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Posts Tagged John Key

Don’t worry Kyoto (National’s Only Looking Out For Its Friends) Gareth Renowden Nov 12

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The New Zealand government has announced that the country will not join the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (CP2), but will instead make voluntary commitments within the Kyoto framework [Herald, NBR]. Climate change minister Tim Groser presented this move as:

…aligning [NZ's] climate change efforts with developed and developing countries which collectively are responsible for 85% of global emissions. This includes the United States, Japan, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Russia and many other major economies.

To put it another way, New Zealand has chosen to abandon the 36 countries already signed up for CP2 — which runs from 2013 to 2020 — and instead aligns itself with the world’s worst polluters. Ironically, Groser rejected CP2 on the same day that Australia, only recently equipped with a meaningful carbon emission reduction scheme, announced it would sign up. The move completes the National-led government’s programme of gutting and dismembering the climate policies it inherited from the last Labour-led government when it took power in 2008.

Reaction from political opponents was swift and, as you might expect, damning1, but more telling from my perspective was the response from scientists, compiled by the Science Media Centre.

Jim Salinger, currently the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor in the Program in Human Biology, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford:

…the New Zealand Government must take its head out of the sand and step up to its scientific responsibility collectively together with the nations of the world in order to save future generations from the horrendous future impacts of a dramatically warming planet.

Martin Manning of the Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University:

This move now leaves any sense of legal commitment to limiting future climate change to the EU and Australia. And while it probably has only a small direct effect on total global CO2 emissions New Zealand’s retreat seems to be part of a growing reluctance by several developed countries to play any leadership role. So New Zealand’s move is part of a pattern that just leaves the problem to others.

Associate Professor Euan Mason, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury:

The government’s failure to commit us to a second Kyoto commitment period is consistent with, and is perhaps a consequence of, its failure to secure our NZU currency, and represents a failure to take opportunities to contribute to a better environment for us all.

Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, Director, Environmental Studies Programme, Victoria University:

This move has to be interpreted in the context of other signals New Zealand is sending on climate change policy. These signals are sadly pointing in the direction of easing back, rather than doing more, despite the climate change problem steadily worsening. The signals that the NZ government is not serious about climate change include its weakening of the ETS, a hiatus on renewable energy, a determination to build more highways that encourage carbon emitting land transport, and so on.

What’s interesting about these comments is not so much what they say — Hot Topic readers and anyone who has been following developments in climate science and policy would probably say much the same things — but who is saying it. These are working scientists who understand the issue in all its seriousness. They have an intelligent appreciation of the risks we and the world face as the planet warms. It’s becoming all too obvious that those risks are not understood by Key, Groser and the rest of the leadership of the National party.

In radio interviews over the weekend, Tim Groser described the move as in New Zealand’s national interest, and this morning prime minister John Key was forced to defend the move by rewriting history2:

I think we never wanted to a world leader in climate change we’ve always wanted to be what is affectionately called a fast follower.

Key conveniently forgets that Helen Clark’s government most certainly did want NZ to be a world leader on tackling climate change3 — in fact, Clark suggested we should be one of the first carbon neutral economies. Her government put together a coherent blend of policies — an emissions trading scheme backed by a suite of regulations, commitments to renewable energy, solar heating initiatives, home insulation and so on — that backed up that position. Key’s government, as Ralph Chapman notes, has been busily unravelling all that policy.

Groser’s view that this latest move is somehow in “the national interest” seems to depend on a definition of national interest that focusses only on the economic interests of fossil fuel and mining companies and his party’s supporters in the agricultural sector, as well as the frankly daft idea that economic interests can somehow be balanced against environmental issues4. National interest is about much, much more than is dreamt of in his philosophy — and includes taking prudent steps to prepare for an uncertain, but much warmer future. A strategic approach to the risks posed by rapid climate change5 would involve taking immediate steps to ensure that the ETS prices carbon at a level sufficient to ensure emitters take action6.

If Key, Groser, Joyce, English and the others are not listening to what the scientists are saying, perhaps they will listen to the International Energy Agency, who have noted that we are currently on a trajectory that will take us a long way beyond two degrees of warming. The world’s biggest accountants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, recently suggested that current policy settings were pushing the world towards six degrees7 of warming. These organisations speak the language that one must presume National’s leadership understands, so it would behove them to pay attention. But of that there is no sign.

