No energy for change

By Gareth Renowden 28/07/2010


Gerry Brownlee’s draft energy strategy for New Zealand is an interesting read, but not perhaps in the way the government intended. As Bryan discussed in his comment on the strategy, Brownlee puts mining and drilling up front and centre, and relegates environmental and carbon issues to a definite second place in government priorities. You might infer from the document that this is a “strategy” that has been designed to fit with what the government wants to do, rather than what is actually necessary. But what struck me most forcefully was the apparent lack of any well-thought out or detailed context for the strategy. Let’s see if we can supply some, and see where that leads us…

The draft document pays little more than lip service to reducing carbon emissions. This is all the document supplies as context (p4):

Over the next 40 years, New Zealand’s energy mix is expected to change. The international economy will reward efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand will reduce in the longer term.

The “longer term” appears to be the government’s inadequate “50 by 50″ target, and the only means of achieving it an aspirational commitment to 90% renewable electricity generation by by 2025, plus carbon pricing through the watered-down ETS.

What happens to the world in the “longer term” depends on three things:

  • how the climate system reacts to the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere,
  • how much carbon we add in coming decades,
  • and how the international community decides to act on both.

There’s a lot of uncertainty attached to all three factors, but uncertainty in this context is not our friend — it cannot be an excuse for doing nothing.

The current level of atmospheric carbon is important because the climate commitment means that we are “locked in” to discovering its impact. If we could freeze atmospheric greenhouse gas amounts at today’s levels, we would still be committed to at least another 20 years plus of warming “in the pipeline”. In other words, there is nothing we can do to stop the changes that are likely to happen in the near term — we can only hope to minimise the future impacts of further emissions.

So what’s likely to happen over the next 20 years? On the face of it, not too much. About 0.4ºC increase in the global average temperature, if the current rate of warming persists. Sounds like gentle warming that we can just adapt to, doesn’t it? But there is a real possibility that the climate system may spring a few surprises. One example: Arctic sea ice is melting well ahead of schedule — a growing body of expert opinion suggests that the Arctic Ocean might be seasonally ice-free within the next decade or soon after, and that has important consequences for northern hemisphere climate. There is a real (non-negligible) possibility that large parts of the planet might find climate changing significantly (and perhaps dramatically) on that sort of timescale.

All anyone can do to plan for this sort of event is to design policy that encourages resilience — the ability to cope with and recover from sudden shocks and disruptions. The possible international reaction to a climate “surprise” is impossible to gauge. Being a cynic, I might suppose that if the impact was being felt in North America, Europe or China then the international community might be goaded into urgent action to respond — and to reduce future emissions. A warm Arctic or starvation in Africa might not be enough on its own…

Barring surprises, how likely is it that the international community will take action to reduce emissions? A year ago, I would have said the chances were good, but post Copenhagen and with the US signally failing to address the issue, the prospects of a major international deal seem more distant. Meanwhile, the reasons why we need to act now are becoming more and more evident. Here’s a table I’ve snipped from the recent US National Research Council report, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts Over Decades to Millennia (full pdf, reg req’d, exec summary):

NASwarming.gif

Given that we’re around 450 ppm CO2e at the moment (aerosol cooling is doing us a favour by reducing that to an effective CO2e of about 390 ppm), it’s obvious that we’re heading for more than 2ºC — unless we start actively removing carbon from the air. The NRC report also looks at the impacts to be expected, by degree Celsius of warming. Some examples:

  • 5 percent to 10 percent less total rain in southwest North America, the Mediterranean, and southern Africa.
  • 5 percent to 10 percent less streamflow in some river basins, including the Arkansas and Rio Grande.
  • 5 percent to 15 percent lower yields of some crops, including U.S. and African corn and Indian wheat.

Do we act now, at modest cost, in order to limit warming to 2ºC and crop yield reductions to 10-20%, or do we wait a while and see what happens, risking 30% losses and severe droughts in the southwest USA? Fancy gambling with those stakes? Not very attractive odds, either.

From a policy-making perspective, one thing is obvious — the risks are not evenly balanced around some sensible and safe middle course. We are almost certainly committed to 2 degrees — that’s our least bad outcome. The risk that the world will do nothing to restrict emissions is effectively zero (either because of a climate “surprise”, or — we hope — pre-emptive rational behaviour), but there’s no guarantee that we will do enough, at least at first. The question really is when and by how much emissions will be cut, and how best to position policy to respond. It is therefore essential that policy should be flexible, and capable of being tightened over relatively short periods.

The realpolitik of international negotiations means that current commitments to emissions reductions (the Copenhagen Accord numbers) will put the world on target for an increase of 3ºC or higher. At some point the powers that be will realise that they’re steering the ship towards a reef and will attempt to change course. They will have a few options: speed up the pace of emissions reductions, plump for geoengineering, or try both. We will have to hope that it’s not too late to make the turn.

So where does this leave NZ, and Gerry’s energy policy? According to the draft strategy, carbon cost is something for the “longer term”, to be considered only after drilling for oil and mining coal and trying to boost economic growth (it’s the last two pages in the strategy document). There’s no sign that the government has thought through the risk environment for either climatic shocks or resource shortages (though you could argue that drilling for oil makes sense if you expect peak oil sometime soon). They seem to assume that the future will be benign, and that flies in the face of the evidence. I would suggest that a strategy that doesn’t put emissions reductions front and centre isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Steep emissions reductions are going to be required sooner or later (the later they come, the steeper and more expensive they’ll be), so it makes sense to prepare the ground for them now.

An aggressive campaign to cut energy emissions would give New Zealand Ltd a competitive advantage in a carbon-constrained world. Sadly, there’s no sign of that sort of thinking from Brownlee and the government. And that’s a missed opportunity for us all.

PS: I’ve just discovered, courtesy of the Independent, that the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (note the message in the name) has a web-based calculator (a David Mackay idea) that allows you to play with energy policy and emissions, to find out what meeting an 80% cut by 2050 (the UK target, National please note) involves. The equivalent for NZ would be a wonderful tool…