New Zealand weighs up a nation-sized battery

By Ian Mason and Robert McLachlan

The present Lake Onslow, Central Otago. Source: Wikipedia

Climate change was a small but perceptible part of the recent election. On climate change, Labour pointed proudly to their record of legislating for net zero emissions by 2050 (nicknamed the ‘Zero Carbon Act’), establishing a Climate Change Commission to set carbon budgets and advise the government, and for strengthening the Emissions Trading Scheme by adding a falling cap on emissions.

But on closer inspection, all is not well. There is a serious gap between words and actions, the same gap that bedevils climate action in many countries. In fact, Climate Action Tracker rates New Zealand’s actions as ‘insufficient’, and consistent with a +3ºC world. How can this be?

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high, at 16 tCO2e. Gross emissions are up 24% on 1990 levels, and have not reduced in the entire 17-year operation of climate legislation. Transport emissions have doubled since 1990; New Zealand now has the highest vehicle ownership rate in the world, and recent years have seen the start of a large-scale motorway-building programme, supported by both major political parties. The Emissions Trading Scheme suffers from a carbon price that is too low ($35/t) to cut emissions, combined with too little coverage – export industries are largely exempt.

We often hear that New Zealand has a lot of renewable electricity. Electricity generation in 2019 was 58% hydro, 17% geothermal, 5% wind, 1% biomass, 13% gas, and 5% coal. Sounds pretty good, right? And yet in a time of climate crisis and supposed action, no fossil fuel plants have closed since 2015, and no new wind farms have been completed since 2014 (although activity is now starting up again).

Clearly something has to give at some point. That point could come next year, after the Climate Change Commission releases their first major advice in May 2021. But into this mix the Labour Party has introduced two striking election policies: one, to commit to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and two, to fund a study and initial work on a stupendously large pumped hydro power station at Lake Onslow in the South Island.

For the high renewables percentage masks some fundamental problems with the system. The hydro lakes are not large, containing just 4 TWh of storage in a country with annual electricity consumption of 40 TWh. It only takes a few months of low rainfall to send prices and emissions higher. Even worse, the lakes are fed by snowmelt in spring. This creates an imbalance of about 2 TWh between hydro supply (highest in spring and summer) and demand (highest in winter), currently covered by fossil fuels. The imbalance can also lead to the lakes overflowing, wasting energy. Finally, the whole country faces a ‘dry year risk’. Every 5 or 10 years supply is unusually short, and households and industries are asked to save electricity. This risk is permanently priced in.

And that’s just the present situation. To decarbonize the whole economy will require a lot more electricity. Hydro is largely maxed out. There is scope for more geothermal energy, although the best sites have been built already, and most fields are not truly low-carbon or indefinitely sustainable – typically plants are designed to deplete the field over 50 to 100 years. That leaves solar and wind. 

Enter the nation-sized battery. Engineers know well that pumped hydro is overwhelmingly likely to provide the majority of energy storage in decades to come, and will be needed to balance intermittent renewables. But most systems contain only a few hours or days of storage. The Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Virginia has a large capacity  of 3 GW. But with its 24 GWh of storage, it can only run flat out for 8 hours.

The opportunity at Lake Onslow is due to the combination of demand, outlined above, and the special geography of the region. The storage lake would be created with an earth dam with an 80 metre operating range at a large, gently-sloping, high-altitude schist basin, connected to another lake (part of the existing hydro system) 700 metres below, via a 20-kilometre tunnel. In one scenario, 1.2 GW of generation is matched to 5 TWh of storage, more than doubling the capacity of the entire hydro system of the country. It could run continuously for six months. The largest configuration has up to 12 TWh of storage.

Proponents describe numerous benefits of the Lake Onslow pumped hydro station, first proposed by Earl Bardsley in 2005. It would balance a large amount of new wind and solar on time scales of hours. It would provide seasonal balancing on a scale of months. It would prevent spilling in the rest of the system and allow the other lakes to maintain more constant levels. It would allow decarbonization of the electricity grid, and of a lot of industrial process heat use and transport as well. The cost (perhaps $4 billion) could add 0.5c/kWh to all other electricity; but it’s possible that, overall, the net cost of electricity would be lowered. It would make private investment in new wind and solar more attractive, by putting a floor on spot prices. Every five or ten years, when a dry year comes along, the full capacity of the lake would be called into use.

If pumped hydro is such a great idea, and is urgently needed for the future worldwide, why isn’t it happening already? A 2016 review by Edward Barbour and others points to some of the problems. Consider the example of Germany. Germany has seen a rapid expansion of renewables, to the point where electricity generation is now 29% from wind and 8% from solar. That should have created an ideal environment for pumped hydro. Instead, the opposite happened. Declining wholesale prices for electricity during the daytime reduced the opportunity to buy low (at night) and sell high (during the day), to the point where even existing pumped hydro facilities became unprofitable and closed.

The Barbour study found that 95% of pumped hydro stations are publicly owned or operate in monopoly conditions. The authors write:

A major reason for this is thought to be due to the regulatory and financial uncertainty surrounding the integration of Pumped Hydro Energy Storage into liberalised electricity markets, which increases the risk, without providing the certainty of rewards over longer-time frames.

