On the future: An interview with Martin Rees

Martin Rees has been Astronomer Royal since 1995. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. One of the world’s foremost cosmologists, he has studied the Big Bang, black holes, galaxy formation, and gamma ray bursts. In this interview he discusses his 2018 book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity with Robert McLachlan.

RM: Amongst scientists, cosmologists surely have the most cosmic view of time and space. Has that influenced your view of our present situation?

MR: The main reason that a cosmologist has a distinctive view is that we have an awareness of the far future. Most people, unless they are fundamentalists, are aware of the four billion years of cosmic evolution in the past, but many of them somehow think that we humans are the end of the process, the culmination. I think no astronomer could believe that, because we know that the sun is less than halfway through its life, and the universe may go on forever. So we see the future as being more long term. That makes us even less willing than most people to discount it.

RM: Does that change how you value the present?

MR: Not very much, because the main issue in environmental debates is to get people to think fifty or one hundred years ahead.

RM: It’s been a spectacular few decades in astronomy – it’s always a golden age in astronomy – gravitational waves, extrasolar planets, dark energy. What do you think is the most exciting or significant discovery?

MR: I’ve been lucky to be at the subject for fifty years now. When I started in the late 1960s, it was exciting: the first evidence for the Big Bang, black holes, neutron stars, …

Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias in front of the antenna with which they accidentally discovered the remnant radiation from the Big Bang in 1964.
High resolution map of the cosmic microwave background measured in the 2000s by satellite. These tiny fluctuations, seen much as they were when the Universe was 1/40,000th of its present age, evolved to become galaxies.

RM: That’s right, the cosmic microwave background was only discovered in 1964! So recent!

MR: Yes, an exciting period. And it was a good time for young people like me to join the subject, because when things are happening fast, the experience of the old guys is at a discount and young people can make an impact quickly. But looking at what’s been happening in the last five years, I think those entering the subject now are just as lucky, for all those things you mentioned. The opportunities for new discoveries are higher than ever now.

RM: You’ve worked on supermassive black holes. That must have been pretty special to see an actual photograph of a supermassive black hole.

The Virgo cluster of galaxies, 53 million light years distant. It spans the apparent width of your fist held at arms length. At the lower left is Messier 87, one of the most massive galaxies known, which contains at its core a supermassive black hole, also the most massive known (6 billion solar masses). This was the first black hole to be photographed directly, in April 2019.

MR: That picture didn’t really surprise us very much, because we had indirect evidence of what was there.

RM: Amazing resolution though!

MR: It is an amazing technical achievement what they did, to link together data from telescopes around the world and mesh it together, not in real time but much later.

RM: Turning to your book, “On the future: Prospects for humanity”, you wrote that your theme is optimism and anxiety. You’re trying to balance those two things. It seems to me you must have been influenced by the times, you would have come of age at the most anxious period of the cold war, you’ve seen all these technological improvements…

MR: I think so. One point about the cold war is that most of us weren’t aware of just how dangerous it was. When we read the memoirs of people who were active at the time, it was a very dangerous period, for the northern hemisphere anyway. But what’s made me concerned about the issues I address in my book is that during the last twenty years I’ve had the opportunity, through being president of the Royal Society and a member of the House of Lords, to get up to speed on various other policy questions, and this has made me slightly better informed about some of them, and to worry about some of the implications.

RM [laughs] And how did that tilt the balance between anxiety and optimism?

MR: It makes me a technical optimist, but a political pessimist. The advances in science are very exciting, and already we know enough to provide a good life for everyone on the planet. The fact that we’re not doing that is a political and ethical indictment. I do worry about the environmental effect of a larger global population, all empowered by technology using more resources. It’s very hard to deal with because it does require concerted global action. But I also worry about the misuse of bio and cyber technology. What’s new about those is that they allow a small group, even a single person, to have an impact that could cascade very widely and globally. This is something new. I like to say “the global village will have its village idiots” and they now have a global range. To cope with that, the new challenge is to balance attention between privacy, security, and liberty. For the next ten or twenty years, that’s my main concern. Disruption of that kind is going to be more frequent and is going to weaken the fabric of society. It’s going to be very hard to cope with that, because everyone says, “you have to have regulations”, but enforcing those regulations globally is really as hard as enforcing the drug laws globally or the tax laws globally. It’s not like nuclear, where you have large special-purpose facilities and you can monitor and verify what’s happening. You can’t monitor what’s happening in every biotech lab or everyone who has access to the internet.

RM: You mentioned “consequences”. All of these complex phenomena suffer from cascading consequences.

MR: We’re all connected. You probably know the Jared Diamond book Collapse. The difference with his scenarios is that now if there were collapse in one continent it would go global. That is rather scary.

RM: You mentioned Johan Rockström’s idea of nine Planetary Boundaries, which is a very powerful framework for looking at environmental issues. We’re living at the point where we’re running right up against those boundaries. Wasn’t this inevitable, that given economic growth and expanding power and consumption of resources, we were bound to run into this problem eventually?

MR: The population of course is growing. It’s doubled in the last fifty years. Fortunately, partly due to biotech, food production has kept pace with the rising population, so the doomsters of the late 1960s like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were overpessimistic. They thought there would be mass starvation by now. Although there is more pressure on world food supplies, that has been met by advanced technology. Famines still occur, but they’re due to maldistribution or conflict, not overall shortage. Even though the population is certain to rise to something like nine billion by mid-century, I don’t think there needs to be extreme pressure on food or resources (although there may well be). Everyone says that economic growth is going to use more and more resources. But economic growth can be of a kind that doesn’t use more raw materials, nor more energy. The most rapid economic growth is in electronics, and apart from pressure on a few rare earths, which is a serious constraint, that doesn’t consume much in the way of resources compared to old-style massive factories.

RM: When I run my eye down these planetary boundaries, many of these problems were not predicted. Ocean acidification was discovered in 2003, the ozone hole in 1985, the instability of the Antarctic ice sheets 1978. Given the power of science, isn’t that surprising? Is it related to unpredictability and tipping points?

MR: These topics were understudied. People didn’t study these issues enough. They only became mainstream science in the last twenty years. One message is that there may be other things that we are not aware of yet which will be just as concerning twenty years from now.

RM: Carbon dioxide dissolving in the sea to form an acid isn’t very complicated science.

MR: It’s consequences are still controversial, the coral reefs in Australia…

RM: Just astonishing. 2500km long and a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef is dead already.

        Speaking of nine billion population, I wanted to read from your book.

“On the other hand, 20 billion could live sustainably with a tolerable, if ascetic quality of life, if they adopted a vegan diet, travelled little, lived in small, high-density apartments, connected by a super internet and virtual reality. This latter scenario is plainly improbable and certainly not alluring.”

        I’m afraid that that is exactly the civilisation that we’re heading towards!

