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National's policy on climate change is to follow, rather than lead the world. Hence our modest 10 to 20 per cent emissions reduction proposal at the Copenhagen negotiations table. And a watered down emissions trading scheme that makes users pay but lets our worst emitters off the hook.
We follow because in global terms we think we're insignificant - accounting for just 0.2 per cent of world emissions - not because we don't believe in climate change, we do. It's just that we're not going to do anything on our own.
Cabinet has signed up to a long-term goal - a global temperature rise of not more than 2C by keeping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at no higher than 450 parts per million. Treasury agrees New Zealand should do "its fair share as part of a global effort". But the agreement is conditional - we'll do it as long as everyone else does, too.
The counter argument to this way of thinking is to seize the day, lead from the front and charge towards the future. Risky, if one heads in the wrong direction, but hugely beneficial if one gets the jump on the rest of the world.
In business speak, it's first mover advantage. Historically, economies leading a revolution - whether industrial or computer - achieve massive growth. So if anything can bridge the wealth gap between Australia and New Zealand, getting ahead of the Aussies in decarbonisation is worth a shot.
Going green could not only restore New Zealand's tarnished 100 per cent pure, clean, green image, it could also make a lot of money.
This is not the same green advocated by the Green Party. It is a transformational green economy that kills sacred cows and confronts New Zealanders with environmental decisions many already vehemently oppose.
In a low-carbon world, it's likely windfarms will blot pristine landscapes. More hydro-electric dams will be needed and will undoubtedly despoil untouched natural beauty.
Cattle and sheep may be genetically modified to reduce methane. Ditto for plants, genetically modified also to fix nitrogen and trees modified to grow forests faster.
There'll also be decisions about whether to produce less meat, dairy and wool in favour of vegetarianism, biofuel crops and carbon sinks. And sacrilege of all sacrilege, we might need to think about nuclear power plants.
The decarbonised revolution is not for the faint-hearted. It's also not for the National Government which seems likely to gain more "Fossil of the Day" awards during the Copenhagen negotiations, where Prime Minister John Key's dithering about whether to attend may make him a prime target.
In the June negotiations the country picked up an award, noting: "New Zealand has dismantled much of its domestic climate change programme including raiding the public transport budget to build more roads, overturning a partial ban on thermal power stations, abandoning a phase-out of inefficient lightbulbs and subsidising fossil fuel exploration."
Economic transformation by climate. Paradigm shift by hot air. It sounds mad but New Zealand, abundant in fresh water and arable land, is surprisingly well-placed to ride this wave of change.
Leveraging these assets to create a prosperous, low-carbon world is a huge and complex task, fraught with disruption and risk. It also relies on innovation - a notoriously difficult beast to find, let alone predict. Fanciful daydreaming? Maybe. Here we look at two of the pathways to low-carbon nirvana and some of the problems along the way.
Cheap, unlimited, renewable electricity
In 2007, 67 per cent of New Zealand's electricity generation came from renewable sources. It's a depressing statistic because, with a little foresight, we could easily have had 100 per cent renewable electricity.
Instead, we opted to build a bunch of thermal power stations and use natural gas. The net result is that we've added 3.17 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since 1990 - a 91 per cent increase - by going down this path.
Despite the wrong turn, the high proportion of renewable electricity we do enjoy is our biggest asset - one that, if we were smart, we would capitalise on. The rapid deployment of significantly more renewable electricity, especially by hydro-electric generation, is a winning hand in the low-carbon stakes.
While wind, solar and tidal power can all play their part, what's really needed is always-on generation to meet peak demands and smooth out the variability of when the wind blows, the sun shines and the tides ebb and flow.
Fortunately we do have sustainable options to meet that need - untapped hydro-electricity and geothermal energy. But while New Zealand could relatively easily meet all of its current electricity needs through renewable sources, to really win the low-carbon game, it needs to produce heaps more - enough to power significant chunks of our transport system.
Road transportation emissions added 5.83 million tonnes of green house gases to the atmosphere since 1990 - growing 76 per cent. Think electric cars, buses and bullet trains travelling the length of the land.
Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal don't exactly see such a possibility in their A Low Carbon Future? Bah! Humbug!, but they do imagine a fleet of electric cars by 2020 and how climate change might give hydro power generation a boost.
"Higher rainfalls on the main divide in the South Island will make water shortages in our hydro lakes something of a rarity, and this will improve our energy security and reduce the quantity of fossil fuels we consume in energy production. The excess electricity in the grid initially released by the long overdue closure of the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point will be mostly offset by 2020 through its increased consumption by the burgeoning national fleet of battery electric vehicles."
Morgan and McCrystal say the efficiency of electric cars will markedly reduce our greenhouse gases. "Just behind this will be the impact of measures imposed by the Government to improve the energy efficiency of domestic and commercial buildings."
The latter is particularly significant - not just because better insulated and energy efficient homes save power - but also because it shifts the focus from "broadcast" electricity to a system that's more intelligent.
Enter the smart grid where power is routed to consumers in more optimal ways to respond to a wide range of conditions. Ultimately, a really smart grid is clever enough to both turn appliances on and off and incorporate dispersed power generation from domestic sites such as solar hot water, photovoltaic cells and small-scale wind turbines.
Is any of this possible? Or do the costs make it prohibitive? Dunedin-based geo-scientist Phil Scadden, writing in a private capacity for Hot Topic, has crunched some numbers.
He finds it relatively straightforward to bridge our "energy gap" - estimated as 62 kilowatt hours per person per day (kWh/p/d) - between fossil fuel and renewable energy.
"If we don't mind parts of the country covered with windmills, multiple new hydro schemes, including all those proposed for the Clutha and Waitaki rivers, and new geothermal schemes, we can readily get nearly all our required 64kWh/p/d from hydro, geothermal and wind alone. We don't have to say yes to every wind and hydro proposal but we have to say yes to a great many of them."
Scadden's plan, feasible he reckons by 2025, involves about 10,000 new wind turbines, eight hydro schemes, several geothermal schemes, solar hot water and solar photovoltaic panels for half of New Zealand homes, home insulation, and large-scale adoption of electric cars at an estimated cost of between $91 billion and $174 billion. Expensive, but not out of the question.
A 2008 cost benefit study by Meridian Energy and Contact Energy found electric vehicles are good for New Zealand to the tune of $8.2 billion over a 50-year period.
"The majority of the identified benefits (91 per cent) accrue privately to vehicle owners, through decreased operating and maintenance costs. However, $769 million (or 9 per cent) of the net benefit accrues to society (through air pollution and carbon savings)."
Additional benefits include a positive impact on New Zealand's balance of payments, enhanced energy security, improved stormwater quality and a reduction in noise pollution.
The November issue of Scientific American notes that the maximum power consumed worldwide at any given moment is about 12.5 trillion watts (terawatts, or TW).
If the planet was powered entirely by a combination of wind, water or sunlight, with no fossil-fuel or biomass combustion, demand would be only 11.5 TW - an intriguing saving that occurs because, in most cases, electrification is more efficient.
"For example, only 17 to 20 per cent of the energy in petrol is used to move a vehicle [the rest is wasted as heat], whereas 75 to 86 per cent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion."
The article, A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030, calculates that 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide could indeed provide for the planet's energy needs.
What's more, by 2020, generating and transmitting power would cost less than the projected US8c per kilowatt-hour for fossil fuel and nuclear power.
The nuclear power option is rejected because it results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered. The authors also decided not to consider technologies that presented "significant waste disposal or terrorism risks".
The magazine does, however, point out significant problems in the supply of rare-earth metals such as neodymium used in turbine gearboxes.
Plus limited supplies of tellurium and indium needed for some thin-film solar cells, and that large-scale production could be restricted by the silver that cells require.
There are big challenges ahead in building millions of electric vehicles too - with rare-earth metals for electric motors, lithium for lithium-ion batteries and platinum for fuel cells all likely to face supply issues.
Gert Jan Kramer and Martin Haigh, in December's Nature, outline an even bigger problem - the physical limits to the rate at which energy-technologies can be deployed.
"When that technology is new, it takes time to build the human and industrial capacity to do that. You cannot just spend US$1 trillion overnight in a US$30-billion industry, which is where photovoltaics - solar power - is today." In other words, building new energy supplies takes time - typically up to 30 years.
Managing methane and vegetarians
While transport and electricity generation are our fastest-growing emissions, agriculture is New Zealand's sleeping giant. In 2007 agriculture produced 36.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases - 48 per cent of our total emissions.
About two-thirds of the emissions were from methane produced in the gut of sheep and cattle. The remaining third was nitrous oxide, mainly from animal wastes. The problem with both is they're from animals doing what they do naturally and not easily controlled. Worse still, in terms of climate change, these gases are far more detrimental than carbon dioxide.
At the moment, methane is deemed to be 25 times more damaging than a tonne of carbon dioxide, but new research from Nasa suggests methane may in fact be 33 times more damaging to the climate. Nitrous oxide, as well as warming the planet, is also the most potent destroyer of the ozone layer.
That's not all. Recent research from the Worldwatch Institute claims that instead of 18 per cent of global emissions being caused by livestock, the true figure is 51 per cent.
The research finds that previous figures have severely underestimated the greenhouse gases caused by tens of billions of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and other animals in three main areas: methane, land use and respiration.
As the authors point out, if the research is correct it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change.
"In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy." Vegetarianism is the answer.
But for an economy whose lifeblood is sheep and cattle, this is not a solution anyone wants to hear. Which is why New Zealand researchers are furiously searching for ways to mitigate methane and nitrous oxide. Solving the problem would undoubtedly give our economy a key advantage.
Approaches to the problem include changing farming practices. The Tokanui Dairy Research Farm, for example, is aiming for a 20 per cent lower greenhouse gas footprint than average dairy farm. That includes ways to reduce nitrogen leaching and increasing forage productivity.
Other research involves the use of different fertilisers which aim to cut nitrous oxide emissions by up to 70 per cent.
Methane biofilters are another practical short-term solution that could significantly reduce methane emissions from oxidation ponds, landfills and cows sheds. There's also work going on in the development of vaccines to reduce methane emissions from ruminants.
But by far the most challenging type of research is happening at AgResearch, where last year a team of scientists were the first in the world to map the genetic sequence of a rumen methanogen.
The cutting edge aim here is to identify a genetic hallmark for all methanogens that can be manipulated to reduce methane emissions in livestock.
In other words, genetic modification - something manyhere are strongly opposed to. Similar work is under way with genetically modified forage crops which scientists say can also reduce methane emissions from livestock.
Making such innovative breakthroughs would have huge benefits for New Zealand farming, not to mention the planet. Getting such science on to farms is going to be hard enough. But getting it past environmental activists who see genetic modification as a dangerous and undesirable is likely to be the real battle.
Beyond the genetic modification war there's another obvious way to improve New Zealand's emission profile - plant more trees. As crown research institute Scion points out, New Zealand has millions of hectares of marginal land which is uneconomic and unsustainable for intensive food or feed production.
Associate professor of forestry at Canterbury University Dr Euan Mason, quoted in Carbon News, says that planting 50,000ha a year of trees on eroding lands would see an extra 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gases sequestered each year.
By 2030 New Zealand could have 30 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents sequestered each year - which would more than account for the large projected increase in our net emissions when we begin harvesting pine plantations planted during the 1990s. It makes economic sense, too.
Mason says that such a planting programme would cost $40 million to $50 million a year, but the annual value of carbon credits (assuming a conservative value of $25 a tonnes) is $375 million.
That not all. Scion's work shows forests, as well providing carbon sinks, can also be a fuel source.
It calculates that if we plant 2.2 million ha of forests we could be self-sufficient in liquid fuels, such as bioenthanol and biodiesel, replacing the eight billion litres of liquid fuels we import each year.
While New Zealand clearly has options to follow a low-carbon path, to do so would require visionary leadership with the ability to make tough decisions. Qualities that sadly seem in short supply among our politicians.
This means the chance of any low-carbon future here is about as likely as our cabal of climate change deniers admitting they were misinformed.