Regulators have struggled to find a model that balances the benefits to consumers, to the private and publicly owned generators and retailers, and to the environment, all on different time scales. This could justify direct public capital investment, especially at a time when governments are seeking labour-intensive, ‘green rebuild’ projects, and can borrow for close to nothing. It also points to a need to modify the market structure in the future to incorporate pumped hydro. 

However, there is a political dimension to the Lake Onslow project too, especially relevant at election time. “100% renewable” is a catchy slogan; a large civil engineering project doesn’t threaten anyone’s lifestyle today, the way a hefty carbon tax or regulation of car sales might. Climate politics requires gaining support for actions today whose benefits extend far into the future. 

Ian Mason is Research Fellow in Energy Engineering and Carbon Management and Director of the Renewable Energy Programme at the University of Canterbury. A version of this article appeared first at RenewEconomy.

Carbon neutral jet fuel

By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan

At an industrial park in Herøya, south of Oslo, Norway, a site has been cleared for the construction by Norsk E-fuel of a factory that will produce the world’s first climate-neutral jet fuel on a large scale. By 2026 the plant will be producing 100 million litres of aviation kerosene a year, enough to cut emissions by 200,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Although the scale is new, the building blocks of the technology are not. Electricity from hydropower (in commercial use since the 1880s) is passed through water to produce hydrogen, a process discovered in 1800. The hydrogen is reacted with carbon dioxide in variants of the Fischer–Tropsch process, widely used since the 1920s, to produce liquid fuels including jet kerosene. The carbon dioxide supply is the most innovative part – most commercial production today comes from burning fossil fuels, which is of course not climate neutral. Instead, it will be captured directly from the air by Climeworks, a company who have been doing just that since 2017.

This synthetic jet fuel, called Power-to-Liquid or e-fuel, is already approved for use in current aeroplanes.

If it’s all so simple, and the technology is ready to go, why isn’t it being used already? 

From an economic point of view, it comes down to cost. The industry needs to grow in order to achieve economies of scale, and also so that costs can reduce over time by learning from experience. That’s the standard picture of technological spread, from phones to solar panels. But it can’t get started, because it can’t compete on price with fossil fuels. Kerosene is cheap, and even under optimistic assumptions on the availability of cheap renewable electricity, e-fuels will still cost twice as much by 2050. 

However, we can’t wait for 2050. Until Covid-19, global aviation was growing strongly, having doubled in the past decade. It was projected by the industry body IATA to triple further by 2040. In fact, by 2050 aviation could be using all of the available carbon emissions available under a 1.5ºC scenario. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will require strong action on aviation well before 2050.

This growth has been fueled by a concerted effort from the aviation and tourist industries, supported by governments (who often own airlines and airports and see aviation as a tool for growth) and international bodies like the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation and the World Tourism Organisation. As a result, jet fuel is untaxed, international airfares attract no sales tax or carbon tax, and international aviation emissions are not yet part of national targets under the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, modelling by Paul Peeters of Breda University finds that standard methods of reducing demand, such as very steep carbon taxes and ticket surcharges, can’t do the job by themselves. Economic growth and the increasing comfort and convenience of long-distance air travel will still lead to overall growth. In addition, the industry is likely to vigorously resist any extra charges, or indeed any attempt to reduce demand at all. They can do this quite easily because positive action requires international cooperation.

In an impasse like this, something has to break. E-fuels offer a way forward. They increase the cost of travel and reduce emissions at the source. But to expand beyond their first trial facility, they need help. Climate advocates, some tourist bodies, and the e-fuel industry are calling for a tax on jet fuel, a mandated e-fuel requirement (for example, a 10% blend by 2030), and direct investment by governments. Support for large quantities of renewable electricity is also needed.

Climate advocates might be wary at this point, and they would be right. Aviation, like many other industries, has long been guilty of selling stopgaps and technological smoke-and-mirrors ‘solutions’. For decades these have failed to come to pass, because there was not enough incentive from industry, governments, and the public to push them forward. Some have been a deliberate delaying tactic: Leave us alone, we’ve got this. Meanwhile, most of the money goes into developing marginally more efficient fossil fuel-burning machines and promoting growth. 

So far, a key stumbling block has been the lack of widespread acceptance in the industry that emissions need to start decreasing now, and to eventually be eliminated. The challenges are not really technological or economic, they’re social.

The aviation industry is now in an unparalleled crisis, although it will surely survive in some form. The industry is vital to New Zealand. Although we may not return to the days when 33 different airlines flew here, Air New Zealand itself may well emerge relatively stronger. It’s less indebted than many airlines, it has long been focused on sustainability, and it has government backing and a strong domestic market. But, whatever the pace of the recovery, environmental concerns about aviation emissions are not going to go away. New Zealand’s potential for renewable energy and our early steps towards green hydrogen (made from water and renewable electricity) put us in a promising position to develop e-fuels.  

The Covid-19 pandemic gives us a breathing space, a time to reflect and to plan. A dangerously unsustainable industry can acknowledge that it needs to set out on a better path. We can ensure that future investments, and bailouts, lead to genuine emission reductions and that aviation plays a fair part in a more balanced and sustainable world.

This article appeared first in the New Zealand Herald. Read the original article.

