Climate explained: why we need to cut emissions as well as prepare for impacts



Research shows the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of reducing emissions.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Victoria University of Wellington


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

First, let’s accept climate change is happening and will have major negative impacts on New Zealand. Second, let’s also accept that even if New Zealand did absolutely everything possible to reduce emissions to zero, it would still happen, i.e. our impact on climate change is negligible. Third, reducing our emissions will come with a high financial cost. Fourth, the cost of dealing with the negative impacts of climate change (rising seas etc), will also come at a high financial cost. Based on the above, would it not be smarter to focus our money and energy on preparing New Zealand for a world where climate change is a reality, rather than quixotically trying to avert the unavoidable? – a question from Milton

To argue that we should not act to reduce emissions because it is not in our interests to make a contribution to global mitigation is ultimately self-defeating. It would be to put short-term self-interest first, rather than considering both our long-term interests and those of the wider global community.

Our options on climate are looking increasingly dire, since we as a global community have postponed combating climate change so long. But in New Zealand – and indeed in any country – we should still do as much as we can to reduce the extent of climate change, and not, at this stage, divert significant resources away from mitigation into “preparing for” it.

Starting with the physics, it is clear that climate change is not a given and fixed phenomenon. It is unhelpful to say simply that “it is happening”. How much heating will occur will be determined by human actions: it is within humanity’s grasp to limit it.

Any significant action taken over the next decade in particular will have high payoffs in terms of reducing future warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in effect says emission cuts of 45% or more over the next decade might just avert catastrophic change. Inaction, on the other hand, could condemn humankind to experiencing perhaps 3℃ or more of heating. Each further degree represents a huge increase in human misery – death, suffering and associated conflict – and increases the threat of passing dangerous tipping points.

Climate outcomes are so sensitive to what we do over the next decade because eventual heating depends on the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We are still adding to that stock every year, and we are still raising the costs of cutting emissions to an “acceptable” level (such as that consistent with 1.5℃ or 2℃ of heating).




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Limiting future warming

Under President Obama, a report was published which pointed out that every decade of delay in making cuts in emissions raises the cost of stabilising within a given target temperature (e.g. 2℃) by about 40%.

Each year’s emissions add to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, even though some of the gases are absorbed into oceans, trees and soils. Until we can get global emissions down close to zero, atmospheric concentrations will rise. When the Paris agreement was adopted in 2015, it was expected that government pledges at the time might limit heating to under 2℃, conceivably 1.5℃ degrees, if pledges were soon strengthened. It is now even more vital to cut emissions, as it reduces the risk of even higher, and nastier, temperatures.

What of New Zealand’s role in this? New Zealand is indeed a small country. Like most groups of five million or so emitters, we generate a small fraction of global emissions (less than 0.2%). But because we are a well respected, independent nation, with a positive international profile, what we do has disproportionate influence. If we manage to find creative and effective ways to cut emissions, we can be sure the world will be interested and some countries may be motivated to follow suit.

Just as we notice Norway’s effective promotion of electric vehicles, and Denmark’s success with wind power, so too can New Zealand have an outsized impact if we can achieve breakthroughs in mitigation. Reaching 100% renewable electricity generation would be a significant and persuasive milestone, as would any breakthroughs in agricultural emissions.




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Reducing emissions makes economic sense

In economic terms, mitigation is an excellent investment. The Stern Review crystallised the argument in 2007: unmitigated climate change will cause damage that would reduce worldwide incomes by substantially more than the costs of active mitigation. Since then, further research has underlined that the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of mitigation. Put in investment terms, the benefits from mitigation vastly exceed the costs.

Mitigation is one of the best investments humanity will ever make. Recent findings are that increasing mitigation efforts to ensure that warming is limited to 1.5℃, rather than 2℃ or more, will yield high returns on investment, as damage is averted. We also now know many energy and transport sector mitigation investments, such as in electric vehicles, generate good returns.

