d think.

 

So I guess it’s blindingly obvious why Federated Farmers want to avoid talking about the causes of climate change, because farming, at 48 percent, is the largest contributor to our burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions, and the present government has exempted them from the emissions trading scheme, the one they’re consulting on at the moment.

But let’s look at impact of climate change on farmers — what they might be “dealt” as a result of the climate change they’re contributing to but not willing to do anything about, and what they have to look forward to.

One climate impact we can look forward to in New Zealand is increased drought. We’re starting to experience droughts here already, like never before. One obvious problem with increased drought is lack of water. And the expansion of industrial dairy farming — often chopping down forests that used to act as carbon sinks — is driving a massive investment into irrigation and increased water use.

In February this year, during the worst drought experienced by the South Island farming community, maybe ever, Fed Farmers’ Environment and Water spokesman Ian Mackenzie was on the radio slamming the Government’s Crown Irrigation Fund for providing loans for famers, rather than actual investment for irrigation schemes.  The pressure is going on, with both Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ both pushing hard for Government — and therefore the taxpayer — to front the costs.

What is climate change costing us?

This year’s drought has shaved 0.5% off GDP growth, according to ANZ. Farmers freaked out in February as the unprecedented Canterbury drought forced the shutting of the Opuha Dam for irrigation.  

Meat prices dropped as farmers, unable to feed their animals, had to cull them.

Even Bathurst Resources, which, in the face of plummeting coal prices, is having to rely on supplying coal domestically, reported a drop in income in the first quarter of this year because its main customer, Fonterra, had less milk to dry and therefore used less coal.

The 2013 drought in the North Island was the “worst in history” according to scientists and cost the country around $1.3 billion.  This drought has now been confirmed by scientists to have been made worse by climate change.

The 2007-08 drought had a $2.8 billion economic impact, in on-farm and off-farm costs.

And that’s just the droughts

Let’s turn now to the damages from floods and storms — the type of extreme weather events that are expected to come from climate change. By September 2014, weather-related Insurance had cost $135.4 million. The Insurance Council of NZ predicts that this type of event will cost, on average, $1.6 billion a year, as climate impacts kick in.

Of course not all of this cost will be laid only at a farmer’s door, but if you look at the Insurance Council’s list of big disasters the insurance industry has had to pay out for in recent years, it’s clear that farmers have certainly suffered their fair share of impacts.

Back to the science

Given that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and that we’re causing it,  and we’ve now had no less than five IPCC reports, the question has to be asked: where has Federated Farmers been?

Its leader-with-no-position, William Rolleston, is supposedly a smart man. According to this profile, “his appetite for all things science is fuelled by reading on the origins and workings of the universe, biology and natural history.” He sits on the Ministry of Science, Business and Innovation’s Science Board.

So you’d think he’d maybe have read the IPCC summaries, or consulted some of his colleagues on that board about the science of climate change, its causes and its projected impacts, and realised that you can’t have “no position” on climate science. If you are a scientist, you don’t get to pick and choose which bits of evidence you believe in. You live with the facts.

For a group that purports to be acting on behalf of farmers, one would think that in 2015 Federated Farmers would be taking this issue, and its causes, extremely seriously.

The droughts that farmers are feeling today, at 0.8ºC of warming, are already having a serious economic effect on their industry and, given that current projections are that we’re heading to 4ºC of warming, you’d think they’d be going all out to do what they can to stop it. But denying its very existence? Seriously?

I just hope that the rest of the country’s farmers, ie the 85 percent who are not represented by Federated Farmers, aren’t quite that stupid.

But if Federated Farmers refuse to take any responsibility for — or do anything about the causes of climate change — and instead continue upping production without paying any attention to emissions, the question has to be asked: why should the taxpayer, and the Government, continue to give them handouts for drought relief or storm relief, or give them a free ride on the costs of their emissions to the rest of the economy? Why should we stump up for massive irrigation schemes to pay for even more irrigation so they can ramp up production further?

Milk cow blues: dirty dairy costs NZ dear, but methane cuts might work Gareth Renowden Apr 30

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There’s good news and bad news for New Zealand’s dairy industry this week. On the one hand, research has found a number of compounds that can cut methane emissions from ruminants (cows and sheep) by up to 90% by reducing populations of the bacteria that produce the gas. On the other hand, research into the external costs of dairying — the costs not currently born by dairy companies — suggest that dairying’s value to the NZ economy may amount to a “zero sum” game. At the very least the national income generated by dairy sales is significantly offset by the costs of remediating the environmental impacts caused by that farming — costs that are born by the general tax payer, not agribusiness — according to a team from Massey University.

