CAT-astrophe?

Steve Trewick

They’re cute, they’re cuddly but will they burst your bubble?

Time spent with cats is never time wasted, as Sigmund Freud is said to have said but didn’t. And a good job too because it might turn out to be poor advice in the post-COVID19 world. Evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that cats should probably be kept at a distance or strictly kept within your household bubble. Bluntly, you don’t know where your cat has been and cats are emerging as potential vectors of the COVID19 virus. They can be infected, get ill, exchange it with other cats and (given the origins of the disease) it is likely they could pass it on to humans. Cats within rest homes (aged residential care facilities) should be tested because there is any potential of them spreading the COVID19 virus between residents. 

First things first though, the name of what Donald Trumps calls the ‘invisible enemy‘. The handy tag-name COVID19 that was quickly adopted around the world was coined by the World Health Organisation early this year; it means COronaVIrus Disease 2019. However, it is critical that we understand that the virus is related to other similar viruses, and so it helps to use a formal name that links related viruses together (a more robust approach set out by the WHO). The better we understand where this virus came from the better we can prepare for future pandemics (which are a certainty) and work out how to battle this one. Virus naming has special rules because of the particular ways they multiply and the rapidity with which they can evolve, and now most information comes directly from the DNA (or RNA) sequence of the virus. Adding information from COVID19 to the existing pool of viral genetic data has revealed its nearest evolutionary relatives. The virus family tree shows that the current nuisance is similar to the virus that was named SARS when it emerged in 2002. When Severe Acute Respirator Syndrome was unique the name SARS was sufficient but we now know: 1) that SARS and COVID19 are both members of the same subgroup of coronaviruses, 2) they share a common ancestor most probably hosted by bats, and 3) they are closely related to one another. Hence the decision to adopt the names SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19).

Pink branches indicate bat related coronaviruses. Blue boxes indicate representative SARS virus variants including the two closely related epidemic types SARS-CoV (SARS 2002) and SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19). Some of the known mammal hosts of these viruses are shown on the right. Annotated after CSG 2020.

New diseases do not emerge spontaneously but result from the evolution of existing disease-causing microbes, one route to novelty in humans involves ‘zoonotic’ transfer. This involves a disease causing microbe moving to a human host from some other animal, and reflects the normal background pattern of microbes moving among potential hosts in nature. Humans are not specifically targeted by disease-causing microbes but our activities sometimes increase our exposure to potential microbial parasites; in particular the burgeoning population of humans on Earth means increased contact between species in our competition for resources. Situations where wild animals, farm animals and people interact are ideal for transfer.

Examples of Zoonotic Diseases and Their Affected Populations. From US Government Accountability Office report.

It appears that SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19) are descended from viruses transmitted amongst bats, but that does not mean a human caught the disease directly from a bat. In fact, we do not know all the different animals that can be infected by these virus; we have not had time to test extensively among humans for SARS-CoV-2 let alone other species. Current evidence indicates that the intermediary might have been another wild mammal traded in a Chinese market. Genetic samples from animals in markets show a high prevalence of SARS-CoV in masked palm civets Paguma and other carnivores including racoon dog Nyctereutes, fox Vulpes, mustelids Melogale, and cats Felis. Significantly, although there is high SARS-CoV incidence among civets in markets, wild-living civets that have been tested are free of infection. This supports the idea that zoonosis is associated with human activity.

A masked palm civet.

To invade a host cell, so it can replicate, a virus needs to connect to a particular cell protein in the host. For SARS-CoV-2 this is a blood pressure-regulating protein called ACE2. The ACE2 protein in human cells to which the so-called ‘spike protein’ of SARS-CoV-2 attaches (allowing it entry to human cells) is universal among vertebrates. In fact, the ACE2 protein of humans, several other primates, and domestic cats are nearly or completely identical.  This means SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19) can break into cat cells as well as human cells where ACE2 is expressed (especially the lungs). Human SARS-CoV-2 can still bind to palm civet ACE2, despite the genetic mutations that distinguish palm civet SARS-CoV that gives SARS-CoV-2 access to humans.

Having near identical ACE2 protein means there are many species of mammal that can host SARS-CoV-2, not only humans, but also domesticated cats, dogs, tigers, ferrets and many others. Although there is some evidence for transmission via dogs in the Italian outbreak, domestic cats have shown a greater potential to spread SARS-CoV-2 because they are more easily infected and roam widely. The behaviour of domestic cats in approaching other cats and new people increases the chances of them acting as disease vectors. Domestic cats are so susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, that it has been recommended that “Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in cats should be considered as an adjunct to elimination of of COVID-19 in humans.

During Lockdown level 4 in New Zealand we have focused on people socially distancing and maintaining their small household “bubble”. Meanwhile most cats have roamed and continue to roam uncontrolled. There are more than one million domestic cats in NZ with 44% households providing homes to an average of 1.5 cats each, most of which roam outdoors. Many rest homes for the elderly have a resident cat, or promote therapy using contact with cats. Households with children are the most likely to have companion animals and in the majority these are cats, which in suburbs roam across an average of 16 neighbouring properties (= 16 social distancing bubbles). A study in Wellington city where the average house section is 600 square metres, found cats roamed on average over 3 hectares. That is the equivalent of 50 city sections, but roaming depends on the cat and the location, and one cat roamed over 200 hectares.

Swelling the domestic cat population in New Zealand are an estimated 2.4 million feral cats roaming under the radar in urban and rural environments. Little is known about the contact between domestic and feral cats in New Zealand. Globally there is a long list of zoonotic diseases associated with cats, and the role of free-roaming cats is well recognised.

As yet cats have not been tested in New Zealand but pet cats in New York and Belgium have tested positive. In Wuham China 15% of cats tested had antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, showing that they had recovered from the disease. No link has been found between the SARS-CoV-2 hospitalisation of cat-loving UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Larry the cat who roams in and out of the No.10 bubble. But the implications are clear. Cats are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and can transmit it to one another and experience shows that human–animal transmission of viral diseases are significant. MERS-CoV for instance is known to be transmitted to people by close contact between camels and people and the pool of genetic diversity within the related MERS-CoV is shared among human-camel community.

If you want to share an upper-respiratory tract virus, rub noses.

The success of a viral strain is measured only in its survival. As a surviving host individual will usually eventually develop some immunity to a particular infection, viral survival requires a large and accessible pool of susceptible hosts, so there is a selective advantage to being able to invade different species. This means that viral (and bacterial) pathogens will continue to cross species boundaries and pandemics in the most abundant, widespread and mobile mammal species on Earth is inevitable and probably devastating.

Bunnies are Better

Mary Morgan-Richards

A cracker treat

Cats and dogs are carnivores which means they need to eat meat. The more cats and dogs we own the more meat we feed them. In NZ there are currently about 2 million domesticated cats and dogs (one carnivorous pet per 2.4 people). Animal production (farming sheep, cows, chickens, pigs) has a range of environmental impacts, from converting land to pasture, nutrient leaching into water ways, extracting water for irrigation, pollution of water sources with microbes, nutrients and pesticides, heavy reliance on fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases. Our cats and dogs and the livestock needed to feed them adds up to about 25% of the greenhouse gasses (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) released each year.

In contrast, a rabbit doesn’t eat meat so their contribution to greenhouse gasses is limited to the fossil fuels used harvesting and transporting food (grains and hay). As vegetarians rabbits have a much smaller carbon footprints than meat-eating dogs and cats, and what’s not to like?

