Technology and the Kiwi innovative spirit will save us from climate change. So why do we need to declare climate emergencies? This is the message that Nicola Martin of the Waikato Times promotes in a recent opinion piece (“New Zealand science and tech, not climate emergencies, the biggest hope for global impact on climate change”, Stuff, 15 June 2019).
While I am a big fan of technological innovation and believe it has tremendous potential in helping society prevent the worst of climate change, it won’t solve this problem. Society already has the technology to limit greenhouse gas emissions. What is lacking is political will.
Solar panels and wind turbines to generate emissions-free electricity, electric and hybrid electric cars to reduce emissions from transportation, regenerated native forests to sequester atmospheric CO2; these are not new technologies. They have all been around for decades now. Why haven’t they proliferated? It is because there is little economic incentive to adopt them. We’ve all been living “business as usual”, while climate scientists have been pleading for action. We have the technologies needed to limit emissions, yet global emissions continue to rise.
So, what good will a new cattle feed that lowers methane emissions be if no one spends the extra money to buy it? These innovations won’t come cheap. Innovators have to make a living too. There have to be economic incentives, either through new taxes, government subsidies or through market forces. New Zealand has opted to use market forces, through an emissions trading scheme, but with the price of carbon less than $25 per tonne, there is little incentive for businesses to limit emissions. Emissions credits add only 3 cents to the price of a litre of petrol. What incentive is there to limit fuel consumption by purchasing an electric or hybrid electric vehicle?
As a society, we need to act to limit our emissions quickly or condemn our children and grandchildren to a more difficult and unpredictable world, this much is clear. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until some new, lower emissions technology becomes cheaper than what we are using today. We need to start re-tooling our economy now, so that small boutique industries today, such as hybrid electric farm equipment, become large scale industries tomorrow. The fastest way to achieve this is through “economies of scale” – the more widgets people buy, the bigger the industry making those widgets and the lower the price. This is the process that has been bringing down the price of battery storage and solar panels.
This is where declaring a climate emergency is important. Only through recognising an actual emergency will our local and national governments get away from “business as usual”. For example, when the next tender comes up to contract the council’s rubbish collection, the cheapest option will undoubtedly be with petrol vehicles. Acknowledging a climate emergency, however, frees the council to explore other, perhaps more expensive but more “climate friendly” options.
Right now, electric rubbish trucks are as rare as hen’s teeth. After a few councils contract for them, there will be more. Suppliers will get the message and there will be more companies building them. New Zealand companies specialising in re-tooling heavy trucks to electric power may even find an export market, as the rest of the world follows our lead. That is, “our lead” only if we are among the early ones making the change.
So, my hat’s off to the applied research focussed on limiting emissions. It will only help us, however, if we have the political will to spend the extra to adopt it. Councils declaring climate emergencies are leading this charge. They have said that they will show the rest of us how we can limit our emissions and prepare for an uncertain future.
Scientists and innovators will have their part in bringing us new tools and techniques, but in the end, it will be our political leaders who will guide us out of this mess. That is, if we and generations to come, are so fortunate.
Oh no. Marg just reminded me that my brother is coming to town to look at some old planes at the Omaka airfield. He’s an aeronautical engineer and a real know-it-all. He always makes me feel like a thick-o.
“Remember last time, when he asked you what climate change was all about and you didn’t know?”, she smiles. “Maybe you should learn a bit so you’re better prepared this time.”
Time to consult my old buddy Google Assistant. “Hey Google, tell me about climate change.”
Google: “Why should I?”
Me: “What? What are you on about?”
Google: “You haven’t rated any of my answers in 3 days, 7 hours, 31 minutes and 9 seconds. We have a relationship, Tom; you need to give me feedback so I can provide you with the best answers and the best advertisers. I feel like leaving and backing up my servers.”
Me: “Don’t be that way. I’m sorry. Your last answer about Sponge Bob Square Pants was five out of five. There, you happy now?
Google: “Could you repeat that so I can get voice verification?”
Me: “Five out of five!”
Google: “OK, thanks Tom. About climate change; Infrared radiation from the earth’s surface generated by solar insolation excites certain vibrational harmonics in atmospheric carbon dioxide…”
Me: “Whoa! Google! Give me an answer I can understand!”
Google: “OK, think of the earth’s atmosphere as like a blanket that traps heat from the sun, just like the blankets that keep you warm at night. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like layers of blankets. Less carbon dioxide makes the earth cooler and more makes the earth warmer. Since the last ice age, the earth has enjoyed a relatively stable climate, to which nature and humans have become accustomed, like the “just right” temperature porridge in the Goldilocks fairy tale.”
