A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The election of the sixth Labour-led government heralds a new direction for climate change policy in New Zealand.

As part of the new government’s 100-day priority plan, it pledged to set a target of carbon neutrality by 2050 and to establish the mechanisms to phase out fossil fuels. In doing so, New Zealand will join a small group of countries that have established this goal since last year: France, Germany, Sweden (by 2045) and Norway (by 2030).

From commitment to action

The government plans to set up an independent climate commission, likely based on the one established in the UK with nearly unanimous parliamentary support in 2008. UK emissions are down not just to 1990 levels, but to 1900 levels.

The climate commission’s tasks will include providing advice on effective pricing mechanisms for climate pollution, on the transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035, and on bringing agriculture into the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme.

All parties to the Paris Agreement have already agreed to become carbon-neutral in the second half of this century. The snag is turning that commitment into action.

A story of good intentions

It is now 20 years since New Zealand first signed the Kyoto Protocol – two decades of fine words and twists and turns in policy while emissions continued to rise. Surprisingly, while Australia has followed a twisty path of its own, perhaps with not so many fine words, the effect has been the same: gross greenhouse gas emissions have risen 24% in New Zealand since 1990, compared to a rise of 27% in Australia.

New Zealanders built a lot of gas-fuelled power stations in the 1990s and bought a lot of cars in the 2000s. Astoundingly, we now have more cars per capita than Australia.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/DvHDL/5/

The frustrating story is told in the documentary Hot Air. New Zealand spent ten years getting a strategy in place, ending up with an emissions trading scheme (ETS). Another decade of tinkering later, the scheme involves a complex system of discounts, free allocations, exemptions and, crucially, unlimited access to international emissions units.

After 2012, New Zealand companies used this access to buy large numbers of low-integrity units from the Ukraine, enough to officially cover a quarter of all our emissions. The price of carbon, currently NZ$19, adds about 4c per litre to the price of petrol, and about 1c per kilowatt-hour to gas-powered electricity. So far, New Zealand’s ETS – like others worldwide – has not delivered.


Read more: A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


New Zealand’s state-owned mining company, Solid Energy, was pushed into some risky deals and ultimately into managed bankruptcy. The remaining assets have been sold to Bathurst Resources. Chief executive Richard Tacon said recently:

… there is no viable alternative to coal. I mean we realise it’s a transition fuel, but there’s a lot of business, dairy … that rely on coal to be a reliable, storable source of energy.

Has even an Australian coal baron ever called coal a “transition fuel”? But then again perhaps Tacon has a point: the dairy company Fonterra burns more than half of all New Zealand’s coal, and the dairy industry as a whole emits 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year burning coal to dry milk.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/99r6A/4/

Civil society perseveres

Against this background, climate activists have had a hard row to hoe. Law student Sarah Thomson took the government to court in July 2017 over its inaction on climate change. In a victory for both sides, the judge ruled that the government should have reviewed its 2050 target, but declined to order a judicial review because the government had since changed.

The youth climate group Generation Zero campaigned for a Zero Carbon Act. The former parliamentary commissioner for the environment, Jan Wright, called for a UK-style Climate Change Act. Thirty-nine mayors pressed the government to take stronger action.

Data from a 20-year longitudinal study of social attitudes in New Zealand show increasing agreement with climate change.

A third review of the ETS removed a 50% discount, with further strengthening scheduled. The Environment Ministry was asked to advise specifically on domestic emissions reductions. The Productivity Commission, a government think tank, was asked to report on a low-emission economy.

However, during the election campaign, climate change was not a major issue, and official projections showed a continued rise in emissions. Under current policy settings, net emissions will rise a further 58% by 2030.

Aiming for carbon neutrality

That brings the story to New Zealand First’s decision to choose a Labour-led government, with the Green Party in a confidence and supply arrangement. The Greens now have five ministers, including co-leader James Shaw as minister for climate change. Labour, having first introduced the ETS in 2008, will now amend it to try to make it work.

Already, since the election, Fonterra has announced a commitment to cut processing emissions (mostly due to coal, but also natural gas and transport) by 30% by 2030, matching the national target, and 100% by 2050.

Carbon neutrality calls for, among other things, a complete stop to burning fossil fuels and to buying products that burn them, such as petrol cars. The year 2050 is not that far away.

In truth, by 2050 anything might happen: organic solar cells might become as cheap as newsprint, unleashing economic growth and making “sunlight-to-liquid fuels” economic – or not. Positive carbon feedbacks from the oceans, forests and Arctic methane might overwhelm our mitigation efforts. Climate sensitivity might surprise us on the high or low side.

The ConversationWe can’t say what parts of the natural world will survive climate change and the attempted sustainability transition. But New Zealand is taking a step in the right direction.

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

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

Climate mitigation – the greatest public health opportunity of our time


Fiona Armstrong, La Trobe University

Tackling climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century, a team of 60 international experts today declared in a special report for The Lancet medical journal.