One voice they will almost certainly dismiss out of hand for purely political reasons is that of our last prime minister, Helen Clark. Clark is now the administrator of the UN Development Programme, and recently addressed a meeting at Stanford about “Why Tackling Climate Change Matters for Development”. The full text is available here8, and shows Clark joined the dots on the importance of climate change years ago9, while John Key is still playing with his Etch A Sketch.

Wedded to an unrealistic view of the world, where climate change is just another policy setting that can be fiddled to the advantage of supporters or to suit ideology, New Zealand’s present government is stuck inside an epistemic bubble of considerable size. They are, quite literally, divorced from reality. What the national interest requires is that someone burst that bubble and force them to confront the need to take serious action on mitigating, and — crucially — adapting to the climate changes that are now “locked in” to the system. Perhaps a group of senior scientists equipped with a very large pin might seek an audience with the National Party caucus…

[Yoko Ono - should be played at full volume during all cabinet deliberations until such time as they fully understand the risks we face.]

  1. Labour: Day Of Shame As National Pulls Out Of Kyoto, Greens: ETS destroyed, now Government gets to work on Kyoto.
  2. Or perhaps he conveniently forgets recent NZ political history.
  3. Although his use of the “royal we” suggests he has other problems beyond memory.
  4. A clue: without a functioning environment, a vibrant economy is impossible.
  5. Which is exactly what we’re witnessing today.
  6. And doesn’t stuff up an entire industry, as Euan Mason’s full comment at the SMC notes.
  7. If six degrees is where we’re heading, I’d recommend reading Mark Lynas’ book of that title to get some appreciation of just what sort of Dante’s Inferno that might be.
  8. With short video.
  9. And did so while NZ PM.

John Key’s fossilised vision for NZ Bryan Walker Jul 07

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One wearies of lamenting the government’s inability to view proposed paths of economic development from the perspective of climate change. But as they continue to trumpet economic solutions which are inimical to facing the challenge of global warming there is little option but to keep reiterating that they need to take a longer term view.

What has provoked this post was the news in the NZ Herald on Thursday of the pleasure the Prime Minister has expressed in the results of a Herald-Digipoll survey suggesting that most New Zealanders back the Government’s plan to increase exploration for oil, gas and minerals. In welcoming the poll result John Key commented:

“New Zealanders, mostly, understand that while we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to protect our environment, we must also do all we can to leave them with a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living.

“We have always believed that New Zealand’s mineral wealth can play a large part in the economy, and we have also always believed this can be done with a minimal impact on our environment.”

When Key talks about protecting our environment he is obviously not considering the global environment on which human life depends. He’s talking about the local environment. But my concern in this post is not local environmental threats, serious though they often are, but the global threats which are consequent to the mining of fossil fuels.

These threats are never even mentioned in the current government campaign to attract mining exploration in New Zealand and its large area of surrounding seas. The more the threats of climate change multiply and the more evident their first signs become, the more they are ignored in the name of economic progress. Would the New Zealand public really support wider exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels if they knew that the burning of those fuels, no matter by whom, increases the likelihood of catastrophic sea level rise, of dangerous levels of ocean acidification, of much more frequent extreme weather events, of prolonged drought in major food-growing regions, and a host of other impacts highly detrimental to human society?

Key talks of our owing future generations “a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living”. Does he think that can be delivered along with a world in which societies will be struggling with the massive impacts of unrestrained climate change? I presume his way out of that dilemma is to simply tell himself that the predicted impacts are greatly exaggerated, if he actually thinks about them at all.

The Prime Minister is not a lone figure of course. He is surrounded by people who take the same position, as, according to the polls, do a majority of the population. Labour Party MP Shane Jones, until recently the party associate spokesperson on economic development, is in on the act as well. First a cheap shot against the Greens, again restricted to local environmental considerations:

“We in Maoridom must not buy uncritically into the hostile rhetoric from the Greenies.

“It’s about time they showed as much concern for the brown kiwis disappearing to Aussie as for the habitat of the brown spotted kiwi.”

He sees the extractive industries offering the best prospects for jobs and economic advancement for Northland Maori.

“There is an ethic of guardianship in our national culture and no one should deny that but there’s also an awareness that each generation has got to create jobs and got to search for ways to create wealth.