New Zealand voters divided on climate

Shutterstock/riekephotos

By Robert McLachlan

New Zealanders are polarised on climate change policy, according to a recent Stuff/Massey University survey of 55,000 readers. This puts the two major political parties in a difficult position as they seek options that are credible yet appealing to voters.

Just 30% of Labour voters and 22% of National voters think the country is “more or less on the right path” on climate action.

The majority of voters on one side of the political spectrum wants to see “urgent action and radical change”, while at the other end most recommend caution and scepticism.

The survey helps explain the deep distrust climate advocates have for the National Party, and their demands for bolder choices from Labour.

Where the parties stand

Labour is running heavily on its record, including the passing of the Zero Carbon Act and the introduction of a falling cap on emissions permits issued under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Although the government’s COVID-19 recovery spending has been criticised for not being green enough, Labour seems aligned with a “just transition” approach championed by the International Labour Organisation.

Labour’s climate headline policy is for 100% renewable electricity by 2030, five years earlier than planned, and to spend NZ$100 million developing a pumped hydro scheme. Labour is also sticking with a plan for a nationwide fuel efficiency standard, which would begin to turn around New Zealand’s growing transport emissions.

The party has dropped the electric car rebate, which the National Party has attacked on the grounds it could increase the price of popular vehicles. A similar approach worked for the Australian Liberal Party in 2019.

The Green Party would go further. While also promising 100% renewable electricity by 2030, the party promotes home solar and insulation and community clean energy. More boldly, it would immediately ban new fossil-fuelled industrial boilers and end industrial coal use by 2030 and gas by 2035. It would prioritise free public transport for under-18s, ban petrol car imports from 2030 and create a NZ$1.5 billion cycleway fund.

The National Party has released its electric vehicle policy, with a target of 80,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2023 (up from 16,000 now). It would exempt these vehicles from fringe benefit tax until 2025 and from road user charges until at least 2023 to encourage uptake by commercial fleets. It would also target a third of government vehicles to be electric by 2023 and allow electric vehicles to use bus and carpool lanes. The last point has been criticised for impeding the flow of buses.

On the other hand, National’s climate spokesperson, Scott Simpson, has called the party a “broad church” and pledged to amend the Zero Carbon Act to emphasise that food production should not be sacrificed for climate goals.

The ACT Party, which on current polling would increase from one to ten MPs, was the only party to oppose the Zero Carbon Act. It now proposes repealing the act and tying the price of carbon to that of New Zealand’s five top trading partners.

What a difference three years make

At the time of New Zealand’s last general election in September 2017, Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike 4 Climate movements did not yet exist. Greta Thunberg was unknown to the world.

Climate protest
Climate protesters demonstrating in Wellington. Shutterstock/ Natalia Ramirez Roman

Now climate activism has increased globally. Climate-change impacts, including temperature records of 38℃ in northern Siberia to 54℃ in Death Valley, have attracted widespread attention. Orange skies in San Francisco are a reminder of apocalyptic Australian bushfires less than a year ago.

There are also signs of bolder climate action that may fulfil the declarations of the Paris Agreement. In the European Union, negotiations are under way to cut 2030 emissions to 40-45% of 1990 levels. This target would require halving emissions in the next decade. In the US, the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has a US$2 trillion proposal for rapid decarbonisation. Ireland’s new government has agreed to emission cuts of 7% per year. China has pledged to be carbon-neutral before 2060. In New Zealand, both Auckland and Wellington councils have released highly ambitious climate plans that will require sweeping changes to housing and transport.

But this year’s New Zealand general election won’t be about climate change. The COVID-19 crisis and the high level of uncertainty about economic recovery and employment have made issues of leadership, trust and party branding more important than ever.

In this context, Labour’s nod to the Lake Onslow pumped hydro project could be a winner. Its storage potential is enormous – more than all of New Zealand’s present hydro lakes combined and 15 times the size of Australia’s Snowy 2.0 project.

It could decarbonise not just all electricity generation, but a lot of industrial process heat and transport as well. It would address the seasonal imbalance between lake inflows and electricity demand, and protect against dry years. But it’s also a traditional civil engineering project far in the future and doesn’t threaten anybody’s lifestyle today.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, climate politics means finding support for actions now whose benefits extend far into the future.

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

Flight to nowhere sends the wrong message in climate crisis

By Robert McLachlan

Qantas Airlines’ 7-hour “flight to nowhere”, that sold out in 10 minutes with prices from A$787 to A$3787, seemed like a sick joke to climate advocates. Apart from the waste of fuel and the pointless emissions, passengers would be able to see first-hand, from a plane just like those that carried coronavirus around the world so effectively, the sweeping devastation caused by last summer’s “climate fires” and the global-warming induced bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. “Would it be more efficient just to crash it in the Great Barrier Reef?” asked Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council for Clean Transportation.

Now a travel enthusiast has suggested that Air New Zealand could follow suit, offering scenic flights of the entire country (not forgetting the Chathams). Actually, New Zealand does have a proud tradition of scenic flights, from small beginnings in the 1930s, to the famous glacier landings that began in the 1950s, to the helicopter flights of today. 