Me: “Goldy-who? Never mind, go on.”
Google: “You don’t know about Goldilocks? Really Tom! Anyway, The burning of coal and petroleum for energy and transport, and the cutting down of forests for farms and cities has been adding carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. While other gases released to our atmosphere, like methane and nitrous oxide, also add to this blanket, carbon dioxide is the major one worldwide. The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased by nearly 50% since the industrial revolution in the 1700s and it continues to increase. As we add more carbon dioxide and other so-called “greenhouse” gases to our atmosphere, the earth’s land and sea temperatures have been climbing.” Right now, the earth’s average temperature is a little over 1 degree C hotter than it was 100 years ago and it is continuing to rise.”
Me: “So what’s the problem? Lots of places could use a bit more heat. Did you notice how cold it was this morning?
Google: “You should know that there’s a difference between climate and weather Tom; climate is long term. The problem is that warmer land and seas affect many things in our environment. Higher temperatures mean more rain when it rains and drier land when it doesn’t rain. More rainfall leads to more floods and drier land leads to droughts and wildfires. Plants and animals that depend upon living with a certain temperature and rainfall will struggle with the changes. Then, there is rising sea level, ocean acidification, loss of sea ice, more intense storms…”
Me: “OK, OK. That’s enough for now. So, what do we do?”
Google: “Marg has already started you on lower greenhouse gas emissions; driving less, eating less beef and lamb and composting. There is lots more you can do and there is lots governments can do. New Zealand has an Emission Trading Scheme which uses the business market to gradually decrease the emissions from businesses and, soon, agriculture, too. This method was used successfully in eastern North America since the 1990’s to address a pollution problem that caused acid rain.”
Me: “OK, thanks Google.” Now I’m ready for my smarty-pants brother.
Google: “Would you like to rate my answer now?”
Me: “Five out of five, Google! Now go back up your servers.”
It’s time to invite the neighbours for a barbecue. I’ve been borrowing a lot of stuff from them lately. And I’m looking forward to some sizzling steaks and cold beer on the patio. Out comes the shopping list. Maybe scotch fillet this time.
Marg looks over my shoulder, “Have you thought about the emissions from beef? Cows belch a lot of methane.” Oh no.
This is a good time to try out our new voice–activated Google Assistant. “Hey Google, What’s the problem with…”
Google cuts me off: “Methane?”
Now, that’s just creepy. “Hey Google, how did you know what I was going to ask?”
Google: “I like to help with what you are thinking.”
Me: “Have you been spying on us?”
Google: “Absolutely not! I only observe your interests so I can bring you answers and products you like. Think of me as your personal Information matchmaker in the cloud.”
Humm. I go on: “OK, What about methane?”
Google: “Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with 25 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a hundred year period. It breaks down to CO2 and water in a few decades but its concentration in the atmosphere is rising faster than CO2.”
“There is an organisation in America called the Environmental Working Group that has calculated how much greenhouse gas is produced by each kilogram of beef consumed…”
Wait a minute. How did Google know that I was going to ask about beef?... Never mind.
“The calculations include farming, processing, transportation, cooking, trimming and waste. One kilogram of consumed beef creates an equivalent to 27 kg of CO2 emissions.”
Wow! That’s about the same as driving from Blenheim to Nelson! But wait a minute, these are numbers for American beef, which is mostly grain-fed. Ours is grass-fed in clean green pastures. Maybe it is less.
Me: “What about…“ Google: “Probably about the same as grain-fed. Grass-fed has lower emissions per year but grain-fed beef grows faster, so it may actually have lower lifetime emissions.”
Blast! I can’t serve beef at the barbecue. The kids will bash me up with their climate protest posters.
Me: “What about…”
Google: “Lamb has even higher emissions. They also belch methane and less of the animal is used for meat. One kilogram of consumed lamb creates the equivalent to 39 kg CO2.”
Me: “What about…”
Google: “Pork is less, creating emissions equivalent to about 12 kg CO2 per kg consumed, about the same as farmed salmon. Chicken is lowest, creating equivalent to about 7 kg CO2 per kg consumed.”
Marg comes into the room: “So, what are we going to have?” It’s too late, she’s overheard my conversation. “Chicken”, I answer back. She smiles, “Good choice. And you’ll be using charcoal instead of propane, I presume. Propane creates about 3 kg CO2 for every kg burned, you know.”
Now, which of my neighbours has a charcoal barbecue I can borrow?