Ten more good reasons to choose a bunny:

1) Indoor rabbits are easily house-trained.
It’s easy to train a domesticated rabbit to use a litter box so it can range freely indoors. You-tube has many clips that provide advice, but it’s common sense if you know a bit about rabbit behaviour. Our male rabbit was house-trained in one day when he was about 8 months old and still able to reproduce (we haven’t had him de-sexed-spayed/neutered). We put a card board box with straw down where he did his first wee and he came back to the same corner for the second. Then we moved the box to where we wanted it and he returned to the box. Each time we clean out his toilet box and put in fresh absorbent material (newspaper, straw, sawdust etc). We add a little of the old box paper/straw to carry a bit of smell across that is detectable by rabbits but not usually by people. In nature, rabbits choose one or few places as a latrine and indoors this is usually in a corner. If their cage also contains a litter tray then cleaning out the cage is very quick and easy. Our rabbit has an outdoor cage and comes into the house when we are at home, especially in the evening, which is normally an active time for rabbits (crepuscular).

2) Bunnies are quiet and friendly. Keeping pets is good for human mental health and there is even research suggesting that it helps children develop into independent people with self-control and high self-esteem. Rabbits provide these benefits plus they are friendly on the environment and do not bite small children and they do not bark. Every year a number of household dogs cause injury to people, and in New Zealand about 500 people every year seek hospital treatment for dog bites.  Domesticated rabbits don’t attack people (except the Rabbit of Caerbannog).

3) Safe for wildlife. Domestic bunnies don’t attack native animals like small birds, skinks and wētā, all of which are known to be killed by domestic cats. Keeping an indoor rabbit gives you the pleasure of a warm, gentle furry animal without the anxiety of its after-dark activity.

Leo dozing on the hearth

4) In NZ rabbits have no fleas or lice. In its native range (Spain & Portugal) the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus has its own species of flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi) and in Australia rabbits are infested with local fleas (Echidnophaga myrmecobii), however rabbits in New Zealand are usually free of fleas and other ectoparasites. It is possible for a house-rabbit to catch cat or dog fleas but this is not common. The lice and mite species infesting rabbits in Europe and Australia do not seem to be present in New Zealand so our pet rabbits are free of these troublesome biters – which means healthy happy pets and no flea bites on you.

5) Low odour. A house-rabbit has a slight smell of hay, but even when damp he has very little odour. Compare that with your favourite pooch. Even when freshly washed a wet dog can smell bad due to the stinky volatile compounds released by the microbes (fungi and bacteria) that live on the fur of the dog.  While a dry dog likes to roll around in smelly places a dry rabbit likes to wash his ears.


6) Their fur is very soft. All rabbits have very fine soft fur (down hair makes up about 95% of their fur and these follicles are 14–16 microns in diameter). Angora rabbits have particularly long fur which has been used for spinning yarn.


7) Rabbits can be taken out for walks with a harness (for your exercise). Rabbit can be taken out for a walk on a leash if they are happy to wear a harness.  You will have to do at least as much exercise as your rabbit because they will not fetch a ball or stick, and they probably will not walk at heel. But it’s nice to be outside in the fresh air stretching your legs and exploring the smells and dandelions.

8) Cheap to keep. Bunnies don’t need lots of space outside and expensive cages. Your house rabbit can be brought inside to bounce around and then sleep in a basic hutch outdoors. Food can be dandelions, grass, some vegetable peelings and hay or dry rabbit food from a shop. You don’t need to register your rabbit or have regular vet bills. In New Zealand it is good to get your bunny vaccinated for rabbit hemorrhagic virus.

Claude lounging about

9) Low hair shedding and low alergenic. Many people get hay fever from their pets -usually caused by flaking skin cells and the saliva attached to then from cats and dogs. Some people will also have allergic reactions to rabbits, but short-haired bunnies are often suitable. Because they shed little fur, house rabbits do not result in lots more house work.


10) They are warm and cute. As mammals, rabbits are endotherms so are warm to touch. With their big ears and big eyes, they fit our perception of “cute”. Each bunny has his/her own personality.

Climate Commission is cleared for takeoff: James Renwick talks ice, snow, and climate action

James Renwick is Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University of Wellington. He studied at Canterbury and the University of Washington and has worked on diverse aspects of climate science, including global atmospheric circulation and Antarctic sea ice. In December 2019 he was appointed to the New Zealand Climate Change Commission, which will recommend carbon budgets and mitigation strategies to the Government. An outspoken voice for climate action, he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for Communication in 2018. He talked with Robert McLachlan on 3 February 2020.

James Renwick, a.k.a. @CubaRaglanGuy

Huge winds, giant currents, storms all over the place.
And he’s not talking about summer in Wellington.

Robert McLachlan: I’d like to start with Antarctica, because the changes in Antarctica were one of the main things that fascinated me when I started learning about climate change. First, the grounded ice sheets.

James Renwick: The Doomsday Glacier!

RM: Exactly. The IPCC say that there’s a risk, somewhere between 1.5ºC and 2ºC of global warming, of destabilizing these ice sheets so that they start peeling off from the sea floor and accelerating towards the sea. Others say that they are already in retreat and the instability has been triggered.

JR: That’s correct. It’s still uncertain. My take on the science is that the vast majority of the glaciological community would say that we’re not past the threshold yet. There are some results just coming in now from a visit to the Thwaites Glacier. These are some of the first observations of what the ocean is actually doing under the ice, which is what controls all of this. Their preliminary results show that the grounding line retreat is slower than expected. That’s just one new result, but it supports the idea that we’re not yet at the tipping point. We must be getting close, it’s looking quite dangerous. The rates of ice loss from that area – the Pine Island Glacier, the Thwaites Glacier, all that region just to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula – have gone up hugely. Thwaites is about the size of the UK, and very thick, so the potential for sea level rise is there.

Schematic of the Marine Ice Sheet Instability (source). See antarcticaglaciers.org for more information.

RM: And this is where the uncertainty about the rate of sea level rise is coming from.

JR:  Yes. If all we had to think about was the thermal expansion of the ocean, and the melting of glaciers, we could be quite precise about sea level rise. We would expect half a metre or a bit more by the end of the century. But the rate of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica has gone up rapidly in a few decades, and just how much more we get by 2100 and beyond is the big wildcard.

RM: Are they actually sending remote devices to the sea floor, right up to the grounding line?

JR: Yes, they drill a hole through the ice, which in itself is a pretty big effort, and send a drone down the hole. Once it’s down there it deploys its fins and swims around, measuring temperature and so on. There is similar work planned in the Ross Sea region, funded a year ago, to look under the Ross Ice Shelf with a remote operated vehicle.

The Icefin drone (source)

RM: The Ross Ice Shelf hasn’t shown much change yet, is that correct?

JR: The short answer is no. But we don’t know what the underside of the shelf is doing, whether it is getting thicker or thinner. It’s much bigger again, it’s the size of France! If it went, it would uncork an awful lot of ice. Not good. We know from the geological record that it’s come and gone many times. This is one of the great discoveries of the last decade or so: the Ross Ice Shelf is not stable at all.

RM: Like the grounded ice sheets, the floating shelves are also quite complicated physically. It’s a bit surprising: they’re hundreds of metres thick, the warming has melted a few metres mostly from below, and yet some of them have completely disintegrated.

JR: Like Larsen B, that’s right.

Collapse of Larsen B ice shelf in 2002. Image: NASA (source)

RM: It was spectacular, and not really expected, would that be right?

JR: Yes, that’s fair enough! You could say they were relatively small, thin shelves, but even so they are still large pieces of ice. As they disintegrated, the glaciers that flow off the Peninsula into the ocean have sped up dramatically. It’s hard to see through several hundred metres of ice what is going on. Most of the melting in Antarctica is happening from the bottom. Greenland is much further from the pole, so it’s exposed to much warmer air, so it’s mostly melting from the top down. Antarctica is melting from the bottom up. We can model it, but we have very few observations.

RM: What would you most like to know?

