Briefly: the outsized role of the US in historical emissions

From the New York Times:

The New York Times asked Climate Interactive to calculate when Americans would have run out of fossil fuel if the nation’s population had somehow, at the beginning of the industrial era, been allocated a share equal to those of the rest of the world’s people. The calculation was premised on limiting emissions enough to meet international climate goals.

The answer: Americans would have used up their quota in 1944, the year the Allied armies stormed the beaches of Normandy.

A room full of angry people: Government consultation on post-2020 climate change target


I recently went to one of the Government’s consultation meetings on New Zealand’s post-2020 climate change target. I almost didn’t go to the meeting, because I’m quite cynical about whether the government is actually going to take any notice of what people say. Judging from last time, in 2009, the government’s position is probably going to be heavily motivated by political considerations. There were lots of people there who were angry about climate change, and I got the impression a lot of the people in the audience were particularly angry at the Government’s continuing inaction (me included!). They were also angry about the inadequacies of the consultation process.

I don’t think the meeting was well run. The official chairing it from the Ministry for the Environment said there would be a 5 minute time limit for people speaking. That was way too long – 3 minutes would have been enough! He didn’t steer people at all in terms of talking about the target, the matter at hand. Inevitably then, the meeting went on for ages before someone actually mentioned a concrete target figure. While there are lots of inter-related issues tied up with the target – ‘how do we achieve the target’ etc – the meeting would have benefited from more direction.

A few people in the audience pointed out that the last time the government ran a consultation meeting in 2009, Minister Nick Smith actually fronted up and answered people’s questions. This time around, in contrast, it was only officials from the Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Transport, and the Treasury who were present on behalf of the government. I thought, as I was sitting there listening to people articulate their concerns, that the consultation process was far from ideal because the climate change target is an intensely political issue, yet here we all were venting our frustration not at ministers but just at these poor public servants without real power. The public servants would just go away and write a dry summary of the consultation meetings, which will then be promptly ignored by ministers and cabinet. Someone from the National Government should have taken the time to appear and listen to concerned people talk about this critical issue.

Many people at the meeting pointed out that the consultation document, which was meant to ‘frame’ the issue, presented a very inaccurate and misleading picture of the challenges New Zealand faces. People said that the document focussed far too much on the (questionably calculated) costs of acting on climate change, overlooking the huge costs from inaction — including the threat to many generations of humans. Moreover, the document presented climate change mitigation as a policy which represents only costs to New Zealand, completely ignoring the multitude of benefits we receive by cutting our emissions.

Another thing people at the meeting pointed out was that the document went out of its way to paint New Zealand acting on climate change as a particular challenge for us. The tired old arguments were trotted out: ‘lots of NZ’s emission come from agriculture so it’s more difficult to do something!’ and ‘we already have such a high proportion of renewable electricity there’s no room to improve that much!’.

The rhetoric contained in the consultation doc needs to be challenged on a number of fronts. Firstly, New Zealand’s high proportion of renewable electricity is a blessing — we’re already in an enviable position compared to countries where their proportion of renewable electricity in the single digits. Secondly, we’re actually a pretty rich country, and we are much better placed than many developing countries who will be forced to deal with these problems on a fraction of our GDP.

We do have a big challenge in front of us, but it flows not from our supposedly unique circumstances, but rather because of our shameful history of inaction and missed opportunities.

Continue reading “A room full of angry people: Government consultation on post-2020 climate change target”

Hypocrisy on fossil fuel subsidies?

The sun needs to set on both fossil fuel production and consumption, yet National only talks about one side of the equation (by Pete Markham, CC-BY-SA)

It has recently been reported that New Zealand has been part of an international coalition of countries, including Costa Rica, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, who want to crack down on fossil fuel consumption subsidies. Radio New Zealand reports that they’ve recently released a memorandum:

[the] memorandum calls for the elimination of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, citing environmental, economic and social grounds, and has the full support of the United States and France.

Climate Change Minister Tim Groser said the end of subsidies was the missing piece in the climate change jigsaw with more than a third of global carbon emissions between 1980 and 2010 believed to be driven by subsidies.

He said keeping prices artificially low encouraged wasteful fuel consumption and discouraged the development of new, greener technologies.

Prime Minister John Key has welcomed the agreement saying the memorandum was significant.