The good news on methane was announced this week at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Conference 2015. Agresearch Principal Scientist Dr Peter Janssen told Radio NZ:

It’s a very exciting result but there’s still a lot of checking to be done before you actually get something that a farmer can use safely.

Interviewed by the NZ Herald, Dr Rick Pridmore, chairman of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, was upbeat:

The results are significant for two reasons. First, because they work on livestock consuming a grass-based diet and, second because the short-term trials showed such dramatic results,” he said.

However, it might take up to 5 years for these treatments to reach farmers, as the compounds are tested for the possibility of residues in meat and milk.

Cutting methane emissions might reduce diary farmers’ liability under an emissions trading scheme that included agriculture — they are at present excluded — but would have no impact on the other external costs calculated in a new paper, New Zealand Dairy Farming: Milking Our Environment for All Its Worth, which suggests that the costs of repairing the environmental damage done by intensive dairying approaches the value generated by the activity.

One of the authors, Dr Mike Joy told Stuff:

A strong message from the study is that avoiding pollution is far cheaper for everyone than trying to clean it up afterwards and there is now ample evidence that farmers can make more profit and pollute less when not myopically chasing increased production.

Unsurprisingly, the costs calculated in the paper are vigorously contested by farming organisations and some academics, but will chime with New Zealanders concerned that the rapid expansion of industrial dairying is significantly degrading important rural environments and chipping away at what’s left of NZ’s so-called clean green image.

[The Kinks]

Climate battle at NBR: Rodney’s rubbish versus Wiggs wisdom Gareth Renowden Apr 26

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New Zealand’s leading business media outfit — the National Business Review — has long dallied with climate denial, providing a platform for former ACT party leader Rodney Hide (amongst others) to push climate tosh. Last week Rodney used his regular opinion column to attack the government’s emissions policies (behind paywall) — fair enough, given that they are rubbish — but his rationale was that it was a waste of time because climate change wasn’t happening:

So what about the temperature record? Where is this being reported? Where is the headline? It’s the easiest question to ask, the best news to report and the only salient fact in an ocean of green wash and government propaganda.

And what’s that news? No global warming for nearly 20 years.

So far, so predictable… and so wrong. Here’s the latest news:

GISStemp20153

The last 12 months have been the hottest in the long term record. So was the year ending in February. With an El Niño event brewing in the Pacific, 2015 is on course to set a new record for hottest calendar year. 14 of the 15 hottest years have occurred this century. And that’s just if we look at surface temperatures. If we look where most of the heat is going — into the oceans — there’s no sign of any pause at all.

Rodney’s column attracted a comment from another NBR columnist, Lance Wiggs, a man with some real business chops and a respect for scientific evidence. That in turn sparked a battle of the columnists in this week’s NBR: Rodney’s rubbish, versus Wiggs’ wisdom.

 

A comparison is instructive. Rodney doubles down on his denial, blustering away for all he is worth: taking umbrage at being called a denier, dissing the models, moaning that costly action now will impoverish future generations. Wiggs prefers a more measured tone, provides plentiful references, and on the cost issue makes this telling observation:

Rodney Hide does not want to spend money, but it’s pretty easy to see that if we don’t invest now in combating and mitigating change, then we will be passing an ever-increasing burden on to the future. We advise people to start saving early for retirement because of the compounding effect of interest, and it’s the same with action on climate change – as CO2 emissions increase the job we all have to combat the crises gets harder and harder.

To rub salt into the wound, Wiggs advocates a carbon tax as the best policy to price emissions — exactly the policy Hide advocated in parliament before his Damascene conversion to climate denial.

Wiggs also notes that “the climate damage is already done”, and that we will have to live with the consequences by investing in resilience to climate change as well as cutting emissions. His final paragraph is something I am happy to endorse in full:

So what’s the worst that could happen if we work together to reduce carbon emissions? More business efficiency, lower emissions of the other nasty pollutants and power generation that is driven by free resources. That’s a future I’d like to live in.

Amen to that. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask NBR’s editor at large Nevil Gibson — himself something of a climate contrarian, to judge by the coverage he gives the subject — to ask Rodney to stick to writing about things he understands. Whatever they might be. Ballroom dancing, perhaps.