“We can only create greater wealth by boosting our export earnings. Those things are capable of coming to pass with a sensible environmental framework.”

It is admittedly going to require extensive change for our society to function with greatly reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and the transition can’t happen overnight. But it’s the transition which should be the focus of government attention and support, not the extension of the existing order. It is irresponsible in the extreme to pin New Zealand’s hopes of economic wealth to an increase in fossil fuel exploration and exploitation. It’s a question of direction, and the direction government is currently supporting is wrong and outmoded.

So widespread and so apparently nonchalant is the conviction that we might grow rich through oil and gas and coal that one can feel almost stupid for even suggesting that it is a course which should be eschewed in the interests of humanity. But when one looks seriously at what the science cannot avoid predicting it is not stupid to more than suggest, to insist rather, that we must begin to set a limit to fossil fuel exploitation. Most of what remains must be left where it is. That’s the big picture which the government is studiously avoiding and of which it must continue to be reminded for as long and as often as proves necessary.

Human stupidity and the NZ election (Heigh ho! Heigh ho!) Gareth Renowden Nov 23

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I’ve been writing about climate science and policy for the last five years, and taking an interest in the subject for far longer, but I’ve seldom read more depressing news than Fiona Harvey’s Guardian article last week – Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020. According to Harvey, expectations for the UN conference in Durban are low:

…most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

Unfortunately for all the inhabitants of this planet, the atmospheric carbon load is increasing fast and unless emissions peak soon – no later than 2020 – we will be committed to dangerous, and quite possibly uncontrollable future warming. How in the name of your favoured deity did we allow that to happen? Here’s a clue: a few sentences taken from the environment policy statement of New Zealand’s National Party, who led the outgoing government, and who on current polling will lead the next after Saturday’s election:

We’ve introduced a more balanced approach to climate change … Ensured New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change … Amended Labour’s ETS to strike a better balance between New Zealand’s environmental and economic interests.

The National Party document also claims the last (Labour-led) government ’set an impractical goal of carbon neutrality’. Well, have I got news for you, John Key and Nick Smith. Carbon neutrality is not an impractical goal – it’s what the evidence tells us we need to achieve, not just in New Zealand but around the whole world.

Here’s the first bit of evidence, taken from the NZ Climate Change Centre’s first Climate Brief, on The Challenge of Limiting Warming to Two Degrees1:

NZCCCEmissionsf3

This graph illustrates the practicalities of global emissions pathways, based on a simple idea — in order to give ourselves a 50/50 chance of staying under a 2ºC increase in the global average temperature, we can only emit 1,445 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2000 to 2050. If emissions had peaked last year, an annual decline of 1.3% would be all2 that’s required, but if we leave it until 2020, then annual cuts of 5% will be required, and global carbon neutrality will be necessary by 2050. Leave the emissions peak until later, and you rapidly run into impossible to meet rates of emissions reductions, and face having to suck prodigious amounts of carbon out of the air to meet the goal.

Carbon neutrality is therefore not an impossible luxury, but likely to be a necessity for the planet and New Zealand. A “50 by 50″ target just doesn’t cut it.

The National document also makes much of the idea of “balance”. They’re taking a “more balanced” approach to climate change, “striking a better balance between NZ’s environmental and economic interests”. There are actually two kinds of “balance” here, and they’re both radically mistaken. With respect to climate policy, and in particular emissions reductions, the government has chosen to ignore the best current evidence and pursue a watered-down set of objectives. This is portrayed as not so “extreme”, as if there were a middle course3 to be steered between doing what is necessary and doing nothing.

Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment.

Then there is the idea that you can strike a balance between environmental and economic interests. This assumes that the two things are separate and separable, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can only have an economy because the planet provides us with resources of all kinds — and not all of them are renewable on an annual basis4. Global and national economies can only operate as a subset of the total planetary environment. The environment therefore imposes limits on what we can do, and we ignore those limits at our peril.

…these are the last years of the great human bubble

Accepting this fact is hard for most politicians, wedded as they are to the idea that economic growth as we currently understand it can somehow continue ad infinitum. Some pay lip service to the idea of sustainability, without understanding what it really means — living within our environmental means. There’s a real challenge here: how to design steady-state, truly sustainable economies that can give people fulfilling lives, and I can’t really blame our current crop of politicians for failing to realise that’s what they’re going to have to do sooner or later. They are a product of their times — as are we all — and these are the last years of the great human bubble.

