Peter Whitmore: Immediate action needed to reduce carbon emissions

Tim Groser says we are on track to meet our commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. Photo / Stephen Parker
Tim Groser says we are on track to meet our commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. Photo / Stephen Parker

The Minister of Climate Change, Tim Groser, (NZ Herald, December 20) says it makes sense for New Zealand to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol and work towards an agreement with broader international support that can potentially have a stronger environmental impact.

This may well be true, but given the gravity and urgency of the situation, we need to take immediate and effective action to reduce our own emissions, and not just sit on the fence until some more widely accepted global strategy is reached. Our progress to date has not been encouraging.

As the minister says, we are on track to meet our commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce our net emissions to 1990 levels by the end of 2012. But this is only after allowing for credits for tree planting. What really matters are our actual emissions. These have increased by around 23 per cent since 1990 and still show no significant signs of falling.

The planting credits are a bit like smoke and mirrors. They mostly relate to forestry trees. When these are harvestedin the next 30 years, the credits will be lost again. Avoiding the liability to repay these credits may well have been a major but unspoken reason for the Government's decision to withdraw from Kyoto 2.

Getting our emissions down to 1990 levels is only the first small step in what we need to achieve. Internationally targets as high as an 80 per cent reduction on 1990 emissions by 2050 have been put forward. Our Government has already raised the possibility of agreeing to targets of 10 to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 (subject to a raft of conditions) and of 50 per cent below by 2050.

Our lack of progress clearly shows our emissions trading scheme has been ineffective. This is not surprising because under the ETS carbon dioxide emissions are being charged for by the Government at a rate of $12.50 a tonne, but international "Kyoto" units, available for as little as $5 a tonne, have also been useable.

Meanwhile, former United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer recently said he believes the European Union needs to quickly boost its carbon price to about €150 ($240) a tonne if it is to meet its objective of reducing emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Compared to this, present New Zealand pricing seems to be in make-believe land.

The ETS is also ineffective because of its complexity, lack of transparency and openness to political lobbying. A charge on carbon in all imported or locally produced fossil fuels would be a much simpler and clearer way to put an appropriate price on the emissions that occur when these fuels are burned.

At the same time as it is talking about reducing emissions, our Government is encouraging offshore oil exploration, development of new coal mines and even development of Southland lignite, one of the planet's dirtiest sources of carbon.

The report released in November by the World Bank, Turn Down the Heat, concludes that the world is on a path towards a temperature rise of up to 4C above pre-industrial levels, and may even reach this point before the end of this century if urgent action is not taken.

It says the result of such a temperature rise would be devastating. Large areas would likely become uninhabitable and many species, including even possibly mankind, might not be able to adapt.

As a country, we are in a very powerful position to take strong and effective action to reduce our emissions. We have enormous potential to develop wind, tidal and solar power. We also have a major source of renewable carbon from wood chips and other crops. Going down this path will create new industries and jobs, and at the same time reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels.

If there has ever been a time in New Zealand's history when it needs to be a leader, it must surely be now.

Peter Whitmore is a former Auckland publisher with a background in engineering, science and economics.

- NZ Herald

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