“It’s one thing to have actually a price on emissions, like New Zealand has through our ETS, but some countries actually are going the other way, they’re actually subsidising those fossil fuels, our argument is that if they were made to pay the real price it would have some impact on demand.”

First of all, I think this is a great initiative. Although you can see why developing countries might want to subsidise fossil fuels so people can afford energy, it really makes no sense at a time when we need to be cutting down our emissions in order to mitigate climate change. As Groser says, subsidising fossil fuel consumption is getting in the way of transitioning to a green economy where we don’t need these polluting fuels any more.

That brings me to National’s hypocrisy. Continue reading “Hypocrisy on fossil fuel subsidies?”

National runs out of excuses to act on climate change

Tim Groser has steadfastly done noting to decrease NZ's emissions
Climate Change Minister Tim Groser has steadfastly refused to do anything to decrease NZ’s emissions (image by WTO, CC-BY-SA)

When the National Government came to power in 2008, one of the things near the top of its priority list was to amend the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to “make the ETS workable and affordable”. In other words, National wanted to reduce the price of carbon considerably. Their supposed rationale was that the economy was in a downturn, and it wasn’t fair to introduce an extra tax on households and businesses when they were already struggling.

So in 2009, National passed a number of changes to the ETS:

  • A two-for-one permit deal, so businesses only had to submit one carbon unit for every two tonnes of liable emissions.
  • Introduced a “flexible cap” so that businesses get allocated free permits in line with their production. So if businesses increase production, they get allocated more permits, and New Zealand’s emissions could go up.
  • Agriculture wouldn’t participate in the scheme till December 2015 (instead of the original January 2013 entry date)

Those changes were pretty fundamental to the operation of the ETS. Without a sinking cap on emissions, there’s no particular reason why the price of carbon will increase. So this lack of a cap, combined with the importation of a whole lot of cheap, low-quality, international credits has kept the price of carbon in New Zealand extremely low.

Then in 2011, National commissioned another review of the ETS. The review came out with a number of recommendations. The most important ones were:

  • phasing out the two-for-one arrangement over three years, so that by 2015 businesses would have to surrender one emissions unit for each tonne of emissions
  • the price cap of $25 per tonne would be increased by $5 per year from 2013
  • that the agricultural sector should still enter the ETS in 2015, but should initially be granted a two-for-one allowance

National then largely ignored the review’s suggestions, and instead opted for an extension of the feeble status quo. They extended the transitional two-for-one period, and agriculture was made exempt from participating in the ETS for the foreseeable future. At the time, the justification was that they couldn’t rock the boat too much while the economy was still going through its worst recession since the Great Depression. Here’s the official line:

“[the amendments] maintain the costs that the ETS places on the economy at current levels. This will ensure businesses and households do not face additional costs during the continued economic recovery; and that New Zealand continues to do its fair share on climate change.”

Now that New Zealand’s economic prospects have improved, and oil prices have fallen, surely it is time to revisit these amendments to the ETS. While I don’t believe that there was ever justification for watering down the ETS, whatever justification there was has surely evaporated.

If National doesn’t strengthen the price of carbon in light of these changed conditions, then their previous changes will be revealed for what they truly were. Those changes most likely had nothing to do with the state of the economy and everything to do with pleasing National’s corporate mates who prioritise short-term profit above everything else.

Tim Groser says he cares about combating climate change. It’s time for him to act like it.

Last updated 12 February 2015

the weak case for inaction on climate change

Although there was quite a positive reception for the Green Party’s ‘climate tax cut’ policy a while back (see a roundup on their blog), the National Party continues to tread out the same old arguments against doing anything substantial to reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions.

A lot has been said recently in the media by those sceptical of mitigating climate change, along the lines of ‘New Zealand is a such a small proportion of the world’s emissions, therefore we shouldn’t do anything’. What I want to argue here is that while the first part of this argument is (somewhat) true, the second part that we shouldn’t do anything doesn’t follow at all.
Continue reading “the weak case for inaction on climate change”

The Greens as a “pro-market” party

This article on Stuff by Hamish Rutherford caught my eye: “Greens pro-market: Russel Norman“:

Russel Norman says he is more of a disciple of market forces than is the National Party.

The major issues of sustainability can be solved by setting the right incentives and prices, he says.

