Posts Tagged Nick Smith

NZ: pushing the world to go beyond 2 degrees cindy Dec 05

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head-in-the-sandNew Zealand is coming under increasing scrutiny in Lima, not least because it’s our turn to be reviewed by the UNFCCC process.

Early next week our representatives will have to defend our position and our lack of action to 190 governments in our first “multilateral assessment.”

Already, there have been some tough questions, coming especially from the EU and China. New Zealand’s answered them, but will have to more to defend itself than these carefully fudged answers.

Our negotiators have been trying to promote our position around the meeting, including a botched attempt in a science discussion yesterday, when they were interrupted halfway through a blatant PR presentation. They were told to get back to the issue at hand (science, not promotion of a country’s so-called “efforts”), after a number of governments objected to our highjacking the agenda.

Right now, our ballooning emissions are on track to be at least 36% above 1990 levels – instead of the 5% below 1990 that we’ve promised, and they’re going to continue going up. In short, we’re in trouble. And we’re going to get hammered for this next week.

But let’s turn for a minute to our efforts to actually solving this problem at the global level.

At the centre of NZ’s proposal for the Paris agreement is the notion that while elements of the global deal should be legally binding, targets for cutting emissions should not be legally binding.

Everyone should just add up what they feel like doing, put them in a schedule, and the sum total should be the agreed global target. And the national targets should not be legally binding.

This proposal drew praise from Obama’s climate envoy Todd Stern a few weeks back, and the idea is also supported by a band of the most recalcitrant countries on climate change: Australia (where “coal is good for humanity”) and Canada, home of the tarsands, who have, like NZ, walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other hand, the EU, in their first press conference in Lima this week, were unequivocal in their opposition to the idea. Elina Bardram, head of the EU delegation told reporters that:

 “The EU is of the mind that legally binding mitigation targets are the only way to provide the necessary long-term signal, the necessary confidence to the investors … and provide credibility in the low carbon transition worldwide.”

This is the EU’s negotiating position on a global deal. The EU is one of the few who have actually put a target on the table – with a cut of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, so they are backing this with action at home.

But here’s a funny thing about New Zealand’s proposal.

NZ’s “unconditional” target is to cut emissions by 5% by 2020 (below 1990). We have spelled out a specific set of conditions under which we’d improve this to 10% – or even 20%, although these two improved targets tend to cause hysterical laughter if one looks at our emissions projections.

Nick Smith told the UNFCCC on 31 January 2010 that, among other conditions, this agreement must:

“…[set] the world on a pathway to limit temperature rise to not more than 2˚C.”

That seems reasonable, right? On the face of it, it looks like NZ’s keen to keep to this globally agreed temperature limit (even though we know 2˚C of warming will wreak a fair level of havoc on the planet).

However, there appears to be a discrepancy between our conditions – and what we’re actually proposing for a Paris agreement. And this discrepancy has been pointed out by none other than the New Zealand Treasury.

Treasury’s advice to the incoming Climate Minister in November went to great lengths to explain our proposal, explaining in detail how we should only do our “fair share” – a line that is Tim Groser’s mantra, yada yada yada. But even Treasury admits:

“This may mean that the level of action is less than is required to limit global warming to two degrees, but negotiators have chosen to prioritise participation at this point in time.”

So let me get this right:

We are holding out on increasing our international commitment to climate action because we want to see a strong 2020 agreement that keeps the world on a below 2˚C pathway.

Yet even Treasury says our proposal for the Paris agreement will not achieve this.  Have our negotiators had a brainfade? Did they forget what they agreed just a few short years ago?

Or do they have instructions to do their best to avoid a 2˚C pathway so that we don’t have to increase our target?   Perhaps next week’s questioning could focus on this issue. I look forward to the event.

But one thing is clear: our Government has its head firmly planted in the sand on climate change, as activists across the country will be pointing out on Sunday.

China and US reach emissions deal, NZ govt warned its policies are failing Gareth Renowden Nov 13

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Today’s news that the US and China have agreed a long term policy to reduce carbon emissions is being hailed as a “game-changer” in international climate negotiations. China has agreed to cap its emissions in 2030 — the first time it has committed to anything more than a reduction in the carbon intensity of its emissions, while the US will aim to cut emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2025, up from its current target of 17% by 2020. [BBC, Guardian, Climate Progress.] Meanwhile, NZ’s third term National government is being warned by its own civil servants that its current emissions policy settings commit the country to substantial emissions increases over the same time frame.