JR: I’d like a detailed profile of the thickness of the ice shelves around Antarctica, plus fifty years of annual records, please! But another thing I’d like to know, and this is more my area, is how thick is the sea ice around Antarctica? That’s completely unknown. It’s a feature of how the sea ice operates there. In the Arctic, the sea ice is right over the North Pole, in the coldest, driest place. The Antarctic sea ice is at lower latitudes, in the 60s, so it’s exposed to warmer air, and it gets a lot of snow falling on it. It’s very hard from a satellite to tell if you’re looking at ice or snow. If it’s snow, how deep is that snow? That controls how much of the ice is above sea level. You need to know that to know how thick the ice is. Sometimes there’s so much snow that the top of the ice is below sea level. You can get spot measurements from a plane, that’s happening now, but to get comprehensive, continuous measurements you need satellites, and so far they’re not up to the task.

RM: Also the weather patterns in the south are very different from the north.

JR: They are. Usually, there’s not much happening over the Arctic Ocean, whereas the Southern Ocean is one of the most dynamic, turbulent places on earth. Huge winds, giant currents, huge waves, storms all over the place. 

RM: For many years the Antarctic sea ice was expanding, but for the last few years it’s been receding. Is this the start of a receding trend?

JR: That’s my supposition. But all the ups and downs of the sea ice over the past forty years have been to do with the winds. Antarctic sea ice is incredibly sensitive to what the winds are doing. Even El Niño explains a lot of the variation. But we have gone to a decreasing trend since 2014, and the atmosphere and the ocean are warming up. So there has to come a point where it’s hard for the ice to grow. If it hasn’t happened already, it’s bound to come along fairly soon.

Back to the Goldilocks zone

RM: Can changes in Antarctica affect New Zealand, or is it too far away?

JR: That’s a really good question… I’d give it a “maybe”. We know that if there’s a lot more sea ice, that will push the westerlies further north and that would affect the weather in New Zealand. But the changes so far have been quite small, a few percent, and it’s hard to find evidence that that affects New Zealand. Generally, it’s the other way around. The tropics hold most of the energy in the climate system, and New Zealand is more affected from the north than from the south. I’d love to find some evidence that sea ice variation can affect the weather in New Zealand, but I’ve been looking for twenty years and there’s nothing obvious there.

RM: There’s been a idea around that New Zealand is relatively protected from the effects of climate change.

JR: Things are happening more dramatically in the northern hemisphere, especially at the pole. Now we have the wavy jet stream. As the pole warms up, the north–south temperature difference decreases, and that’s what drives the strength of the winds. So you have a weaker jet stream, so it’s able to meander more. Even that is debated, it’s hard to say that those two things are connected but there’s a lot of other things going on. But New Zealand is – well, protected is the wrong word, but buffered by the ocean. The climate is already temperate, although variable. It’s usually fairly wet in most places. So you’ve got to change the climate quite a bit before it becomes really extreme. Whereas Australia was already extreme, so it doesn’t need much more change before you’re into what we’re seeing now with the fires and droughts. 

RM: Speaking of the Australian fires – everyone was expecting change, but surely it’s come along more quickly and severely than people were expecting? And even New Zealand has had flash floods and bushfires. 

JR: Yes, and even for New Zealand the projections are that the fire danger will double or triple in the east, but still not like Australia. The situation in Australia this summer has been quite shocking for everybody. Yet it’s what the climate projections have said for thirty odd years. It’s one thing to write a report saying, “Extreme fire danger in the 2000s, blah blah”, it’s another thing to see it happen. The reality is quite confronting for everyone.

RM: So many national parks burnt out in their entirety! Some ecologists say the ecology of the parks may be tipped over into a different state; the fire regime has changed and they’ve lost species.

JR: Even though they are fire adapted, I don’t know the ins and outs and how much more extreme the latest fires have been and how affected some species are. Even though they are fire adapted,  it could have been the death knell for some species.

Chicken and egg

RM: Yet it remains difficult for people to get the connection between mitigation and impacts. Even in New Zealand some argue that we should focus on adaptation instead of cutting emissions. I feel like we could be arguing this point until the end of the world.

JR: You’ve got to do both, obviously, because there are already impacts, obviously. They’re only going to get worse if we don’t cut emissions. The number one priority is to slow down the rate of change. These things can go together. You can improve your coastal defences by growing mangroves, and they also absorb carbon dioxide. 

RM: You’ve been doing a lot of climate outreach, and recently you were involved in a public reading of the IPCC 1.5ºC report.

JR: 1.5 Degrees Live! People volunteer to read for half an hour from the IPCC report. It’s a way of engaging with the science, engaging with the public. People come along and listen and ask questions. It took a whole week.

RM: The 1.5ºC report has caught the public imagination more than the others. It says we have to halve fossil fuel burning by 2030.

JR: Yes, the way that was packaged and messaged was very good. “Twelve years to halve emissions.” But that morphed into “Twelve years to save the planet”, “Twelve years till we’re all dead” – that’s not so helpful. Get across the urgency, sure, but people shouldn’t think there’s going to be some kind of armageddon in 2030. I would hate to think that that would demotivate people. It’s always going to be under our control, how much global warming we get.

RM: The message is out there, but there’s still a disconnect. People are still driving around in petrol cars and bringing in new ones all the time. There’s a gap between what people say they would like to be done about climate change and what they’re actually doing, or voting for.

JR: It’s a very complicated problem from a sociological, political, economic point of view. We have the society that we have because of the course of several hundred years of development and economic thinking. We’re all used to it. Most of us don’t think about the roots of our society and how it could be configured differently. It’s hard to imagine doing anything differently! So it’s not surprising to me that most people haven’t changed their lifestyles. And people still don’t get the urgency – the day to day weather is still the same, it’s just a bit hotter when it’s hot and a bit drier when it’s dry. They have plenty of other things to think about. That’s why this is very much a government-level problem. If it’s difficult or expensive to do the right thing, most people won’t go there. 

RM: But the government can only do what they can get away with.

JR: Exactly! It’s a chicken and egg problem. One role of government is to persuade the population that there is an urgent problem to deal with. The protest marches help. That ball is rolling. Still, it’s hard for governments to get away from short-term thinking. Taking a political risk is literally a risk for a government. Our whole system is not set up to deal with a problem like climate change. The time scale is centuries and the consequences are beyond anything we’ve had to deal with before. We have to do a managed retreat from fossil fuels, like we’re envisioning a managed retreat from the coastline.

RM: Yet the fossil fuel industry isn’t talking about a managed retreat, they’re talking about exploring more, and also doing it.

JR: Yes, and they claim to be investing in clean energy but it’s 1% of their total budget. They’re still investing in disinformation campaigns and greenwashing, measures to slow down action on climate change. It’s a profitable industry and making money is attractive. It’s super frustrating. They’ve known the consequences for decades. To continue to push the extraction and use of fossil fuels, having that knowledge, seems…

RM: Wrong?

JR: I was thinking of stronger words that that! But, yes, wrong. I’m sure that if we’d started thirty or forty years ago we would be in a much better place now. The energy companies need to reimagine how they operate. This is part of the idea of a just transition: we don’t want to harm anybody’s livelihood, and I’d include the oil companies in that, but still we need to move away from fossil fuels.

RM: The steps that have been taken, like subsidising renewable energy, have been extremely effective.

JR: Yes they have. Incentivising the right behaviour, disincentivising the old behaviour. Put a price on carbon, subsidise electric vehicles, all kinds of measures. New Zealand is dabbling with these. But the fossil fuel industry is still subsidised here and around the world. 

Time to stop dabbling

RM: And now you’re in the hot seat. Soon you’re going to be telling us what to do. Pretty exciting!

JR: It is! Being part of the Climate Change Commission is very exciting. Also daunting. And frightening. And in a year we’ll deliver our first carbon budget.

