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.

Zero Carbon: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law

By Robert McLachlan

Two years into New Zealand’s Labour-led government, the long-delayed Zero Carbon Bill became law on 7 November. Passed essentially unanimously, the lengthy public debates and political manoeuvring faded away until the final passage was even anticlimactic:

So it’s worth remembering just how significant this new law is. We will start seeing action almost immediately. (The previous emissions target, not set in law, was for a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050, with no plan how to get there.) The Climate Change Commission will determine the first three carbon budgets (covering 2022-2025, 2026-2030, and 2031-2035) by February 2021, and the government will respond by the end of that year. Judging from experience in the UK, those budgets will have to show more or less a straight line to net zero by 2050. That’s completely different to where we are heading now.

Our gross CO2 emissions in 2017 were at their highest level since 2008. Land transport emissions jumped 6% in one year alone, and, with the fossil-fueled vehicle fleet continuing to increase by 140,000 vehicles each year, that’s likely to continue for some time. Clearly the Commission is going to have to recommend some strong measures. Very soon we will find out what the Zero Carbon Bill is made of.

No
No
Not this either
Caution

While some other countries have net zero targets in place, when this bill was introduced in May, only Norway and Sweden had set the targets in law. Since then, France and the UK have followed suit. Significantly, these laws are an effort to respond in detail to the 1.5ºC target and to base national plans around the science reported by the IPCC.

New Zealand has learned from processes that have worked elsewhere, notably the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which attempts to balance science, public involvement and the sovereignty of parliament. Ireland and Sweden are also following this model.

The few tweaks to the bill since its introduction have mostly strengthened it.

First, the Climate Change Commission will now make recommendations on gross emissions reductions and offsets through planting trees. This is vital, as current roadmaps to reach net zero by 2050 involve planting enormous numbers of trees, and (because landowners can be paid for the carbon stored in the trees) there are signs of a “Green Rush” already under way, despite questions about the net environmental and climate impact of plantation forestry.

Second, the focus has shifted slightly to emphasize domestic reductions over purchasing overseas reductions. Good news, since our track record in the latter is appalling.

Third, legal accountability has been strengthened slightly, although there is still no legal recourse if a carbon budget is missed.

Fourth, the Commission is now asked to advise in 2024 on whether to include international aviation and shipping in the target. At first sight, this is disappointing, since this is a large area of emissions that is at present unaccounted for and that is growing rapidly. The next five years should be spent making a start on what is known to be a difficult area. For example, the UK’s CCC is already trying to get their government to include these emissions. The EU has pointed out that jet fuel is effectively subsidised, and has proposed that it be taxed at 57 cents per litre to level the playing field. Even Air New Zealand, in their submission on the bill, did not ask for this delay.

Remember that global emissions are still rising. Even in the best-performing countries, substantial progress so far has been limited to essentially one area, electricity. We need to get the right agreements and structures into place so that when we start tackling harder areas like industry, transport, and buildings, we can find strategies that work and that everyone can get behind. That’s what the Zero Carbon Bill does.

It’s a massive achievement.

Politics & the Anthropocene

Potash mine, Russia. Photograph by Edward Byrtynsky, The Anthropocene Project

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch marked by human impact on the earth and its systems. Popularized around 2000 by Paul Crutzen, it has not yet been officially accepted by geologists, and many aspects of it remain hotly debated.

Political scientist Duncan Kelly talks democracy, protest, time scales, fatalism, and the limits to growth in this interview with Robert McLachlan at the LSE Review of Books.

I’m so fly, I’m #NoFly!

#NoFly: Walking the talk on climate change, by Shaun Hendy. BWB Texts, 2019. Reviewed by Robert McLachlan

In June 2018, Swede Maja Rosén founded We stay on the ground with a pledge not to fly in 2019, and a goal of persuading 100,000 other Swedes to join her. In August, her compatriot Greta Thunberg began her school strike for climate. 

Today, the No Fly movement has spread around the world, with the Flight Free 2020 campaign reaching eight countries, and Greta is a household name, with the September strikes drawing 4 million people globally. What a difference a year makes!

The New Zealand scientist Shaun Hendy made his own flight-free year in 2018, attracting widespread publicity in the media, partly thanks to Stuff‘s “Quick! Save the Planet” series. In #NoFly he describes why he made the pledge, how it worked out, and how he sees New Zealand’s low-carbon future playing out.

Shaun credits University of Auckland psychology professor Quentin Atkinson for giving him the push he needed. The theory of “costly signalling” says that people can better send honest signals about themselves if their message is accompanied by taking some action that requires effort. (Philanthropy, risk-taking, and conspicuous consumption are the classic examples.) Indeed, psychological studies have found, not surprisingly, that people strongly dislike hypocrisy and regard hypocrites as untrustworthy (whereas lying, strangely enough, is all right). 