The encroaching sea: new NZ sea level rise maps Gareth Renowden Apr 13

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This guest post is by Jonathan Musther, who has just published an amazing series of highly detailed maps projecting future sea level rise scenarios onto the New Zealand coastline. If you live within cooee of the sea, you need to explore his maps. Below he explains why he embarked on the project.

10mSLR-Christchurch480

The effect of 10m sea level rise on Christchurch: say goodbye to St Albans, prepare to paddle in the CBD. Full map here.

For humans, sea-level rise will almost certainly be the most directly observable effect of climate change, and specifically of global warming. As the climate changes, many of the effects will be subtle, or if not subtle, they will at least be very complex. Summers may be warmer, or cooler; we may experience more rain at some times of year, and less at others; tropical storms may increase and they may be sustained further from the equator, but all of these changes are complex, and not necessarily obvious against the background complexity of any climate system. In contrast, there is something obvious and unstoppable about sea-level rise, there is no question that it will send anyone in its path running for the hills.

For some time I have been involved in searching for land appropriate for specific uses such as arable farming, water catchment, and off-grid living. When searching for land in this way, there are many, many criteria to consider, and of course one of these is potential future sea-level. Using GIS (Geographical Information System) software, and elevation models of the New Zealand landscape, it is possible to visualise sea-level rise, and select sites accordingly. Naturally, the next question is what sea-level rise to consider. It is possible to place an upper-limit on sea-level rise – after all, there’s only a finite amount of ice that could melt – but beyond that, we’re limited to informed guesswork.

25mSLR-Christchurch480

25m sea level rise: a sunken city and Banks Island. Full map here.

What is the maximum possible sea-level rise? It depends who you ask. Many sources place the maximum potential sea-level rise at around 60-64 metres, but these figures are rarely referenced, and don’t concur with the latest research. Other sources place the figure at around 80-81.5 metres, and while this appears to be well referenced and researched, it is based on work that is somewhat out of date. The best estimates I’ve been able to locate, based on recent measurements (and lots of them) are around 70 metres, but quite what the margin of error is remains uncertain. Of course, when considering future sea-level, we must remember that here in the South Pacific, we will likely experience increased numbers of more powerful tropical storms, with associated storm surges.

80mSLR-Christchurch480

At 80m, West Melton is a seaside township. Full map here.

The maps I created showing sea-level rise for the whole of New Zealand depict rises of 10, 25 and 80 metres. I have certainly received criticism for not focussing on more modest sea-level rises (e.g. 1 or 2 metres), but there are some good reasons for this: firstly, the resolution of the elevation models of New Zealand do not allow accurate predictions of such small rises. Secondly, larger sea-level rises pose a huge threat, and are therefore worth considering. I made a point of avoiding time frame predictions when producing the sea-level rise maps, partly because the time frame is largely irrelevant (if 80% of our homes are flooded, it’s bad news, no matter when) and partly because the range of expert estimates is huge. Study after study shows that we have underestimated ice-sheet instability, and it is almost universally accepted that large sea-level rise will be a consequence. Unfortunately, most studies place this sea-level rise at some unspecified time in the future – when, we’re not sure, but it’s far enough away that we needn’t worry…

So is a 10 or 25 metre sea-level rise likely? Unfortunately, the broad answer is yes. The Greenland, West and East Antarctic ice sheets are showing growing instability, and many researchers agree that they may have past a ‘point of no return’. Remember, the Greenland ice sheet alone, if completely melted, would lead to approximately a 7 m rise in global sea-level. Of course, we return to the issue of when this is likely to happen, and on that, the jury is out.

I firmly believe that to be good scientists, we must investigate the possibility of large sea-level rise, and its consequences. The time frame is unclear, the absolute rise is also unclear, but there really is something unstoppable about rising oceans. We are now well outside the sphere of collective human experience and expertise, and we should be very careful to prepare, as best we can, for a range of scenarios.

The Age of Sustainable Development Bryan Walker Apr 01

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It is profoundly depressing to hear pundits and politicians talking about the prospects for economic growth with no reference to either equity or environmental constraints. In the case of New Zealand a “rock star” economy can apparently develop accompanied by dismaying levels of child poverty, excited expectations of new oil and gas discoveries which spell disaster for the climate, and a burgeoning dairy industry paying scant attention to the environmental consequences of its rapid growth.

