Tom and Marg are milling around the kitchen, watching the latest storm raging outside.
“So, what do your friends at work think of the government’s new ‘feebate’ scheme?” Marg looks over at Tom from the kitchen table.
Tom: “The ‘what’ scheme?”
Google Assistant chimes in: “Tom, the New Zealand Government has recently announced a Clean Car Discount program, which some have called the new car ‘feebate’ scheme. It provides a cash subsidy for imported new and second-hand electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles starting this month, and an added fee on high emissions vehicles starting in January 2022.”
Tom: “GOOGLE, YOU KNOW HOW I HATE IT WHEN YOU LISTEN TO OUR CONVERSATIONS!
Google: “Sorry Tom. It is part of your subscription. You’d have to purchase our premium option if you want limited privacy. Would you like me to direct you to the Google Store now?”
Tom: “Never mind, Google. Now, where was I?”
Marg: “The car feebate scheme.”
Tom: “Oh, yeah. Well, most seem OK with it – especially the ones thinking about buying an EV. A few have grumbled about the extra cost of new utes and some just don’t like the government interfering”.
Marg: “Interesting. And I suppose the ones who don’t like the government interfering don’t believe climate change is real?”
Tom: “No, they don’t seem to disagree with climate change, they just feel that the car they drive is a personal choice. They feel we each should have the freedom to address the problem in our own way. The government shouldn’t be telling us what to do.”
Marg: “Hmmm…I see their point. No one likes to be told what to do. I know you bristle a bit when I remind you whose turn it is to cook dinner.”
Tom gives her a look of indignation.
Marg: “So, how did your friends feel about the Covid lockdowns? That was a classic case of the government telling us what to do.”
Tom: “Well, that was different. Everyone agreed with it. They knew the virus was dangerous and didn’t want people getting sick and dying. They all have families, you know.”
Marg: “But how different is it? We all know that as climate change progresses, people are going to suffer from more extreme weather. Some are going to lose their homes and their livelihoods and some are even going to lose their lives. We are already seeing this in other parts of the world. Look at what the West Coast has been going through. It’s horrific!”
Tom: “I suppose Covid was more immediate – we needed to get after it in a hurry. It seems like there is still time to get after climate change. The climate is still pretty comfortable and we’ve always had nasty weather from time to time.”
Marg: “Not according to the scientists. They say we should have been reducing our emissions long ago. And, the longer we wait, the harder it is going to be to turn things around.”
Marg: “Remember, it is advice from the scientists that is helping us keep Covid out of the country. They have a pretty good track record with giving good advice, in my opinion. “
Tom: “I guess they have gotten us through Covid pretty well. But it sometimes seems like they are trying to run our lives, just like the government – always telling us what to do.”
Marg: “Well, I guess that’s the issue, isn’t it? Do we trust the scientists and give up some freedoms in order to do what is best for everyone, or do we push for our individual rights, no matter what?
Tom: “These rights we have are important – I’d hate to give any of them up.”
Marg: “But you need to remember that it is our special country that allows us those rights. Not everyone in the world has them. We can’t take them for granted. And, they come with obligations. Sometimes, like during emergencies, we need to work together to help everyone pull through, for the good of the country and for the rest of the world. And, global warming is an emergency.”
Tom: “OK, I get it. You’re saying we have both rights and obligations, and they go together.”
Marg: “Good. You got my point. And now, Tom, is a time of obligations.”
Tom: “What obligations?”
Marg: “It’s your turn to cook dinner.”
Six months ago, the Prime Minister declared a climate emergency in New Zealand. She said climate change was “one of the greatest challenges of our time”. “Our nuclear-free moment”, as she called it earlier.
So what has happened since then? Has anyone heard anything more coming out of the government about climate change?
I’ve heard a few things and they are well wide of the mark.
Air New Zealand, a majority government-owned airline with a near monopoly on domestic air travel, is now advertising on the TV again. Air travel is one of the most emission-heavy forms of travel in New Zealand and world-wide. Does it make sense to be promoting it? It seems like the ‘climate change’ equivalent to advertisements promoting smoking.
And, then there is the seemingly pointless public service advert from EECA, the government’s Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority, under its “Gen Less” campaign. Here’s this chap, abandoning a climate protest to tell us, “Why give up the things we love to save the world, when we could have the exact same effect by giving up the things we don’t love?”. Who is he kidding?