RM: We had a debate about the powers of the Commission and we’ve ended up with the British model of an advisory panel. But what I like about that is that they can be quite feisty and issue very stark advice to the government. And they seem to be respected.

JR: Yes, that’s a good model. I would like the Commission to have more regulatory power, but I accept it’s the way it is. It’s down to the government of the day to listen. It’s as good as we’re going to get.

RM: To do this on top of your job as a climate scientist and head of department, it’s a lot.

JR: It will need some juggling. We meet two full days a month, plus the background work. We’re also starting an engagement process, talking to sector groups. We have excellent people on the secretariat who have come from the Ministry for the Environment.

RM: Business is very important. I was disappointed by the Motor Industry Association, who represent the $6 billion new car industry, for their opposition to the proposed fuel efficiency standards. They asked the government to scrap it and start again. That’s not a way forward, industry needs to be onside.

JR: And argument is really not helpful; we don’t want to see one group offside of another. We need to find a way to all work together. It’s better to be on the crest of the wave! I think the debate will move forward quite quickly. Look at what’s happened in agriculture, where the climate focus has shifted rapidly from away from costs and towards benefits.

RM: There’s a call for a Citizen’s Climate Forum, which has been tried in Ireland. Is that something the Commission could be involved with? 

JR: Possibly. I support the idea. I’m not sure if the Commission would be active in it, but it would look on with interest.

RM: It could capture media and public attention.

JR: That’s right. It’s a good way of getting ideas about how to reduce emissions out there and focusing on solutions. But in Ireland they had strong support from the government from the start, which helped.

RM: Ireland is quite similar to New Zealand. They had been dragging their heels for a long time, good talk but no action, and now seem to have changed. They also have a lot of cows. They’re planning to offset their agricultural emissions with trees, which is what Simon Upton recommended here, but which we’ve decided not to do.

JR: There’s lots of moving parts, aren’t there. There is the billion tree programme.

RM: I’m becoming skeptical of the whole idea of planting trees. It’s a risky delaying tactic.

JR: It is a delaying tactic, but you’ve got to use that time you’ve gained to actually reduce emissions. Globally, there isn’t enough land anyway. In New Zealand, although we hear a lot about agriculture, the biggest growth areas have been transport and industry. Those are easier targets. We know how they work and what the alternatives are. For agriculture, the solutions, as laid out by the IPCC last year, involve people and agriculture moving from animals to plants. Fewer cows, more beans. Yes, it’s a change. I grew up in Canterbury; when I was a kid it was very different, it was dry country, sheep and grain. So I know that farmers are very adaptable and flexible. There are alternatives to betting on dairy.

RM: Have you met people from the School Strike 4 Climate?

JR: Yes, and I’ve spoken at a couple of the strikes. I’m really impressed with the whole movement.

RM: It’s so exciting, and so dramatic how it’s grown so quickly. But people could get frustrated. They need to know what the next step is and how they can be involved.

JR: Yes, although there is power in persistence. Greta Thunberg is now in week 76 of her climate strike. School strikers, keep it up! Getting your voice heard politically is really important for everybody. If anyone wants to get involved in climate action, send your MP an email! That’s the minimum effort.

The university formerly (and still) known as Victoria

RM: You work at Victoria University, which has set a goal of Net Zero by 2030, and they have a bold plan to get there. Is everyone on board with that?

JR: I think so, I think they’re pleased to be part of it. It does involve planting trees, but it’s done in a smart way. The university is buying some land and using it as an outdoor laboratory. We’re also phasing out gas boilers and moving to heat pumps and solar panels.

RM: Can you see academics flying less to international conferences?

JR: You do see some academics flying less. And there is offsetting. The Antarctic Research Centre is offsetting all their flights with Ekos. But science is a global enterprise. Colleagues and conferences are all over the world.

RM: It’s the rate of increase of flying which is a concern. Even a little thing like asking at every invitation if you can present remotely will make a difference.

JR: I have done remote presentations in New Zealand, but not at an international conference yet. But there are conferences where you can register to present remotely, and the whole thing is livestreamed. It’s possible. You miss out on the informal interactions. Maybe the way forward is a purely online conference with a fluid timetable… let’s get creative. But even flying less is better than doing nothing at all. I do have a trip coming up, to the IPCC which is preparing the 6th assessment report, due in April 2021.

RM: One of the criticisms of the IPCC process is that it’s a bit slow.

JR: Yes, I’ve thought for several years that it should be overhauled. But apparently governments are very keen on the IPCC as it is now. And it has seen some changes towards faster turnaround and rolling reporting. The 6th assessment began last year in 2018 with the 1.5ºC report, then the oceans and cryosphere report, then the land report.

RM: There’s also the UN’s parallel policy process, with their annual COP meetings. Everyone was very disappointed with the most recent COP, in Madrid, and yet for all that, 2019 did see a lot of renewed climate action from many countries.

JR: It’s a hard problem. Emissions are still going up.

RM: It’s a pity that in New Zealand there isn’t some community that is more progressive and is showing us the way to get out of fossil fuels.

JR: I don’t suppose there is. That’s what I’ve said at Victoria University, perhaps we can be the role model for other universities. And perhaps Wellington can be a role model for New Zealand. It’s a race that I would love to see everyone competing in! That’s how the Paris Agreement is supposed to work, and this year countries are supposed to upgrade their pledges. Let’s see what happens.

RM: We’re in a better position in New Zealand than some other countries. Even though we haven’t started cutting emissions yet, we are at least well placed to start.

JR: There’s a good amount of political goodwill there.

RM: James Renwick, thank you for your time.

Our conversation is over. It’s midmorning and the chain café has filled up with retirees meeting for coffee. Outside, SUVs prowl around the enormous shopping mall car park which merges into big box stores. Further away lies new suburban development and the new motorway, presently being extended another 30 km further north. It’s a scene repeated dozens of times across New Zealand, all supported by countless interlocking agreements and habits. If anything, we are still accelerating down a path we chose fifty years ago. But we’re not yet out of control, not quite. As James Renwick has said, it’s up to us to decide how much warming we get.

A multitude of drops: Social tipping points in climate action

By Robert McLachlan

If you’re here, you probably know that the climate crisis is upon us, that it’s getting steadily worse, and that attempts to address it haven’t worked yet. People are still driving and even advertising SUVs with impunity, and oil companies are exploring like crazy, even in New Zealand. Politically, socially, economically, it’s a challenging problem.

In Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Johan Rockström and thirteen others take on this problem. Rockström, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is familiar as a pioneer of the Planetary Boundaries concept, nine aspects of the earth system that together define a safe operating space for humanity. That framework is based on physics, chemistry, and biology. Here the authors turn their attention to society.

The goal is to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Somewhere between 1.5ºC and 2ºC lie numerous climate tipping points, such as triggering the melting of West Antarctica and flipping ocean currents into different states. Regional changes are already evident at the present warming of 1.2ºC: the Australian fires – devastating enough in themselves – accompanied by the continuously changing fire regime, may have tipped vast ecosystems over into new and seriously degraded states.

So the concept of tipping points is well founded in physics, and is an active area of study. But how useful is it in social issues?

To limit global warming to 1.5ºC, the burning of fossil fuels has to be phased out by at least 7% per year. That’s a vast transformation of the entire economy and infrastructure in just a few decades on a scale without parallel in history.

It’s true that there are many examples of social transformations that started small, grew rapidly, and ended up changing society. The article mentions the Reformation and the abolition of slavery, and also minor examples of how behaviours spread through social networks, like changes in lifestyles. But there are two problems here. First, there is a selection effect. It’s easy to focus on the famous and successful examples, and overlook the small groups of committed people with great ideas that went nowhere. Other ideas, like Reconstruction after the US Civil War, were successful at first but were later undone by opposing forces in the Jim Crow era. Was that because the “tipping point” wasn’t reached? If so, what’s the value of the theory?