Otago Daily Times, 10 July 1936.The Kotuku was one of three 4-engined De Havilland DH86 biplanes bought by Union Airways the previous year. Union Airways was started by the Union Steam Ship company and later evolved into NAC and then Air New Zealand.

But apart from Air New Zealand’s flights to Antarctica in the 1970s – flights that have continued since then from Australia, and that Qantas is now offering in another of its Boeing 787s, departing from a choice of five cities – New Zealand hasn’t seen anything on this scale.

So why shouldn’t it? After all, if there were customers for an Air New Zealand flight to nowhere, they’d get something that’s valuable to them, and they’d get to help our national flag carrier through some tough times to boot. What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is how it looks. Air New Zealand has a fantastic reputation for sustainability. To a hardcore greenie that might sound like a joke, but even seasoned climate campaigner Jonathan Porritt, their chief sustainability advisor, called them ‘the least unsustainable airline in the world’. What’s more, our international tourist industry, which relies on aviation, is largely based around our environmental image – “100% Pure”. Even before the pandemic, many people were pointing out how important it is that that image should be based on reality.

Aviation is important to New Zealand for more than just tourism. It ties families together, it transports students and workers. It’s about the value of transporting people from A to B, not from A to A. On the back of that argument, the global aviation industry has been able to get a golden ticket fostering unlimited growth: air travel doubled in the decade to 2019, and is projected to triple again by 2050. (If that came to pass, aviation would then be using all of the available remaining carbon budget.) The industry has escaped taxes on jet fuel and limits on carbon emissions. There’s not even GST charged on international flights. 

Since Covid-19, the industry has been a recipient of massive bailouts – about $150 billion worldwide, equal to their prior five years of profits. A lot of this government money will be wasted: a study published in May by Joseph Stiglitz and others found that airline bailouts were the very worst of all options on both financial and climate grounds. In New Zealand, the government has so far provided $600 million towards the aviation industry as well as a $900 million loan facility to Air New Zealand.

Somehow a way needs to be found to make a pathway leading towards both financial and environmental sustainability. It could involve less travel – administered through adjustments to charges, landing slots, and/or visas; it could involve investing in synthetic jet fuel. For the tourist industry, it could involve fewer tourists staying for longer. The Tourism Futures Task Force is considering the future of the industry right now, in the context of the ‘Four Capitals’ – economic, environmental, social, and cultural. You can send them your thoughts on this: in such an enormous disruption, the full effect of which hasn’t even begun to be felt, everyone’s voice is needed.

What we don’t need are flights to nowhere.

This article was originally published on Stuff. Read the original article.

Greta

By Paul Maunder

Late last year I wrote a remake of Waiting for Godot, called Waiting for Greta. The prospect of climate extinction seemed to match the existential angst of Becket’s original (which was perhaps influenced by Hiroshima and the subsequent threat of nuclear holocaust); the Swedish girl had just appeared on the scene and I was impressed by her address to the Climate Change Summit.

Since then, especially since venturing into New York, the heart of the beast, Greta Thunberg has become a prophetic (Naomi Klein’s description) force. Millions of kids have taken to the streets and now workers have been called in to support the movement. She is in the media as much as Trump or Johnson. She addresses parliaments, talks with the Pope, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama… and is subjected to the outlandishly intense scrutiny of the modern media and the lunatic babble of social media.

She seems to survive, unfazed. Most of the time she gives the floor to her admirers. When in the midst of her peers she seems shy and marginal. Yet when she speaks the message is crystal clear and very repeatable by others of her generation:

  • We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that the planet is under extreme threat of warming to the point that human life as we know it will be impossible.
  • Young people and future generations will pay the price. The leaders for the last thirty years, despite knowing the situation, have done nothing. The current leaders remain hesitant or are bent on destruction.
  • The least fortunate in the world will suffer most because rich people hang onto their privilege.
  • Continual economic growth is not the answer. The system has to change. Young people need to take to the streets and make that change.
  • No one is too small to make a difference.

There’s been nothing this clear and succinct since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. And the message is being forged, and the movement led, by this prophetic sixteen year old with Asperger’s.

Both the conservative right and the liberal left try and cut her down to size, either by dismissing her as a hysterical, mentally ill teenager, or by patronising her. Conspiracy theories abound. She’s in the employ of a PR firm. What’s the story with her parents? Some adults must be behind this. She’s a communist figurehead…

But then, she herself increased the intensity when she addressed the UN in New York. She took off the mask to show the anger, grief and pain of a generation. It became a poor theatre moment which created a frenzy. ‘She’s hysterical. She’s making young people anxious and suicidal. Why don’t her parents rein her in?’ For politicians don’t do this, nor do adults when in public. They can pretend anger and abuse one another, but only the mad reveal themselves in this way. Yet, in actual fact, she was on script. Here’s a quote from a book, The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future, by David Wallace-Wells:

‘Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole. Here the facts are hysterical and the dimensions of the drama  incomprehensibly large – large enough to enclose not just all of present day humanity but all of our possible futures as well.’

Greta suddenly acted out this enormity (and immediately a Death Metal band turned it into a song). The adults are terrified at being called to account. Is this going to be something like Mao’s cultural revolution? The honest ones, like Michael Moore, are willing to admit failure. Obama? – no wonder he wants to be seen shaking her hand.