With the world’s two largest emitters — between them they account for 45% of total emissions — agreeing to work together for the first time, prospects for a global deal in Paris next year look brighter than before. However, the cuts on the table do not look like enough to keep the planet on a trajectory to 2 degrees of warming or less. Associate professor Peter Christoff of the University of Melbourne explains (via The Conversation):

These commitments will frame the levels of ambition required of other states at Paris next year. Climate modellers will no doubt now be rushing to determine what these new commitments, if delivered successfully, will mean for combating global warming.

The US and Chinese cuts, significant though they are, will not be enough to limit the total increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide unless other states engage in truly radical reductions.

In other words, global emissions are likely to continue to grow, probably until 2030, which will make it impossible to hold global warming below the world’s agreed limit of 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.

In New Zealand the briefings for incoming ministers in the new government — same as the old lot, in climate relevant ministries — have been remarkably blunt in their assessment of the task the country faces.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) Briefing to Incoming Ministers (BIM)1 is blunt about the importance of dealing with climate change (pdf here):

Climate change and resource scarcity are challenging core elements of the global ecosystem. Climate change is the most urgent and far-reaching threat we face, and the current negotiations on climate change are the most important multilateral negotiation now under way. Positions taken by countries on climate change and their readiness to contribute to global solutions will increasingly define the way that others perceive them politically and economically.

The Ministry for the Environment BIM2 points out the huge gulf between fine words and inadequate policy settings:

…We have an established price on emissions and market infrastructure in place through the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), although current settings are not driving meaningful emissions reductions. In 2015 the NZ ETS is scheduled to be reviewed to assess whether the settings remain suitable for delivering on government objectives.

That ETS review will have to consider the reality shown in this graph from p22 of the MfE BIM.


The only way the government can reach its unconditional target of a 5% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 is by using carried forward emissions reductions from the first Kyoto commitment period (even though it subsequently withdrew from CP2) and by buying emissions units from overseas. Real cuts in emissions in the following decade will require a real carbon price — not an ETS that rewards polluters for their pollution.

If NZ is to table emissions cuts that parallel those from the USA, then emissions policy settings are going to need an urgent and dramatic revamp. The good news is that the China and US initiative on emissions means that NZ’s government can no longer point to international failure to cooperate as a reason why NZ should do little or nothing.

PM John Key has said in the past that he wants NZ to be a “fast follower” of the world leaders on emissions reductions. Now is the time to show just how fast a follower he intends to be. We can only hope it’s pretty damn speedy.

  1. The incoming ministers are Murray McCulley (Foreign Affairs), and Tim Groser (Trade and Climate Change Issues), full ministerial list here.
  2. Incoming minister is Nick Smith, same as the outgoing one.

We Play Dirty at the Climate Talks Too: New Zealand’s Dirty Politics of Climate Gareth Renowden Sep 01

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This guest post is by David Tong, an Auckland based community lawyer working on his Master’s in Law on the UN climate talks. He chairs the P3 Foundation and co-chairs the Aotearoa New Zealand Human Rights Lawyers Association, and last year tracked New Zealand’s climate negotiators as an Adopt a Negotiator Fellow.

Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and the subsequent revelations have shaken New Zealand’s Government. On Saturday, Minister of Justice Judith Collins resigned, facing allegations of interfering with Serious Fraud Office investigations. On Sunday, the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence summonsed the Prime Minister — or perhaps just his Office — to appear before a hearing into the Dirty Politics allegations on 11 September 2014, just nine days before the election.

But three key ministers have escaped remarkably unscathed from the scandal: Ministers Tim Groser, Nick Smith, and Amy Adams. Tim Groser, our Minister for Climate Change Issues, has danced past the scandal without a speck of dirt. Minister for Conservation and Housing Nick Smith, who resigned as Minister for the Environment after admitting two relatively minor indiscretions must be spitting mad at how many final warnings Judith Collins flouted before resigning. Of the three, only Amy Adams faced a substantive allegation in Hager’s book, which alleges that she printed, scanned and forwarded an invitation accidentally sent to her by the Labour Party to Judith Collins, who then leaked it to the far right blogger at the heart of the scandal.