Second, despite decades of research on complex networks and complexity, and vast amounts of data on social networks, it hasn’t really gelled yet into a theory that can be applied in any given situation.

What they sought and what they found

The authors were looking for “social tipping elements”, or small subparts of society, for decarbonisation. These should be able to be set off by small triggers within a decade or so, and bring about widespread change by 2050. They should be compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals.

We know that this is possible, because there is one outstandingly positive example, namely subsidies for renewable energy development and installation. From small beginnings, this idea spread rapidly to almost all developed countries. It’s been sustained over decades and has led to dramatic  falls in price for wind, solar, and batteries.

A second example is the fossil fuel divestment movement. From small beginnings on US universities in 2011, by 2019 $12 trillion has been divested.

Conversely, the one big solution preferred by economists, namely to put a proper price on carbon, has so far not succeeded in spreading anywhere near as much as required.

The six main tipping elements identified were:

  1. Energy: positive change triggered by subsidizing renewable energy and removing fossil fuel subsidies.
  2. Cities: triggered by building codes and the carbon-neutral cities movement.
  3. Finance: triggered by the divestment movement.
  4. Values: triggered by the recognition that burning fossil fuels is wrong.
  5. Education: led by teachers, climate educators, and youth movements.
  6. Information: triggered by emission disclosure requirements.

Although the experts that were consulted were not confident that these tipping points will be triggered, and will lead to the scale of change required, this is certainly a good time to focus on them. The authors write:

There is recent anecdotal evidence that protests, such as the #FridaysForFuture climate strikes of school students around the world, the Extinction Rebellion protests in the United Kingdom, and initiatives such as the Green New Deal in the United States, might be indicators of this change in norms and values taking place right now.

At the end of the novel Cloud Atlas, which opens on the Chatham Islands in the 1850s and includes a long journey through the Pacific, Adam and Tilda Ewing announce their intention to move back East and throw in their lot with the abolitionist cause. Tilda’s father is outraged and fumes bitterly, “Nothing you do will amount to more than a single drop in a limitless ocean!” Adam replies, “But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Thanks to alert reader Paul Husbands for this tip.

Should I ditch my fossil-fueled car?

Yes. Reducing the number of cars in your household, or switching from petrol/diesel to electric, will dramatically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of the easiest and highest-impact climate steps you can take.

New Zealand is being flooded with cars

The New Zealand vehicle fleet is increasing rapidly. In the five years 2012-2017,  1,420,000 vehicles were imported and 660,000 were scrapped. The fleet increased by 760,000 vehicles: they would fill all lanes of State Highway 1, from Cape Reinga to Bluff, bumper to bumper. The fleet increase of 22% exceeds population growth of 9% and has given New Zealand the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD. Because of a shift to higher-emission utes and SUVs, and the lack of a fuel efficiency standard, the average fuel efficiency of the fleet has not improved. Road transport contributes 45% of all emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in New Zealand and is up 78% since 1990. The fleet is almost entirely fossil-fueled.

Source: Ministry of Transport Fleet Report.

Vehicle use is bad for human health

Vehicle use can impact on human health through air pollution, motor vehicle crashes, road traffic noise and greenhouse gases. Vehicles release particulate matter (soot), carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, which can lead to health problems. Diesel vehicles are disproportionately more polluting than petrol vehicles in terms of particulate matter and total nitrogen oxides. Diesel engine fumes can cause lung cancer. Road traffic noise can also affect health, particularly through high blood pressure. In contrast, walking and cycling prevent obesity and lead to improved cardio-vascular health. (Source)

Transport is a large, important, and expensive part of our lives

Households spend $21 billion annually on transport, an average of $233 a week per household. Nationally, we spend around $5 billion a year on imported fuel, $8 billion on imported vehicles, and $4 billion on road construction and maintenance. The costs of health and disability impacts are largely borne by the government and by individuals. Each person spends an average of an hour a day travelling. Of all trips, 79% are by car, 17% are by walking, 3% are by public transport, and 1% are by bicycle. By distance, nearly all travel is by car, an average of 28 km per day.

This growth didn’t just happen

The present land transport system is the result of a concerted effort by most of our large institutions in government and industry. We have become used to a ready availability of cheap vehicles. Policies like increased fuel taxes, pollution-based registration fees, and steep purchase taxes (which up to 150% in some countries) are not generally considered. Even incremental change is difficult. For example, the AA and the Motor Industry Association lobby against the introduction of fuel efficiency standards.

To reduce transport emissions sufficiently, we need drastically fewer fossil-fueled vehicles on the roads.

Electric vehicles have dramatically lower lifecycle emissions

Lifecycle analyses include the energy and resources needed to make, use, and recycle a car. Most of the environmental impact of making a car is from mining, metal processing, and electricity used in the factory. Emissions from use include not just those from burning the fuel but also those from extracting, refining, and transporting it. These add a quarter to total fuel emissions.

Lifecycle emissions can be measured in grams of CO2 per kilometre, or gCO2/km. Battery electric vehicles (such as the Nissan Leaf) emit 50 gCO2/km. Plug-in hybrids (such as the Toyota Prius PHEV) emit 100–150 gCO2/km, and regular hybrids 150–300 gCO2/km. Diesel vehicles range from 220–350 gCO2/km, petrol from 200–500 gCO2/km.

Alternatively, emissions can be broken down into production/recycling, and use, measured in tonnes of CO2. A small petrol car emits 5.6 tCO2 in production/recycling and 2.8 tCO2/year in use, for a total of 44.8 t CO2 over its 14 year life. A small electric car emits 5.6 tCO2 in production/recycling, an extra 2 tCO2 to produce/recycle the battery, and 0.26 tCO2/year in use, for a lifetime total of 12.2 tCO2 – 75% less. 

Eliminating one car from your household gets rid of the last 25%.

The extra emissions associated with the battery are recouped in 10 months of driving a small petrol car, or 6 months of driving an average petrol car.

Lifecycle analysis of different vehicles, from a study at MIT. Fuel and electricity data are for New Zealand, vehicle costs for the US for 2017.  Each vehicle lasts 14 years and is driven 16,000 km a year.  Highlighted vehicles:  (1) Nissan Leaf (battery electric); (2) Toyota Prius (plug-in hybrid); (3) Toyota Prius (hybrid); (4) Toyota Yaris (petrol). Different assumptions and vehicles can be checked at carboncounter.com. Luxury cars appear at right, large utes at top.

Burning fossil fuels has to end

To address climate change, we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Luckily, in one of its biggest uses, passenger cars, it’s very easy to do. Not buying a fossil-fueled car stops a large amount of money flowing to oil-producing nations that contribute to oil wars and climate change obstruction and denial. 

Fossil fuel cannot be recycled or made clean. In contrast, electricity is getting cleaner all the time, both in New Zealand and in car factories.

The fossil fuel industry is fighting back

The fossil fuel industry, and the companies that make products that burn fossil fuel, are fighting back. They have long obstructed and delayed efforts to decarbonise transport. In the words of Transport & Environment’s William Todts,

Whenever you read a newspaper article claiming EVs are worse than diesel or petrol cars, that article will be based on a report that deliberately makes EVs look worse than they are. Usually the plot is as follows: a smaller petrol or diesel car is compared with a bigger, more powerful electric car; then the fossil fuel car is assumed to be as efficient as the EU’s official tests portray (in reality its fuel economy is always a lot worse); and finally the electric car is driving in a region with a very dirty electricity mix. Then you assume very high emissions for battery production based on outdated studies and finally you pretend electric cars don’t last very long and that its batteries aren’t reused or recycled.