Greta’s secret of course is her Asperger’s, which means she doesn’t ‘play the social games you folk are so fond of’, to use her words. She’s focused, obsessed perhaps, sees the issue without compromise, doesn’t chat, remains a vulnerable figure physically. Prophetic because in this situation, to quote Wallace-Wells again, ‘there is no analogy to draw on outside of mythology and theology’.

She is also remarkably astute. In a sweet interview with a Swedish talk show host, safe in her language and culture, she talks about her Papa – she won’t let him go shopping in New York, he’s untidy and probably sick of having to follow her around (having to pick her up from the UN rather than the school disco). She will keep assessing the public exposure and withdraw if it gets too much. I’m sure she’ll be capable of disappearing for a while just as effectively as she appeared. And she’ll have a remarkable knowledge of the way the political world works.

So far she has survived the maelstrom of the Empire. After all, it’s nothing compared to what the planet’s going to throw at us. And to copy her in three simple ways would change the world: stop flying, stop stupid shopping and become vegan. Let the whole human race do that, starting tomorrow. Whew! Yet it is possible. That’s the point she’s making.

Paul Maunder is a New Zealand film director and playwright. He lives in Blackball on the West Coast of the South Island, where he coordinates Mahi Tupuna – the Blackball Museum of Working Class History and Kiwi/Possum Productions, a community theatre group. This article originally appeared on his blog on 4 October 2019.

How the law can help in the fight for climate action

By Jenny Cooper

Jenny Cooper QC is a New Zealand corporate lawyer and president of Lawyers for Climate Action NZ. She spoke on 10 August 2020 at “All aboard! The race to decarbonise Auckland’s transport.”

All decision-makers who are exercising any form of public power have to act lawfully. That includes cabinet ministers, ministries, councils, and statutory bodies like the New Zealand Transport Authority. If they make decisions that aren’t consistent with the law or with their statutory powers, then anyone affected can apply to the court for judicial review to determine if the decisions are legal or not.

Decisions can be found to be unlawful if they are outside the scope of the decision-maker’s legal powers or lawful purpose under the relevant Act; if irrelevant considerations were taken into account, or mandatory considerations were not taken into account; if they are unreasonable or irrational; or if they have been affected by bias.

Often, an Act will spell out the considerations that a decision-maker must take into account, but, in addition, a court may find that some things which are not explicitly referred to are so obviously relevant that they should have been taken into account.

The usual result of a decision being found to be unlawful is to render it invalid and of no effect. The court will typically ask the decision-makers to do their work again, lawfully this time.

What is clear is that both in New Zealand and overseas, the courts are increasingly willing to get involved in decisions relating to climate change. This was the case in Thomson v Minister for Climate Change. Sarah Thomson challenged the failure by the then-Minister for Climate Change to review New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. The court was willing to get involved and did find that there were problems with the decision, but that since the government had recently changed, there was no need to order a review.

In New Zealand, sources of the legal duty to decarbonise lie in international and domestic law, and in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

International law

International law, such as the Paris Agreement, is not directly enforceable in New Zealand courts. But courts do interpret domestic law in a manner consistent with international obligations where possible, for example in Helu v Immigration and Protection Tribunal (see paragraphs 143-145 of the decision). International obligations can also be found to be mandatory considerations for decision-makers. The best recent example is the Heathrow runway case from the UK. In R Plan B v Secretary of State for Transport, the court found that even though the Minister had no statutory obligation to consider the Paris Agreement in approving the third runway, “There can be some unincorporated international obligations that are so obviously material [to a decision] that they must be taken into account. The Paris Agreement fell into this category.” This was an incredibly powerful lawsuit and an incredibly powerful finding by the court.

Domestic law

The centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate law is the Climate Change Response Act 2002, amended in 2019 (the “Zero Carbon Act”). All powers under the Act must be exercised in a manner consistent with its purposes, which include contributing to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

Section 5ZN permits all public decision-makers to take the 2050 zero carbon target and national carbon budgets into account in performing a public function, power, or duty. During deliberations over the bill, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argued that the subsequent clause (which said that there could be no legal remedy if the 2050 target or carbon budgets were not taken into account) should be deleted. We argued that the courts must have the power to determine the appropriate remedy if the decision-makers are not taking the right things into account, and this was accepted.

On this basis, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold the view that the 1.5ºC target, the 2050 target, and the carbon budgets are so obviously material to decisions in some areas, like the transport system, that they must be taken into account. We’re looking forward to testing this in court, if necessary!

There are also many Acts that govern local government and the regulations applying to various polluting activities. For example, the Local Government Act provides a legal duty to “promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future”, and to “maintain and enhance the quality of the environment”; the transport system must be “in the public interest”. A transport system pumping out ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases simply cannot be in the public interest.

The right to life

Urgenda is a civil society group in the Netherlands, active on climate issues. For several years they have been arguing in the Dutch courts that the Dutch government’s efforts to cut emissions are insufficient: specifically, that they were not consistent with 1.5ºC and that therefore they are not consistent with the right to life, because climate change creates a foreseeable risk of loss of life. On 20 December 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court agreed

Like the European Convention on Human Rights on which this case depended, the New Zealand Bill of Rights includes a right to life. Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argue that a similar positive legal obligation also applies in New Zealand and that decisions inconsistent with protection of the right to life are unlawful.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Article 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi protects Māori tino rangatiratanga over Māori whenua, kāinga, and taonga, which extends to climate and the environment.