But compared to the other allegations in Dirty Politics — or even the past conflict of interest allegations levelled at Adams — these matters are minor. Hager’s book only mentions climate change once. Other emails show at most that Slater ran an ineffectual smear campaign against Generation Zero, which may or may not have been encouraged by Government figures. All this could be interpreted to mean our Government plays cleaner on climate change than it does at home.

That suggestion is wrong. Our domestic and international politics mirror each other. Dirty politics at home are mirrored by dirty tricks at the climate talks. The last few rounds of negotiations brim with examples.

My first exposure to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations came when I attended the 2011 Durban Talks with the New Zealand Youth Delegation. Three days into the talks, small island negotiators torpedoed my naiveté when I was lucky enough to get into a closed door Alliance of Small Island States briefing. Hearing representatives from some of the most vulnerable states describe New Zealand as “pulling the Kyoto Protocol down to the lowest level of ambition, and the lowest level of cooperation” by taking “deliberately inconsistent” stances sank my idealism about my country without a trace.

Like Hot Topic‘s Durban correspondent Cindy Baxter, I had no idea what we were playing at, but knew we were “cheating and lying”. In particular, we stood accused of proposing a “wild west” carbon market allowing secret, bilateral sales of carbon credits, with no central register to prevent us from selling the same units twice. By the end of the Conference, our veneer of conditional support for a Kyoto Protocol had collapsed, with Minister Groser describing a Second Commitment Period as “actually an insult to New Zealand”.

In the eyes of the NGO community, though, we had improved a tiny bit, narrowly escaping a Colossal Fossil award for disrupting negotiations the most by sneaking into third place, after coming second overall in 2010.

We made up for lost time in 2012, by walking away from the Second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol. In doing so, we further abandoned our past claims of conditional support for a Second Commitment Period and, ultimately, further betrayed the trust of our Pacific neignbours: “Its island partners in the Pacific should think again before ever trusting NZ again.” After our near misses in 2010 and 2011, we cleanly took out the 2012 Colossal Fossil award. The Climate Action Network sledged our “exceptional blindness to scientific and political realities” and accused us of trying to “drown the talks” — and our Pacific neighbours. What credibility we had in the talks, we tossed away with the Protocol. For our dirty deeds, the Doha talks agreed to shut NZ out of international carbon markets from next year.

I went back to the climate talks last year as an Adopt a Negotiator Fellow, tracking New Zealand in the talks. After the beating we took in 2013, we kept our heads down. But, again, I saw a duplicity between domestic politics and international posturing. While ministers laughed at Russel Norman quoting Philippine lead negotiator Yeb Sano and denied the very existence of climate change at home, our negotiators advanced a platform of “Bounded Flexibility” — a nice name for almost pure voluntarism. Jim Salinger described this sort of approach as inviting people to volunteer to pay taxes. And when I was lucky enough to spend a day with Marshall Islands Minister Tony de Brum, I couldn’t help but compare our hollow lack of ambition in Warsaw with our decision to sign the Majuro Declaration on Climate Leadership. At the Pacific Islands Forum — and no doubt this week at the Small Island Developing States Conference — we pledged to stand with our Pacific neighbours, but in the UNFCCC, we don’t — and they know that.

We play dirty on climate change. If our international record wasn’t enough to show this, you just have to look at our domestic emissions trading scheme. Far from cutting emissions, it has subsidised pollution.

The only question is whether a change in Government will change this. Under Helen Clark’s Labour Government, we still copped at lot of flak at the climate talks. Last year, in Warsaw, our lead negotiator said that she did not believe a change in government would change our international stance. Paradoxically, however, we have excused inaction around this month’s Ban Ki Moon Summit because of the uncertainty around our election. Labour and the Green Party have both committed to meaningful domestic action, but this needs to be coupled with cleaning up our international act.

On Wednesday night, the Climate Voter Coalition are hosting a debate, and all the major parties have fronted up. Tickets are sold out, but you can stream it live here. I will be watching it with interest, because our climate politics need cleaning up. It’s time to wash out the dirt.