So why haven’t we invested enough in mitigation already? The answer is the free rider problem – the “I will if you will” conundrum. The Paris agreement in 2015 is the best solution so far to this: essentially all countries globally have agreed to cut emissions, so relatively concerted action is likely. Given this, it is worthwhile for New Zealand to act, as our efforts are likely to be matched by the actions of others. In addition, of course, we have an ethical duty to future generations to cut emissions.

The fact that New Zealand is a small country with limited emissions is irrelevant to these arguments. We must play our part in the global push to cut emissions. The reality is that it is worthwhile to mitigate, and we are committed to doing so. In this situation, it makes no sense to move mitigation resources away to preparation for climate change. We do of course need to plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change, in myriad ways, but not at the expense of mitigation.The Conversation

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Associate Professor , Director Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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New Zealand poised to introduce clean car standards and incentives to cut emissions



Australia and Russia could soon be the last remaining developed nations without fuel efficiency standards, with New Zealand proposing new rules and financial incentives to get more people driving cleaner cars.
http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The New Zealand government has proposed new fuel standards to cut greenhouse emissions, along with consumer rebates for cleaner cars – paid for by fees on high-polluting cars.

The long-awaited proposed changes would bring New Zealand in line with most other developed countries; apart from New Zealand, Russia and Australia are the last remaining OECD nations without fuel efficiency standards.

New Zealand’s long tradition of not regulating its car market, combined with substantial indirect subsidies for private cars, makes addressing emissions from the transport sector both challenging and highly significant.




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New Zealand’s second-rate car fleet

Land transport emissions – the single largest source of fossil carbon dioxide in New Zealand – grew 93% between 1990 and 2017. There are multiple causes. The population grew 44% during this period, mostly through immigration. The car ownership rate also grew rapidly, partly due to economic growth and deficiencies in public transport in the main cities. Car ownership in New Zealand is now the highest in the OECD and there are more motor vehicles than adults.

Fuel efficiency improved only slowly over this period, before stalling in recent years: at 180g CO₂/km, the emissions of newly imported vehicles in New Zealand are 50% higher than in Europe. Because of the lack of a fuel efficiency standard, importers provide less efficient versions of their bestsellers to the New Zealand market. Of the ten bestselling new vehicles, five are utes (which also benefit from a fringe benefit tax exemption, four are SUVs and one is a regular car.

In addition, half of all vehicles are imported secondhand, mostly from Japan. They are cheap, but less efficient than newer models. Emissions, and congestion, are likely to continue rising as the national vehicle fleet is increasing by 110,000 vehicles a year.

One bright spot in the present situation is the emergence of an electric vehicle segment, mostly driven by the availability of cheap second-hand Nissan Leafs from Japan and the construction of a fast-charging network by a private company. Although sales have stalled in the past year at a market share of 2%, there are now 15,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand. (Australia has around 10,000 electric vehicles.)

New Zealand’s history of fuel taxes

New Zealand does not have a strong record of taxing “bads”. The only goods subject to excise taxes are tobacco, alcohol and fuel. The fuel tax is moderate by international standards. Over the past decade, the fuel tax has been fully allocated to road construction and maintenance.

New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The current carbon price of NZ$25/tonne of carbon dioxide adds five cents per litre to the price of fuel. Clearly, any likely increases in the carbon price are not going to be enough to change car buying decisions. Research shows that consumers tend to focus on upfront costs, while underestimating future fuel and maintenance costs.

Despite that, a special Auckland fuel tax of 10 cents per litre that co-funds public transport investment provoked a brief but intense backlash from the public. Plans to extend the scheme to other centres were canned.

A two-pronged plan

The proposed fuel efficiency standard would require car importers to either meet it or pay a fine. The suggested standard is 150gCO₂/km in 2021, falling to 105gCO₂/km in 2025, with further falls thereafter. There are more than 3000 car importers in New Zealand, so this could prompt a major shakeup, including possible price adjustments.

The standards are similar to those proposed by the Australian Coalition government in 2016, which have not yet been taken any further. Internationally, fuel efficiency standards cover 80% of the light vehicle market.