In 2013, the Supreme Court in NZ Māori Council v Attorney General held that Te Tiriti imposed a duty on the Crown to actively protect Māori use of their lands and waters to the fullest extent practicable.

The Waitangi Tribunal, in Wai 262, found that Te Tiriti imposes a duty of active protection of the environment and a duty to recognize the continuing role of Māori as kaitiaki of environmental taonga.

Two claims are pending, one in the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2607) and one in the High Court (Smith v Attorney General) alleging breaches of the Crown’s obligation to take positive action to protect Māori against the threat of climate change. 

To sum up, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold that Ministers must take our obligation under the Paris Agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5ºC into account; that they must comply with the Crown’s obligation to Māori under Te Tiriti to protect against climate change; that they must take into account the 2050 target and successive carbon budgets, as set out in the Zero Carbon Act; and that they must act consistently with the right to life. Failure to do so will make their decisions unlawful.

Podcast with Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a writer, publisher, and host of the podcast “This climate business.” Recently he talked to Robert McLachlan about this blog and its stories about Ireland, Antarctica, and cats. But, if you’re here, you know that already, in which case you could check out his interviews with Julie Anne Genter and Eloise Gibson instead.

Climate explained: are we doomed if we don’t manage to curb emissions by 2030?

Thongden Studio/Shutterstock

By Robert McLachlan

A reader asks: Is humanity doomed? If in 2030 we have not reduced emissions in a way that means we stay under say 2℃ (I’ve frankly given up on 1.5℃), are we doomed then?

Humanity is not doomed, not now or even in a worst-case scenario in 2030. But avoiding doom — either the end or widespread collapse of civilisation — is setting a pretty low bar. We can aim much higher than that without shying away from reality.

It’s right to focus on global warming of 1.5℃ and 2℃ in the first instance. The many manifestations of climate change — including heat waves, droughts, water stress, more intense storms, wildfires, mass extinction and warming oceans — all get progressively worse as the temperature rises.

Climate scientist Michael Mann uses the metaphor of walking into an increasingly dense minefield.

Good reasons not to give up just yet

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the effects of a 1.5℃ increase in average temperatures in a special report last year. They are also nicely summarised in an article about why global temperatures matter, produced by NASA.

The global average temperature is currently about 1.2℃ higher than what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution, some 250 years ago. We are already witnessing localised impacts, including the widespread coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

This graph shows different emission pathways and when the world is expected to reach global average temperatures of 1.5℃ or 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Global Carbon Project, Author provided

Limiting warming to 1.5℃ requires cutting global emissions by 7.6% each year this decade. This does sound difficult, but there are reasons for optimism.

First, it’s possible technically and economically. For example, the use of wind and solar power has grown exponentially in the past decade, and their prices have plummeted to the point where they are now among the cheapest sources of electricity. Some areas, including energy storage and industrial processes such as steel and cement manufacture, still need further research and a drop in price (or higher carbon prices).

Second, it’s possible politically. Partly in response to the Paris Agreement, a growing number of countries have adopted stronger targets. Twenty countries and regions (including New Zealand and the European Union) are now targeting net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.

A recent example of striking progress comes from Ireland – a country with a similar emissions profile to New Zealand. The incoming coalition’s “programme for government” includes emission cuts of 7% per year and a reduction by half by 2030.

Third, it’s possible socially. Since 2019, we have seen the massive growth of the School Strike 4 Climate movement and an increase in fossil fuel divestment. Several media organisations, including The Conversation, have made a commitment to evidence-based coverage of climate change and calls for a Green New Deal are coming from a range of political parties, especially in the US and Europe.

There is also a growing understanding that to ensure a safe future we need to consume less overall. If these trends continue, then I believe we can still stay below 1.5℃.

The pessimist perspective

Now suppose we don’t manage that. It’s 2030 and emissions have only fallen a little bit. We’re staring at 2℃ in the second half of the century.

At 2℃ of warming, we could expect to lose more than 90% of our coral reefs. Insects and plants would be at higher risk of extinction, and the number of dangerously hot days would increase rapidly.

The challenges would be exacerbated and we would have new issues to consider. First, under the “shifting baseline” phenomenon — essentially a failure to notice slow change and to value what is already lost — people might discount the damage already done. Continuously worsening conditions might become the new normal.

Second, climate impacts such as mass migration could lead to a rise of nationalism and make international cooperation harder. And third, we could begin to pass unpredictable “tipping points” in the Earth system. For example, warming of more than 2°C could set off widespread melting in Antarctica, which in turn would contribute to sea level rise.

But true doom-mongers tend to assume a worst-case scenario on virtually every area of uncertainty. It is important to remember that such scenarios are not very likely.

While bad, this 2030 scenario doesn’t add up to doom — and it certainly doesn’t change the need to move away from fossil fuels to low-carbon options

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article, which featured a number of replies from readers taking a “Yes, we are doomed” position.