We are all going to need to make sacrifices in adapting to a low-carbon lifestyle. That’s what happens when there is an emergency. People sacrificed in the Second World War and they sacrificed during the Covid pandemic. We are all going to need to make changes and not all of them will be to our liking.
And, who in this modern world doesn’t “give up the things we don’t love” as a matter of daily life? The whole point of ‘just say no to wasted energy’ is vague and silly. Who consciously wastes energy? What this advert appears to really promote is ‘business as usual’. And, in a subtle way, for the futility of climate protests!
If EECA were really serious about climate change, it would be telling people how to conserve electricity so that Genesis can stop burning coal at the Huntly power station.
The government has been very good in its messaging about the emergency measures needed to address the Covid pandemic. The adverts have been clear, consistent and based upon solid scientific advice. With the exception of a few grandstanding politicians, the “team of five million” largely followed those directives, sacrificing freedoms but leading to the successful elimination of the virus and a return normal everyday life.
We face a similar threat from climate change, if not necessarily to ourselves, certainly to our children and generations of Kiwis to come. We’ve listened to the science community as they’ve guided us through Covid. Likewise, we must listen to the scientists who are telling us that climate change is serious and emissions reductions should have started yesterday. We are running out of time to address this problem!
So, where are the government adverts reinforcing the simple things that we can do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?
So far, what we’ve heard is, “fly more”, with more travel being one of the reasons we are in this climate emergency in the first place. And then there is the guy telling us to stop wasting energy (and stop protesting about climate change).
To be charitable, perhaps it is a matter of the government’s left hand, represented by the various department mandarins and CEOs of the state owned enterprises, not knowing what the right hand –Parliament, is actually saying.
Still, after 6 months, we are stuck with the uncomfortable feeling that this government is not serious about its declared climate emergency. How are people to believe there is a climate emergency when the little messaging we hear from government so far has been so contradictory and muddled?
We’ve all heard the predictions. As global warming continues, future generations will face more uncertain weather and a range of ever-more-frequent related disasters. Storms will become more intense. Between storms, warmer weather will make forests and farms drier and more prone to drought and wildfire. Sea level will rise and marine industries will become more uncertain as ocean waters warm and acidify. It all sounds pretty scary. Future generations will need to be prepared, resourceful and resilient.
But will it also be more expensive for them?
There are a few things that are certain to go up in price. For one, insurance costs for homes and businesses will go up. We already see this in places around the world, where wildfire and flood risk have increased. That is, if insurance is available at all, since there are now places where insurance companies have stopped offering insurance due to the risk.
The other price increase that seems assured is council rates, as councils face the increased costs of upgrading and maintaining vital infrastructure. Sewage treatment plants will need upgrading to prevent spills during ever larger floods and coastal storm surge as sea level rises. Municipal water supply systems will need to be diversified and fortified with additional storage reservoirs as droughts become more common and intense. Think of Auckland last year.
Coastal property abandoned due to sea level rise will need to be bought, in part if not in whole, by councils, since they consented those developments in the first place. Think of Matata, where the council recently bought-out coastal properties in an area subject to flooding. There may be help from central government with these costs, but councils will be expected to front a major share.
Although not quite as certain, all indications point to food prices increasing, as farmers worldwide deal with ever more extreme weather events. Floods, droughts and extreme heat, winds, rainfall and unseasonal frost and hail have ruined crops since the earliest days, and these are all expected to become more frequent as climate change progresses. More frequent crop failures and an increasing cost of crop insurance can’t help but be reflected in higher food prices.
If this all sounds pretty scary, wait! There’s more!
Added to these will be the indirect costs to society due an ongoing battle with climate change. Even if Aotearoa and the rest of the world manage to achieve net zero carbon emissions in this century, the fight will be far from over. IPCC climate models show that, in order to stabilise the world climate at a liveable level, greenhouse gas emissions will likely need to go “negative” for decades following. This means pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, either biologically (through forests, wetlands, capture in soils, biochar and aquaculture), or industrially, through burning of biomass and capturing the carbon dioxide or by capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air.
At this point, biologic methods are the more cost effective and are likely to continue to be into the next century but these projects will require active management in order to prevent them from losing carbon due to wildfire, disease and drought. This means many of society’s workers and resources will be devoted to developing and maintaining these carbon “sinks”, and will not be available to grow food or support other industries. Removing carbon dioxide industrially will likely take even more resources away from our economy.
