What should we do about climate change?

 

We adapt differently to sudden shocks and to incremental change, even where the latter is catastrophic.  The former are visibly and quickly disruptive and put pressure on politicians to act now.  The latter are slow moving, with uncertain impacts far beyond political timeframes.

Mount Tambora in the (then) Dutch East Indies exploded in 1815.  This triggered global cooling and led to the “year without a summer” in 1816.  It killed thousands of people directly.  It caused global famines, civil breakdown, and mass migrations of people escaping from starvation.  It led to a cholera outbreak in Bengal that spread internationally and killed millions.  Governments responded with authoritarianism and trade protectionism.

However, the eruption also triggered art and innovation.  Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein while trapped by bad weather in Switzerland.  Lord Byron’s apocalyptic poem Darkness was written in 1816 in direct response to Tambora’s effects.  It begins:

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished…”

At age 13 Justus von Liebeg in Darmstadt lived through the 1816 “dark summer” and the hardship it gave rise to.  This helped trigger his interest in science.  He later developed nitrogenous fertilizers and understanding of trace plant nutrients that revolutionized agriculture and helped make possible food security for most of the world.

Climate change is both natural and human-induced.  A sophist might argue that humans are part of nature – so human-induced climate change is “natural”.  A beaver’s phenotypical expression of its genotype is the dam it builds, altering the natural environment in so doing.  The World Trade Centre was a human phenotypical expression, as were the aircraft that destroyed it.  The psychology that led to “9/11” was a natural product of Darwinian evolution.

Humans may be akin to a highly invasive, weedy species.  However, we are also a sentient species and some of us can reason scientifically, project into the future, and create technologies for good or ill.

The scientific evidence for human-induced climate change is irrefutable.  We concur with Titania’s view in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream that climate change results from human action rather than from nature:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Unfortunately, the most powerful elected politician in the world has neither poetry in his soul nor science in his reasoning.   His shortcomings are not unique – international agreements tend to be unstable over time because many political leaders are themselves unstable.

These problems are magnified given that climate change is the ultimate tragedy of the commons.  It is the supreme exemplar of market failure.  The costs and benefits of climate change mitigation are difficult to apportion equitably among countries and through generations.  Therefore, how realistic is it to expect that global climate change rules can be agreed to and implemented fairly and effectively?

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proposes a target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. This requires a 45% drop in net carbon emissions by 2080 compared to the 2010 basepoint.  This means “net zero” is achieved by 2050.  This is possible within known scientific laws and technological possibilities.  However it requires far reaching changes in production and transport systems, consumption modes and the energy systems that support them.

Climate change mitigation rules reflect political compromises.  They focus on what can be measured and complied with rather than what works best.  For example, soil carbon is a bigger terrestrial carbon store than forests but the international rules reward carbon sequestered in trees alone, not in soils.  Long-life wood products are treated as emissions, even if wood in buildings lasts centuries.

It is unlikely that humanity can organize itself effectively enough to stop human-induced climate change from having dramatic impacts.  Most of these impacts will be negative; some may be positive.

Climate change is not a morality play, and there is no cosmic justice.  Low-lying and poor Bangladesh will suffer more than mountainous and rich Switzerland.  What therefore should New Zealand do, given that we are a middle income country with stagnating productivity and in inexorable economic decline?

New Zealand can lead in niche areas where mitigation technologies we help develop can also be adopted by others.  We must focus on the opportunities to cut net emissions and to make (or save) money at the same time, rather than focusing on slavish compliance with imperfect and sometimes counterproductive rules, or trying to game or work around them.

However, is New Zealand’s polity up to the challenge?  The failure to address climate change effectively is a sin of omission rather than of commission.  It is not a deliberate damaging act, but a failure to act.

Some argue that today’s public service has too many marketing, communications and relationship management types in senior positions.  Their incentives are to make deals and keep politicians happy in the short-term, not to think through what matters long-term.  Further down the ranks the more technically able people bite their lips and say nothing (publicly).

However, long-term outcomes are the end result of many actions we take in the short-term.  Our polity moved fast and effectively to deal with such immediate crises as the Christchurch earthquakes.  It needs to act now for the long term with the skills it can apply to today’s sudden shocks, while sustaining support from the communities it is accountable to.  For our polity this is a new art form.

Our climate change strategy must focus on what makes good sense both economically and in climate change mitigation. Specifically, opportunities include:

Mass adoption of sustainable electricity

New Zealand has among the world’s highest per capita endowments of sustainable electricity.  This includes hydroelectricity, wind, geothermal, solar and bioenergy.  It underutilizes these resources, and squanders them through poor building energy efficiency and transmission losses.

Electric vehicles powered with sustainable electricity would save New Zealand billions of dollars a year in imported oil.

More supportive rules for wind power, photovoltaics and solar thermal are needed. So too for distributed generation, and energy storage systems to smooth out generation intermittency.  The technology is already available.  The failure to exploit its full potential is due to lack of leadership and regulatory barriers.

Unlike capital-intensive, unproven and unsafe adventures with hydrogen a sustainable distributed generation system would help decentralize economic power and create opportunities for New Zealand’s regions.

Give the food and fibres industries centre stage

New Zealand’s food and fibres industries have a profound existential mission.  It is to help feed, house, furnish and dress the world within environmental constraints.

New Zealand should aim for world leadership in nitrogen management.  Fertilizers account for around 10% of the input costs for pastoral farming.  More efficient use will reduce nitrous oxide emissions and water pollution, while saving money.

Many New Zealand pastoral soils already have high carbon levels.  However there is potential to sequester more carbon, and to use biochar as a long-lived carbon store with spin-off benefits such as bioenergy and specialized product opportunities (see Winsley, 2007).