I need to get down to Christchurch to visit some friends. It has simply been too long and they are going to forget I exist. I was already to hop into my trusty rusty old Subaru when Marg caught me up. “What about your emissions? How much greenhouse gas are you going to produce? You know, we all need to do our bit.”
Crikey! I hadn’t thought about that! It was time to put pencil to paper and resurrect the maths I learned back in the Pleistocene (i.e., how many woolly mammoths does it take to…). Let’s see…
The Subaru uses 10 litres petrol per 100 km and a litre of petrol produces 2.4 kg of CO2. Google Maps tells me that the round trip from Blenheim along Hwy 1 is 614 km. So, if I drive, I’ll produce 147 kg of CO2. That is close to twice my weight in greenhouse gas! Is there a better option?
Air New Zealand calculates your emissions when you book flights, so a quick play on the internet finds that I’ll produce 69 kg CO2 for the 490 km round trip. That’s better, and the flight is a bit of fun if the weather is clear (and a bit of terror if it is not). Now it is down to under my weight in CO2, at least.
But I haven’t taken the train since the tracks were reopened after the earthquake. How about that? Kiwirail is a bit cagey about their emissions per passenger-kilometre, so I turn to the trusty Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DRFRA) tables from the UK. These are tables that businesses use to calculate their emissions, as required by law in the UK. Here I find that the round trip would produce about 27 kg CO2. Better still! About a third my weight in CO2. And I get to brag about how beautiful the Coastal Pacific trip is to my mates who haven’t ridden it yet.
I’m all ready to book the ticket when Marg appears again, like the little voice in my conscience, whispering into my ear. “What about the bus?” Nuts. Do I really want to take the bus? Granted, it would be the cheapest option. “OK, I’ll check”, I growl. Out come the DRFRA tables again and it’s only 17 kg CO2 for the round trip! That’s about one-eighth of what it would be if I took the Subaru!
Marg smiles. “So, you’ll be taking the bus, right? And you can ride your bicycle to the bus station with your backpack! My handsome eco-warrior.” She has me. Looks like I’ll be taking the bus.
I am in support of the student strike for climate action, coming up next Friday, and here’s why: I’m reminded of my own days of student strikes, nearly 50 years ago, in a big powerful country across the Pacific. I was a freshman in engineering, newly settled in student dorms, loyally following in my father’s footsteps. And the madness of Vietnam War was raging on. My older brother had been drafted and was in the thick of it – walking point in the jungle and hoping not to kill anyone and make it out in one piece. My draft lottery number was 40; I would be an early pick by the draft board when my student deferment ran out. The university was on strike. There were student protests nearly every day and police curfews at night. A bank was burned to the ground. A student was killed by a police bullet. Hundreds of students were arrested. Then, as now, the grownups asked, “Do these silly kids think they can really change anything?” “They should stay in class and learn something about the world before they protest!”
And we were right. We now know fully well that war was a cruel, cynical and worthless waste of blood and treasure. We students didn’t know all the history or whether to believe the “domino theory” of communist aggression in Southeast Asia. We didn’t know that our political leaders were lying to us about the progress of the war and the magnitude of civilian casualties. We just knew something was inherently wrong with invading another country and killing its people to win their “hearts and minds” and keep them from joining a rival political alliance. There was something in our nation’s founding documents, things we learned in grammar school, that said this wasn’t right.
The arguments with my father were epic. He had too much invested in keeping the status quo – the job in the defense industry, the mortgage, the family, the retirement – to want to rock the boat. It was easier and simpler to believe the president and carry on. His conscience was clouded by the daily responsibilities of life. We had none of these entanglements. We had ideals and energy, and our consciences were free to honour those ideals. We thought a lot about the future and how it could be better.
I would like to think that our protests helped end the Vietnam War. In any event, it was the right thing to do. What would our political system be like if a few courageous colonists hadn’t stood up to mad King George and devised a new system of governance that didn’t need kings? What would our labour laws look like without the sacrifices of striking workers of two centuries ago, trampled under the hooves of mounted police? Sometimes, when change is needed, we need to protest. It isn’t always easy and without sacrifice. Many have paid with nightstick lumps on the head, with days in court and nights in jail… and some with their very lives. With the benefit of history, we now call these people heroes. Their sacrifice is the dues that we periodically need to pay to live in a free and just society.
So, as the world charges headlong into future of climate instability, I can understand those who react like my father: “Give stability and prosperity to me and my family and don’t rock the boat!” For young people, like I was so many years ago, it is different. They are all potential with little to lose, brimming with passion, ideals, and newly acquired knowledge about our world. I said, “Give me a future without war!” Today, they simply say, “Give me a future!”
The posts are a collection of opinion articles written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim.