Opinion: The problem with COP26 is not the promises that were made amongst the 30,000 people attending, but the reality of how the promises can be achieved, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
Greta Thunberg and other sceptics may well have been right when they predicted that COP26 would be just another expensive (in dollars and greenhouse gases) talkfest.
The problem is not the promises that were made amongst the 30,000 people attending, but the reality of how the promises can be achieved.
Politics and diplomacy were to the fore and the people making the promises did their best to be equitable and reasonable.
But science is so far behind what is needed that it is difficult to see how politically expedient and diplomatically acceptable statements can mean very much.
India made the economic difficulties abundantly clear by holding out for a softening of language. Countries have agreed to do their best to phase down coal rather than phase it out.
New Zealand is not immune to the challenges.
Mining exploration has been severely curtailed and renewable energy for electricity is over 80 per cent of supply, but coal, oil and natural gas are still an important part of our economy.
Further, when renewable power has proved to be insufficient for society's requirements, coal has been needed to keep Huntly power station functioning.
Last year approximately a million tonnes of coal were imported from Indonesia, 80 per cent of which was used to create electricity for an ever-growing population.
Unlike many other countries, New Zealand does not subsidise the fossil fuel industries. The fact that other countries do, in the same way that they subsidise their farmers and growers, might come as something of a surprise.
Experts and activists around the world have been suggesting that we need a transition away from Big Oil for some time. Yet subsidies continue from governments globally to the tune of almost half a trillion US dollars a year.
These subsidies have been described in Nature in October as "one of the biggest financial barriers hampering the world's shift to renewable energy sources". They artificially lower the price to the user.
Jocelyn Timperley, a freelance journalist focusing on science, climate and environment, has calculated the subsidies and points out that this is more than triple what renewables receive and is, despite repeated pledges, to end support.
Timperley suggests that part of the problem is definitions.
Vowing to eliminate "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies" is not a defined target as 'inefficient' depends on context. The UK, for instance, doesn't subsidise directly but does forgo tax revenue.
In contrast, in New Zealand, the ETS (emissions trading scheme) increases the cost of fossil fuel at the pump through the carbon tax (by almost 16c per litre at the current carbon price of $65.20).
COP26 pledges to end deforestation and slash methane emissions also need examination.
Brazil was amongst the nations which promised to end and even reverse deforestation by 2030 during the summit.
Hardly was the ink dry on the printer when Brazil's space research agency reported that deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest had increased by 22 per cent in a year.
The data indicated 13,235 sq km (approximately 5 per cent of the total area of New Zealand) of forest had been cleared during the 2020-21 period. This is the largest area since 2006. The promise might mean that the clearance was the last burst. But then again, it might not.
The pledge to slash methane emissions is extremely important.
Reductions or increases in methane have a more immediate effect on warming than do changes in carbon dioxide emissions.
The United Nation's (UN) methane report released mid-year stated that "reducing human-caused methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to limit temperature
rise to 1.5°C".
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
The UN reported that currently available measures could reduce emissions by 60–80 per cent of the potential total reduction for oil and gas, and by 55–98 per cent for coal.
The greatest potential was considered to be from the oil and gas subsector where captured methane adds to revenue instead of being released to the atmosphere.
Subsidies mean that there are no incentives to change which is why their removal is vital.
A final point causing confusion is why New Zealand, which produces less than 0.2 per cent of global greenhouse gases, is involved in trying to reduce GHG.
Developed countries have agreed that they will bear the burden of the cost. In global terms, New Zealand is developed and rich.
According to Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, an income of US$38,000 (NZ$54,328.11) is enough to put someone in the world's richest 10 per cent. And in 2015, the richest 10 per cent were responsible for half the global emissions.
The challenge, however, is reducing our own emissions, almost half of which come from agriculture, without reducing the economy to such a state that we can't pay our commitments or provide a first world living standard. The Government is funding animal research and progress is being made – but it is never as fast as hoped.
The balance between reducing environmental impact while maintaining or developing the economy is the difficulty all countries are facing and there are no easy answers.
That's why time frames extend and language softens.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected Director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. email@example.com