Other strategies include focussing on mining and recycling issues. Most batteries contain cobalt (although the 2011-2015 Nissan Leaf contains no cobalt) and some cobalt from independent subsistence miners enters the global supply chain. In response, manufacturers are sourcing ethical cobalt and decreasing the amount they use. Almost all EV batteries are still in use; plans are for them to eventually be re-used in stationary applications and then recycled.

Similar ethical issues, and the need to transition to a circular economy, pervade all manufacturing and trade, including of course the fossil fuel industry.

Early adopters are vital and can have a huge impact

We need to “flip the fleet” to electric as quickly as possible (and reduce the fleet as well). The obstacles are formidable. In the early years, small actions can have a big multiplier effect. The more EVs we have, the more people will get used to them, the easier it will be to counter misinformation, and the more pressure there will be to cater for them. Many people have found that getting off fossil fuels has been empowering and has galvanized them to start taking other actions for the climate.

Isn’t it better to run my existing old car as long as possible?

The 1982 Toyota Starlet. How many of us have travelled in a car like this? This image comes from Wikipedia – note how it shows a New Zealand car!

Maybe. It is possible to make the numbers add up on this. If you drive very little, say 4000 km a year, and have a small, efficient petrol car, you will be emitting an extra 0.7 tCO2 per year. In eight years this would “pay off” the emissions of replacing the car. However, this assumes that you have no major repairs (which would contain embodied emissions of their own) in that time. Plus, you lose the multiplier effect of being an early adopter.

Overall, you can have a greater impact by getting rid of your car entirely and using public or active transport, and renting or car-sharing an EV for occasional trips.

What else can I do?

Although electricity in New Zealand is relatively clean (over 80% renewable, and heading for 90% by 2025), we do still burn gas and coal for electricity. Each household’s share of such emissions is about  1 tonne  CO2 per year. Solar panels will lower your household emissions, or you can buy electricity from a certified zero carbon retailer. At the moment, there is only one of these, Ecotricity. Supporting them increases the demand for zero-carbon electricity in New Zealand.

Further information

Lifecycle analysis of vehicles: the data here are from carboncounter.com, which is based on the MIT study by Miotti et al, Personal vehicles evaluated against climate change mitigation targets, Environmental Science and Technology 2016. Other lifecycle analyses can be found in How Electric Cars Beat Gasoline Cars on Lifetime Global Warming Emissions (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015), EECA NZ, Life cycle assessment of electric vehicles, 2015, and Hasan and Chapman, The environmental footprint of electric versus fossil cars, The Conversation, 16 October 2019. See also Sigurd Magnussons’s regularly updated New Zealand Electric Car Guide.

Prepared by Robert McLachlan, School of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, for Wise Response. See original article. Wise Response is a broad coalition of academics, engineers, lawyers, artists, sportspeople etc who are calling on New Zealand’s Parliament to comprehensively assess imminent risks to New Zealand and to draw up plans to deal with them.

Blow, wind of fruitfulness

Robert McLachlan

A short update on wind power in New Zealand, where there has been a string of positive announcements since I discussed the Turitea wind farm in May:

  • On 22 May, Genesis committed to buy all the electricity from Tilt Renewables proposed 133 MW Waipipi wind farm at Waverley, south Taranaki, which allowed the project to go ahead. Construction is to start shortly.
  • On 12 November, Mercury Energy decided to build the whole Turitea wind farm, expanding it from 113 MW to its full 222 MW. They own enough hydro generation to cover the variability of wind. Construction has started.
  • On 22 November, the Government approved funding for two wind turbines in Stewart Island. This is small, but locally significant, as the island currently burns through 360,000 litres of subsidised diesel each year, and, until now, dozens of studies have come to nothing.
  • On 16 December, North Canterbury lines company Mainpower decided to build the Mt Cass wind farm. (It’s either 93 MW, as reported by Stuff, or 78 MW as specified in the resource consent.) Apart from a 1 MW mini hydro system at Little River, Mainpower has not been a power generator until now.

All up that’s another 433 MW, compared to our existing 690 MW of wind, which generates 5% of our electricity. In addition, Mercury is quite likely to eventually add the (up to 318 MW) Puketoi wind farm further east, since they’re putting in the lines infrastructure for it now. This all adds up to a significant boost to renewable energy, which should keep a lid on wholesale electricity prices, which have been rising sharply, and cut emissions. Predictions are that as renewables are added, baseload gas will close, potentially cutting emissions by 800,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

20165.8c
20178.1c
201811.3c
201913.4c
Average wholesale electricity prices

These announcements are also consistent with how things looked to me in May, namely that there is insufficient incentive for existing operators to build large new renewables. These farms are either from new operators (Mt Cass), subsidised (Stewart Island), or will not sell their electricity into the spot market (Waipipi and Turitea).

A number of consents are due to expire in the next few years, notably Genesis Energy’s massive 860 MW Castle Hill wind farm in the Wairarapa. Genesis Energy emits 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 a year from their coal and gas-fired generation, and a lot more from their half-ownership of New Zealand Oil and Gas. If Castle Hill goes ahead, we will really be able to say that the tide has turned.

Climate explained: which countries are likely to meet their Paris Agreement targets

By Robert McLachlan

The 2015 Paris Agreement is much more than a one-off climate change deal. Its main aim to limit global warming to well below 2℃, ideally 1.5℃, was a breakthrough. A follow-up report shows that keeping warming below 1.5℃ will require reducing fossil fuel burning by half by 2032. The 1.5℃ target has been written into New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act.

But the ongoing process is also notable. Each country has registered a pledge (Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC) to indicate how it plans to meet the agreement’s terms.

Without climate action, we are heading for 4.5℃ of warming by 2100. Current pledges, if fully realised, take us to 2.8℃.

Countries have complete freedom regarding their target and how to achieve it. The NDCs will be revised every five years, first in 2020, and are required to be increasingly ambitious over time. The idea is that the international community can check the targets against performance and global goals. Best practice can be shared, and poor performance exposed.

This flexibility made it possible to get the agreement through, but it can be confusing. Targets have been set for different dates, from different baselines and for different types of emissions. Countries may have good reasons for setting weaker targets – they may be starting from a low base, like India. Or they may have unusual emissions, like New Zealand’s large proportion of agricultural methane.

So for each country we can ask:

  1. Does the target really reflect its highest level of ambition, as agreed in Paris?
  2. Is it consistent with 2℃ or 1.5℃ of global warming?
  3. Is it on track to meet its target?
  4. Will it ratchet up its ambition in 2020?

Let’s look at two large emitters, the EU and US, together responsible for 47% of historic, and 24% of current, emissions.

EU 2030 target: 40% reduction from 1990 levels

The European Union is on track for a 48% reduction, partly due to a collapse of heavy industry in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and more recently from a phase-out of coal. Despite this, because of lack of action on transport and buildings, and an increasing reliance on natural gas, the EU has been rated insufficient by Climate Action Tracker, an independent research unit founded in 2009 and partly funded by the German Ministry for Environment.

Last week, the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced plans for the EU to increase the target up to a 55% reduction, along with sweeping implementation plans. Some European countries are moving faster: Denmark, already down 32% on 1990 levels, has this month legislated a 70% reduction by 2030.

US 2025 target: 26% reduction from 2005 levels

So far the US is down 11%. The Obama-era climate plan would have achieved the 2025 target, but is now being rolled back, and the US will leave the Paris Agreement on November 4 next year, the day after the elections.

On the other hand, city and state-level actions and the continued decline of coal mean some further reductions in emissions are likely.

Now let’s consider two rapidly growing emitters, China and India, responsible for 16% of historic and 33% of current emissions.

China target: peak emissions by 2030

China is well on track to achieve this. Emissions actually levelled off for five years before rising again in 2018. China is the world’s largest installer of renewable energy, but also the world’s largest consumer of coal. It also funds a lot of coal power stations in other countries. China has announced it will greatly strengthen its target next year.