MR: It’s not clear, because in two-thirds of countries, and globally, the birth rate is going down. The reason the population is going to be higher by mid-century is because the demographic transition hasn’t happened in Africa, and secondly, because most people in the world are young, because of the growth in the last fifty years. And they’re going to have longer lifespans. So the prediction is confident to 2050. After that, there are some UN projections in which the growth does continue, but it may be that the population peaks soon after 2050 and starts going down. Surely we would like it to go down. If people are going to have decent lives and enough space, then, even though we can’t define a carrying capacity for the world because it does depend hugely on lifestyle, I think most people would say a less populated world  – 5 billion – would be better, and would give a higher chance of everyone having reasonable space and a reasonable share of resources. That’s what I hope. The biggest concern is what happens in Africa, where the demographic transition hasn’t happened. In rural regions, women are still having seven children. Their population is going to double by 2050. In some scenarios, if the birthrate doesn’t fall, there is another doubling, from 2 billion to 4 billion, by 2100. Nigeria would have a population of 900 million, equal to Europe and North America combined. If, as a consequence, Africa remains in the poverty trap, that’s surely bad news for the world: massive global instability, massive migration. Even though there will be some technical advances, it’s not at all obvious how the inequality between Africa and the more prosperous regions could be reduced. There are two things working against it. One technology that has percolated widely in Africa is IT and mobile phones. That means they are less fatalistic about their fate. They know what they’re missing. They know what it’s like in the rest of the world. This is a recipe for greater embitterment and disaffection.

RM: Which is what we’re seeing now.

MR: Yes, understandably. And the other point is that they don’t have the opportunity that the so-called East Asian Tigers had, to have an economic spurt by undercutting wage costs in manufacturing. Now there’s what’s called re-shoring of manufacturing, with robots doing that sort of work. That means it’s hard to imagine how Africa is going to catch up. I think it’s going to mean that, not just for altruistic reasons, but in our self interest, the prosperous countries ought to subsidize development in Africa. It’s a mega version of what’s been suggested by the Oxford economist Paul Collier, to deal with the Syrian refugees. There are several million of them in Jordan and other places. He points out that they don’t really want to come to England as refugees, they would like to earn a good living in Jordan, with a reasonable hope of going back to their homes sometime. We may need a version of the Marshall Plan to help Africa catch up with the rest of the world.

RM: And there’s another scenario, in which we do rein in population but still struggle with resource use.

MR: Yes, we’ve got to make sure that people are sparing of resources, because the world couldn’t support even three or four billion people if they all lived like middle class Americans or Europeans.

RM: So it almost needs a complete revolution in our attitudes and the way we live. At the moment, as soon as people get richer they want to fly more.

MR: There will have to be constraints. Still, the development of IT will diminish pressure on resources.

RM: Possibly, but that points to your scenario in which we’re living in virtual reality in little box apartments and not valuing what has been lost. The Shifting Baseline phenomenon was pointed out by the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly: it refers to a failure to notice slow change, and also to a failure to appreciate what has been lost. Once a species has gone extinct, it’s sad, but it’s also too late, it’s out of people’s lives.

MR: I think that’s true. It’s an interesting question to what extent economic advance has actually made us happier and more fulfilled in our lives. We’ve lost as well as gained. One consequence of growth has been greater inequality as the demand for certain kinds of work has gone down. If you look at the lifestyle of the average blue collar worker in Western countries, in many respects it’s got worse: housing costs have gone up faster than their real wages, they’ve got less job security, less status. The only thing which has improved their lives is access to IT. Those are products where there’s a large consumer surplus: what we have to pay is less than we’d be prepared to pay. I’d be prepared to pay more for access to Google than to run my car. 

RM: You go on to talk about this short termism problem. That seems to be extremely fundamental. It’s got a philosophical component – what do we actually owe the future – and a political component: how to actually value the future more.

MR: We have short termism because of politicians worrying about the next election, and that also means their concerns are parochial rather than global. In business, the quarterly company report, and CEOs being incentivized by share options. And because everything is changing so fast, some people use that as an excuse for not planning ahead. “We don’t know what it will be like, so how can we plan?” And that’s true to some extent, because the changes are much faster than they were in earlier centuries. I quote in my book the cathedral builders, who, despite their far more limited horizons in space and time than us, built cathedrals that wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime. The reason they were prepared to do that was partly, despite their constricted horizons, they thought their children and grandchildren would lead lives rather similar to theirs. They would appreciate the finished cathedral. I think we have far less confidence predicting the lifestyle of people fifty years from now.

Then to another point, politicians will think long term, and make the right decision on environmental issues, if they feel the public is behind them. That’s why we should welcome all these campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, and also we should welcome the importance of charismatic figures. There’s a nice quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “It takes only a few determined people to change the world. Indeed nothing else ever has.” And that’s true if you think of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights. All those things start with a few people. Once there is a sufficient fraction of the public concerned, then politicians will take it on board.

Religions can also make people think long term. I quote in my book the Pope’s encyclical in 2015, which did have a big effect on helping to forge a consensus at the Paris climate conference. He has his billion followers, he had a standing ovation at the UN.

More parochially, in this country, Michael Gove has banned plastic straws. He wouldn’t be doing that had it not been for the influence of our secular Pope, David Attenborough, whose programmes were seen by millions and sensitized people to care about this. It wasn’t on the public agenda at all previously.

RM: Cambridge University certainly seems to have been able to adapt to the present while keeping an eye on the long future.

MR: It’s been around for 800 years! It’s the number one science university in Europe, it should care about these things. That’s why I helped to start the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, to think about long-term planning and long-term risk.

RM: In the book you talk about the responsibility of academics to speak up.

MR: We have the freedom and the opportunity to do this. But still there are far too few people thinking about catastrophic scenarios. There are lots of people thinking about carcinogens in food, and small risks, but fewer thinking about these big ones. Cambridge has an anarchic and flexible structure where it’s quite easy for bottom-up initiatives to gain traction.

RM: When we think about some difficult issues, say climate change and biodiversity loss, people can get pessimistic and start saying that our whole society is wrong and that we have to “end capitalism” or that democracy is fundamentally ill-suited to dealing with these issues. Can we work within our present system and strengthen our institutions sufficiently to address long-term challenges?

MR: Issues like climate change have to be addressed globally. So we do need more organizations like the World Health Organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency to deal with climate and energy and to verify compliance with pledges made at the Paris conference. We’re not moving in the right direction at the moment.

RM: They need to have power and be trusted.

MR: We need to improve our politics and our democracy. First, we’ve got to depend more on the public sector. To digress, one of the things one worries about is changes in employment caused by automation and AI. The owners of the robots have to be taxed and the money used to provide fulfilling jobs for those who are displaced by the robots. It could be a win-win. The people who are now working in call centres or Amazon warehouses – pretty mind-numbing occupations – could have dignified secure employment as teacher aides or carers. In order to have a society where everyone feels respected and useful, probably there has to be greater redistribution of wealth.

RM: Your book discusses AI in the short and long-term. There’s no consensus about how quickly that’s coming. But we are already having trouble with the stability of the systems that we’ve built, for example with Russian interference in elections. Are we building a system that’s very complicated and also very fragile and difficult to control?

MR: We are. This is like the problem of cyberattacks. We are in an arms race between the attackers and the defenders. They will be AI attacks in the future. It will be a continuing disruptive force. It’s hard to know what to do about that, or about biothreats. It’s going to be ever more difficult to manage. We have to minimize the number of people who have a justifiable grievance against the world. All too many do now, because of the huge inequalities which prevail.

RM: You move on to the cosmic significance of life in the universe. There, we have learned something in the last few decades. We now know that planets of all types are common in the galaxy, and we also know that the galaxy is not full of easily decodable high-power radio signals from other civilisations. 

MR: Yes, and we will soon understand enough about how life began on earth, which biologists don’t understand at present. They understand evolution, but not the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising reproducing things we call life. I think that will come within twenty years. That will tell us whether the origin of life is a rare fluke or not. We’ll also know whether these other planets around other stars have biospheres. We’ll be able to analyse their atmospheric spectra and look for the ‘red edge’, a discontinuity in the albedo.

RM: Wouldn’t you be willing to bet that the universe is in fact teeming with life?

MR: We know too little to make an informed bet. I’d be disappointed if we don’t find life. Although it would be a cause for a less cosmic modesty if we are really unique. It’s realistic to hope for some evidence of life in the next twenty or thirty years. 

One challenge would be to find another Earth. Having just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, and the famous picture of the Earth from the Moon, an aspiration is that by the centenary of that famous image, which will be 2068, we might have an image, equally iconic, of another Earth, orbiting another star.

Whether there’s intelligent life is another question. I think it’s worth a search. Can we conceive what forms it might take?

RM: Some believe that intelligence has the destiny to spread through the universe.

MR: This is the Fermi paradox. Stephen Webb at the Open University wrote a book with 50 counterarguments to the paradox; in the second edition, 75 counterarguments. They’re all rather weak. It remains an open question. My view is, if we look at what has happened here on Earth, and what might happen, within a few centuries, posthumans, probably electronic, will take over. They’ll be near immortal, they won’t need a planet. I suspect that if we do detect evidence for intelligence, it won’t be a civilisation like ours. Even if there are other Earths that have had an evolutionary past like ours, it’s unlikely that they’d be synchronised. Either they’d be far behind, in which case we’d see no evidence, or they’d be far ahead, in which case what we would detect would be their near-immortal electronic progeny.

Darwinian evolution has favoured two things, intelligence and aggression. These electronic entities, as a consequence of intelligent design instead of evolution, might not have any motives that we could understand. They could be living entirely contemplative lives. 

RM: Your overall conclusion is that we need more science, and that we also need to make wise choices about what we do with the science and which sciences to develop. We need better education. 

MR: All rather platitudinous I’m afraid!

RM: My only criticism is that everything in the book would have been true twenty years ago, but now we are seeing disturbing developments like ‘post-truth’. As a scientist, it’s hard to understand how that can be a thing.

MR: But how fundamental a change is that? Is it just a phase? In the past, people got their information via mass media, which were organised by people who knew what they were doing. Now there is so much information being disseminated on the net, it’s very hard for people to find good information. If you’ve got some medical complaint and you look on the internet you’ve got no way of deciding what is rubbish and what is good advice.

RM: The institutions that we evolved over hundreds of years to ensure some kind of proper knowledge base have been subverted and dissolved.

MR: You’re right, this is one of the down sides of the internet. It’s something we have to cope with. Yet the internet allows benign mass movements to develop fast as well, it’s not all bad news!

RM: And this is just the dawn of the internet. But we always feel like we’re living in the present, we really don’t know what’s around the corner.

MR: That’s true, in most contexts we can’t predict thirty years ahead. In some areas, like climate, we can, and that’s what’s scary. In technology, we can’t: twenty-five years ago a smart phone would have seemed magical. There could be some biological development in the next twenty-five years that we’re not even aware of which could have a similar transformative consequence.

On the other hand, it’s not always true that things change fast. There has to be a political or commercial pressure. Many things go in a sigmoid curve, they go fast and then level off. Just thinking of the 50th anniversary of Apollo, fifty years ago many people thought there’d be footprints on Mars long before today. We know why that hasn’t happened, it would have been exorbitantly expensive and robots have made the case weaker. So that technology has languished. Two other things happened that same year – the first test flight of Concorde, we know what happened to that,  and also the first commercial flight of the jumbo jet, which hasn’t changed hugely in the last fifty years. The previous fifty years went from Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight to the jumbo jet. Quite a lot happened! Cars also have changed a lot less in the last fifty years than in the fifty before that. So the question is, will IT and bio continue to develop, or will they get stuck?

One area where I think people are losing enthusiasm is driverless cars. Will I ever have a driverless car so that I can sit in the back and relax, as on the train? People are pessimistic that having driverless cars mixed up with the traffic in London would improve anything. Progress will be slow.

RM: You mentioned Mars. In the book you write that you hope to see humans on Mars this century. What is that? Are you sure you’re not nostalgic for the Apollo era?

Earth photographed by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2014. Visit Mars in Google Earth.

MR: The practical need is getting less. That’s why I wouldn’t spend any taxpayer’s money on human spaceflight to Mars. NASA and ESA are risk-averse. Look at the shuttle – launched 135 times, two failures, each a big national trauma, whereas a 2% failure rate is entirely acceptable to test pilots and adventurers. My scenario is that if Elon Musk and others want to spend private money, accepting much higher risk, then we should cheer them on, just like we cheer on adventurers who walk across the Antarctic.

RM: Even New Zealand has a private space launch capability now!

MR: And you’ve also got some billionaires who have bought properties in New Zealand to escape the catastrophes.

RM: We do. Martin, thank you for your time today.

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand’s second-rate car fleet

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

Land transport emissions. Source.

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

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

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

New Zealand’s history of fuel taxes

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

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

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

A two-pronged plan

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

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

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

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

International clean car schemes and testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Robert McLachlan. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Consultation on the Clean Car Plan is open until 5pm on 20 August 2019.

The unexpected and unavoidable consequences of living with climate change

At 18, Katie Sinclair has already decided she’s unlikely to become a mum.

That’s because of her determination to do her bit to fight the climate crisis.

“Children don’t really interest me,” Sinclair, who lives in the small South Taranaki town of Opunake, says.

“I think I’ve already decided I want to be the fun aunt, rather than the mum. Having children is such an impact on the environment.” 

Having one less child is the most effective personal greenhouse-gas reducing option open to anyone, rich or poor, as this can save 58.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, a study published in Environmental Research Letters and quoted by the Guardian says.

Sinclair says considers climate change in almost all decisions she makes.
ANDY JACKSON/STUFFSinclair says considers climate change in almost all decisions she makes.

The trend has been recognised globally as ‘birth striking’. A New York Times survey of young adults in America last year found 33 per cent had, or were expecting to have, fewer children than expected because they were worried about climate change. The movement has some famous backers. Singer Miley Cyrus and her husband Liam Hemsworth are on board.

This sounds radical but to really tackle climate change people will collectively have to live as if there’s wartime rationing, Professor Steve Trewick, a specialist in evolutionary ecology and genetics at Massey University, says.

Professor Steve Trewick from Massey University says we need to live as though our resources are rationed.
SUPPLIEDProfessor Steve Trewick from Massey University says we need to live as though our resources are rationed.

“It’s terrible to use that war analogy because that’s very negative, but in a way, we are at war with ourselves. As a species we are over-using our resources and those resources are definitely limited,” he says.

During World War II in Britain, food including eggs, meat, butter and sugar was rationed, as was fuel and later clothes and household goods.

At that time only a few families owned a car and people were more accustomed to ‘make do and mend’ rather than buying new items.

“Technology is not going to magic away that problem. The fact is, we’re using too much of a limited resource so we have to change,” Trewick says.

Transport is the fastest growing source of climate pollution in New Zealand.
BRADEN FASTIER/STUFFTransport is the fastest growing source of climate pollution in New Zealand.

And it’s required at all levels, right through business, economics, politics and personal decisions.

“I think that’s where the real struggle’s going to come because we will all want to listen to the politicians who say things that don’t require us to make much change to our lives. We don’t want to hear the people who say no, actually we have to radically change globally our behaviour as people,” he says.

And individual actions will help bring this about, Trewick says.

If far more of us recognised and started to accept the reality of the situation the planet was in and so were prepared to make tiny changes, he says we’d then be that much more receptive to the bigger changes that will came along.

The issues, encompassing air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, increasing climate change, biodiversity loss and loss of quality of life for many people around the world, are too big for us to comprehend, Trewick says.

“In nearly all situations you can track back the products you use and resources you use and  find that somewhere in the world these days, someone else is not doing very well out of the deal.” 

While having a collective sense of responsibility is healthy, beating oneself up is not, Trewick says. 

“What’s better is to take some level of positive action,” he says.

That means that even though your personal decision to use or not use a disposable coffee cup seems a pathetic little thing, multiply it out to how many people buy coffee each day in New Zealand. 

“And you start to get some very big numbers.” And you feel good about it, he says. 

There are many ways individuals can take small actions.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw is keen to see people driving electric vehicles.
ROSA WOODS/STUFFMinister for Climate Change James Shaw is keen to see people driving electric vehicles.

In New Zealand, transport is the fastest-growing source of climate pollution, Minister for Climate Change James Shaw says. 

“The single best thing most people can take is to switch to a more efficient, lower-emission car – ideally an electric vehicle, if you’ve got the option. For people who live and work in cities, catching trains and buses, walking and cycling, rather than driving, can add up to a huge difference.

“Another is to choose a Kiwisaver provider that doesn’t invest in fossil fuel companies, because money talks and that helps shift investment into clean energy technologies.”

Ethical decisions about our lives confront us at every turn.

We should all be choosing natural fabrics and laundering less, because synthetics like our beloved polar fleece shed hundreds of thousands of microfibres (particles of plastic below 5mm in size) each time they’re washed, which pass through sewage treatment into the environment, according to 2016 research by the University of Plymouth.

Volunteers pick up rubbish in Fox River on the West Coast after a flood ripped open the Fox Glacier landfill in March.
Volunteers pick up rubbish in Fox River on the West Coast after a flood ripped open the Fox Glacier landfill in March.

According to Friends of the Earth, microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

And should we feel good wearing cheap fast fashion items and ignore the likely awful working conditions for those that sewed them and the mountains of cast-off clothing clogging landfills?

Red meat and whether to eat it is another well-debated topic, with many people opting for veganism to reduce carbon emissions from farming animals for food.

Then there’s the surprisingly large carbon footprint of the fur children we take on as substitutes for the kids we’ve decided not to have.

Pet cats and dogs have a huge carbon footprint, research shows.
Pet cats and dogs have a huge carbon footprint, research shows.

A 2017 study published in the Public Library of Science found that in the United States companion dogs and cats ate enough meat to account for about 64 million tonnes of methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases. This has the same impact as driving 13.6 million cars for a year.

Sixty four per cent of New Zealand households have at least one pet, just one per cent behind the United States, according to the New Zealand Companion Animal Council. 

That’s a lot of food, most of which is imported, and a lot of poo picked up with plastic bags and sent to landfills.

Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favour of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits, would considerably reduce these impacts, the study author said.

Even if owning cats remains socially acceptable, holidaying overseas may not.

​In Sweden, there’s flygskam – or flight shame – a buzz word to describe feelings of guilt or embarrassment caused by stepping on board an airplane. In April, Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, a leader in recent worldwide student protests against climate change, toured Europe by rail calling on the continent’s leaders to do more.

The clash between our efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy and our tradition of the big OE as a kiwi rite of passage and the growing numbers of tourists flying thousands of kilometres to come here is an uncomfortable dilemma for New Zealand. 

Flying alone makes up more than eight per cent of global CO₂ emissions, according to research published in Nature Climate Change last year, and if it were a country it would be among the world’s top 10 emitters.

Sinclair has been organising beach cleanups to help keep the oceans free of plastic.
ANDY JACKSON/STUFFSinclair has been organising beach cleanups to help keep the oceans free of plastic.

Despite the grim news on every front, Sinclair remains optimistic about the future and firmly believes in personal action.

“Probably with 95 per cent of everything I do, I’m like, how is this going to impact the environment? 

“I one hundred per cent believe individual choices make a difference, changing your habits will make a difference and it creates a ripple effect.” 

Since she started organising beach clean-ups around her home town Opunake last year as a school project, she has been picking up rubbish wherever she goes.

If she changes her mind about having children, she will use reusable nappies and share toys with other families through toy libraries.

There are many other ways to take earth-friendly action, she says.

“Some of my friends are vegan for the environmental side of it and the animal rights, that’s what they’re really aware of.

“I love travelling and I think it’s such an important thing to do to experience new cultures and grow your mindset, but I guess there are more environmentally friendly ways you can do it. I know of some people who when they spend $800 on an airfare, they might donate $800 to a charity that plants trees or something.”

By Catherine Groenestein. This article first appeared on Stuff, see the original article. Steve Trewick is a member of the Centre for Planetary Ecology and a founder of this blog.

A New Zealand household emissions calculator

The New Zealand company Enviro-Mark Solutions, a spinoff from the Crown Research Institute Landcare, is a global pioneer is greenhouse certification. Founded in 2001, they now have hundreds of clients in seventeen countries.

Their most popular certification, CEMARS (Certified Emissions Measurement And Reduction Scheme) audits companies’ emissions and their emissions reduction plans – typically reductions of at least a few percent a year are required. Numerous large New Zealand companies are CEMARS certified and there are some amazing success stories.

A higher level is CarboNZero, which certifies that the client’s entire operation is carbon neutral. (Some residual emissions can be offset, where there is a plan to eventually eliminate them.)

Now they have a new tool that allow individuals to assess (and, if they want, offset) their emissions: the Enviro-Mark Household Calculator. It’s extremely easy to use and, unlike other calculators that I have seen, set up explicitly for New Zealand conditions.

Just trying out the calculator lets you start to get a feel for what a tonne of CO2 represents and how different sources of emissions compare. You can compare your household to the average for New Zealand: for a household of three, these are 1.4 tonnes from electricity, 5.9 tonnes from car travel, and 0.9 tonnes from waste, totalling 8.1 tonnes a year. You can see immediately the effect of switching to carbon zero electricity (discussed in a previous post), a more fuel-efficient car, or reducing your household waste. You can see that gas central heating adds about 2 tonnes a year. Taking the family to Sydney adds another 2.8 tonnes.

What I think people will find is that the steps they can take to reduce their emissions are simple and cheap. However, voluntary efforts by individuals by themselves are unlikely to cut emissions nationally. For example, land transport emissions in New Zealand rose 850,000 tonnes in just one year (2017), a trend which is still continuing. Turning that around will require hundreds of thousands of households radically cutting their transport emissions, as well as all other households cutting a little bit. That’s a bit task.

Offsetting: a sensible way forward, or rich people paying to continue polluting?

Offsetting is the second component of the calculator. Once you know your emissions you can choose to buy offsets for them, either for the whole year or for a single item such as a particular unavoidable flight. This is a controversial area. Individual offsets have been compared to the medieval custom of papal indulgences.

However, remember that we have hardly started on the full path of eliminating carbon emissions and stopping burning fossil fuels. We need everything that we’ve got to get started on that journey. Once we’re started, we will learn further as we go. The money from offsets pays for genuine carbon reduction projects, such as permanent indigenous reforestation, that might otherwise struggle to get going. The spectre of billionaires flying around in private jets with clean consciences is pretty far from reality at the moment.

One big issue that New Zealand is right on the point of facing up to is that of international transport emissions. (See the group Fly-Less Kiwis.) New Zealand may be remote, but most developed countries have similar per capita aviation emissions, and they are growing rapidly worldwide. Bringing international transport into the Emissions Trading Scheme would put a break on travel growth, support the carbon price, and fund a lot of low-emission industries that need support right now.