No matter how we cut it, the worsening climate emergency is not only going to make our children’s and future generation’s lives more difficult due to extreme weather events and ecosystem disruption, it is going to make their lives more expensive. In a sense, they will pay for a portion of today’s prosperity, the prosperity allowed us by the burning of fossil fuels.
It is sobering to think, that when we jump into the car to run to the market for a litre of milk, much of the carbon dioxide that comes out of the tail pipe will someday need to be removed from the atmosphere at the diligence and expense of future generations, so that they can have a liveable planet.
The message here is clear. The sooner we cut our emissions, the less it is going to cost our children’s children and their children to come.
The recently formed Climate Commission has just released it first report, Draft Advice for Consultation and is now asking for public comment. The report describes how the country can meet the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required by New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act, in order to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Buried back in Chapter 8, the Commission examines how these emissions reductions stack up with our international commitments to reduce emissions. The long and short of it is, without significant additional effort in emissions reduction, we are on track to miss an international commitment for 2030 and will need to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of emissions credits on the international market in order to keep our word.
How did this happen?
The emissions reduction commitment in question was agreed upon as part of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, to which New Zealand is a signatory. This commitment is to, by 2030, limit New Zealand’s net greenhouse gas emissions (gross emissions minus CO2 removals by forestry) to 30% less than the level of its gross emissions in 2005. In order to meet this commitment, the Commission calculates that New Zealand can emit no more than 585 million tonnes (Mt) CO2 equivalent (CO2e) over the next 9 years, from 2021 to 2030.
The problem is, the Climate Commission’s plan through 2030 achieves the targets set in the Zero Carbon Act but isn’t enough for the Paris commitment. Combined with an estimate of 2021 emissions, the Commission’s plan yields 628 Mt CO2e by 2030 – 43 Mt over the Paris commitment. The Commission goes one further, suggesting that a more realistic analysis of climate modelling suggests that the net emissions needed to meet the Paris agreement’s target of no more than 1.5°C warming should be 564 Mt CO2e, or 64 Mt more than the emissions trajectory of the Commission’s plan.
So, if the government buckles down on emissions and follows the Climate Commission’s recommendations we will still be 7-11% over our Paris commitment by 2030. The Climate Commission suggests that the government could meet the shortfall by purchasing offshore emissions credits, as other countries have done and will continue to do. Depending upon the international price of carbon in 2030 and the availability of such credits, the Commission estimates that these could cost the country as much as $11.5 billion.
What do we do?
Do we just give up on the commitment altogether, tossing it into the “too hard” basket? Or, do we start looking for reputable offshore credits and start putting aside the foreign currency needed to buy them?
To me, neither of these two strategies exemplify the Kiwi spirit. Think of the spirit that stepped ahead and gave women the right to vote; that stood up to our alliance partners and banned nuclear weapons and nuclear powered ships from our harbours; that risked lives in the Southern Ocean to save some of the last of our planet’s whales; that worked as a team of 5 million to keep a deadly pandemic at bay.
There is another option. We can all do what we can to limit our emissions.
Each litre of petrol not bought, each hectare of native forest or wetland restored, each lamb or calf not born to end up in a slaughterhouse, each airline flight cancelled due to low passenger demand, they all add up. Companies can play their part too, by moving up plans to replace a coal furnace with a wood burner; by replacing automobile fleets with EVs or plug-in hybrids, by replacing crowded offices with work from home; by hosting meetings and conferences online instead of in person. There are many ways, big and small that we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without needing a government incentive.
I, for one, don’t like the thought of New Zealand facing derision from its OECD neighbours for a lack of action on climate change. If we put our minds to it, we can do that bit more required to meet the 2030 Paris emissions commitment. I say we give it a go.
Tom’s brother Gavin is visiting on his way back to the North Island.
“So, Tom, now that you have an electric car, you are a certified, card-carrying tree-hugger!” Gavin says with a laugh.
“Who’d of thought that the kid doing burnouts in front of the church at two in the morning would become a greenie?”
“Shush, Gavin! Jimmy just got his license and doesn’t know about that. And, I’d appreciate it if he didn’t find out. Bad example, you know.”
“OK, Tom, the secrets of your wild and crazy youth are safe with me.”
So, how’s the electric car working out?” Gavin asks, nursing his cup of tea.