Tim Groser shuts the stable door after the Mickey Mouse carbon credits have bolted Mr February Nov 28

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Mickey explains over supply in the offsets market

This week the Ministry for the Environment is consulting and seeking submissions on a proposal to ban some of the more ‘Mickey Mouse’ international carbon credits from the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme. Apparently this is because Climate Change Minister Tim Groser “wants to maintain the integrity of the ETS” (New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme).

Thats really too much brazen and intentional cognitive dissonance, especially since Groser said that only five days after he indefinitely excluded agriculture from the ETS and only four days after he announced New Zealand would not sign up for a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol of binding greenhouse gas reductions.

I apologise if you had an extreme reaction to the close conjunction of the terms “Tim Groser”, “emissions trading scheme” and “integrity”. My apologies if you just coughed your coffee/beer/tea over your laptop or punched out your PC monitor.

Assuming you have cleaned up, I should provide the context for Tim Groser’s unintentional irony in claiming to be concerned about the integrity of an emissions trading scheme where emission units trade for less than $3 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent gas.

Here is the quote from Groser about the consultation.

“The Government has considered whether Emission Reduction Units (ERUs) from HFC-23 and N2O destruction projects, and Certified Emission Reduction Units (CERs) and ERUs from large-scale hydroelectricity projects should be ineligible in the ETS. There are legitimate questions about these types of international units and the Government wants to maintain the integrity of the ETS“.

Whoop Dee Doo

The consultation is asking the wrong question. It is ignoring the “elephant in the room” for the NZETS, the rock-bottom price of the international emissions units.

Here is the latest chart of the collapse of the NZ carbon price from OMF Ltd.

NZ carbon price 2009 to 2012 c/- OMF Ltd

NZ carbon price 2009 to 2012 c/- OMF Ltd

Fiddling and faffing about over the specific attributes of some subset of the allowable international units, when all the international units are over-supplied and under-priced, is just shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

We have already been through one futile cycle of banning a few dodgy international units with Groser’s predecessor Nick Smith. And that didn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the NZ price.

Last December (2011), Nick Smith authorised the Ministry for the Environment to ban certified emissions reduction units (CERs) from the UN Clean Development Mechanism projects destroying HFC-23 and N2O from the NZETS. There is no doubt that the gas-destruction CER units did not represent real removal of greenhouse gases and that the awarding of CERs was incentivising the deliberate extra production of HFC-23 and N2O.

According to Wikipedia at September 2012 about 418 million CERs had been issued for HFC-23 destruction and about 214 million CERs had been issued for N2O destruction. So in theory that took 632 million CER units out of the picture for the NZ market.

However, as of today there are 1,061,399,151 issued CERs. So with 60% of the CERS banned from the NZETS, there were still 429 million (1061m – 632m) that could still be imported to NZ.

In terms of influencing the carbon price in world’s worst ETS and in the world’s smallest and most open carbon market (where 2011 demand from emitters was 16 million units), it makes no difference whether quantity of available CERS is 429 million units, 1 billion units or 10 billion units. The international price will still set the domestic NZ price.

Another day, another potentially eyes-glazing-over carbon credit three letter acronym; the E.R.U. These Emissions Reduction Units, are units from UN Joint Implementation projects located in Kyoto Protocol Annex 1 countries. It’s similar to the less-developed countries Clean Development Mechanism, except that Joint Implementation projects tend to be in the Former Soviet Union countries.

As of today about 250 million units have been issued. About 80 million ERUs (or 32 percent) are for HFC-23 and N2O destruction. So if these gas ERUs were banned from the NZETS, there would still be 172 million under-priced ERUs able to satiate New Zealand’s demand for international units.

The number of CERs issued to large hydroelectricity projects CERS at 1 November was 108 million, or 10% of the 1.061 billion CERs total. Again, this proposed ban would make no real difference to the international over-supply or to the NZ price.

Submissions can be made until 5.00pm this Friday 30 November 2012 and can be can be emailed to or posted to Ministry for the Environment, PO Box 10362, Wellington 6143.

I have not drafted my submission but it will roughly say: the proposal is slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted, and that it ignores the ‘elephant in the room’ – the flawed design of the NZETS which imports the collapsed international carbon price into the New Zealand carbon price. And conclude that NZ should move to a all-sectors no-exceptions no-offsets carbon tax ASAP. The outcome of the consultation will, of course, be to adopt the partial ban.