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But the second component of the proposal, the clean car discount, has attracted more attention. Cars emitting less than the current threshold would received a discount, initially up to NZ$1800 for an efficient petrol car, up to NZ$4800 for a hybrid and up to NZ$8000 for a battery electric car. Cars costing more than NZ$80,000 would not receive a discount.

Known as a “feebate scheme”, those rebates would be paid for by increased fees for high-polluting cars, of up to NZ$3000. The amounts are designed so that the entire scheme would be revenue neutral to the government. Modelling suggests that the proposed standard and discount combined would save motorists NZ$12,000 over the life of a vehicle.

International clean car schemes and testing

There is international experience with similar schemes, and they have been broadly effective. France has been operating a “feebate” scheme since 2008 with periodic adjustments. New Zealand’s proposed scheme is similar to the French and Swedish schemes.

But there is also room to get it wrong. Tinkering with electric vehicle incentives has led to wild sales fluctuations in the Netherlands and Denmark.

The spread between tested and real-world fuel use has widened, up from 9% in 2001 to 42%. The new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure testing cycle, currently being adopted by Japanese and European manufacturers, is believed to be more representative of real-world fuel use, as is the test already in use in the United States.

But overall, the New Zealand proposal has been received positively by car makers and across political parties.

One possible weakness is that it is entirely based on carbon dioxide. Other pollutants, including nitrous and sulphur oxides and particulate matter (soot), that are responsible for most of the immediate health impacts of vehicle pollution and are worse in diesel than in petrol vehicles, are not targeted. Nor are the underlying subsidies to the car-based transport system, which make a transition to active and public transport more difficult.

Any decisions made now will have impacts for decades to come. Switching the fleet to electric is different from just switching to more fuel-efficient cars. It involves new charging infrastructure and some behavioural changes from the public, and these challenges (rather than simply cost) are stumbling blocks worldwide to more rapid adoption.

These arguments have persuaded many countries to bring in electric vehicle incentives beyond simply targeting carbon dioxide. Norway is a famous example, where electric vehicles avoid purchase taxes and market share is already 60%. The UK has recently exempted electric company cars from fringe benefit tax.

As the global market share of electric vehicles still stands at only 2%, eight years after they became widely available, and the number of fossil-fueled vehicles is increasing by 48 million a year, stronger action on vehicle emissions is clearly needed worldwide.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How hydrogen power can help us cut emissions, boost exports, and even drive further between refills



File 20180823 149484 hfrzfk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Could this be the way to fill up in future?
CSIRO, Author provided

Sam Bruce, CSIRO

Hydrogen could become a significant part of Australia’s energy landscape within the coming decade, competing with both natural gas and batteries, according to a new CSIRO roadmap for the industry.

Hydrogen gas is a versatile energy carrier with a wide range of potential uses. However, hydrogen is not freely available in the atmosphere as a gas. It therefore requires an energy input and a series of technologies to produce, store and then use it.

Why would we bother? Because hydrogen has several advantages over other energy carriers, such as batteries. It is a single product that can service multiple markets and, if produced using low- or zero-emissions energy sources, it can help us significantly cut greenhouse emissions.

Potential uses for hydrogen.
CSIRO, Author provided

Compared with batteries, hydrogen can release more energy per unit of mass. This means that in contrast to electric battery-powered cars, it can allow passenger vehicles to cover longer distances without refuelling. Refuelling is quicker too, and is likely to stay that way.

The benefits are potentially even greater for heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks which already carry heavy payloads, and where lengthy battery recharge times can affect business models.




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Hydrogen can also play an important role in energy storage, which will be increasingly necessary both in remote operations such as mine sites, and as part of the electricity grid to help smooth out the contribution of renewables such as wind and solar. This could work by using the excess renewable energy (when generation is high and/or demand is low) to drive hydrogen production via electrolysis of water. The hydrogen can then be stored as compressed gas and put into a fuel cell to generate electricity when needed.