This is a very short book with just four short, tightly-organized chapters. Chapter 1 describes Shaun’s actual experience of travelling around New Zealand by train, bus, and electric car. He succeeded, and enjoyed a lot of the trips, but, needless to say, he finds that we need a huge improvement in our intercity public transport. Chapter 2 is a whirlwind tour of the discovery of climate change, from the birth of the industrial revolution, to the early speculations about the greenhouse effect by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, to Svante Arrhenius’s landmark 1896 paper “On the influence of carbonic acid [CO2] in the air upon the temperature of the ground” establishing the basic principles of global warming by the burning of fossil fuels, to its widespread understanding by scientists by the 1980s. (Incidentally, Arrhenius’s second cousin’s great-great-great-granddaughter is Greta Thunberg, and her father, Svante Thunberg, is named after him. How good is that?!) After that, the story turns murky, as emissions have skyrocketed in the past thirty years and we are now faced with the prospect of catastrophic climate change.

There are some New Zealand connections, too, and here I can’t resist including the now-famous report in the Rodney and Otamatea Times of 14 August 1912:

Understanding how this could have happened is the subject of Chapter 3, focussing on scientists’ efforts to communicate the dangers and how this message  was received. Hendy bases his interpretation on Jess Berentson-Shaw’s A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World (BWB Texts, 2018), where it is argued that scientists need to base their messages on values that are shared with their audience. They should be aware of their own values and how they affect the questions that they choose to study and how the results are communicated. For example, Mason Durie’s 2018 Manawatū Lecture contrasted ‘knowledge transfer’ (such as teaching postgraduate students) as a scientific value with ‘community understanding’ as a mātauranga Māori value.

Many, many factors have brought us to where we are now and still prevent decisive action. They include the power of the fossil fuel companies and their disinformation campaigns, the investors who fund the expansion of fossil fuels and the machines than burn them, our inherent short-term bias – particularly evident in some democracies –, the apparent advantages of freeloading, and the rise of neoliberal economic management, all of which are symptoms of an underlying global tragedy of the commons. On top of this, politics and social media have taken such a bizarre turn in recent years that academics and thinkers of all stripes are scrambling to make sense of the developments and to suggest solutions. 

Apart from the psychology of communication and belief formation, behavioural psychology and sociology could well be places to look for answers too. People live in suburbs, drive cars everywhere, and holiday on the Gold Coast because everyone around them is doing it, and because those were the obvious choices. A lot of climate work focuses on the top level (government and international policy) and the bottom level (individual action). The middle levels, communities, organizations, and their networks, are surely important too. Climate change will only be solved by collective action. It is important to understand how collective action – a complex interplay between government leadership, public support, and civic organizations – is achieved.

Chapter 4 closes with a vision of a low-carbon future for New Zealand, involving denser cities, less travel, and improved (and low-carbon) vehicles and public transport. Unfortunately, tiny steps in this direction are not going to get us there in time.

Emissions are rising rapidly. Hendy’s numbers for aviation are a bit out of date: while domestic aviation emissions are flat (due to more efficient aeroplanes), international emissions are sharply up.

Annual gross New Zealand emissions. Aviation figures include the effects of radiative forcing at 1.9 times the CO2 emissions. International aviation includes outgoing flights only. Source: MfE

Globally, it’s the same story, with air travel up 77% in eight years, now standing at 1000 km per person per year:

Source: International Civil Aviation Organization

Hendy rightly places a lot of emphasis on how New Zealand families are now widely dispersed around the world, and the value of (some) work travel. However, for both residents and visitors,  friends and family are the reason for 28% of trips; work, education, and conferences are 15%. Holidays make up 57% of all trips. The same is true globally where work trips are a tiny portion of all flying. Unprecedented levels of migration are creating more dispersed families. And all projections are for continued rapid increases.

Land transport emissions are also rising sharply as the country is flooded with cars – we now have the highest vehicle ownership rate in the OECD. Despite all the media coverage of electric vehicles, the fact is that the petrol and diesel fleet is increasing by around 140,000 vehicles per year. It’s going to take some time, some strong measures, and some major shifts in public opinion to turn this around.

On aviation, it’s true that there are no easy solutions. We have to start with baby steps, and to my mind the most urgent of these is to bring international aviation into the Emissions Trading Scheme. Domestic flights pay a carbon charge, international ones do not. At present prices, an Auckland–Brisbane return flight (1 tonne CO2e) would cost an extra $25. Not much, and not much of a deterrent, but the point is it would bring these emissions under the falling cap on emissions that the Zero Carbon Bill will bring in.