Reporting a civilised conversation on the policy challenges of reducing carbon emissions.

I recently attended a roundtable on the political issues as New Zealand transits towards a low carbon emission economy. As well as me there were about two dozen experts. Chatham House rules, but I can tell you about my responses.

To be clear, I support reducing carbon emissions; but I am very aware it is a global problem and anything New Zealand does will have a negligible global impact. I guess my basic stance is a moral one summarised by Robert Fulghum’s principle in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS (his capitals – the only one of the 16 principles all in capitals).

However, I do not expect the majority of the population to be persuaded by this argument, especially if the return to it is zilch or less. Were we to rely solely on such moral arguments, the policy would fail as more urgent issues dominated. Can we provide better arguments?

I was struck by how often this group, indeed most I listen to, slid between ‘we’ (meaning New Zealanders) and ‘we’ (meaning the world). It is much more compelling that the world should reduce the amount of carbon it emits into the atmosphere to reduce global warming, climate changes, storm surges, and sea level rises. But it does not follow that New Zealand should do it too.

Except for Kant’s ethical principle that you should behave in the way you would expect others to behave. Bother, back to the morality again.

Mind you, if we behave well we strengthen our urging of others to pursue carbon emission reductions, which will benefit everyone including us. One participant pointed out that if we pioneered good quality policies we would do the world a service because it would encourage them to follow. (Actually, even if what appear to be good quality policies fail, the world can also learn from our experience.)

In summary by being moral we can leverage our outcomes by the rest of the world tackling global warming more vigorously.

Another gain is that many of the Pacific Islands are already suffering severely from global warming. Pursuing a low emission economy at home would help our Pacific strategy. We have a good record of speaking on their behalf. We should open our shores to their climate change refugees. We need to avoid being too self-serving (more Pasifika migrants would be an asset to New Zealand) but it offers them some security in a Pasifika friendly country.

Another participant, confessing to being a ‘petrol-head’, said that even if there was no carbon emission problem we would be switching over to electric cars – the ex-Ferrari owner talked about the inherent engineering superiority of electric engines. The low-emissions strategy is pushing us in the right direction. At the moment electric cars, and other technologies like solar panels, are are a bit more expensive but the costs are coming down and it seems likely that they will eventually undercut conventional technologies – enthusiasts tell me sooner rather than later – so it makes sense to put in the future public infrastructure now.

That led me to wonder just how many of the changes we are talking about to reduce carbon emissions would be introduced anyway. They could be prioritised and should be publicised.

Yet in my view all that would still not be enough to convince a majority of the public. They will tick the ‘yes’ box when asked if they support a low-emission economy but will they tick it if they have to make real sacrifices?

The roundtable was troubled by the costs of adjustment not falling evenly while the benefits would fall quite differently (big gainers would be those not even born). You could argue that the farmers and miners, say, are generating the carbon emissions so let them, and their regions, bear all the adjustment costs – a response similar to that which happened under Rogernomics.

It wont happen that way under MMP –  nor did it happen before the neoliberal ascendancy. There will be measures to spread the costs across the entire community. (There was a vigorous argument for an active labour market program to ensure that redundant miners would transition to other skilled jobs.) That spreading of the costs means that rest of us will face lower government spending or higher taxes. The sacrifices will be real enough.

Of course some are strongly committed. Many voted for the Greens with the outcome that the low-emission economy is a part of the Coalition Government’s program. But who can tell whether the program will still be there – other than as a ghost – in three years time? The Key-English Government’s record was that, on the whole, they accepted the threat of global warning, but over the nine years they did little, even rolling back (or dithering over) some of the Clark-Cullen policies. (Simon Bridges has responded more positively.)

So how to better anchor in the strategy? It seems to me that we need to shift the focus away from an exclusive concern with carbon emissions to a wider remit of mitigating the effects of climate change of which the low-emissions economy is a central part. The difference is that a mitigation approach would also deal with rising sea level and storm surges (and, if we can, droughts and all). I am not saying we should back down on the low-emissions target, but that it should be embedded in the wider mitigation program.

It would scare the bejabbers of many people when they realise the degree of sea-level rising and that we are going to be as effective as Cnut at stopping it, unless the entire world joins in. (Some of the rise is inevitable.) But at least they will have a government which acknowledges the threat and is doing (or seems to be doing) something about it.

An interesting proposal was that we should seek a political ‘super-majority’ committed to a low-emissions policy in the medium term. Practically, that means Labour and National (and the other parties) coming to some consensus about a target in the long term. When in power they might pursue the outcome with slightly different policies. Do I hear you sigh? Is not ours a confrontational political system?

In 1993 a super-majority agreed to raise the age of entitlement for New Zealand Superannuation from 60 to 65. But that is a relatively simple policy compared to the package that would have to be agreed towards a low-emissions economy. One left the roundtable pondering pessimistically. But the seas outside were not up to street level – not yet.

Comments (7)

by John Allen on October 05, 2018
John Allen

I think one reason that the majority of the population are not persuaded by Robert Fulghum’s principle of "CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS" is that they have been misled about the drivers of global warming. It may not be a deliberate misdirection, but is one that is compounded in your statement "You could argue that the farmers ..., say, are generating the carbon emissions".  Many do.  And in doing so, they avoid taking responsibility for their own contribution to the problem by pointing the finger at farmers.

We have all seen the Ministry for the Environment's pie graph that shows agricultural emissions are 49% of this country's total emissions.  There are many things wrong with that graph even though the 49% figure is as accurate as statistics can get it.

In explaining that, we need to understand that there are two prime drivers of climate change: one is the emission of new carbon to the atmosphere when we burn (and mine) fossil fuels.  The other is the removal of carbon sinks when we harvest production forests.  Agricultural emissions, mainly methane, are not a prime driver of global warming.