Most politicians aren’t stupid, but they are very skilled at avoiding or ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their ideology or which they suspect might be unpopular with their supporters and financial backers. Apart from selecting a new government this Saturday, NZ’s voters are also being asked to vote in a referendum on our proportional voting system, MMP. I would much rather be voting in a referendum designed to require politicians to produce evidence-based policies — that is, policies that are informed by the facts and the evidence, as the PM’s science adviser discussed earlier this year. Evidence-based climate policy would be a long way removed from what we see both in New Zealand and in the machinations around the post-Kyoto deal-making.

A final thought: humans can be individually brilliant but collectively stupid. What we are seeing in the politics of climate policy, nationally and internationally, is the latter, writ large. This weekend, New Zealand will vote for the politicians it wants to govern the country for the next three years. Climate policy — beyond some facile jockeying for position on the details of a watered down emissions trading scheme — has hardly figured in the campaign of either of the major parties. It has certainly not been fought over, or accorded the prominence you might expect of an issue that is going to shape human destiny over the next century.

At times like this, you can either laugh or cry. I choose laughter.

For a comparison of party and candidate policies on climate issues in the NZ election, I heartily recommend the efforts of Generation Zero here.

  1. The whole thing is well worth a read. Would that some of our politicians did so.
  2. All! References to relevant literature in the Climate Brief.
  3. A third way, even!
  4. Earth Overshoot Day 2011 — the day when the world starts dipping into natural capital instead of consuming renewable resources — was September 27th

Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment cindy Nov 15

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Here’s the first in a series of NZ election special articles from Hot Topic’s contributors. More pithy comment to follow… Last week I was open-mouthed when I heard the National Party release its environment and climate policy pretty much in the same breath as  releasing the agriculture policy (same province, same day). I can’t figure out how they thought these two things went together — well, in a good way anyway.

Climate change: no mention of the importance of the issue, the alarming reports coming from the scientists.  A lot of blather about keeping up (or perhaps “down” would be a more appropriate term) with other countries. Slowing down the ETS. Never mind that our actions are among the smallest in the industrialised world (see the Climate Action Tracker’s assessment here — rated “inadequate”).

Agriculture:  the sector most likely to undermine New Zealand’s climate policy. Our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Essentially, Key confirmed that agriculture will continue in its role as climate killer by announcing that the sector will not be part of the ETS until – erm – when? Indefinitely, apparently. As John Pagani noted  in a post last week:

“When farmers say they don’t want to be “brought into the ETS”, that doesn’t mean that their emissions will not be paid for — it just means they won’t pay for them. You will. You subsidise them. Under the delays National announced yesterday, it is as if you sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a cheque and handed it to a farmer.”

But if that wasn’t enough,  Key went on to give another massive subsidy to dairy farmers  –  a $400 million fund for irrigation. At this point I was beginning to think this was some kind of sick joke.

Clean water, said Key, is a major priority,  yet  National’s Policy on Freshwater management removes the need for a resource consent for land use intensification. And the main reason for our increased need for water around the country is industrial dairy. A 2010  article from NIWA says:

“We’re fast approaching water resource limits in some parts of the country, and pollution issues are threatening our clean, green brand.”

The quality of our lakes and rivers, NIWA tells us, is still in decline:

“There is no doubt that our declining river water quality over the last 20 years is associated with intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury”

I grew up on a farm in Canterbury.  We had some irrigation for the traditional Canterbury farming practice:  mixed cropping. Dairy was a little-known activity for the Canterbury plains in those days – the “Dairy region” in New Zealand was the Waikato. Canterbury was too dry and we didn’t have enough water.

I moved away from the area in the mid-80′s and,  by the time I returned in 2004, I found the whole landscape of the plains had changed. Dairy rules now. Shelter belts have been cut down and replaced by massive irrigation schemes across the region.

In the early 1980′s, as environment reporter at The Press, I sat through weeks of hearings over the Water Conservation Order (WCO) on the Rakaia River: it was enacted in 1988.  Trustpower now wants to break that WCO apart to increase hydro power in Lake Coleridge and irrigate another 40,000 ha of land across the Canterbury Plains.