[PS – Don’t forget to submit on the Zero Carbon Bill! Officially known as the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon Amendment) Bill, submissions close on 16 July. OraTaiao has published a guide to preparing a submission.]

Robert McLachlan

100% renewable electricity: A classic kiwi stoush in the making

There’s an old joke set variously in Maine, in Scotland, and probably in any number of other places, about some city folks asking directions from an elderly local. After several lengthy, confusing false starts at directions, the local finally concludes, “You know, you really shouldn’t be starting from here.”

This, to me, is the central joke of climate change mitigation. If only we were starting from somewhere else, say from twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, or if our economic, social, and political systems were set up slightly differently, things would be so much easier.

The problem is particularly acute in New Zealand where we haven’t really begun the actual work of cutting emissions yet, and where the range of allowable strategies is unreasonably restricted. There are many actions that have been tried and tested in most other developed countries (such as solar incentives, electric vehicle incentives, and vehicle fuel efficiency standards) but which are very far from being acceptable in New Zealand.

However, the rash of climate protests and councils declaring climate emergencies is about to force the moment to its crisis.

One flashpoint is the election pledge of 100% renewable electricity by 2035. The Interim Climate Change Committee reported to the government on this target in April. The press are now reporting on a leaked copy of the report, resulting in an all too familiar media circus.

National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller said the report exposed the “economic lunacy” of being fixated on greenhouse emissions from electricity generation, which formed only a small part of New Zealand’s overall emissions. “The report talked to the economic lunacy of seeking 100 per cent renewable energy in the first place,” Muller said, with New Zealand’s large generation from renewable giving a significant strategic advantage.

The issue has enough ingredients – a large industry that is complicated technically, economically, and politically; an election promise; obvious pollution by large companies; the price of an essential consumer item – to guarantee a classic stoush.

Setting aside Muller’s use of “renewable energy” when he means “renewable electricity” (“energy” includes things like petrol), does he have a point?

Unfortunately the ICCC report is not available yet. However, the ICCC website does host a report by the New Zealand Initiative, a libertarian think tank formed out of the Business Round Table, that comes to similar conclusions. That report, virtually a hatchet job on the whole idea of renewable energy, devotes a lot of space to criticizing two of the more successful decarbonization efforts underway worldwide, those of the UK and Germany.

For about a decade, the percentage of renewable electricity has been rising slowly, partly in response to the present target of 90% renewable (on average) by 2025:

Source: NZ Energy Quarterly, March 2019

It is now regularly over 80%, and the addition of more wind power is predicted to cut into the remaining fossil fuel baseload, cutting emissions further. Unfortunately, those emissions are still 5 million tonnes of CO2 a year. Is that really a small part of our overall emissions, as Muller claims?

The Huntly coal- and gas-fired power station before the Waikato River, a familiar sight from State Highway 1.

Here are a few different ways of looking at the significance of our electricity emissions.

  • As a proportion of our 85 million tonnes (Mt) of gross emissions, they are small but not that small.
  • On the other hand, 34 Mt of those emissions are biogenic methane, which has been set aside. That leaves 51 Mt.
  • But the important target is zero net emissions. Those are currently 24 Mt. Suddenly the 5 Mt from electricity is looking more significant.
  • In addition, some of our emissions such as aviation and shipping (6 Mt), trucking (8 Mt) and many industrial emissions (12 Mt), such as those arising from producing steel, aluminium, fertilizer, and paper, are hard to eliminate and/or protected as trade-exposed industries.
  • Some obvious uses of fossil fuels, like natural gas used to heat homes and workplaces, are possible to eliminate, but turn out to be quite small (1.6 Mt).

Taken together, we are left with only two sources that are large and possible to start eliminating right now: electricity (5 Mt) and cars (7 Mt). That requires tackling these two institutions head on.

So, to paraphrase the situation in terms of the old joke I started with: How can we get there, starting from here?

Robert McLachlan

The tragedy of climate change

Why is there pollution?

Why is there an ecological crisis and why has it been so hard to deal with?

There is certainly no shortage of culprits – people have blamed neoliberalism, capitalism, consumerism, economic growth, overpopulation, evil corporations, greed. But underneath all the many aspects of this difficult problem lies one fundamental phenomenon: the Tragedy of the Commons.

This states that self-interest will lead to the depletion of an unmanaged, freely available resource, against everyone’s long-term interest. In an unmanaged fishery, each fisher has an incentive to catch as many fish as possible; if they don’t, another fisher will. Without cooperation between all parties, the fishery will be destroyed.

Not all commons lead to tragedy: some are well managed. Stereotype of the traditional English common, a widespread part of the feudal system.

It is one of those ideas that, once learned, you start to see everywhere, even in areas that are not purely economic. Voting, taxes, vaccination, rubbish, labour laws, health and safety, and human rights all share some of the features of the tragedy of the commons. They are all areas where progress has been made, slowly and with difficulty, in many countries. 

In climate change politics, the mechanism is constantly at work. Every country, every economic sector contains powerful voices arguing why someone else should cut emissions instead of them.

This conviction, that dealing with climate change means understanding and essentially solving the tragedy of the commons, led me to look deeper into the story of its discovery and spread. I found that – as befits a truly simply and universal phenomenon – it was discovered independently many times, first in 1833. But surprisingly, the idea did not stick or become widespread until quite recently. A 1980 paper described climate change as a tragedy of the commons in great detail and clarity: but it was ahead of its time, and no one noticed.

I tell this story in more detail – from Marco Polo to the present day – in the essay “Climate change is a fourfold tragedy” at Scientific American.

I’ll leave the last word to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about tragedy.

Robert McLachlan

It’s high time to rethink low carbon innovation policy in New Zealand

New Zealand’s ability to build domestic clean technology industries and respond effectively to climate change is handicapped by a deep-seated rigid notion that low carbon innovation can come about on the back an ETS alone. This notion disregards the processes by which low carbon innovations have successfully been developed and become competitive to date.

Concepts like ‘level playing fields’, ‘picking winners’ and ‘distortionary effects’ are selectively used to argue for lack of government action beyond emissions pricing. Consider this: since climate change came onto the political agenda in 1980, not a single clean technology has come about solely on the back of a carbon market.

In fact, existing carbon pricing mechanisms that most closely resemble the first-best policies long prescribed by economists have come about following, and as a result of, investment incentives and incremental buy-in from industry and the general public. New Zealand is among the last remaining countries to understand this, and to acknowledge the economic opportunities that you forego when you adopt laissez-faire innovation policy.

Our current government has announced funding for clean energy R&D and testing facilities, which is a great start, but addresses just one part of the innovation puzzle. Addressing the other parts of the puzzle will need to see public entities formalise and broaden stakeholder participation in the policy process, think in terms of 30 year innovation programmes from both producer and consumer perspectives, and put in place demand-side policies to support commercialisation of domestic high-risk low carbon technology. Achieving New Zealand’s decarbonisation goals will stand or fall on whether we tackle the notion of laissez-faire (ne pas faire?!) innovation –  and how entrepreneurial are our current and future parliaments willing to become.

If and when we popularise a more nuanced, wiser and longer-term narrative of environmental innovation and societal change, we will simultaneously address New Zealand’s historically poor track record in terms of productivity and economy-wide capacity to drive and coordinate innovation’’.

Dr Anna Berka – future site of Turitea wind farm

There was tangible new energy rippling through this year’s New Zealand Wind Energy Association conference, with key industry players showing off some extraordinary new kit being deployed in Manawatu and South Taranaki. The Turitea wind farm will be among the most productive wind farms in the world, in no small part thanks to Vestas’ ‘Extreme Climate’ turbines uniquely designed for markets with the nastiest of winds. This industry has come very far since 1978, when the Danish government mustered political will from left- and right-wing parties for a complete overhaul of its energy system and channelled it into a mad and risky policy experiment that seeded and nursed Denmark’s world-leading wind manufacturing market. Without that bold policy experiment, it is difficult to see how we would have the wind technology we have today.

Has New Zealand taken heed and learnt from successful clean technology innovation processes?

Is our parliament planting and nurturing seeds for low carbon innovation in transport, housing or agriculture that will drive domestic emissions reductions and become a cornerstone of New Zealand’s future export markets?

Here I will share with you why I think the answer is no (or, not yet) and pinpoint the weaknesses of New Zealand’s collective approach to low carbon innovation by showing you how it differs fundamentally from that Danish success story, or in fact any success story on low carbon innovation.

Successful cleantech innovation policy needs to be inclusive, involving small players and unlikely winners.

History is littered with examples where disruptive innovation emerges from situations where small, medium enterprises (SME’s), start-ups and grassroots enterprise are given resources and a safe space to pilot concepts, learn, adjust and scale up. The Danes had two separate wind innovation programmes – a Small and a Large Turbine programme. The Small Wind programme sought to identify, test and improve high potential wind turbine designs built by blacksmiths and folk school teachers during the war and was highly successful. The Large Wind programme worked with R&D departments of existing utility companies to build and test larger turbine models, and failed.

In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that established enterprise often struggles to look outside the box when it comes to disruptive low carbon innovation. This is because they are designed to do what they do at the lowest cost possible, operating in mature markets under strong price competition, with shareholders breathing down their necks for a 12% return on investment. They don’t have the luxury to go back to the drawing board; they need to keep the ship going full speed, even if they know that ship is heading towards an iceberg. Start-ups, social and community enterprise don’t demand 12% returns, very often because they derive social and environmental value from their work – they are often motivated to fundamentally rewire the ship and change the direction it is headed. But – and here is the catch – they can only do that if and where the state steps in to reduce risk exposure.

So if the government wants to decarbonise housing, transport and agricultural sectors, it needs to reach out to small players and unlikely winners with the flexibility to invest in high-potential low-return innovation, and incorporate their needs in the policy design process. In practice, this means working with local and regional handholding organisations (regional economic development, incubators) to identify a representative variety of change makers (incumbents, new entrants, academics, independent research organisations), and involving them in the policy design process in a more structured and transparent way.


Successful cleantech innovation policy leverages public support for climate change action to ensure that there is domestic demand for precommercial technology.

In New Zealand we tend to think of subsidies as a tool to shoulder the pain of carbon pricing, a sequel or an afterthought to a proper functioning carbon market. In fact, the most successful mitigation programmes to date have put investment incentives central, in tandem with supply-push policies. Without investment incentives, novel technologies tend to stall following the R&D phase, unable to compete in the market in absence of economies of scale, established supply chains and legitimacy. In other words, it is not a level playing field to begin with, and demand-pull policies are put in place to give a wide range of new technologies a chance to acclimatise to the marketplace (and vice-versa).

Image courtesy Dr Anna Berka

The Danes placed market access regulation, investment incentives and supply obligations side-by-side with R&D, testing and independent quality assurance standards, to ensure there was domestic demand for continuously improving wind turbines that were nowhere near competitive on the market. This allowed actors from across society to rally behind the government’s clean technology programme, becoming part of the solution rather than the problem. Yes – it was expensive and yes, it was a gamble. Wind technology now represents 12% of Danish exports. An entrepreneurial government takes calculated risks – and it pays off handsomely.

Successful cleantech innovation policy distributes the social and economic benefits of expensive mitigation programmes widely across society.

Investment incentives allowing the widespread diffusion of novel clean technology by industry and civil society generate public benefits and public support for more stringent climate change and energy policy. In Denmark that popularity ensured support from centre – right wing parties, generating more or less continuous political support and a healthy investment climate for the wind industry over the course of forty years. This is just about how long it has taken for wind to be able to compete with conventional fuels on the market. We need to stop writing off subsidies for pre-commercial low carbon innovation as ‘hand-outs’. To prevent organised opposition of powerful lobby groups and industries, we need to factor in the social and political effects of climate change policies by studying their combined distributional effects on different stakeholder groups.

For those of you who still don’t get the message – let me put it bluntly: laissez-faire innovation policy is out-of-date. Governments worldwide are taking a leading role in bringing low carbon innovation to market, enabling consumers and communities to partake in technology diffusion and meeting local and regional needs, and opening up thorny questions around sustainable consumption at the same time.

To those of you who experience a visceral reaction to these arguments (and/or want to send me hate mail), I’d like to pre-empt some common questions:

Q. How do you know this, what are you basing this on?

A. I have compared adoption and non-adoption of the full range of supply-push and demand-pull policies driving renewable energy innovation in five countries from 1900-2015.

Q. If what you say is true, how come New Zealand has achieved the highest share of renewables without subsidies or direction from policy makers?

A. A large proportion of New Zealand’s power generation capacity (hydro power) was built, owned and operated by the state prior to 1978 when the sector was unbundled and privatised. So no, New Zealand has definitively not achieved its track record in renewables without government support – to the contrary.

Q. Are you seriously saying that our leading firms can’t innovate?

A. Under pressure from government or competition incumbents can pursue disruptive innovation side by side with their mainstay business –  but in small concentrated markets like ours, with low public expenditure on R&D, incumbents can and have sometimes used their market power and their sway over government to resist having to reorient their assets, technical capabilities, and business models, and to proactively keep niche innovations at bay. Inclusive, transparent policy processes and resourcing new market entrants with niche innovations and can help balance out the conversation, step up the pressure on incumbents to reallocate resources, and step up the pace of change.

Q. But isn’t it potentially dangerous to let the government ‘pick winners’?

A. This argument is based on the premise that market price is a good indicator of the relative value of different technologies to society. But even under a perfect emissions trading scheme, where carbon price equates the true marginal abatement cost (we don’t have this), price still doesn’t take into account the systemic factors that constrain and enable the emergence of cost-competitive technology. In the energy sector that might include for example requirements and compatibilities of different technologies in relation to demand profiles, structure of the existing power market supply, risk premiums facing new technologies or externalities that are a function of increased adoption (such as innovation and learning spillovers, imperfect competition, supply chain coordination effects, and legitimacy costs). 

So: you pick winners whether you put in place enabling policies or not; in absence of demand-pull policies, we will simply squeeze out any pre-commercial technologies, and wait on other countries to do the innovating for us. While cost-efficiency and affordability are legitimate concerns, taken alone they are not a sufficient basis on which to evaluate public intervention for pre-commercial technologies. A more constructive policy assessment would focus on the design of the monitoring, feedback and decision-making mechanisms that the government can use to allocate resources to highest potential technologies.

References: Kelsey, J., 2002. Reclaiming the future: New Zealand and the global economy, 2nd ed. Bridget Williams Books. Kelsey, J., 2015. The FIRE Economy: New Zealand’s Reckoning, Bridget Williams Books. Rosenberg, B., 2016. New Zealand’s Low Value Economy, AUT.

By Anna Berka. This article first published at Pure Advantage. See original article. Dr Anna Berka works on innovation policy, civic enterprise and decarbonisation and holds degrees in economics, environmental science and policy. She previously worked for the Energy Centre, University of Auckland and is currently consulting for public entities and community enterprise.

Green electricity: Is it for real?

Stop flying, cut out red meat, switch to an electric car or, better yet, a bike.  Newspapers and websites are full of stories of people who have made the  switch to a low-emission lifestyle. The stories are inspiring, to me anyway, and they are definitely newsworthy. But, at least judging from the online comments (‘Not gonna happen!’), they can be irritating to others. 

Nevertheless, there are other more serious arguments that individuals should not be the main focus of climate change action. 

 The strongest point is that climate change is a global problem that can only be solved by collective action, the main vehicles for which are state regulations and international agreements. A focus on individuals, goes the argument, feeds the neoliberal cover story that people make entirely free choices and hence, if they’re choosing to burn fossil fuels, they are part of the problem. This line of thought leads to cognitive dissonance and a tendency to absolve other actors, such as fossil fuel multinationals, car manufacturers, and town planners, of responsibility. 

 A second argument is that a few committed individuals cutting their emissions merely frees up resources for others – less concerned about climate change and less motivated to act individually – to use instead. Lowering demand for petrol lowers its price, at least in the short term, allowing others to use more. 

However, as time has gone by, I have been less and less convinced by these arguments. 

First, taking action can have a powerful transformative effect.  

Second, you may find that the action was much easier than you anticipated.  Pessimists like to draw attention to the hardest steps – “people will never stop flying, that’s ridiculous!” – an angle which is countered when you find out how easy the easy steps are.

 Some movements really do start small and spread from many small centres, even if many other things have to line up to allow that to happen.

This same phenomenon happens at other levels, too, as we’re seeing now with more and more councils around New Zealand declaring climate emergencies and setting progressive mitigation targets. Same thing for companies, trumpeting their transition plans and banding together, for example in the Climate Leaders Coalition. Same thing, we hope, for nations: this model is an underlying principle of the Paris Agreement, by which actions are voluntary but will be ratcheted up over time. 

This is Elinor Ostrom’s ‘polycentric’ approach to climate change, an approach that is rapidly becoming mainstream. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her studies of successful management of the commons.  Her key paper on climate change was apparently never published, but is available as a World Bank report.

With that in mind, here’s an action you can take right now with just a phone call, that won’t cost anything, and that will wipe out a huge chunk of your household emissions:


 Yes, that’s actually true. Just by switching electricity providers (0800 845 000, just saying) you can eliminate all your electricity emissions, which even in New Zealand could be 1–2 tonnes of CO2 per year. Ecotricity costs about the same as other retailers. (The exact prices depend on many factors, including where you live – the New Zealand electricity market is complicated.) 

Ecotricity is a New Zealand electricity retailer that is 100% carbon zero. Their whole operation, from the generation of the electricity to the head office, is certified zero carbon by Enviro-Mark Solutions. (Enviro-Mark themselves, a Christchurch-based spinoff from the state-owned research institute Landcare, are an exceptionally well-regarded carbon auditor with clients all over the world.)

 Once you’ve switched, you’ll find that you have an even greater incentive to electrify all your other energy uses.  

It’s hard to believe that this is even possible. After all, we have a national grid, and who knows where your actual electrons came from? And yet, it really is true. Unlike other retailers, Ecotricity does not buy electricity on the spot market. Their entire supply comes through separate contracts with renewable energy suppliers, mainly South Island hydro and biogas. Their majority shareholder is the Central Lakes Trust, a charitable trust that funds community organizations in Central Otago. None of your money is going to Genesis or Nova to run coal and gas-fired power stations. 

The Roaring Meg hydropower station on the Kawarau River. Built in 1936.
You can buy electricity from this power station!

At the moment, they are tiny, with only 0.3% of the market. But they are growing:

April 201535 customers
April 2016473
April 20171619
April 20183102
April 20195831

In the long run, more demand for renewable energy will lead to more of it being supplied.

The ability to switch to fully carbon zero electricity at no cost is pretty special to New Zealand. Clearly, Ecotricity NZ has been inspired by the (unrelated company) Ecotricity UK, which has 200,000 customers and many imitators. In the US, most consumers can opt for  ‘Green pricing’, which (at a price) ties them in to a complicated and possibly dodgy system of renewable energy credits. In Australia there are companies that offer carbon offsets and others that own only renewable generation and that have no side contracts with fossil fuel generators. But none these look quite as pure as Ecotricity. 

Robert McLachlan

NZ introduces groundbreaking zero carbon bill, including targets for agricultural methane

File 20190508 183083 12mudi2.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Agriculture – including methane from cows and sheep – currently contributes almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions. from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

[This article is republished from The Conversation. Plenty more to come on this subject in the future…]

New Zealand’s long-awaited zero carbon bill will create sweeping changes to the management of emissions, setting a global benchmark with ambitious reduction targets for all major greenhouse gases.

The bill includes two separate targets – one for the long-lived greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and another target specifically for biogenic methane, produced by livestock and landfill waste.

Launching the bill, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said:

Carbon dioxide is the most important thing we need to tackle – that’s why we’ve taken a net zero carbon approach. Agriculture is incredibly important to New Zealand, but it also needs to be part of the solution. That is why we have listened to the science and also heard the industry and created a specific target for biogenic methane.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill will:

  • Create a target of reducing all greenhouse gases, except biogenic methane, to net zero by 2050
  • Create a separate target to reduce emissions of biogenic methane by 10% by 2030, and 24-47% by 2050 (relative to 2017 levels)
  • Establish a new, independent climate commission to provide emissions budgets, expert advice, and monitoring to help keep successive governments on track
  • Require government to implement policies for climate change risk assessment, a national adaptation plan, and progress reporting on implementation of the plan.

Bringing in agriculture

Preparing the bill has been a lengthy process. The government was committed to working with its coalition partners and also with the opposition National Party, to ensure the bill’s long-term viability. A consultation process in 2018 yielded 15,000 submissions, more than 90% of which asked for an advisory, independent climate commission, provision for adapting to the effects of climate change and a target of net zero by 2050 for all gasses.

Throughout this period there has been discussion of the role and responsibility of agriculture, which contributes 48% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This is an important issue not just for New Zealand and all agricultural nations, but for world food supply.

Ministry for the Environment, CC BY-ND

Another critical question involved forestry. Pathways to net zero involve planting a lot of trees, but this is a short-term solution with only partly understood consequences. Recently, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment suggested an approach in which forestry could offset only agricultural, non-fossil emissions.

Now we know how the government has threaded its way between these difficult choices.

Separate targets for different gases

In signing the Paris Agreement, New Zealand agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. The bill is guided by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which details three pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C. All of them involve significant reductions in agricultural methane (by 23%-69% by 2050).

Farmers will be pleased with the “two baskets” approach, in which biogenic methane is treated differently from other gasses. But the bill does require total biogenic emissions to fall. They cannot be offset by planting trees. The climate commission, once established, and the minister will have to come up with policies that actually reduce emissions.

In the short term, that will likely involve decisions about livestock stocking rates: retiring the least profitable sheep and beef farms, and improving efficiency in the dairy industry with fewer animals but increased productivity on the remaining land. Longer term options include methane inhibitors, selective breeding, and a possible methane vaccine.

Ambitious net zero target

Net zero by 2050 on all other gasses, including offsetting by forestry, is still an ambitious target. New Zealand’s emissions rose sharply in 2017 and effective mechanisms to phase out fossil fuels are not yet in place. It is likely that with protests in Auckland over a local 10 cents a litre fuel tax – albeit brought in to fund public transport and not as a carbon tax per se – the government may be feeling they have to tread delicately here.

