Simon Wilson: 6 things wrong with the climate target, 1 big thing right

The moment I threw all my toy cars out of the cot came during the TV news on Sunday night, when someone from the AA was given a moment to speak.

He was responding to the Government’s new target of a 50 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It was unrealistic, he said, to think we could cut the amount we drive by 20 per cent, by the middle of the next decade.

What the what? Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw announced the long-awaited new “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) on Sunday, just in time for the Glasgow summit.

On the face of it, the policy is utterly reasonable: 50 per cent, globally, is what the Paris Agreement requires and many other countries, including the US and most of Europe, have promised the same thing.

As ambitions go, 50 per cent is not even high. Britain has a 78 per cent target, tied to 2035.

But the AA thinks it’s wrong to suggest we should drive less.

The truth is, we need to drive less, use less plastic, build our homes and office blocks more sustainably, develop less polluting ways to farm, grow our renewable energy sources, stop the industrial use of coal and other fossil fuels, eat less meat and stop using oil as a transport fuel, not just in our cars but in freight haulage and air travel.

Driving less is probably the easiest item on that list. We should commit to the easy ones as quickly as we can, because stopping cows from belching and inventing green-hydrogen aeroplanes is taking a bit of time.

And instead of behaving like the Nimbys of the roads, the AA could help. The climate is in crisis. Civil society groups like them have a critical role to help their members understand why we have to raise our game.

As Boris Johnson said the other day, “We’re down 5-1 at half-time.” It’s time to play as a team.

There’s been a big response from scientists and other experts to the new NDC, much of it organised through the excellent networks of the Science Media Centre, the Climate Action Network and Climate Analytics.

And what they’ve said has been remarkably consistent: progress is good but there are devils in the detail. Six in particular.

The first is that the Government is fiddling the figures. “This isn’t even close to halving our emissions,” says Oil Change International’s David Tong, a veteran of five COP conferences. “The reality is that this is closer to a quarter reduction.”

Bill Hare, of Climate Analytics, agrees. Hare is the analyst many others turn to with data like this – and it’s his job to report our progress to Climate Action Tracker. When he’d crunched the numbers, he said, “The real emission reductions achieved compared to 2005 levels of net emissions is only 22-23 per cent.”

This has happened because gross emissions in 2005, the base year for all these calculations, are being compared with projected net emissions in 2030. In simple terms, more trees will be planted, which helps the net figure.

But in 2005 we were already planting trees. The comparison should be net to net, not gross to net.

Niwa’s principal climate scientist, Sam Dean, says: “What matters to global warming is the change in concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the difference between what we emit and what we remove through actions like forestry – known as net-emissions.”

Second, the accounting tricks don’t stop there. To calculate the impact of both forestry and the different greenhouse gases, the Government is using the most favourable methods it can find.

Hare calls the results “fictitious” and says they will “at best” lead to “significant confusion in the policy and stakeholder community”.

Most countries do it, of course: pick the reporting methods that favour them. But Glasgow might change this. Shaw himself hopes the conference will produce more transparent, robust and standardised reporting rules.

The third problem with the new target is that it relies too much on “offsets”. We’re going to pay for reductions in other countries, especially in the Pacific, and count them as our own.

We might build wind farms in Fiji, say, but – the AA will be pleased – we’ll do it instead of quickly reducing our use of petrol-driven cars.

Jocelyn Turnbull, a GNS radiocarbon scientist and one of our leading contributors to international climate analysis, says: “The commitment to assist our Pacific neighbours in reducing their emissions is laudable, but we should be conscious of the underlying implication that New Zealand will claim international carbon credits from this work.

“We will need to ensure … that these international emissions reductions are real and robust.”

Again, what we’re doing is common, but there are hopes that Glasgow will tighten the rules to stop the system being abused.

The fourth issue is methane, the main greenhouse gas produced by farming.

“This new target is meaningless,” says Greenpeace’s Christine Rose, “unless action is taken on emissions from industrial agriculture. Agriculture is 48 per cent of our emissions.” Indeed it is.

But there is still no plan to require any significant cuts in methane emissions, despite the technologies and farming practices already available to help with that. And there’ll be more to come.

The fact is, it will be far easier for New Zealand to lower the methane count than for China and India to wean themselves off coal.

The fifth problem is that talk is easy but action is hard. We won’t even have a plan for how to achieve the new target until May next year.

Emeritus Professor Ralph Sims, an energy and climate scientist at Massey University, says: “The Government is now seeking ideas and comments as to how to reduce emissions through their draft Emissions Reduction Plan. This is only delaying the need to act, particularly after the Climate Change Commission already received 15,000 similar comments not too long ago before submitting its advice.”

David Tong summed it up. “While this is a real step forward, it’s not nearly enough. Instead of getting real, committing to a just transition and breaking free from our dependence on oil, gas and coal, New Zealand’s Government is doubling down on creative accounting tricks and trying to buy our way out of the problem.”

Then there’s the sixth problem. Asking all countries to aim for the same NDC favours rich countries, because on the whole they will find emissions reductions easier than poor ones. And yet it’s rich countries that caused the climate crisis. On Sunday Ardern called our contribution “fair”, but if it was really fair it would be much higher than 50 per cent.

“Halving our emissions,” said Tong, “isn’t enough.”

Still, if we do achieve that by 2030, in real terms, it will be an enormous achievement. My guess is that the 50 per cent target was a victory for James Shaw, while all those compromises were the work of his Labour ministerial colleagues.

And even that is a world away from National’s response.

Climate change spokesperson Stuart Smith protested that the new NDC was an attack on farmers. The old one, he said, adopted by National with a nominal 30 per cent target, was already “highly ambitious”.

That’s nonsense. Sam Dean from Niwa noted on Sunday that once you decoded that 30 per cent target, “New Zealand’s … commitment to the Paris agreement actually allowed an increase in net emissions in 2030 relative to 2005 of about 2two per cent.”

Finally, we are aiming in the right direction. It’s a big thing. Like most other countries in Glasgow, we shouldn’t feel smug about it. But we certainly shouldn’t feel outraged.

History is going to be made at that conference, one way or another.

Simon Wilson’s online Glasgow Diary will resume on Wednesday on the NZ Herald app and at nzherald.co.nz

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