Nick Smith has  fast tracked  this application to his appointed Commissioners. From his statement:

“The application order  “does not vary the outstanding features of the Rakaia River recognised in the water conservation order, the minimum flow levels specified for each month, or the operating limits of Lake Coleridge in existing resource consents.”

However, according to  Fish and Game,  because the irrigation is outside the scope of the WCO, Trustpower has not proposed any mitigation options for the irrigation.  Nor has Trustpower done its homework on river flows to protect the salmon fishery.

I don’t know whether anyone else noticed this double-whammy for the environment: the continued assault on the climate and our waterways by agriculture, but it certainly wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media.

Three years of ’very serious’ climate policy failure Gareth Renowden Nov 09

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A damning review of the climate policy of the current government by three leading academics finds that it has made “little substantive progress” on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that work on adapting to climate change impacts has been “even more deficient”, and that current policies are likely to be “economically wasteful”. End-of-term review of the New Zealand Government’s response to climate change: a public health perspective by Nick Wilson, Ralph Chapman, and Philippa Howden-Chapman, published in last week’s NZ Medical Journal 1), looked at five main policy areas — NZ’s contribution to international action, giving carbon price signals to the market, supporting domestic R&D (for example, into renewable energy), supportive regulation and policy development, and supportive infrastructure investment. In each area, the National-led government’s actions were found wanting. Here’s an excerpt from the paper:

In summary, in this last electoral term there appears to have been little substantive progress by the current government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (via work internationally or domestically), despite government targets (2020 and 2050) requiring material action. Government responses towards adapting to climate change impacts seem to be even more deficient (hardly more than some guidance documents). This lack of attention may be considered to be very serious given the potential size of the climate change threat — to public health and for the whole of society. It can also be considered economically wasteful in that the New Zealand economy is placed at increased risk of having to make a more abrupt and disorderly transition in the future. Also if other nations react to this lack of response by imposing carbon tariffs on New Zealand exports, this could also have serious economic consequences given the economy’s dependence on trade.

Lead author associate professor Nick Wilson of the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago commented:

’Action on climate change needs to be considered as an urgently required form of catastrophe insurance, but we are clearly not seeing this with minimal government action in recent years.’

Full paper available here. See also: Scoop (press release), No Right Turn, TV3News.

  1. NZMJ 4 November 2011, Vol 124 No 1345, http://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal/124-1345/4949/ (behind a paywall

Hansen in NZ: final roundup Gareth Renowden Jun 05

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Here’s a high quality video of Jim Hansen’s talk at the University of Canterbury last month (excellent work by the audiovisual team at UC). Well worth watching, if only because it provides a succinct summary of Hansen’s current thinking. As Dr. Chuck Kutscher of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the US said:

If you want to know the scientific consensus on global warming, read the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But if you want to know what the consensus will be ten years from now, read Jim Hansen’s work.

Hansen has also published his open letter to John Key (at HT here), with added observations on his time in New Zealand. I particularly enjoyed his heartfelt reference (in a footnote) to his minder, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons:

[...] slave-driver Jeanette Fitzsimons unceremoniously routing me out of bed at 6 or 7 AM every day to get moving to the next town — not exactly a case of sipping piña colada on a beach.

See also: R0B at The Standard draws attention to a podcast of Hansen’s talk at Otago University, who notes that he described his meeting with Environment Minister Nick Smith as ’a very unpleasant discussion’. With the recent news that John Key has given his support to lignite mining in Southland, it’s clear that the disconnect between reality and the New Zealand government is growing ever greater.

[Climate Show interview with Jim Hansen here. Hat tip to Jason Box for the Kutscher quote.]

Grim news on emissions Bryan Walker May 30

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The Guardian, with the exception of the foolishness of its analysis of the climategate emails, is one of the world media’s bright spots when it comes to recognising and communicating the realities of climate change. It carried grim news yesterday. Environment correspondent Fiona Harvey reported International Energy Agency (IEA) unpublished estimates that greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history.

’Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel — a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.’

She reported IEA chief economist Fatih Birol (pictured) telling the Guardian:

“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions. It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

Nicholas Stern was trenchant:

“These figures indicate that [emissions] are now close to being back on a ‘business as usual’ path. According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] projections, such a path … would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100.

’Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”

In an accompanying article linking the news to the latest round in twenty years of talks due to be held at Bonn 6 — 17 June, Harvey again quotes Stern as hoping that the figures might be a wake-up call to governments and lead to a speeding up of progress in the international talks, which has been slow since Cancún.

“The window of opportunity to meet the 2 degrees target is closing, and further delay risks closing it altogether. The challenge is not simply to meet the targets agreed at Cancún but to raise our ambition from there.”

Fatih Birol went so far as to say that the goal of keeping temperature rise to less than 2 degrees was likely to be just ’a nice Utopia’, though if there was ’bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding.’

A fat chance of that. As John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said:

“This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world’s last remaining reserves of fossil fuels — even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don’t put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them.”

To which I might add that it is also up to us in New Zealand to stop the dangerous development of Southland lignite which will release many more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and commit us to a long-lasting capital investment. The tying of our economic development to the exploitation of our fossil fuels which marks our new energy strategy is far removed from any rational response to the threat of a much warmer world.

Damien Carrington, the Guardian’s head of environment, in blogging on the news of increasing emissions writes of the urgent need to decouple the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide.  Our government instead speaks of holding the two together in an ’astute balancing of conservation values and economic growth.’

Carrington wrote also of the need to align the hopes and fears of the rich industrialised world and the poor developing world. While the developed world continues to balk at the major transfer of wealth needed to enable the developing world to fund a clean emergence from deprivation there is little chance of an international agreement.

As I was writing this the Guardian followed up with a Monday editorial on the subject. It concludes that we are still hurtling towards dangerous climate change at a time when policymakers are out of solutions for slowing this process, and that we should be alarmed. I guess that’s pretty obvious, but at least the Guardian says it and doesn’t keep silent on an issue so fundamental for the human future. I notice the editorial in this morning’s Herald was on the green light polls show the NZ public is giving John Key on tough issues. No suggestion that tackling climate change effectively was one of them. There’s little to suggest it occurs to him either.

Hansen’s parting shot: show leadership, John Key Gareth Renowden May 26

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Before he left New Zealand, Jim Hansen wrote an open letter to prime minister John Key on behalf of the youth of New Zealand, and specifically 350.org. It’s well worth reading in full, because it encapsulates the case for taking action here, and now. I would be most interested in seeing a meaningful response from Key, but — as they say — I’m not holding my breath. Here’s the letter:

Dear Prime Minister Key,

Encouraged by youth of New Zealand, especially members of the organization 350.org, I write this open letter to inform you of recent advances in understanding of climate change, consequences for young people and nature, and implications for government policies.

I recognize that New Zealanders, blessed with a land of rare beauty, are deeply concerned about threats to their environment. Also New Zealand contributes relatively little to carbon emissions that drive climate change. Per capita fossil fuel emissions from New Zealand are just over 2 tons of carbon per year, while in my country fossil fuel carbon emissions are about 5 tons per person.

However, we are all on the same boat. New Zealand youth, future generations, and all species in your country will be affected by global climate change, as will people and species in all nations.

New Zealand’s actions affecting climate change are important. Your leadership in helping the public understand the facts and the merits of actions to ameliorate climate change will be important, as will New Zealand’s voice in support of effective international actions.

The fact is that we, the older generation, are on the verge of handing young people a dynamically changing climate out of their control, with major consequences for humanity and nature. A path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future is still possible, but not if business-as-usual continues.

The state of Earth’s climate is summarized in the attached paper [The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future, which can be found here],whose authorship includes leading world scientists in relevant fields. The bottom line is that Earth is out of energy balance, more energy coming in than going out. Thus more climate change is “in the pipeline”.

Failure to address emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of human-made climate change, will produce increased regional climate extremes, as seen in Australia during the past few years. But young people, quite appropriately, are concerned especially that continued emissions will drive the climate system past tipping points with irreversible consequences during their lifetimes.

Shifting of climate zones accompanying business-as-usual emissions are expected to commit at least 20 percent of the species on our planet to extermination — possibly 40 percent or more. Extermination of species would be irreversible, leaving a more desolate planet for young people. They will also have large effects on New Zealand’s principal export industry, agriculture.

Sea level rise is a second irreversible consequence of global warming. Some sea level rise is now inevitable, but with phase down of fossil fuel use it may be kept to a level measured in a few tens of centimeters. Business-as-usual is expected to cause sea level rise exceeding a meter this century and to set ice sheet disintegration in motion guaranteeing multi-meter sea level rise.