Fortunately there are more discerning economists on the world stage for whom economic growth is only welcome when it means an end to poverty and when it fully respects strict environmental limits. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute  at Columbia University, is an outstanding example. His latest book The Age of Sustainable Development is heavily focused on the ending of poverty in parts of the world where it remains endemic and is relentless in its recognition of the severe environmental strains that economic development and soaring population growth are placing on the earth systems on which human life depends.

The book was developed as part of a global open online course of the same name offered by the Earth Institute and already taken, Sachs reports, by tens of thousands of students around the world.

 

The book presents a picture of rapid economic growth and population explosion since the industrial revolution got under way in Britain and spread into Europe and America. But it’s an uneven growth and many countries have barely experienced it, not least, Sachs suggests, because of western colonialism which was more interested in the exploitation of the colonies than in their participation in economic development.

Addressing this lag in development and the extreme poverty which often attends it is a primary task for development practitioners. Sachs dismisses sweeping simplistic diagnoses (corruption) or prescriptions (cut government spending) or referrals (to the IMF) and instead urges diagnoses that are accurate and effective for the conditions, history, geography, culture, and economic structure of the countries in question. Many countries are caught in poverty traps through no fault of their own and the aim is to assist them out of that and on to the first rungs of the development ladder.

Sachs is also alert to the relative poverty within developed countries, including the indigenous societies and other ethnic minority groups neglected in the economic development of the societies in which they are placed. Social justice is integral to the concept of development in his book.

Turning to the question of environmental boundaries Sachs asks whether a world that is prosperous and socially inclusive can also be environmentally sustainable. He argues that with careful and science-based attention to growing environmental threats we can harmonise growth and sustainability. That’s not the “balance” that our own government so glibly claims to be achieving between growth and environmental protection. Sachs aims at a full recognition of environmental boundaries.

His treatment of climate change is a prime example of the seriousness with which he takes the environmental challenges to development. In a packed chapter he offers a lucid explanation of the basic science and the consequences of the human-induced changes to the climate. In this he provides yet another example of the fact that there is no excuse for scientific ignorance among educated people in this issue of such moment for human life. One does not need to be a scientist to understand the basic thrust of climate science.  His conclusion is entirely appropriate:

 “The fact is that we should be truly scared, and not just scared, but scared into action—both to mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions and to adapt to climate change by raising the preparedness and resilience of our economies and societies.”

Not that it’s an easy task. Sachs describes it as an economic problem beyond comparison with any other, for several reasons the toughest policy problem humanity has ever faced. Climate change is a global crisis, meaning the whole world must be mobilised. It is also an inter-generational crisis and humanity is not good at confronting longer-term challenges. It means forsaking the fossil fuels on which the success of modern economic growth has depended. The crisis is slow-moving, making it difficult to sense urgency. The solutions are operationally complex, covering a wide range of changes. Finally, the energy sector is home to the world’s most powerful companies whose lobbying clout is not directed towards climate solutions.

Against this list one wonders that Sachs finds any confidence, but he works his way through the technologies which exist to enable the transition away from fossil fuels, and concludes that the world has climate solutions but that what it lacks is the time for further delay.

Climate change is only one of the environmental issues he confronts. He is equally rigorous on species extinction and the loss of biodiversity, on the capacity to grow food for a still rapidly expanding population, on ocean acidification and a range of other threats.

It’s a daunting picture. Sachs writes strikingly of the difficulties in addressing it:

“…it is very hard in our noisy, disparate, divided, crowded, congested, distracted, and often overwhelmed world to mobilize any consistency of effort to achieve any of our common purposes.”

In this context he advances the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be put for adoption to the UN General Assembly this year to cover the period up to 2030, taking the place of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted in 2000. The MDG were mainly focused on poor countries, but the SDG will have universal application, and Sachs sees them as offering a sense of common direction to individuals, organisations, and governments all over the world.

Ideas count. Sachs sees that as his most important message. If it seems a frail defence against the inequality and environmental heedlessness which characterises much of our activity it is nevertheless one he stoutly defends. Ideas can have an effect on public policy far beyond anything that can be imagined by the hard-bitten cynics, he claims. Look at the powerful and embedded economic institution of slavery eventually overcome by the ideas and morality of the anti-slavery campaigners. Consider Ghandi’s lead in helping to end colonialism. Think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of Martin Luther King, of women’s rights.

So there’s something of the moral idealist underneath all the marshalling of economic facts and figures and the unflinching analysis of environmental threats which Sachs’ book contains. A stance I find much preferable to the complacent acceptance of the existing order which is still all too manifest in government and business and which bodes nothing short of disaster before the century is out.

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