Challenging the orthodoxy
By Richard Harman (author)
An hour and a half before Environment Commissioner Simon Upton launched his report on greenhouse gases the Climate Change Minister issued a press statement rubbishing it.
And while Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ welcomed his report, Greenpeace accused him of having been influenced by the agricultural lobby.
They were joined, unusually by BusinessNZ who said the recommendations in Upton’s report would nobble the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Upton has dared to challenge not only the orthodoxy but really the foundations of New Zealand’s climate change policies.
In doing that he confessed to having changed his mind since he was Minister for the Environment in the Bolger and Shipley governments.
He is now questioning whether all greenhouse gas sources and sinks (like trees) are fully substitutable.
In other words, does carbon dioxide really have the same impact on global warming as the agricultural gases, nitrous oxide and methane.
This is an important distinction because carbon dioxide is largely a product of industrialised society ---through factories like steel mills or transport whereas nitrous oxide or methane is generally a product of agriculture.
“Carbon dioxide poses by far the most serious challenge in the long run," he said.
“Some of it stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
As it concentrates in the atmosphere increases so does the warming.
“And unless we reduce these emissions to zero we have no hope of arresting temperature increases.
“In other words emitting carbon dioxide is like turning up a thermostat that can't be easily turned down.
“So reducing global carbon dioxide emissions must be our top priority.”
Upton says methane and nitrous oxide have a more powerful warming effect.
“But they are shorter lived.
“They don't accumulate to the same extent.
“So we need to reduce them.
“We do not necessarily need to eliminate them.”
But Upton then questions the most fundamental plank of the Labour-led Government’s climate change programme; net zero emissions by 2050.
Because carbon dioxide and the agriculture gases stay in the atmosphere for different lengths of time, any approach that groups them together does not necessarily have the stated impact on global warming.
“An aggregate target like net zero emissions by some future year cannot guarantee any particular climate impact.
“The fossil carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere has a warming effect for centuries to millennia.”
And he questions the whole proposition that planting trees can store carbon thereby impacting global warming.
“The carbon stored by trees and other terrestrial ecosystems can be quickly released back into the atmosphere in the event of fires pests or other disturbances.”
So Upton argues that the ability of trees to store carbon for what might be finite periods would more logically mean that they should be used to offset nitrous oxide and methane but not carbon dioxide.
His fundamental difference with Climate Change Minister James Shaw is that the only way to reduce the impact of New Zealand produced carbon dioxide on the climate is to reduce its emissions, ultimately to zero.
Shaw yesterday reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to incentivising forestry as a means of combatting climate change, and it was a necessity that they were planted.
“For the sake of providing policy stability and predictability for emitters and the forestry sector, the Government is committed to retaining the use of forestry offsets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions
“As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, there is a narrowing window of opportunity to stay within one point five degrees Celsius of global warming.
“ It is because that window is so narrow that planting trees to offset emissions is a necessity; at least in the coming decades.”
Greenpeace ‘s Senior Campaign and Political Advisor, Steve Abel, was adamant that the three gases should not be unbundled.
"Unbundling greenhouse gasses and then lumping nitrous oxide and methane into their own group is highly problematic," he says.
"We don’t support the recommendation that nitrous oxide be put together with methane in climate policy
“Nitrous oxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas, 298 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.
“ It is also the most problematic gas for depletion of the ozone layer.
However, Abel does agree with Upton about tree planting though he wants cow numbers reduced also.
"Both methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture must be urgently reduced at their source,” he said.
“That can only be done through eliminating synthetic nitrogen and heavily reducing cow numbers.
“We cannot primarily rely on offsetting these emissions through tree planting."
Later in the press conference, Upton dismissed the "zero emissions by 20250" target as “an accounting track".
But he did acknowledge that ultimately the setting of targets would be the prerogative of the yet-to-be-established Climate Commission.
He warned that science and economics would not be enough.
“Ultimately they can't replace the need for judgments that are ultimately political ones.
“I'm really in no doubt about the scale of the difficulty that colleagues across the road (in Parliament) face about the size of the challenge.
“Any serious attempt in good faith to start the economic transformation required by climate change will have my support. “
Asked what his reaction was to Shaw so pre-emptively dismissing his proposals, Upton said people were entitled to have their view.
“ I put my view on the table, and if people want to summarily dismiss it, that’s fine.
“ I think it's in the nature of my role.
“I'm not here to be providing carefully nuanced arguments designed to be acceptable.
“ I'm putting on paper, in this case, the result of a lot of thinking over a very lengthy period of time.”
In their press statement, Federated Farmers made it quite clear they welcomed the report presumably because they saw it as taking some pressure, such as that evidenced in Abel's statement, off farming.
We’re delighted that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment ins the growing list of agencies, scientists and environmental commentators who recognise the fundamental difference between the permanent conversion of inert, long-term fossil fuels into carbon dioxide and shorter-term biological emissions from livestock (methane and nitrous oxide)," Federated Farmers Vice-President and climate change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard said.
Greenpeace’s Steve Abel conceded that the report had some merit.
“But it continues to treat our dirtiest industry - dairy - with kid gloves because it focuses on offsetting the highly potent greenhouse gasses nitrous oxide and methane, rather than actually cutting them.
"We expect the champagne corks will be popping at Ravensdown and Dairy NZ this afternoon because they are being let off the hook once again."
Upton’s report is likely to fuel farmer, and possibly National Party, opposition to the agricultural gases being brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme which Shaw says he wants to do.
A bipartisan consensus on climate change may have just got a bit harder.