When carbon in tree roots and forest soils is included mature kauri forests have the world’s second highest per hectare carbon storage in the world – second only to Eucalyptus regnans with acacia under-storey.  Kauri is one of the world’s greatest timbers. There are classic boats where the kauri has outlived metal fastings that corrode and have to be replaced while the wood is still in good shape.

Anything you can do with oil you can do with plants.  Rubber can be made from guayule, Russian dandelion and other plants as well as from Hevea and oil.  Wood can make liquid and gas biofuels, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Redwood grows well in New Zealand and is a valuable timber internationally.  It is well suited to growing on slopes where its root structure locks soil into place.  This reduces flood events, erosion and soil carbon loss.

Douglas fir is a valuable lumber and is well suited to CLT and other highly engineered applications.  It thrives at higher altitude and in colder environments where farming is marginal.  Radiata pine is a fast-growing and profitable timber suited to very poor soils, and with versatile applications.  These include as an engineering building material.

Multi-storey buildings can be made from engineered wood products rather than steel and concrete.  They can deliver superior earthquake resilience and fire resistance while sequestering carbon.  Mass adoption of wood engineering technology can transform radiata and other fast-growing softwood species into higher value products.

What next?

Climate change will rewrite the world’s history.  It will have dark moments, lots of farce, however it does not need to turn into tragedy.

The above actions may make a substantive contribution to climate change mitigation, especially through technologies they create having wider international applications.  Even if they fail to do so the above actions will create some “no regrets” economic opportunities for us, and avoid us being cursed by our descendants.

Reference

Winsley, P. Biochar and bioenergy production for climate change mitigation.  NZ Science Review Vol 64 (1), 2007. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/83cc/ad73f3f0f29cc11734b23f08437282be1663.pdf

 

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About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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7 Responses to What should we do about climate change?

  1. strategyaudit says:

    An original and intelligent take on the thorniest issue facing us. Well done!!, I hope some of the dullards making ‘policy’ read it and adopt the thinking

  2. David Lillis says:

    Hi Peter.
    Your climate change blog is indeed thought-provoking. However, in the kaleidoscope of issues and dilemmas that face mankind right now and over the next century, it is debatable as to whether it is the most significant challenge. It is very likely that mankind can address climate change with an expectation of moderate success over a period of perhaps two centuries, provided that the will is there and provided that the international community acts in unison. Most probably it will not.

    All of your proposed approaches (especially the widespread adoption of sustainable energy, electric vehicles and greater use of wood in building products and in other applications) have great merit and I have no arguments with any of them. Of course, some of them may be more difficult to achieve in practice, either because of technological barriers, political barriers or challenges relating to scale. It is curious that a decade ago climate change was a hot issue within New Zealand’s public service, but the volume of debate and effort expended on analysis of the issue has decreased notably since then.

    However, right now we have political instability in the Middle East and in parts of Africa that cause great suffering. Millions of children die every year of malnutrition and lack of access to clean drinking water and lack of access to the kind of high-quality healthcare that we take for granted in New Zealand. The West could play an even more positive role in these problems, especially in combating child mortality in the economically poor countries of Asia and Africa.

    Another issue that gets forgotten about is the carnage that results from the pervasive use of the private motor vehicle. Last year 382 people died on New Zealand’s roads and many more sustained serious injuries. Globally, about 1.3 million people die in road accidents every year – that’s over 3,500 per day. Is the freedom afforded by the private vehicle worth this loss of life? How many of the journeys that we make in our vehicles are strictly necessary? We appear to take it for granted that this level of mortality represents a form of collateral damage that is justified by our freedom to use our own vehicle to buy a carton of milk from the local supermarket or the freedom that young men expect to race each other along busy streets. Those of us who have lost a family member as a result of a road crash (as I have) or who have lost a friend feel differently. Replacing a sizeable portion of the world’s fleet of private vehicles with an efficient system of public transport over the next fifty years would, not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and emissions of other pollutants, but would also save millions of lives.

    David

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Very good points David, especially given that self-driving electric vehicles could complement a better zero carbon public transport system.

  3. Pingback: Peter Winsley on climate change | AllBlackEarth

  4. Cherie says:

    In the biochar paper you mention, , there are a lot of “may” do benefits. Worth exploration though.
    Table one in the biochar paper and the next section suggests that portable bioenergy plants may be a good way to dispose of slash. The co-production of biochar fertiliser with bio-oil and self-energy-using mobile pyrolysis plants makes sense. Biochar fertiliser also has more potential now (his paper is a few years old and recent backlash against “dirty fert” may mean its time is come / coming). Maybe you or a reader knows people to take that idea forward.
    The biochar paper could also benefit from a marketing person helping simplify and promote the key messages for public consumption (ref back to paper for analysts) and links to some entrepreneurs.

    Distributed generation is definitely worth doing and can be small or large scale, but policy settings should make it easier for people to sell back to the grid, for a reasonable price too.

    Social innovation might help reduce the number of motor vehicles on the road – but even now there seem to be big constraints in getting freight off trucks and onto rail (no. of reasons for that). Also having an electric vehicle for around town is well and good, but again other viable means of traveling longer distance are needed (e.g. to visit family for weddings, funerals, holidays etc.). These things can be changed, so I hope you are able to get some traction within the policy, political and public sphere.

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Thanks so much Cherie – very useful comments. There is a biochar network in NZ that seems to be making some progress. I agree with you that
      the marketing/branding issues need to be addressed. In relation to electric vehicles, the technology is moving fast and range limitations are being overcome.

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