New airport at Tarras would drive rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions

By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan

Mike Kelley, “Flughafen Zürich 28 and 16 (Visual Separation)”, a montage of many actual departures. From “Civilisation, Photography, Now“, Auckland Art Gallery.

Last year a headline in the Australian Business Insider stated ‘Wednesday was one of the busiest recorded days in aviation history — and it’s going to keep getting busier’. More than 225,000 flights took to the skies on Wednesday, July 24 2019. But as Covid-19 started to spread around the world, the Flightradar24 site showed that flights plummeted to a low of just over 40,000 in early April. However, backed by significant government bailouts, they are now steadily rising, reaching over 140,000 per day.

Before Covid-19, aviation formed a significant part of global greenhouse gas emissions that almost entirely escaped regulation.  Jet fuel is responsible for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions. Other impacts of flying, known as radiative forcing, take the total impact to over 5%. Total air travel has grown 80% by 2009 and is projected to triple by 2050.  This is why a report for the UK Department of Transport concluded that

achieving a 1.5°C target will become irreconcilable with any continued fossil fuel usage by aviation at some point around the middle of the present century… Since aviation’s current goals are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement, in the absence of additional measures, then more ambitious goals should be set.

New Zealand charges no fuel duty on international flights, nor are the emissions covered under the Emissions Trading Scheme. There is no GST on international flights. In fact, the emissions are not even counted in our national greenhouse accounts, or in our greenhouse gas targets. These relative advantages have contributed to rapid growth of our international aviation emissions, which (until recently!) were up 33% in three years. In turn, the combination of a rapid growth of tourism with the global pandemic has created a particular problem.

Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, reported shortly before the lockdown on the environmental impact of tourism growth in New Zealand. He devotes a lot of attention to aviation, but concluded that

It appears to be a potentially existential risk that is being fatalistically run on the basis that for the moment there are no practical solutions and no imminent sign of concerted and stringent policy action.

This growth didn’t just happen

If “build it and they will come” applies to the capacity of the aviation sector, it is not surprising that flight numbers are forecast to expand. Planned expansions, coupled with heavy advertising and rewards schemes, mean the forecasts seemed to have every chance of “success”. Auckland Airport is planning for 40 million passengers per year by 2040, up from 21 million today. Wellington Airport’s billion-dollar upgrade, intended to double  traffic by 2040, is now on hold due to the pandemic. 

So the proposal for a new international airport at Tarras fits into a past pattern of rapid growth combined with a refusal to acknowledge its impact. Christchurch City Council (the majority owner of the airport) has a bold plan for Christchurch to reach net zero emissions by 2045. But its claimed emissions of 2.2 million tonnes CO2e per year don’t include international arrivals or departures. Those added another 1.7 million tonnes in 2019. Likewise, Queenstown Airport, which tripled traffic in the past decade to 2.4 million passengers in 2019 releasing about 0.8 million tonnes of CO2e, anticipated a further tripling by 2045. This demand growth, if facilitated by a new airport, and underwritten by government ownership, would mean extra emissions of 1.6 million tonnes a year, or even more if some travellers start from further away than the east coast of Australia.

The way forward

There are two kinds of fatalism. The optimistic kind says that technology will save us and we will muddle through regardless. The pessimistic kind says we’re doomed and there’s no point doing anything. Both are wrong. But in a difficult situation, we have to start with small steps.

The international No Fly and Fly-Less movements are starting to have an effect. In a pre-Covid survey, 75% of European respondents planned to fly less for holidays in 2020. In China the number was 94%, and in the US, 69%. Domestic air travel was already notably down in the UK, Sweden, and Germany. The EU is considering charging duty on jet fuel, similar to what is done for petrol. Our new Climate Commission will advise on whether to bring international transport into the ETS – a solution that has also been proposed internationally – but not until 2024. 

We are at the start of a decade in which the government’s stated aim is to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels. To have any hope of achieving this goal, all sectors of the economy, including aviation, need to dramatically and permanently reduce their emissions. 

Conversely, doing nothing would risk diverting ever more investment into an unsustainable part of our society and place the Net Zero 2050 goal in jeopardy. Even otherwise environmentally-aware travelers are in denial about the significance of their air travel emissions. It’s time to accept responsibility and to start choosing solutions.

This article appeared first in Stuff on 25 July 2020. Read the original article.

Ireland’s sensational climate plan

By Robert McLachlan

Ireland and New Zealand have a lot in common. Each has 5 million people. They are both scenic.

They both have a lot of cows. (New Zealand has 10 million, Ireland 7 million, both with rapidly intensified dairying.)

They are both windy.

They both play rugby.

They are both rich, although New Zealand is near the middle of the rich countries with national income of US$47,000 per person – the same as France and the UK – while Ireland is near the top at $67,000. They both run open, foreign-investment-friendly, low-tax economies, although Ireland really stands out on this one.

Of course, New Zealand is bigger than Ireland.

And for decades they have both talked a good talk on climate change while failing to reduce their emissions.

Ireland’s gross greenhouse gas emissions…
and New Zealand’s. ‘Energy’ is emissions from burning fossil fuels, ‘IPPU’ is industrial processes like manufacturing fertiliser and cement.