Here's why.

Methane breaks down in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide and water.  The CO2 component is entirely derived from the CO2 captured by the grass that ruminants eat.  So from a purely carbon perspective, animal agriculture is carbon neutral.  It lives within the current carbon cycle and adds no new carbon to the environment.  The test for this is, what would have happened to the carbon in the grass if the cows had not converted it to methane.

Many will be quick to point out that the methane has its own significant warming impact before it degrades to CO2.  That is true, but ignores the fact that CH4 degrades at a rate of two thirds per 12 years.  In three of those 12-year cycles (36 years), the warming effect will be around 1% of that on it being emitted.  This matters when methane emissions are constant - when the flow of methane out equals the flow of methane in, there is no net warming effect.

This is why scientists describe methane as a flow, as distinct from carbon dioxide which is a stock and continues it's warming effect for many decades.

New Zealand's agricultural emissions have now been in decline for seven years, and have increased by only 5.6% since 1990.  So we are close to methane's flows being neutral.

Therefore, farmers need be accountable only for the amount by which their methane emissions are increasing by (plus nitrous oxide emissions).  That accountability is much less than the 49% that MfE points the finger at the ag sector to mitigate.

 If the moral imperative here is to clean up our own mess, we must leave farmers alone and look to our own use of fossil fuels to clean up.  But that undermines our economy much more than undermining the economic viability of animal farmers by putting them in to the ETS based on their gross impact, rather then their net impact.

by Rich on October 05, 2018

There are a few self-interested reasons for NZ to reduce its carbon emissions:

- we will isolate ourselves from variable and increasing costs of fossil fuels and thus have a stable and decreasing energy input cost to our economy

- places such as the EU will eventually lose patience and impose a carbon tarrif on imports from coubtries that don't get their act together - we should work to be on the right side of that


by Dennis Frank on October 06, 2018
Dennis Frank

I agree with your advocacy of a mitigation strategy, Brian.  Couple of provisos ought to apply.  First, as you suggest, a cross-party consensus on emissions policy ought to be negotiated - could call it a national resilience policy.  Second, the principle of true-cost accounting that the Green Party adopted as economic policy almost thirty years ago ought to be implemented via legislation.  The capitalist practice of socialising costs must be totally eliminated.

Interesting to hear a petrolhead anticipating going electric.  High time our petrolheads stopped acting like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.  Disgusting how our politicians & media keep failing to hold them accountable for their pollution.  At least farmers are a vital part of the economy - unlike the useless parasites promoting their delinquency as "motor sports".  As if addiction to speed & fossil-fuel burning was something to be proud of.  Time they grew up.

by Brian Easton on October 07, 2018
Brian Easton

Dear John,

I have come to a similar conclusion to you, but have been hesitant to go public because one just cannot believe the conventional wisdom can be so wrong.

If you are right, than there is a profound muddle in the measurement of stocks and flows. This issue was largely sorted out in applied mathematics by Galileo and Newton; economists were a little later when in the 1940s Bill Philips – NZ’s most eminent economist – set the issue out.

Let’s for a moment ignore that methane is more damaging than carbon dioxide. Then the carbon cycle is that CO2 is absorbed from the air by grass, which is digested by cows and emitted as CH4 which breaks down to CO2. As far as I can work out, we ignore the grass absorption of CO2 because the stock of carbon in the grass is (broadly) constant, overlooking that the absorption is a part of the total cycle. We seem to be treating cows as if they are eating coal.

Now you are quite right, John, that CH4 is more damaging and takes time to break down into CO2. But if the net annual CH4 is constant (say the number of cows is not increasing) then over time the net contribution from CH4 is zero. If the dairy herd is growing (and the emissions per cow are constant) then there will be a net effect as long as the herd grows. When it stops then, 30-odd years after, NZ’s net carbon emissions from this source are zero.

Now I cant believe that this has not been taken into account by those who have calculated our carbon balances. But there are various indications that they have not done it properly. Has anyone checked the calculations?

Couple of further points. First, suppose you are right John. Then we almost certainly have been purchasing carbon credits on the international market when we do not need to have done so. In effect there has been an unnecessary fiscal drain. I can think of much better uses of the funds if we have been meeting (or more closely meeting) our emissions target.

Second, even if we have been making horrendous miscalculations (note that this has to be demonstrated) we should still be actively reducing our total emissions. There is nothing that John or I have said that invalidates the need for the effort. But I am guessing that if John is right, we need to reorient our efforts.


(PS As an aside, one of the indications of a problem is those arguing that there should be separate accounts for CO2 and CH4. In my view that would be wrong, because it would allow the methane which is going to be emitted from frozen soils to be treated as recyclable.)

by Rich on October 08, 2018

The grass is only there because we cultivate it to feed stock. If it wasn't, there would be bushland.

by Charlie on October 08, 2018

Brian, there is a point that needs correction:

Pacific atolls are in fact NOT being inundated as previously predicted by alarmists. The natural mechanism for atoll building has so far been more than capable of keeping up with the sea level rise.

The main problem facing the pacific islands is overpopulation and the pressure put on local resources caused by that over population. This includes:

> Killing parrot fish that eat coral and form coral beaches

> Blasting holes in outer reefs to allow larger boats to come in and thereby also increasing wave action against low lying areas.

> Paving roads and thereby increasing run-off of rain water, thus reducing the fresh groundwater 'lens' available to drink.

So if we wish to assist Pacific Islanders, we should be sending them contraceptives!





by Pat on October 17, 2018

There may be an argument for treating methane emmisions differently if they were stable , unfortunately they are increasing (approx 2.5 times pre industrial rev.) which makes something of a mockery of the 'flow' argument

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