Nick Smith: another fossil fuel fail Bryan Walker Aug 15

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MP Nick Smith in a NZ Herald opinion piece this week uses the fracking debate to advance the cause of fossil fuel mining. He claims that fracking is important in the development of geothermal energy and then moves seamlessly to the notion that we are desperately in need of unconventional natural gas in order to save us from falling back on coal, which we will otherwise “inevitably burn”. In defending fracking he manages to nicely couple the fossil fuel natural gas with a renewable energy source, geothermal.

It’s not my purpose to argue here about fracking as a technology. What is dismaying about Smith’s article is the complacency with which he advances the cause of natural gas. Writing enthusiastically of the huge unconventional shale gas resources in the US, he claims gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. I know its emissions are lower, but it was news to me that they were as low as that. I could find no source to substantiate that figure. A little over half is the best figure I have been able to locate, and there are big questions about methane leakage in the fracking process. However let that pass. The real issue is the unrestrained pursuit of unconventional fossil fuels, which as James Hansen has reminded us often enough will mean game over for the climate.

The argument that natural gas is better than coal from a climate change perspective is increasingly made. It is true enough. But it does not mean that natural gas is somehow benign in relation to global warming. I’ve written on this question before and I repeat here a quote I used then from Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA:

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

Nick Smith’s urgent advocacy of fracking for natural gas, albeit hedged by some precautions, completely ignores the challenge to replace the use of all fossil fuels with renewable or nuclear energy. It appears to be either natural gas or coal in his book, and he works up a lather of indignation about how opposition to fracking “halts the development of industries offering significant economic and environmental benefits” to the country.

There may or may not be immediate environmental concerns about the process of fracking. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is undertaking an enquiry and will report by the end of the year. But the overarching environmental concern is much greater than the fracking technology. That concern is the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a matter which Smith addresses only to the extent of hurriedly claiming the superiority of natural gas over coal. If that is as far as Government thinking goes, it is nowhere near far enough.

Smith in his final paragraph, in the context of an assertion that he is passionate about New Zealand’s natural environment, urges the need for “a rational and science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management”. Is there anything more rational and science-based than the warnings of climate scientists that we are putting humanity in grave danger by continuing to explore and exploit fossil fuels? Certainly we can’t make the transition to other fuels overnight. But it would be good to see a politician of Smith’s background saving his insistent advocacy for the necessary goal of developing energy sources that do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The Government’s preference for short term issues is a sad avoidance of responsibility.

NZ in Durban: delegation gone mad? Or just business as usual? cindy Dec 05

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It’s getting embarrassing here in Durban. I’ve had a veritable flood of people come up to me in recent days saying things like “what the hell is your government doing?”

The NZ Government has been pretty bad in these negotiations over the last few years, but things appear to have taken a turn for the worse, in multiple directions.  I’m wondering what’s going on.

Let’s take the “easy” one first.  Kyoto.

With Canada, Japan and Russia on their way out of the Kyoto Protocol, there are a lot of discussions on how one could carry it forward without them.

One possible solution is the idea of “provisionally” implementing a new commitment period, from 2013-2017. This would mean that it wouldn’t legally “come into force” but parties to the Protocol could agree the new rules, and implement it anyway, if they all agreed to do so.

This can happen under the “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” (1969), that NZ has signed up to. Not so, says the NZ delegation. This would be a breach of the constitution.

But a quick look on the MFAT website makes me think they are being a bit daft.  Maybe they were too busy to read the MFAT document: “International Treaty Making: Guidance for government agencies on practice and procedures for concluding international treaties and arrangements” written in August 2011. That’s – erm – about four months ago.

This guidance, presumably for delegations like this one in Durban, spells out the rules of the Vienna Convention, ie, that: “Provisional entry into force of a treaty may also occur when a number of parties to a treaty that has not yet entered into force decide to apply the treaty as if it had entered into force.”

This is precisely what is being proposed.    Indeed, we have done this with a number of international treaties already.   But is NZ just looking for excuses to get out of Kyoto?  Meanwhile I’m off to the printer to get the delegation a few copies.

The “honest, guv” emissions trading regime

Next up, emissions trading. Personally, I don’t think that emissions trading are a proper way to stop climate change.

Doing something to stop climate change somewhere else in exchange for doing nothing at home seems like a weird way to go about things, when we all know that ultimately we should cut our own emissions and be done with it.

It has always seemed a bit cheaty to me and I know I campaigned hard to stop it from happening way back in the day when Kyoto was being negotiated. But setting that aside for a minute, let’s look at the proposal our Government is trying to push here in Durban.

Under the “flexible mechanisms” for emissions trading, NZ is proposing that the rules – erm – have no rules. The environmental groups were onto this, and NZ won its first “fossil of the day” (2nd place) on Friday.

“They want to be able to use any market mechanisms they wish with absolutely no oversight or international review. There would be no way to ensure that the units from one mechanism have not been sold two or three times to another such mechanism. This would likely unleash a wild west carbon market with double or triple counting of offsets and a likely increase of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.” I’m calling it the “honest, guv” rules – ie you just have to believe what we say.  I’m sorry, but that’s just nuts, especially from a Government that doesn’t seem to like cutting emissions very much.

The “I’m alright jack” rules on forests

Let’s now turn to the forests. NZ has always been pretty bad in the conversations here about Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation REDD.

That’s the stuff that deals with the emissions from deforestation. First I might remind you that in NZ we have protected our forests.  Long, hard battles have been fought – and were resoundingly won with the historic NZ Forest Accord that banned the cutting of native forests on private land. Our native forests are protected – and so they should be. But not everyone is in the same boat.

But when it comes to the REDD discussions, NZ’s perspective is taken purely from the point of view of our pine plantations. They’ve long been a point of contention between forest owners and government. NZ has always pushed hard to get everyone to accept our “special circumstances”.  But in Kyoto, someone has special circumstances for almost everything – and that would make for extremely messy international agreements.

The problem is that the forest nations, like Brazil, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, have beautiful old growth forests that MUST be protected, not only for climate reasons, but also for the biodiversity and indigenous peoples who live in them. So it’s important to get the international rules right for these forests, the lungs of the earth.

So it is with the “reference” levels in REDD.  These are like a baseline from which to measure emissions from deforestation.  NZ has proposed that instead of looking at historical behaviour, (our proven rate of deforestation), the rules are based around “projected reference levels” – what we think we might do in the future.

It’s all incredibly complicated, but essentially the NZ delegation is being very creative in trying to invent new ways of getting more Kyoto credits for our plantations so that we don’t have to cut emissions elsewhere. That’s all very well for us, but if you put this regime onto, say, the Amazon, it is unlikely to stop them slowing the rate of deforestation there, which is one thing we need to do to save the planet.

Hot air

You just can’t make this stuff up.  The rest of the world is trying to come up with a way to deal with the Russia “hot air” problem but NZ is terrified that the solution on the table means we might lose some of our own little stash of hot air that we got from Kyoto’s loopholes around accounting for land use change and forestry. Heaven help us if we have to actually cut emissions instead of carrying over credits that we shouldn’t have in the first place.

I am still struggling to come up with an answer on what the hell “my” government is doing.   Nick Smith was coming, now he’s not.  Brendan Burns, sorta understandably, isn’t coming as planned, as he doesn’t know if he’s got a seat in Christchurch Central.   Tim Groser is apparently coming this week, but my hopes aren’t high that he’ll change much.  Is the delegation running loose while their bosses are in turmoil back home?

But what I do know is that these people are definitely not representing my views, nor considering our Pacific Island state neighbours.   Cheating and lying doesn’t stop climate change.

Or perhaps they’re too busy representing Business NZ and the Forest Owners Association, both of whom have a representative on the official NZ delegation?

ps the timezones are almost 12 hrs difference to NZ so I won’t be replying to comments in a hurry.

Welcome political forthrightness Bryan Walker Dec 05

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I felt a twinge of envy watching a recent BBC Hardtalk interview with Chris Huhne, Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The tone of his statements was much more forthright than anything we’re likely to hear from New Zealand government ministers. It was no more than we have a right to expect from our politicians, but so rarely do we hear leading figures from major parties speaking with directness and conviction that I was grateful for the interview and thought parts of it worth reporting. (It doesn’t seem to be available on line to non-UK viewers, though there’s a snippet here.)

Huhne said he is going to Durban with the continued pursuit of a global legally binding agreement firmly in his sights:

’…because no serious global problem, [whether] of an environmental nature like chlorofluorocarbons or of a defence nature like international disarmament has ever been left to voluntary pledges. It’s simply not realistic. Anything that involves the serious long-haul dealing with major changes in the way in which we power our economies, with all the vested interests that are involved, requires a legally binding global deal so that we’re all assured that we’re travelling at the same pace and each doing our bit — in different ways, because obviously the developing world has to be taken account of with its particular problems. The developed world could do more, but we all have to be sure that we’re moving together.’

He accepts that a deal won’t be struck at Durban itself, but looks for a commitment to get one in place by 2015, for very good reason:

’…so that we actually do what the science tells us is essential, which is to get global carbon emissions down by 2020. If we don’t do that we will not hold global warming to within two degrees of pre-industrial levels and we’ll have some really unpleasant climate change to deal with.’

Later in the interview Huhne underlined what that meant, with unusual frankness from someone in his position. He referred to the effect on ’some of the most vulnerable people in the world’, instancing the small island states and the estuary cultures like Bangladesh. Invited to elaborate further he spoke of a world which becomes enormously more dangerous for a very large number of people, of substantial sea level rise and of the capacity of warmer air to hold more moisture and deliver more precipitation and very big storms.

’All of that of course has substantial economic costs. It can destroy crops, destroy livelihoods, create migration problems we’ve not seen before. And all of these problems would be massively difficult to deal with.’

Huhne spoke of the deadlock between China and the US as a major difficulty in reaching a global deal and made this interesting comment:

’If China moves — and I think there are reasons why China may move — then I think it would be very hard for the Obama administration not at the same time also to make the commitment to that global overarching deal by 2015. And then at least we all know what we are aiming at.’

On the question of the financial crisis diverting attention from the climate crisis he bracketed the two issues:

’I see no conflict between what we need to power out way out of this very deep recession in the developed world and this whole agenda of replacing much of our old infrastructure, replacing much of our old high carbon electricity generation. For example in the UK we will be spending double what we normally spend in a business cycle on replacing electricity generating plant with new low carbon plant. And that is actually helping the recovery, giving more green growth and actually meaning more jobs.’

Huhne firmly batted away the suggestion that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is subverting the government’s green agenda, claiming, for example, that the reduction in solar subsidies was simply a recognition that the cost of solar panels was falling dramatically and that large-scale projects, which initially protested that the reduction would put a halt to their progress, have been ’growing like blazes ever since’.  Whether Osborne is as much in sympathy as Huhne claims is hotly disputed by many UK commentators, but Huhne still maintains that the coalition is on track and that it matters to him:

’I care passionately about making sure that we take this whole climate change agenda really seriously at the global level and domestically. We have to show that we are…going to be the greenest government ever… So [my job is] an enormous privilege and that’s something that doesn’t come round very often.’

What I most appreciated in Huhne’s plain speaking was the absence of prevarication over the basic science. Not that the science necessarily supports the notion that two degrees of warming is low enough to be regarded as safe, but it certainly sees anything higher as opening up very dangerous prospects, something Huhne clearly understands and respects. Populations need to hear that from their politicians regularly. The present government in the UK as a whole may be delivering mixed messages on the issue, but the responsible minister isn’t. That’s what made me feel a little envious. One has to scratch around in the releases and speeches of the New Zealand ministers to find what they may be thinking. It is difficult to imagine Nick Smith or Tim Groser communicating to the public with the kind of urgency Huhne displays.

There are occasionally glimpses of what could be a compelling picture in some of what Groser has to say. He went to Durban declaring that New Zealand will be looking for progress towards a comprehensive global agreement with binding emission-reduction commitments from all developed countries as well as advanced and major-emitting developing countries.  In a speech to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in September he was critical of fossil fuel subsidies and provided a thoughtful narrative of the international climate change negotiations towards a global deal, concluding:

’But we are not blocked. We can still surprise the cynics. There is a basis for a multilateral deal emerging that will establish coherence amongst countries’ efforts on the climate change front.’

It sounds as if the intentions are positive. But we know how muddied they have become on the domestic front. And how when the ministers do talk publicly on climate change they are more likely to talk about the need to protect the economy than to warn us of the perils of not acting to reduce emissions drastically. They simply do not communicate that climate change is a matter of great moment. Huhne does.

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:


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, (behind a paywall

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