Prompt actions are needed to avoid these large effects. Phase-out of coal emissions by 2030 is the principal requirement. Also unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. These conditions, plus improved agricultural practices and reforestation of lands that are not effective for food production, could stabilize the climate.

I have had the opportunity while in your country to meet your science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and your climate change ministers, Hon Nick Smith and Hon Tim Groser, and discussed these issues with them. If I can be of any help with the science of climate change I am very willing to assist your government. Implications for New Zealand are clear.

First, New Zealand should leave the massive deposits of lignite coal in the ground, instead developing its natural bounty of renewable energies and energy efficiency. If, instead, development of such coal resources proceeds, New Zealand’s portion of resulting species extermination estimated by biological experts would be well over 1000 species. Most New Zealanders, I suspect, would not want to make such ‘contributions’ to global change.

Second, New Zealand should lend its voice to the cause of moving the global community onto a path leading to a healthy, natural, prosperous future. That path requires a flat rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies domestically, with the funds distributed uniformly to citizens, thus moving the world toward the carbon-free energies of the future.

Prime Minister Key, the youth of New Zealand are asking you to consider their concerns and exercise your leadership on behalf of their future, indeed on behalf of humankind and nature.

With all best wishes,

James E. Hansen,
Adjunct Professor,
Columbia University Earth Institute

The letter was copied to the PM’s science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, Nick Smith and Tim Groser. I would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall at Hansen’s meeting with the last two…

Bearing witness: oil at sea Bryan Walker Apr 11

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Pursuing the last drop of oil should not be on the agenda of any country which takes climate change seriously. That’s why I applaud the Greenpeace and Te Whanau a Apanui action in endeavouring — successfully for a time — to stop the Petrobas seismic testing vessel off the East Cape. Potential danger to the marine environment is one of the reasons for the protest, and in the thinking of Greenpeace climate change is the other. The action is part of their longer term campaign against new oil and coal development in favour of a clear orientation to the clean technology which would show New Zealand was serious about moving to a low-carbon world.

Prime Minister John Key, unsurprisingly, doesn’t share my pleasure in what Greenpeace is doing. They are standing in the way of ’better jobs and better incomes’ he says in the Herald. This is legitimate exploration work that could benefit the New Zealand economy. No mention of climate change here. He does acknowledge that there are environmental risks to be considered, but he appears to be thinking only of spills, and believes those risks can be managed.

Admittedly the question of oil is difficult in some respects. There is clearly a need to continue using it while alternative means of powering transport are developed. But when it comes to deep sea drilling, tar sands and shale oil, companies are pursuing oil to the last drop and at great environmental risk and cost. In the case of New Zealand we are putting far more government support into oil exploration in extreme environments than into clean energy development. Desperation (and greed) over a fast diminishing resource is no substitute for the development of the technologies which will all too soon become another exercise in desperation if we don’t start setting them in place now.

The government plans are unlikely to be more than temporarily held up by the Greenpeace action. One way or another the protest flotilla will be dispersed and the survey will resume. The mantra of jobs and incomes will continue to be repeated and the environmental risks downplayed. If there is oil there (and I, unpatriotically, hope there isn’t) it will be drilled for, brought to land, and burned, unless by that time the world has woken up to the danger of what we are doing.

Does this make the Greenpeace action rather pointless?  Not in my worldview. It is in the Quaker tradition of ’bearing witness’, a term Greenpeace is happy to use. Governments can spurn the message, but at least it has been delivered: dramatically and disruptively perhaps, but with an underlying quiet clarity of purpose which hopefully will have many New Zealanders thinking about the wisdom of the government’s course.

You can see a short video of the action and a statement from Greenpeace climate campaigner Vanessa Atkinson here.

Whispering wind #2 Bryan Walker Mar 12

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The arrival of a Wind Energy Association Newsletter suggested it might be time for an update on wind power in New Zealand. It’s nearly two years since I wrote about wind farm prospects in my own Waikato region. The first of those wind farms, at Te Uku, is now up and running. The Prime Minister was present at the opening on 11 February, and is reported by the wind energy association as saying ’In a world where we want to get away from fossil fuels and ultimately have a cleaner, greener environment, wind is a tremendous technology for us.’