Australia is heavily reliant on imported liquid fuels and does not currently have enough liquid fuel held in reserve. Moving towards hydrogen fuel could potentially alleviate this problem. Hydrogen can also be used to produce industrial chemicals such as ammonia and methanol, and is an important ingredient in petroleum refining.

Further, as hydrogen burns without greenhouse emissions, it is one of the few viable green alternatives to natural gas for generating heat.

Our roadmap predicts that the global market for hydrogen will grow in the coming decades. Among the prospective buyers of Australian hydrogen would be Japan, which is comparatively constrained in its ability to generate energy locally. Australia’s extensive natural resources, namely solar, wind, fossil fuels and available land lend favourably to the establishment of hydrogen export supply chains.

Why embrace hydrogen now?

Given its widespread use and benefit, interest in the “hydrogen economy” has peaked and troughed for the past few decades. Why might it be different this time around? While the main motivation is hydrogen’s ability to deliver low-carbon energy, there are a couple of other factors that distinguish today’s situation from previous years.

Our analysis shows that the hydrogen value chain is now underpinned by a series of mature technologies that are technically ready but not yet commercially viable. This means that the narrative around hydrogen has now shifted from one of technology development to “market activation”.

The solar panel industry provides a recent precedent for this kind of burgeoning energy industry. Large-scale solar farms are now generating attractive returns on investment, without any assistance from government. One of the main factors that enabled solar power to reach this tipping point was the increase in production economies of scale, particularly in China. Notably, China has recently emerged as a proponent for hydrogen, earmarking its use in both transport and distributed electricity generation.

But whereas solar power could feed into a market with ready-made infrastructure (the electricity grid), the case is less straightforward for hydrogen. The technologies to help produce and distribute hydrogen will need to develop in concert with the applications themselves.

A roadmap for hydrogen

In light of this, the primary objective of CSIRO’s National Hydrogen Roadmap is to provide a blueprint for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia. With several activities already underway, it is designed to help industry, government and researchers decide where exactly to focus their attention and investment.

Our first step was to calculate the price points at which hydrogen can compete commercially with other technologies. We then worked backwards along the value chain to understand the key areas of investment needed for hydrogen to achieve competitiveness in each of the identified potential markets. Following this, we modelled the cumulative impact of the investment priorities that would be feasible in or around 2025.


CSIRO, Author provided

What became evident from the report was that the opportunity for clean hydrogen to compete favourably on a cost basis with existing industrial feedstocks and energy carriers in local applications such as transport and remote area power systems is within reach. On the upstream side, some of the most material drivers of reductions in cost include the availability of cheap low emissions electricity, utilisation and size of the asset.




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The development of an export industry, meanwhile, is a potential game-changer for hydrogen and the broader energy sector. While this industry is not expected to scale up until closer to 2030, this will enable the localisation of supply chains, industrialisation and even automation of technology manufacture that will contribute to significant reductions in asset capital costs. It will also enable the development of fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen with carbon capture and storage, and place downward pressure on renewable energy costs dedicated to large scale hydrogen production via electrolysis.

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The Conversation

In light of global trends in industry, energy and transport, development of a hydrogen industry in Australia represents a real opportunity to create new growth areas in our economy. Blessed with unparalleled resources, a skilled workforce and established manufacturing base, Australia is extremely well placed to capitalise on this opportunity. But it won’t eventuate on its own.

Sam Bruce, Manager, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere won’t save us: we have to cut emissions now


Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen and Pep Canadell, CSIRO

Over 190 countries are negotiating in Paris a global agreement to stabilise climate change at less than 2℃ above pre-industrial global average temperatures.

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming under 2℃ we can emit a further 865 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). The climate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2030 are a first step, but recent analyses show they are not enough.

So what are the options if we cannot limit emissions to remain within our carbon budget?

Emitting more than the allowance would mean we have to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The more carbon we emit over the coming years, the more we will need to remove in future.

In fact, out of 116 scenarios consistent with 2℃ published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 101 scenarios require the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere during the second half of this century. That’s on top of the large emission reductions required.

So how do we remove carbon from the atmosphere? Several technologies have been proposed to this effect. These are often referred to as “negative emissions technologies” because the carbon is being removed from the atmosphere (in the opposite direction to emissions).

In a study published today in Nature Climate Change, which is part of a broader release by the Global Carbon Project, we investigate how big a role these technologies could play in halting global warming.

We find that these technologies might play a role in climate mitigation. However, the large scales of deployment currently used in most pathways that limit warming to 2℃ will be severely constrained by environmental and socio-economic factors. This increases the pressure to raise the level of ambition in reducing fossil fuel emissions now.


Smith et al. 2015, Nature Climate Change

How to pull carbon out of the atmosphere

The technologies range from relatively simple options, such as planting more trees, which lock up CO2 as they grow, or crushing rocks that naturally absorb CO2 and spreading them on soils and oceans so they remove CO2 more rapidly.

There are also higher-tech options such as using chemicals to absorb CO2 from the air, or burning plants for energy and capturing the CO2 that would otherwise be released, then storing it permanently deep below the ground (called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage).

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.
Canadell & Schulze 2014, Nature Communications

We examined the impacts of negative emission technologies on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, earth’s reflectivity (or albedo) and soil nutrient loss, as well as the energy and cost requirements for each technology.

One major limitation that we identified is the vast requirements for land.

About 700 million hectares of land are required to grow biomass for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage at the scale needed in many 2℃ pathways. This would remove more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year and would help to compensate an overshoot in emissions earlier this century.

The area required is close to half of current global arable land plus permanent crop area. If bioenergy with carbon capture and storage were deployed at this scale there would be intense competition with food, water and conservation needs.

This land requirement has made other negative emissions technologies attractive, such as direct air capture. However, current cost estimates for such technologies are between US$1,600 and US$2,000 per tonne of carbon removed from the atmosphere. In contrast, the majority of emissions with a carbon price in 40 national jurisdictions have a cost of less than US$10 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

The study shows that there are many such impacts that vary across technologies. These impacts will need to be addressed and should determine the level at which negative emission technologies can play a role in achieving climate mitigation goals.

Plan A: reduce fossil fuel emissions

We conclude that, given the uncertainties around large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies, we would be taking a big gamble if actions today were based on the expectation of heavy use of unproven technologies tomorrow.

The use of these technologies will likely be limited due to any combination of the environmental, economic or energy constraints we examined. We conclude that “Plan A” must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aggressively now. A failure to initiate such a level of emissions cuts may leave us with no “Plan B” to stabilise the climate within the 2℃ target.

The technologies of today are not the technologies of tomorrow. However, a prudent approach must be based on the level of climate abatement required with available technologies, while strongly investing in the research and development that might lead to breakthroughs that will ease the formidable challenge ahead of us.

The Conversation

Pete Smith, Professor of Soils and Global Change, University of Aberdeen and Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of Global Carbon Project, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Check In: Day 3 of Holiday


Today was spent chiefly at Dorrigo National Park, where I spent nearly 5 hours on a bushwalk through the wilderness surrounding the Never Never Picnic Area. This is a spectacular area within the Dorrigo National Park. I could quite easily have spent far more time there trekking up both Sassafras Creek and Rosewood Creek. These are some wild streams that cut there way through the heart of the national park. Given all of the recent rain in the region, they were truly at their best today.

The new camera got a work out today, but I am not completely sold on it – though as a camera for panoramic photos it is fantastic and well worth buying for that function alone. The photo I have included with this post is of Rosewood Creek directly above Coachwood Falls. It is a brilliant place and very wild indeed.

I did pick up several leeches throughout the day, with one attaching itself to me just below the left knee. It wasn’t found for some time and had a good feed and I a good bleed after it was removed. Several more were found in my socks but they weren’t able to force their way through.

I’ll be working on the various photos and videos over the next week or so and putting together various packages for the website, Flickr, YouTube, the Blog, etc. There are some really terrific photos and videos among them. Hopefully today’s shot will whet the appetite for the rest of them.