While New Zealand’s emissions, stuck on 80 million tonnes CO2e a year, are higher than Ireland’s at 60 million tonnes, the difference is mainly due to agriculture. Even so, Ireland’s agricultural emissions are themselves unusually high, and attempts to discuss them have run into the same roadblocks as in New Zealand.

As well as a traditional farming culture, we can think of the housing crisis, poor quality housing, a rural/urban divide, and inequality issues as roughly similar. In terms of addressing climate change, Ireland does face some extra difficulties: a lack of hydropower, and a lack of land for wind power, and slightly colder temperatures.

The 2020 election & the Programme for Government

The election in Ireland on 8 February 2020 delivered no clear winner. Coalition talks continued until June, when a 3-party coalition of the conservative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties together with the Green Party agreed an astonishing 126-page “Programme for Government“. Not only is it as long as a novel, just about every page consists of bullet points for action. This is the first national action plan that approaches what is required by the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The programme agrees to

  • Cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 7% per year, totalling 51% by 2030.

Although far bolder than any other country has yet managed or even envisaged, this is in fact what the whole world needs to achieve to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. The cuts are double what was already planned in 2019 by the outgoing Fine Gael government, and which were themselves already ambitious. They will require a rapid and complete revolution in electricity, housing quality, and transport, for starters.

A start has been made on electricity already, with renewable sources climbing from 7% in 2006 to 33% in 2018. The target is 70% in 2030. Ireland already has 4.2 GW of wind power, seven times as much as New Zealand, but they will need much, much more.

  • 10% of the entire transport budget will be reserved for cycling, and another 10% for walking.

The program includes pretty much everything a cycling advocate would dream of. For example: “Each local authority will be immediately mandated to carry out an assessment of their road network, to see where space can be reallocated for pedestrians and cyclists. This should be done immediately.” In addition, spending on new public transport will be double the spending on new roads. (For comparison, in New Zealand about 2% of the transport budget is spent on walking and cycling, and we are embarking on the largest program of new motorway construction in our history).

Ireland is also encouraging electric cars, bikes, and trucks. The target is for 950,000 EVs (out of a present fleet of 2.7 million vehicles) by 2030. Sales of fossil-fuels cars will be banned by 2030, and existing ones phased out from cities after that. This is ambitious: Ireland has just 9000 EVs. It’s going to require massive changes in the use and operation of cars.

  • The carbon tax, now €26 per tonne of CO2, and which last year was agreed to be increased to €80 by 2030, will now increase to €100.

That’s about what is needed in all countries to support the Paris Agreement. It led to lengthy disputes over what to do with the money raised, with the Green Party wanting it all returned to the public in a “fee and dividend” model. Instead, it goes to the government, but with some spending put towards “climate justice”: €1.5 billion for sustainable farming, €5 billion for retrofitting houses, and €3 billion to support a just transition – for example, to alleviate fuel poverty.

  • Grade B thermal upgrades to 500,000 houses by 2030, and switching the heating of 600,000 houses from natural gas to heat pumps. All new houses to be Grade A, or nearly zero energy.

In Ireland, houses are required to have a Building Energy Rating from A to G. Most existing stock is Grade C (a standard mid-2000s house) or D.

  • End the issue of new licenses for the exploration and extraction of gas, on the same basis as the recent decision in relation to oil exploration and extraction. Cancel the proposed LNG terminal.
  • Establish a Climate Action Council, which will advise the government on carbon budgets and policies. This will be introduced in the first 100 days.

This is very similar to the New Zealand model, with one important difference: the 5-yearly carbon budgets, once passed by the Dáil (parliament) become legally binding.

There is much, much more in the Program for Government, which covers pretty much every aspect of society, environment, and the economy. It’s well worth a look to see what can be agreed by very different political parties.

How did Ireland reach this point? Is it all pie in the sky?

Partly, this is the result of intensive action by climate and other civil society groups over many years. Two groups in particular, Friends of the Earth and Stop Climate Chaos, have been campaigning for carbon budgets and a climate action council since 2007. Over the years, they were joined by more groups, culminating in “One Future“, a coalition of nearly one hundred organisations. Public health groups, like the Irish Heart Foundation and Irish Cancer Society, joined forces with sustainable transport groups to argue that active transport is both low carbon and healthier.

Secondly, the poor record on emissions, combined with Ireland’s required contribution to EU climate targets, became an embarrassment. Work on transitioning electricity was already well underway. The previous government had already adopted an ambitious Climate Action Plan in mid-2019. A lot of the Program for Government is a strengthening of what had already begun.

That doesn’t mean the program will be easy to enact or to achieve. No country has yet managed sustained cuts in emissions by much more than 1% a year. The training and infrastructure programs will be massive and will need support from across society. Agricultural methane, always a sticking point, is treated respectfully in the document, but is as yet unresolved. A current plan to further increase dairy farming will likely have to be stopped, however.

In New Zealand, although we have the Zero Carbon Bill, we are only beginning to take tiny steps to actually reduce emissions. Many proposals have failed, and most people don’t realise what changes will be needed: the crunch will come with the Climate Change Committee reports their first budget in 2021. Although all countries find their own way, right now, New Zealand could learn a lot from Ireland.