The newspaper report, however, failed to report that remark and focused on his use of the occasion to defend the Government’s wish to privatise up to 49% of Meridian Energy. It also reported him as saying that new technology and generation such as Te Uku would only be introduced ’when it pays for itself’. One would like to think that at this point he pointed out that fossil fuel-generated electricity doesn’t pay for itself but is heavily subsidised by future generations, but if he did the paper didn’t think it newsworthy.

Te Uku was a challenging construction effort on steep terrain, with the building of 26 kilometres of roads to transport the turbines to their foundations. The local economy benefited through direct employment and the engagement of local services, some of which will no doubt continue throughout the farm’s life. Seen from the road to Raglan the turbines are a clear feature of the landscape, and to my eyes visually pleasing — certainly more so than many of the human constructions bordering that road.

The considerably larger wind farm proposed for the coast further north from Raglan, Hauauru ma Raki, ran into problems in the early stages of its seeking consent, as reported by us here. But happily the Board of Enquiry has recently announced its draft decision to grant resource consents for 168 wind turbines and designation for the transmission lines. Confirmation of that draft decision will open the way for a very substantial addition to New Zealand’s wind power resource if Contact Energy proceeds with its development. The decision was a good deal more favourable than that announced recently by the Board responsible for consent for the proposed farm at Turitea, near Palmerston North, where a proposal for 104 turbines has been scaled back to 61, impacting adversely on the economics of the project.

Te Uku is just one of four wind farms currently being built. When all four projects are complete New Zealand’s wind capacity will sit at 623MW, and supply around 5% of our electricity.

The activity at the four sites represents over $300 million of investment, which creates opportunities for local businesses and communities. These opportunities are not only associated with the initial construction of the farms. The newsletter points to ongoing economic benefits.  An example is the three Manawatu wind farms whose ongoing operation is estimated to inject $8 to $11 million into the Manawatu economy each year.

Locally based companies like Ashhurst Engineering and Construction have been able to expand their operations as a result of opportunities at these wind farms. AEC’s work in and around wind farms has taken them all over the world. They have built specialist equipment for use at wind farms and offer innovative solutions to new challenges.

The Association website provides five case studies of what a wind farm development can mean for the surrounding community and the electricity system.

The newsletter carries some interesting information on wind farm noise. A recently commissioned report shows that infrasound levels measured at two Australian wind farms were well below established perception thresholds and also below levels produced by other natural and man-made sources, including a beach. This supported existing overseas data. More generally a report commissioned by the Australian Clean Energy Council showed that the NZ Wind Farm Noise Standard, (used both in Australia and New Zealand) is among the toughest and most up-to-date of the guidelines used for controlling wind farm noise in the world.

Global wind capacity increased by 22% in 2010, and for the first time more than half all new wind power was added outside of traditional markets in Europe and North America, mainly in China. How far can wind go in supplying electricity demand? The Global Wind Energy Outlook considers that by 2030, at 2300 gigawatts capacity, it could be providing 22% of the world’s needs. The NZ Association considers a similar level possible for New Zealand. This is considerably less than the global level visualised by Lester Brown in his recent book World on the Edge, where he writes of 4000 gigawatts capacity by 2020, but he advocates a crash programme to meet it.

On an encouraging note the newsletter reported the cost of wind turbines in NZ terms had fallen significantly in the past couple of years by some 15 to 20%.

I mentioned briefly in the past the possibility of wind energy in New Zealand playing an important part in the electrification of our car fleet. Bruce Smith, director of modelling and forecasting at the Electricity Commission, was reported as telling the 2009 biofuels and electric vehicles conference in Wellington that electric vehicles have the ability to smooth the peaks and troughs of electricity supply so efficiently they could triple the country’s capacity to use wind power. Electric cars could make it possible to build many more wind turbines because they solved one of wind power’s major inefficiencies – that energy is wasted overnight and at other times when people use little electricity because the wind is blowing and not being used. It’s a scenario which is not infrequently canvassed in writings about vehicle electrification and renewable energy and one which would seem to have particular relevance to New Zealand, perhaps indicating a fuller use of wind energy than might otherwise be contemplated.

The New Zealand Wind Energy Association has a conference and exhibition coming up in April in the Wellington Town Hall.

[Moby]

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