India’s 2030 target: reduce emissions intensity relative to GDP to 33% below 2005 levels

India is well on track to meet this, having rapidly moved into solar energy. Its target involves an increase in total emissions, but should be seen in light of India’s very low emissions of only two tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita. This is compatible with the 2℃ target.

Australia 2030 target: 26% below 2005 levels

Australia is presently only on track for a 7% reduction. But a decrease in forest clearance has masked the fact that emissions from fossil fuel burning have increased and are projected to increase further, to 8% above 2005 levels by 2030.

Australia has become the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, many state governments have set ambitious targets and made either aspirational or legal commitments toward zero emissions.

New Zealand 2030 target: 30% below 2005 levels

New Zealand is projected to reduce by 15% under current policies, with the difference to be made up by purchasing carbon units from overseas. This may set up a clash with the Zero Carbon Act, which requires that “emissions budgets must be met, as far as possible, through domestic emissions reductions and domestic removals.” However, these figures mask the fact New Zealand is, most unusually, using “gross-net” accounting. The 2030 target is for net emissions (that is, including the carbon sink of forests), but is measured against their 2005 gross emissions. The target allows net emissions to grow by up to 24% and is woefully unambitious.

Using a different methodology, taking into account each country’s situation, performance, and plans, the Climate Change Performance Index found that the top three countries are Sweden, Denmark and Morocco, and the bottom three are Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the US. New Zealand is ranked 34th and Australia 53rd of the 58 countries assessed.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

CORSIA, coming soon to an airport near you

By Robert McLachlan

On 27 September, Greta Thunberg addressed a crowd of 500,000 at the School Strike for Climate in Montreal, saying,

“You are a nation that is allegedly a climate leader. And Sweden is also a nation that is allegedly a climate leader. And in both cases, it means absolutely nothing. Because in both cases, it’s just empty words. And the politics needed are still nowhere in sight. So we are basically the same.”

(Eric Demers/Polaris)

Meanwhile, also in Montreal, just a few kilometres away, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, part of the United Nations) was also talking about climate change, speaking the language of international diplomacy:

“Whereas the sustainable growth of aviation is important for future economic growth and development, trade and commerce, cultural exchange and understanding among peoples and nations; therefore prompt action must be taken to ensure that it is compatible with the quality of the environment and develops in ways that alleviate adverse impacts…”

ICAO and Greta Thunberg. Which of those two will have the most impact?

The stakes at the ICAO meeting were high. The main UN body for dealing with climate change, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, which resulted in the Paris Agreement), has so far left dealing with international aviation up to ICAO, which is keen to defend its turf. But aviation is growing rapidly, up 80% since 2009, and is projected to triple further by 2050. In response, after the Paris Agreement, in 2016 ICAO developed its flagship scheme for addressing the climate impact of aviation: the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA.

CORSIA is intended to cap international aviation emissions at 2020 levels. It runs until 2035. Participation is voluntary until 2026, although many countries, including New Zealand, will join in 2021. The New Zealand Cabinet recently approved the development of legislation to allow CORSIA to operate in New Zealand (although not as part of the Emissions Trading Scheme). However, for a sector of such importance, and a scheme that starts on 1 January 2021, time is running out.

For the details are still scarce, and ICAO is still trying to work out how CORSIA will operate. The main part of the plan involves the purchase of carbon offsets – that is, the purchase of emissions reductions elsewhere. Now, carbon offsetting is not intrinsically flawed. New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme is essentially based on carbon offsetting – people who burn fossil fuels pay a fee, which both acts as an incentive to stop doing it, and provides money to someone else who may be, for example, planting trees.

The devil is in the details. New Zealand has already been caught in one international carbon credit scandal, in which many large New Zealand emitters bought dodgy credits from Ukraine at rock-bottom prices (for by that time, they were the only buyers in the market). This led to a suspension on the use of international credits in New Zealand, although it still remains part of our long-term plan.

For the system to work, the purchase of carbon credits must lead to genuine emissions reductions that would not have happened anyway. However, a recent assessment for the German Environment Agency found that 80% of registered carbon credits do not meet this standard. For example, they may relate to projects such as wind farms that have already been built, and that will continue to operate regardless of whether they can sell their carbon credits. In addition, many credits arise in countries that have plans to reduce emissions already in place. In that case, it’s very hard to tell if the credits are actually leading to extra emissions reductions. Finally, there is a problem of double counting. If a plane flies from Auckland to Singapore, with some of the emissions offset in Vanuatu, the offsets cannot be counted both in New Zealand and Vanuatu.

A likely scenario involves a vast oversupply of carbon credits, with a corresponding crash in prices. Indeed, EasyJet announced recently that it will offset all the emissions of its flights, at just $6 per tonne of CO2 – a tiny fraction of the current carbon price in Europe. At those prices, offsetting a return flight from Auckland to Brisbane would cost $2.

CORSIA is also likely to have an impact on biofuels. Already in 2017, ICAO, under pressure from Brazil and the US, almost entirely removed sustainability criteria from the jet biofuels that can be used under the scheme. In 2018, at Saudi Arabia’s request, fossil kerosene from ‘clean’ oil refineries was also credited. An environmental organisation, Biofuel Watch, claims that the Finnish company Neste is planning to make biofuel in Singapore from palm oil, a claim the company disputes (although does not entirely deny).

With CORSIA starting operation in New Zealand in just over a year, we don’t know yet where its carbon credits will come from. So far, ICAO is reserving all rights to operate and verify the system.

For all these reasons, many environmentalists are sceptical that CORSIA will deliver any environmental benefits at all. They are joined by the EU, which had originally planned to include all aviation in its emissions trading scheme in 2012. Following intense lobbying, this has been delayed to 2024 for extra-EU flights. ICAO doesn’t even much like the EU charging a carbon fee on internal flights in the EU (which are, after all, international). In September it passed a resolution stating that CORSIA “should be the only market-based measure applied to international flights”.

ICAO also “urges States to refrain from environmental measures that would adversely affect the orderly and sustainable development of international civil aviation” – in other words, not to tax on jet fuel, a move which is also presently being considered by the EU.

The problem is growth

To limit global warming to 1.5ºC, as New Zealand has agreed to aim for, emissions from burning fossil fuels need to fall 45% by 2030. (For 2ºC, we get an extra six years). As Manchester Metropolitan University’s David Lee concluded in a report to the UK Department of Transport,

“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.”

Tufts University’s Parke Wilde, founder of the blog Flying Less, wrote to ICAO that

“What really is needed from ICAO and CORSIA is actual emissions reductions within the aviation sector. It is a travesty that ICAO only provides overall goals for emissions “net” of offsets, and will not state goals for actual emissions reduction in the aviation sector.”

(For these and similar statements, ICAO recently blocked Parke Wilde on Twitter.)

But all major institutions associated with aviation are devoted to, and designed around, support for continued growth, which is currently running at 5% per year. In New Zealand, international aviation emissions grew 33% in the past three years. Our government, like most others, spends money supporting the growth of tourism, for example by advertising New Zealand in Europe (the furthest destination of all), and paying $100,000 for Stephen Colbert to joke around with the Prime Minister.

Apart from ICAO, other parts of the UN, such as the UN World Tourist Organisation, also support growth. The UNWTO’s goal is to “promote tourism as a driver of economic growth”. The World Tourism and Travel Council, an industry body, supports growth. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) supports growth, and in fact worked closely with ICAO in the development of CORSIA. The two organisations can be hard to tell apart, with many of ICAO’s resolutions supporting IATA’s calls for states to do more to support demand growth, for example by supporting airport expansion.

The larger aviation and tourism gets – it may already be up to 10% of the global economy – the harder it is for policymakers to control.