The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate report comes six years after the groundbreaking first Commission report – a collaboration between The Lancet and University College London – which described climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The latest report shows many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change can directly reduce the burden of ill health, boost community resilience, and lessen poverty and inequity.

In particular, switching to clean renewable energy sources, energy-efficient buildings and active transport options will reduce air pollution and have flow-on health benefits. This includes reducing rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illness and respiratory disease.

The commission also reveals these health co-benefits associated with emissions reduction strategies offer extraordinary value for money. The financial savings associated with avoided ill-health and productivity gains can outstrip the costs of implementing emissions-reduction strategies – if they are carefully designed.

What if we wait?

The commission makes it plain we cannot afford to wait. There are limits to the level and rate of warming humans and other species can adapt to.

With “just” 0.85°C warming since the pre-industrial era, many predicted health threats around the world have become real. Long, intense heatwaves and other extreme weather events such as storms, floods, fires and drought are having direct health impacts. The impacts on ecosystems affects health indirectly, through agricultural losses, as well as contributing to spread of disease.

Mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change can directly reduce the burden of ill health.
Vaclav Volrab/Shutterstock

Climate change is affecting economies and social structures, which also cause health impacts, particularly when associated with forced migration and conflict. Given the risks of climate change-induced “regional collapse, famine and war”, the commission notes mitigation-focused investment “would seem to be the prudent priority at a global level”.

How does this affect Australians?

Climate change is driving record temperatures in Australia, with heatwaves now hotter, longer and more frequent. People die from heat exposure during these events. Many others seek medical attention, leading to massive surges in demand for ambulances, emergency services, and health-care services. Deaths from heatwaves in Australian cities are expected to double in the next 40 years.

Hotter summers are leading to more bush fires, which cause injuries and fatalities. People lose their homes and businesses. Communities lose schools and health care. After bush fires, communities also face a higher rate of general illness, increased in alcohol and drug abuse, and more mental illness.

Extreme rainfall and cyclones cause direct fatalities and injuries. Floods and cyclones can severely affect health care services. In 2011, floods in Queensland caused the cancellation of 1,396 surgical cases, increasing waiting times for vital procedures by 73%.

Rising temperatures are leading to increases in deadly foodborne illnesses, disruptions to food production and water security, and worsening air quality, increasing respiratory illnesses.

Finally, infectious diseases are becoming more common, as are vector-borne diseases such as Ross River fever and zoonotic diseases, which are spread from animals to humans.

What does the future hold?

The report notes that since the first commission six years ago, emissions have risen beyond the “worst case scenario”.

Without mitigation, the authors warn “large-scale disruptions to the climate system” (not currently included in climate modelling and impact assessments) could “trigger a discontinuity in the long-term progression of humanity”.

In lay terms, they mean “wipe us out”.

At the very least, or at least put another way, the authors suggest likely temperature rises may be “incompatible with an organised global community”.

A prescription for action

Cutting emissions, the commission says, will limit health damages, as well as bring important health improvements associated with improved air quality, increased mobility from better public transport, and better physical and mental health from greener spaces and more energy efficient homes.

There is no need to wait. The commission says it is technically feasible to transition to low-carbon infrastructure now. The technologies have been available for at least 40 years, and some since the 19th century.

The financial savings associated with avoided ill-health and productivity gains can outstrip the costs of implementing emissions-reduction strategies.
TCDavis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

There is potentially significant economic savings associated with the health benefits of climate policies. One study suggests savings from avoided ill-health arising from the implementation of an emissions trading scheme could return up to ten times the cost of implementation.

Policies to achieve this must include carbon pricing, the commission argues – either carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. Where these are not appropriate, it recommends taxes on energy products. Feed-in tariffs (for electricity fed back to the grid) should drive renewable energy deployment, while perverse subsidies to fossil fuels should be abolished.

A key recommendation is the rapid phase out of coal – part of “an early and decisive policy package” to target emissions from the transport, agriculture and energy sectors.

Timing is everything

In order to have a 66% likelihood of limiting global warming to less than 2°C, the remaining global carbon budget will be used up in the next 13 to 24 years.

As all good health professionals know, treatment is of most value when it addresses the cause – in this case, largely fossil fuels. Scaling of low-carbon technologies policy options is vital.

The commission doesn’t spell this out, but in order for global emissions to begin to fall, we must use our remaining carbon budget to make the switch to low-carbon technologies and resources. Doing so will create many new jobs, and help avoid expensive adaptation costs.

Questions for Australia

The Lancet commission makes a clear case for climate action based on health benefits alone. This raises important questions for the Australian government, which abolished the carbon price, wound back policies to support renewable energy, and committed to supporting coal as an energy source:

Why is it failing to protect the health of Australians from this very serious threat? And why are the health benefits associated with climate policies not being factored into policy decisions, given the billions of dollars in savings for health budgets?

Australians should themselves be asking these questions, but at least now we know the Commission will also be listening for the answers.

The Conversation

Fiona Armstrong is Associate, Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute, University of Melbourne; Sessional Lecturer, School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University.

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