We’ve got to get cracking – grow trees, stop wasting food, stop burning coal, electrify the vehicle fleet. That’s the message from Massey University’s Professor Ralph Sims, who chaired the panel which produced the Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand. Six months after the report we still lack leadership, says Professor Sims. Individuals, businesses, towns and cities are moving faster than the government on reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet our climate change targets.
Have you seen any encouraging signs that we are shifting towards a lower carbon economy?
The New Zealand Government hasn’t announced anything on climate change mitigation policy, so the answer is no. The Royal Society of New Zealand report was acknowledged by Paula Bennett, the Minister for Climate Change Issues, as being a useful contribution. And there have been reference groups established on agriculture and forestry, but nothing has yet come out of those.
We have ratified the Paris Agreement, and that has now come into force, so we now have to meet our target: 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. One way New Zealand could partly meet this target is by buying offshore credits – although we have a poor track record of doing just that. Another way is to encourage the further planting of forests; and at the current carbon price of around $18/ t CO2, there are signs that might be starting. We have lots of marginal pasture land that can be planted in trees.
But the third option is that we can actually try to reduce emissions across the board in our lives in New Zealand. The whole essence of the problem is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to near zero by around mid-century and I’m actually getting quite pessimistic about whether we can ever achieve that. We know that all the countries and their pledges under the Paris Agreement are nowhere near enough to start us on a pathway to keep below the agreed maximum target of two degrees centigrade, and most countries are looking for ways around having to make drastic cuts since there is little appetite from the general public to tackle this long-term problem.
In Washington DC recently, I went to a high-level meeting about the “global commons” and the “Plantary boundaries”. What was really highlighted was that we’ve entered the age of the Anthropocene; the age of human impact that is the next geological era. Absolutely every indicator – whether it’s population or greenhouse gases or GDP or cars on the road or fertiliser use or wastes and plastics – has accelerated exponentially since the 1950s in the “great acceleration”. How are we going to turn that around?
How much of an option are biofuels?
We’re going to electrify our road vehicle fleet in time. But airplanes can’t do that, so we do need biofuels for the aviation industry. There are already regular flights by some airlines using biofuel blends. There are good biofuels and bad biofuels. Brazil is using sugar cane for producing ethanol; it hasn’t displaced people off the land and they’re not cutting down rainforest. However if you look in the United States it’s corn for ethanol, which is displacing food crops and is heavily subsidised. And of course internationally we’re going to have to provide enough food to sustainably meet the increasing food protein demands of nine billion people. We can’t really start using land for energy products if we’ve got alternatives.
In New Zealand we have lots of forestry waste that in theory we could turn into liquid biofuels but in practice it’s very hard to do. In 1974 I started producing biodiesel from animal tallow – a bi-product of the meat industry. Z Energy are just now building such a biodiesel plant in Auckland. So it’s taken 40 years. But there is only so much animal fat in the world.
In that case, should we be growing food on spare land rather than planting trees?
There is a large area in New Zealand that is marginal land and should never have been deforested in the first place – the land slips, soil contaminates the waterways, and it produces poor quality pasture. We have over one million hectares that would probably be better off growing trees. Encouraged by the higher price for carbon, farmers are starting to plant up some of that land in forests (Pinus radiata or other species), or fence it off in perpetuity, just walk away and let it revert back to native forest. They can claim carbon credits for either option since both capture carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere of course. But you can’t do that forever as available land will soon run out. When the whole of New Zealand is covered in Pinus radiata to offset our emissions – what do we do then? So planting trees of any kind is really just an interim measure.
Is installing solar panels really a useful thing to do in New Zealand?
There are a growing number of people who are installing solar panels on their buildings in New Zealand, and that’s good. People are actually doing this not just for environmental reasons but because they want to save money, and because they want to be independent of the electricity grid. But the argument against it is that our electricity supply is already more than 80 percent renewable – and we can get to 90 percent renewable generation without any trouble at all. So you’re only replacing mostly renewable with renewable, and hence saving a small amount of greenhouse gas emissions. People are actually doing this not just for environmental reasons but because they want to save money, and because they want to be independent of the electricity grid.
The key is going to be linking solar panels with the recharging of electric vehicles. Then you’re reducing emissions coming from cars – and of course not only cars, it could be electric bicycles, buses or scooters as well. The grid is going to have to be flexible to deal with these changes. Now our grid is fairly flexible anyway because hydro power can be turned on and off reasonably quickly. But if we had to, we could make the grid even more flexible so it could reliably meet peak demands, such as on a cold winter evening when the sun is not shining nor the wind blowing. For example, it would be possible to pay consumers to turn things off to lower peak demands and to bring back ripple control of water heaters. But not all the incumbent utility companies are that keen on these ideas, pointing out the challenges of balancing supply with demand, especially in a dry year when hydro is constrained. And if they’re going to fight against “prosumers” (electricity consumers also becoming producers), and remove any power from consumers acting intelligently to make the best use of distributed energy resources, then obviously a smart-grid future won’t happen in the same way.
Would you say our difficulty is more psychological than technical?
We are relying on technological changes, and of course technology does evolve. Electric vehicles are starting to come into New Zealand now. But we’ve only got 2000 electric cars in the country so far (avoiding only around 4000 t CO2 /year) and we need 200,000 or more to make a difference. So behavioural change has got to be part of it. I think my grandchildren, who are between the ages of 5 and 10 years, when they are around 30 years old will laugh that most people used to own large, expensive cars, and sit in them in traffic jams for hours every day.
The Royal Society of New Zealand has done a great job in trying to disseminate the message that we have to move rapidly towards a low-carbon economy. But there’s little leadership to drive this change in New Zealand and certainly there’s no sense of urgency. If you ask 95 percent of people walking around the streets, most would realise we’ve got a major environmental problem with climate change, but very few have done anything about it – other than they might have done a bit of recycling of their rubbish.
There are some signs of hope however. People are starting to ask: what can I do to make a difference? Not wasting food is a classic example of something we can all do that saves money too. Around one third of all end-use energy consumption goes into the global food supply, not to mention all the water, land and labour involved, and a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions result. And yet we fail to consume one third of all the food we produce.
There are also some wonderful examples of businesses that have seen they have to make change. I know of one that had to battle local council regulations to get fewer carparks at their new premises because their staff were encouraged to come by bus or bicycle instead. So there’s an undercurrent of action, but there’s still such a long way to go – the key is we’ve got to get on with it.
To learn about how New Zealanders can take action on climate change, see the Taking Action section of the Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.