Geoff Simmons: NZ needs to be doing its bit, faster

The grandkids will thank us for acting in a meaningful way on climate change, writes Geoff Simmons.

There is no way at this stage to mitigate methane emissions other than by shooting cows. Photo / Getty Images
There is no way at this stage to mitigate methane emissions other than by shooting cows. Photo / Getty Images

Our promises around climate change policies are just hot air. The minister may not be Stan (he is Tim Groser), but he still needs a plan.

New Zealand campaign group Generation Zero has released a report calling for a plan to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The analysis isn't rocket science - New Zealand has promised to reduce emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, whereas the Government's own projections show we are headed for a 25 per cent rise. Current policy is nowhere near enough to get us to our goal.

Even if we were to achieve this modest ambition, we cannot be seen to be "doing our bit" to reduce global emissions. According to the latest IPCC report, global emissions need to be reduced to zero by 2070 if we are to achieve our goal of limiting temperature rise to 2C or less. Given we are a rich country, "doing our bit" actually means getting there faster, by 2050. Instead, based on current policies we will have used up our carbon budget by 2030.

The apologists for inaction argue we shouldn't take action when no one else looks like they will. This assertion by the self-interested is false - some countries are acting, or at least doing far more than we are.

Generation Zero, whose central purpose is to provide solutions for New Zealand to cut carbon pollution, points to Denmark, which now has a plan for zero emissions by 2050. One thing everyone accepts is that developed countries will need to lead the way to zero emissions, because we have by far the highest emissions per capita. With our comfortable lifestyles we can't ethically deny the same to the billions in India, China and Brazil. New Zealand and other developed countries need to reach zero carbon emissions earlier than developing countries, by 2050.

But of course there are those who would argue ethics has nothing to do with this. It is this clique that would merrily kick sand in the face of those in developing countries rather than make any sacrifice in order for those people to attain the lifestyle we enjoy.

This myopia of short-term self-interest has become so strong in New Zealand it is even preventing us exploring rationally the ways to reduce emissions without harming our economy unduly. Once China, the US and Europe strike a deal to reduce emissions, we will have to follow. Knowing this, it is far cheaper to start making the change to a low-carbon economy now, rather than wait for it to be hurriedly forced on us.

Of course we are paranoid that emissions reduction will harm agriculture - our major exporter. Apparently, since there is no way yet to mitigate methane emissions other than shooting cows, we cannot sign up to meaningful emissions reductions.

But the importance of methane emissions is the subject of considerable debate. Just how many carbon equivalents methane actually represents is by no means certain - carbon is long-lived in the atmosphere (and it is the stock of carbon in the atmosphere that matters) whereas methane is not. It looks like the conversion factor used in the Kyoto reduction targets for example was miles too harsh on methane as a greenhouse gas. Further, recent research shows until we solve the carbon problem, action on methane is pointless.

Putting methane to one side, the question is whether we could be doing better on other greenhouse gases without being economic martyrs? The scope for action is large. For example, most of the energy and transport investments we make today will still be in place in 20 years' time. We need to start changing this infrastructure to be ready for the brave new world that is headed our way. Even in agriculture we could take action on nitrous oxide emissions, which could have the added bonus of improving water quality. Sure, these investments would cost a little bit more in the short-term. But it is far cheaper to start weaning ourselves off fossil fuels now, bit by bit, than to go cold turkey in 20 years' time.

Given the Emissions Trading Scheme has been undermined to the point of becoming a joke, the Greens' carbon tax/income rebate is a good start.

The long-term economic argument for acting on climate change is strong. The risks around making those investments now and being proved to be wrong are far smaller than those from not making them and being proved to be wrong. Climate change is real, it's the politics that is surreal here. Our grandchildren will thank us. Or more to the point, if we don't act, they will sit on our knee and ask, "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Sorry dear, it was the politics, you know, all about the here and now and to hell with tomorrow."

Geoff Simmons is from the Morgan Foundation.

- NZ Herald

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