For all these reasons, Susanne Becken, Professor of Tourism at Griffiths University in Queensland, recently concluded that “only systemic changes at a large scale will be sufficient to break or disrupt existing arrangements.”

Next steps

Prior to this year’s meeting, ICAO has always resisted calls to set targets to actually reduce emissions. After a lot of wrangling, they have now finally agreed “to continue to explore the feasibility of a long-term global aspirational goal for international aviation” for their next meeting in 2022. In the meantime, the only people actually calling for a reduction in emissions are the No Fly and Fly-Less movements and a scattering of environmental organisations. And Greta Thunberg.

On the road to Net Zero, the next step is to update our UN pledge

By Robert McLachlan

A lot has happened since the UN’s report on 1.5ºC was released in October 2018. New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Bill has passed, and enshrines the 1.5ºC goal in law. The UK and France have also legally strengthened their targets to Net Zero 2050. The School Strike For Climate and Extinction Rebellion have become household names. But progress on the ground is slow:

Under the Paris Agreement, each country lodges a “Nationally Determined Contribution”, or NDC. This is one reason why the Paris Agreement is regarded as a breakthrough in climate negotiation. The NDCs will be updated every five years and must reflect each country’s “highest possible ambition“. The first update is due at the end of 2020, with the UN recently releasing a progress report.

Despite Jacinda Ardern’s speech at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit on 23 September, New Zealand does not appear on the list of 70 nations that have said they will enhance their NDCs by 2020.

Our current NDC calls for a 30% reduction in net emissions on 2005 levels by 2030. (Because emissions skyrocketed during the 1990s, that’s equivalent to nearly double our 1990 levels). Climate Action Tracker has rated our NDC “insufficient” (consistent with global warming of up to 3ºC) and our projected emissions “highly insufficient” (consistent with global warming of up to 4ºC). Of the Zero Carbon Bill, they remark that “New Zealand has very few policies to implement this bill.” Globally, emissions have to halve by 2030 to stay on track for 1.5ºC.

(It’s surprising to be in the same category, “insufficient”, as Australia. But Australia is a world leader in the shift to renewable energy, installing a staggering 5 to 6 GW of new wind and solar every year – three times as much per capita as the nearest competitor, Germany.)

And how is our target looking?:

If you’re struggling to see how that target (the green line, 70.5 Mt net emissions in 2030) is a 30% decrease on 2005 levels, welcome to the topsy-turvy world of carbon accounting. The target is for net emissions, compared to a baseline of gross emissions. In 2005 gross emissions were 83.3 Mt. So our present target allows us to increase net emissions (currently 56.9 Mt) massively over the next decade.

But hang on, we’re not done yet. How is net emissions of 70.5 Mt a 30% reduction from 83.3 Mt? (Hint: it isn’t.) The answer lies in further carbon accounting. As our NDC says, “In meeting its target New Zealand intends to use international market mechanisms” – in other words, by buying international carbon credits (an activity that got us into trouble in the past). On the other hand, the Zero Carbon Bill says that “Emissions budgets must be met, as far as possible, through domestic emissions reductions and domestic removals”, a requirement that was strengthened further as the bill progressed.

These two things appear to be in conflict. But as of today, a focus on “international carbon markets” is one of New Zealand’s priorities at COP25, which opens in Madrid on 2 December.

Some of these issues will be worked out in time, in particular through the Climate Commission’s carbon budgets; the budgets for 2022–2035 are to be announced in March 2021. In the meantime we need a new Nationally Determined Contribution that reflects true accounting, our “highest possible ambition”, and genuine cuts to emissions.

Why municipal waste-to-energy incineration is not the answer to NZ’s plastic waste crisis

Since the Chinese plastic recycling market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste goes to countries in South-East Asia. from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

By Trisia Farrelly

New Zealand is ranked the third-most-wasteful country in the OECD. New Zealanders produce five times the global daily average of waste per person – and they are getting more wasteful, producing 35% more than a decade ago.

These statistics are likely to get worse following China’s 2018 ban on imports of certain recyclable products. China was the world’s top importer of recyclable plastics, but implemented the ban because it could no longer safely manage its domestic and imported waste. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, China was named the top source of marine plastic pollution in the world.

Since the Chinese market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste now goes to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — all countries with weak regulations and high rankings as global sources of marine plastic pollution.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has been raised as a solution. While turning plastic waste into energy may sound good, it creates more pollution and delays a necessary transition to a circular economy.

Dirty plastics

Shipments of plastic recycling often arrive in developing countries unsorted and contaminated. Materials that cannot be easily recycled are commonly burned, releasing dioxins into air, soil and water. In response, South-East Asian countries have started returning dirty plastics to developed countries.

Several New Zealand councils have stopped collecting certain plastics for recycling offshore. They are sending them to landfill instead. Available data suggest that even before the China ban plastics made up roughly 15% of the waste in municipal landfills – about 250,000 tonnes a year. Much of this is imported plastic packaging.

Many New Zealanders are very or extremely worried about the impact of plastic waste. We cannot continue ignoring our role in the global plastic pollution crisis while dumping plastic in homegrown landfills or in developing countries.

In the scramble to find alternatives, waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has become a hot topic, particularly as foreign investors look to establish WtE incinerators on the West Coast and [other centres]in New Zealand. Some local government representatives have endorsed WtE proposals, or raised WtE as an election issue.

Less plastic good for climate

Like landfills, WtE incinerators symbolise the linear “take-make-waste” economy, which destroys valuable resources and perpetuates waste generation.

Globally, countries are moving to circular approaches instead, which follow the “zero waste hierarchy”. This prioritises waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling and composting and considers WtE unacceptable.

Some New Zealanders say Nordic countries have proven that incineration is the environmental silver bullet to our waste woes. But a recent study found these countries will not meet EU circular economy goals unless they replace WtE incineration with policies that reduce waste generation. Such policies include packaging taxes, recycling and recovery rate targets, landfill bans on biodegradable waste, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.

Rejecting linear approaches is also good for the climate. Actions at the top of the waste hierarchy stop more greenhouse gases than those at the bottom.

In contrast, WtE incinerators can produce 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of municipal solid waste burnt. New Zealand’s zero carbon act means we have a responsibility to ensure we do not increase our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in WtE incineration.

Incinerators also cannot magic away toxins in plastic waste. Even the most high-tech WtE incinerators [[release dioxins and other pollutants into the air]. Meanwhile, toxin-laden fly ash and slag are dumped in landfills to eventually leach into the environment and contaminate food systems.

Shifting responsibility for plastic waste

To address plastic pollution, it is easy to see how prevention and reduction work better than “getting rid of” plastic once produced. Many WtE proponents argue that incineration technology can be a temporary solution for the plastic waste we have already created.

But incinerators are not short-term fixes. They are expensive to build and maintain. Large-scale incinerators demand about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, encouraging increasing production of waste. Investors guarantee returns on their investment by locking councils into decades-long contracts.

The only real solution to our plastics problem is through regulation that moves New Zealand towards a circular economy. We can start by making the linear economy expensive by increasing landfill levies above the current $NZ10/tonne and expanding it to all landfills. We must also invest in better waste collection, sorting and recycling systems, including a national network of resource recovery centres.

Instead of burning or burying plastic that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, we can prevent or reduce it through targeted phase-outs. The government is proposing to regulate single-use plastic packaging, beverage packaging, electronic waste and farm plastics through mandatory product stewardship schemes. This would make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce and provide incentives for less wasteful and toxic product design and delivery systems (e.g. refill stations).

All of these circular solutions will provide far more jobs than WtE incineration.

Without a swift, brave shift to a circular economy, New Zealand will remain one of the world’s most wasteful nations. Circular economies are developing globally and WtE incineration will only set us back by 30 years.

Hannah Blumhardt, the coordinator of the NZ Product Stewardship Council, has contributed to this article. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.