But the bill requires real action. The first carbon budget will cover 2022-2025. Work to strengthen New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme is already underway and will likely involve a falling cap on emissions that will raise the carbon price, currently capped at NZ$25.

In initial reaction to the bill, the National Party welcomed all aspects of it except the 24-47% reduction target for methane, which they believe should have been left to the climate commission. Coalition partner New Zealand First is talking up their contribution and how they had the agriculture sector’s interests at heart.

While climate activist groups welcomed the bill, Greenpeace criticised the bill for not being legally enforceable and described the 10% cut in methane as “miserly”. The youth action group Generation Zero, one of the first to call for zero carbon legislation, is understandably delighted. Even so, they say the law does not match the urgency of the crisis. And it’s true that since the bill was first mooted, we have seen a stronger sense of urgency, from the Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg to the UK parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency.

New Zealand’s bill is a pioneering effort to respond in detail to the 1.5ºC target and to base a national plan around the science reported by the IPCC.

Many other countries are in the process of setting and strengthening targets. Ireland’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Climate recently recommended adopting a target of net zero for all gasses by 2050. Scotland will strengthen its target to net zero carbon dioxide and methane by 2040 and net zero all gasses by 2045. Less than a week after this announcement, the Scottish government dropped plans to cut air departure fees (currently £13 for short and £78 for long flights, and double for business class).

One country that has set a specific goals for agricultural methane is Uruguay, with a target of reducing emissions per kilogram of beef by 33%-46% by 2030. In the countries mentioned above, not so different from New Zealand, agriculture produces 35%, 23%, and 55% of emissions, respectively.

New Zealand has learned from processes that have worked elsewhere, notably the UK’s Climate Change Commission, which attempts to balance science, public involvement and the sovereignty of parliament. Perhaps our present experience in balancing the demands of different interest groups and economic sectors, with diverse mitigation opportunities and costs, can now help others.

Robert McLachlan

A long time between drinks: Mercury will build the Turitea wind farm

We know what we have to do to beat climate change: electrify everything, and stop investing in things that burn fossil fuels. In New Zealand, that has been hard to do. Thirty years of climate policy have left us with only two main tools: the Emissions Trading Scheme, and an ‘aspirational’ target of 90% renewable electricity by 2025.

The ETS has failed to reduce emissions. Although the carbon price has now risen to $25/tonne, and a 50% discount for large emitters gradually unwound, the price is not high enough to have an effect. It’s adding 5c/l to petrol, and in theory it’s adding 2.5c/kWh to coal-powered electricity and (and 1.25c/kWh to gas). Gas peakers, which can be turned on every evening when the spot price is high, are still being used and even built.

The short story of new electricity generation in New Zealand is that we massively invested in fossil  fuel power stations in the 90s and early 2000s, and then began to unwind that with a move into wind and an expansion of geothermal power in the decade to 2014. But  in the past 5 years, that effort has come crashing to a halt. 

Generation capacity in New Zealand. There is also 5200MW of hydropower, which has not changed for decades. Note that the capacity factor of geothermal is 85% while wind is 37%. Thus geothermal can produce 18% of New Zealand’s electricity while wind only produces 5%. However, geothermal is only moderately low carbon. In New Zealand it averages 0.11kg CO2/kWh, and the geothermal stations emit almost 1 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Lest we feel too smug, note that Norway (same population as NZ) has 31000MW of hydro and 800MW of wind, and Iceland (pop. 300,000) has 1930MW of hydro and 800MW of geothermal.

The result is that emissions have remained stubbornly high, jumping another 2% in 2017:

For a period of intense international focus on climate change, and an urgent need to start reducing emissions, that’s pretty frustrating. We kept hearing about the 3000MW of consented wind power just waiting to be built – when the demand was there. We also heard about consents for new fossil-fueled power stations (1240MW planned), an old 377MW plant at Stratford that was up for closure that instead got a $45m makeover in 2017, a new 100MW gas peaker to open in New Plymouth in 2020, and the closure of the 500MW of coal-fired capacity at Huntly, originally set for 2018, extended first to 2022 and then to 2030.

Indeed, why would anyone build wind today? Wind power takes any price it can get. In a flat market, adding more wind will depress the spot price and hurt existing operators. Hydro owners would not suffer particularly – when the wind is blowing they can save their water for later – but fossil owners would be worst off, as they would face both lower prices and lower demand.

In this context the decision by Mercury to start building the Turitea wind farm is a welcome surprise and is striking in a number of ways.

1. It’s big. The first stage, committed now, has 33 3.6MW turbines, totalling 119MW. It adds 20% to New Zealand’s wind power. The turbines will be the biggest yet installed in New Zealand. (They are Vestas V112s, which are normally 3.45MW, but are available in a 3.6MW ‘power optimized’ option, presumably for very windy sites.)

2. It’s bigger than expected. The original consent was for 3MW turbines; Vestas has been able to deliver 20% more power in the same site with the same tower height.

3. It has big potential. Mercury is building the transmission lines for the full Turitea project, and for the additional Puketoi farm further east, now. The whole package totals 500MW. Although they’re not committing to the full thing now, surely this makes it likely to go ahead.

4.  It’s highly efficient. Mercury and Vestas are claiming a 45% capacity factor, even higher than the New Zealand average of 37% which is already among the world’s highest. Presumably this is due to a combination of the site and engineering improvements.

5. It has global significance. Vestas will service the wind turbines for 25 years – longer than the usual certification of 20 years. In return they will also get access to data on the operation of the farm in this extremely windy area.

6. It’s cheap. The capital cost is $256m and Mercury have said their total operational costs are 1.3c/kWh. If finance is 7%, then the overall cost of generation is 5.1c/kWh, well below the typical spot price of 7-8c. That’s cheap for new build generation in New Zealand.

Why, then, are they going ahead, when I argued above that no more wind was going to be built? Part of the reason must be the change in government and the strong signals that a Zero Carbon Bill is coming, that the price of carbon will rise, and that more renewable generation will definitely be needed. But the (partly private, partly arms-length state-owned) electricity industry is not compelled to respond to any of this.

A conference call on the day of the announcement contains this important detail from Mercury CEO Fraser Whineray: “We’re also interested in where this will go for co-optimisation with our same island hydro scheme, that being the Waikato hydro scheme, which is the biggest peaker in the North Island.”

So that’s the clue. Mercury owns a lot of hydro. 1078MW on the Waikato, which is 58% of allNorth Island hydro. When the wind is blowing they can save their own water for later without bleeding income to other companies. (They do risk spilling water when they run out of storage, but they will have modelled that thoroughly.) 

A lot of things had to line up correctly for this to go ahead. The larger future of New Zealand’s electricity sector will have to await details of the Zero Carbon Bill.

Will the Turitea wind farm reduce emissions? It’s possible that it will. If demand for electricity continues to be flat, then when the wind is blowing the gas peakers will be running less. If the 470GWh of wind power from Turitea entirely displaced gas, that would cut emissions by 235,000 tonnes of CO2 per year – to be sure, a small amount when we need to be cutting by millions of tonnes per year, for many years in a row – but well worth having, in an environment when cuts of any sort are hard to find.

In a few years, then, our electricity capacity might look more like this:

(‘Waverley’ is a proposed wind farm in South Taranaki. No final decision to build it has been made yet, but in October 2018 Tilt Renewables and Genesis Energy formed a partnership to develop the site. Interestingly, it’s quoted as costing $325m for 100MW.)

Robert McLachlan