Zero Carbon Bill – Time for some honesty

Climate Change Minister James Shaw assured his coalition colleagues in Cabinet that the consultation for the Zero Carbon Bill would be thorough, innovative and “informed by the evidence.” Sadly, the Ministry for the Environment’s (MfE) discussion document “Our Climate, Your Say” fell short of this aspiration. Instead it provided hyperbole, mis-leading facts and material omissions to reinforce a political narrative promoted by environmental NGOs and proliferated by the mass media.

De-carbonising in a reckless, ill-thought through manner based on ideology, and not science, will result in undue hardship for Kiwis and a sub-optimal outcome for the environment. The science is well established – in New Zealand, MfE’s “Our Atmosphere, Our Climate” document published last year provides the local analysis and data. It is exemplary in its objective, rigorous and honest assessment of the current and historic state of New Zealand’s climate. Whilst finding a one degree increase in temperature since the 1900s, “For most of New Zealand, there is no clear evidence that intense rainfall events have changed between 1960 and 2016” and that there is ‘no clear trend’ in annual rainfall patterns and the “frequency and magnitude of extreme wind decreased at about one-third of sites across New Zealand.” And out of the 30 sites monitored by NIWA, “no trend in warm days was apparent at 21 sites” with cooling observed at one site and warming observed at only eight. Since satellite measurements began in 1993, “no trend in sea-surface temperature change in the Tasman Sea and New Zealand’s oceanic, subtropical, and subantarctic waters” has been observed.

Despite recent weather, these observations suggest New Zealand’s long-term climate is stable and are broadly consistent with the latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report from Working Group 1 (the physical science). Known as ‘AR5’, its Chapter 2 entitled “Observations: Atmosphere and Surface”, confirms that the global warming trend started naturally in around 1850. Temperatures then “warmed strongly over the period 1900–1940, followed by a period with little trend, and strong warming since the mid-1970s”. A hiatus in warming followed from 1998. Pre-1950s warming is deemed largely natural whereas ‘more than half’ of warming from 1950–2010 is deemed from anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.

But aside from higher temperatures, and consequential climate indicators (e.g. sea-level rise, glacier/Arctic melt) the likelihood of a catastrophic event is considered low. AR5’s Summary for Policy Makers concludes: “‘Abrupt climate change’ is defined in this IPCC fifth assessment report (AR5) as a large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems. There is information on potential consequences of some abrupt changes, but in general there is ‘low confidence’ and little consensus on the likelihood of such events over the 21st century.”

Chapter 2 concludes that: “In summary, confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extra tropical cyclones since 1900 is low. There is also low confidence for a clear trend in storminess proxies over the last century due to inconsistencies between studies or lack of long-term data in some parts of the world (particularly in the SH). Likewise, confidence in trends in extreme winds is low, owing to quality and consistency issues with analysed data.”

Then there are the ‘models.’ The IPCC openly acknowledges that their models are “running hot” with temperatures tracking at the very lowest emission ‘representative concentration pathway’ (“RCP 2.6”) which either means emissions are following the very low emission pathway (where emissions peak in 2020) or the climate’s sensitivity to incremental atmospheric CO2 is much less than modelled.

Despite this good news, in my opinion, none of it means that steps to reduce emissions should not be taken. But why were these facts – the “evidence” – not put to Kiwis objectively in the context of the consultation? Minister Shaw assured Cabinet evidence would be the foundation of the consultation.

Instead MfE claimed that “each year we are seeing more and more extreme weather events” stated with an undeserved level of certainty that contrasts with its own equivocal data and the IPCC ‘low-confidence’ advice. They noted the one degree warming since the 1900s stating “the increase in greenhouse gases is the main reason for this” ignoring AR5 which confirm that warming through to the 1940s was likely natural and that only half of post–1950s warming could be attributed with any level of certainty to greenhouse gases. MfE then drew a long bow when telling us that whilst “New Zealand’s share of global emissions is very small (0.17 per cent), countries like us make up around 30 per cent of total emissions.” A long bow because when added together “countries like ours” that emit 0.2 per cent, or less, total to only 7 per cent. MfE says its calculation is based on countries that emit 1.0 per cent or less, thereby adding in countries that emit up to 6 times as much as New Zealand, lumping us together with all but the top 8 emitters. Then there is the elephant in the room – MfE says “the world is now committed to a low emissions future” but that is wishful thinking. The developing countries have made few, if any, commitments at all and their ongoing commitment may be dependent on the Green Climate Fund that is hopelessly underfunded. China has merely said it wants flexibility to increase emissions until 2030. Who knows what the Russians are doing. The United States, the world’s second biggest emitter is pulling out putting the durability of Paris in peril.

If this, or any, Government wants to secure cross-party support and have Kiwis get behind de-carbonisation efforts – and as an energy and infrastructure specialist, I am keen – then some honesty needs to be introduced to the process. Honesty around the science, the current climate indicators and the politics. Competing ideologies must be put to one side. We need to be cognisant of the commitment of other nations, the technical options practically available and eschew the alarmist political narrative promoted by NGOs and many in the media.

Originally published on Freeman Media’s “Energy News”.