However, Norman said he was a strong believer in market solutions.

“If you look at the Greens, or at least our policies, they are pro-market,” Norman said.

“Lower company tax rates, price signals for carbon – let the market resolve the issue.”

The Green proposal for a Green investment bank, which would use state capital to invest in renewable companies “is identical to what [British Prime Minister] David Cameron set up for the UK”.

Norman said National chose which motorways to favour for political reasons, without properly conducting cost-benefit analyses, while the approach to tax credits was a test “of whether [Economic Development Minister] Steven Joyce likes your company”.

“Everyone says National doesn’t pick winners … but if you look at what they’re actually doing, they’re not pro-market, they’re Muldoonist.”

Continue reading “The Greens as a “pro-market” party”


It seems to me that all of us are in denial. We know climate change is almost certainly coming, and it’s going to be bad. Yet we continue to fly around in airplanes and can’t even conceive of a future in which air travel is prohibitively expensive and unethical. Some of us try to be as green as possible, but all that means in practice is turning off a light now and then. People say they recycle, they’ve changed their lightbulbs, but this sort of action is completely trivial in the face of what is needed if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. I’m not sure why people even think doing such tiny things is an achievement, why isn’t it just the norm?

I think there’s an interesting parallel between illegal file sharing and climate change. We know file sharing is wrong, and probably harmful to the creators of the movies, TV shows and music we enjoy. Yet we keep on doing it with abandon. We know it’s wrong, but continue to do nothing to change our behaviour. It’s just too hard.

My generation and young people generally, have the most to lose from a continuation of the status quo – yet we continue to act like nothing is wrong. In our lifetimes, the world will get warmer, the seas will rise, millions of people will be displaced, the poor will be forced further into poverty. I realise that there are a number of extremely concerned, energetic and active youth activists who are working tirelessly to raise awareness about climate change, but why don’t the rest of us really care? Why aren’t we doing anything about it? Continue reading “denial”

lessons to be learnt

A climate change demonstration in Wellington, New Zealand. Picture copyright Fritz2.

“…an important thing to understand about any institution or social system, whether it is a nation or a city, a corporation or a federal agency: it doesn’t move unless you give it a solid push. Not a mild push – a solid jolt. If the push is not administered by vigorous and purposeful leaders, it will be administered eventually by an aroused citizenry or by a crisis. Systematic inertia is characteristic of every human institution, but overwhelmingly true of this nation as a whole. Our system of checks and balances dilutes the thrust of positive action. The competition of interests inherent in our pluralism acts as a break on concerted action. The system grinds to a halt between crises…”

John W. Gardner speaking to the National Press Club, December 9 1969.

I’ve been doing a history project recently on the environmental movement, and the lead up to the first Earth Day in the U.S. on April 22nd, 1970.  I thought this was a really interesting quote about institutional inertia in dealing with serious problems. He’s talking in the context of the environmental crisis back then, but his words could just as easily apply to environmental problems and the failure of politicians and leaders to tackle them today.

Today the American political system is seemingly incapable of combating climate change, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration. Back in the late sixties I think activists and ordinary people felt the same kind of frustration at the elite in Washington, unwilling or unable to do something about the pollution of the environment that those that care about climate change and a whole host of other issues feel today.

The lesson we can learn from the 1960s and 70s is that activism works. Continue reading “lessons to be learnt”

The apocalypse

PBF Comics

So I was reading this almost certainly bogus article on how the BP gulf disaster may have disturbed this giant methane bubble under the sea bed and it will burst out and the apocalypse will be upon us.

It got me thinking (in an entirely unoriginal manner) about the end of civilisation. Think of all the people trying to phone each other and say “I love you! I’m sorry I’ve been such a douche and forgive me etc etc” a la disaster movies. All the people with crushes/silently in love would be trying to get the message through before everyone dies in a giant fireball. All the angst and all the scientific discoveries and all the wonders of the world and all that ‘progress’ would just disappear. The human experiment would come to an end, eventually the Earth would recover and some new crappy creature would emerge out of the slime. Is it inevitable that each new creature screws itself over with it’s inventions or in the pursuit of it’s short-term self interest? It’s not looking too good for humans I have to say – our fossil-fueled spaceship is heading towards the reset button of climate change at an alarming speed.