Tom: “Great so far. I don’t have to visit petrol stations anymore and the extra on the electricity bill isn’t that much. And the car is so quiet. I especially like ‘one-pedal’ driving. I hardly touch the brakes anymore.”
Gavin: “One pedal? How does that work?”
Tom: “It’s called regenerative braking. Instead of braking to a stop, you simply back off on the accelerator pedal. The car uses the electric motor to slow the car down and put electricity back into the battery. I only need to use the brakes in an emergency.”
Gavin: “Well, that is clever. I’ve always thought it was a shame to waste all that energy when you hit the brakes. Speaking of batteries, though, isn’t there a problem with recycling these electric car batteries? Seems like we’re headed to a future full of electronic waste”
Tom: “I don’t know, Gavin. They haven’t been around all that long. I suppose someone is looking into it. Let’s ask Google Assistant.”
“Hey Google, can car batteries be recycled?”
Google: “Lead-acid car batteries can be easily recycled but currently there is no recycling facility in New Zealand…”
Gavin: “Wait a minute Google. You’re talking about EV batteries, like lithium ion batteries.”
Google: “You need to be more specific with your questions! My servers don’t have all day, you know! You’ve just wasted 2,359 milliseconds that I’ll never get back!”
“Sorry Google!” shouts Tom. He leans over and whispers to Gavin, “He can be a bit testy when there is lots of internet traffic, you know.”
Google: “The recycling of lithium ion batteries is complicated and limited to only a few companies so far. For example, Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer, recycles its EV batteries. There are many different types of batteries and they are changing as new types are developed, meaning that recycling techniques need to change along with it. Some places, like the European Union and the UK, are requiring increasing amounts of battery collection and recycling to prevent pollution from batteries disposed to landfills.”
Gavin: “Thanks Google. Well, if we end up with as many EVs as they say we are, we’ll need to be recycling the batteries. So, what about the stress on our electricity system? Won’t all these EVs eat up all our power?”
Google: “EVs will likely require more generating capacity for the electricity system. But with new technology, their large battery capacities will help even out peak load in the electricity grid and even store power from wind and solar. This is expected to reduce the need for new power lines and new generation to handle loads when electricity demand is high. In essence, EV batteries plugged into people’s homes will store energy for when the electrical grid needs it. These ‘car to home’ systems are available now in Japan and will be coming to NZ in the next few years.”
Gavin: “So, with more generation capacity, you’ll be able to buy a more powerful EV, Tom”
Google: “And, you’ll be able to keep doing donuts in front of the church for years to come.”
Tom: “Google, you’re not supposed to know about that!”
Google: “Your secret is safe with me, Tom, though I note that you haven’t rated my service in more than a year now. More than just two sentences this time, and little Jimmy never has to know.
“Marg, it’s time for us to make some New Year’s restitutions.”
“Restitutions? For what? What have we done? I remember at the wedding my parents talked about you needing to pay restitution for stealing their only daughter and unpaid live-in house cleaner. That was a laugh! And you took them seriously and asked what they thought was fair!”
“Well, your dad looked kinda angry. You know, I can never tell when he is kidding. And no, not that kind of restitution. You know, when you decide to do things differently in the new year.”
“Oh, you mean new year’s resolutions! Well, we could certainly make some resolutions. How about we start by resolving to lower our household carbon emissions a bit more?”
Tom, looking sheepish: “OK, let’s see, what could we do?”
Marg takes a moment and thinks. “You’ve already stopped flying to Christchurch to visit your friends. Taking the bus and train saves quite a bit. Now we just need to switch KiwiRail to electric trains. Have you heard the idea to use the Tiwai Point power to convert the South Island trains to electric? That would save even more travel emissions.”
Marg goes on: “And with the electric car we aren’t burning as much petrol as before. You are riding the e-bike more for errands around town. Good savings there.”
Tom chips in: “We’re eating a lot less beef and lamb. I’ve found a place to buy New Zealand made charcoal, which saves on the emissions of overseas charcoal kilns. We’re composting all of our food scraps and taking the garden clippings to green waste. You know they make it into mulch instead of burying it in landfill.”
“We did create a bit of emissions flying to the islands for holiday before the lockdown. But we offset it with tree planting, didn’t we?”
Marg: “Yes, a bit more native forest is a good thing, but we can only plant so many trees. We’re just gonna need to cut back on flying. It’s a big source of emissions.”
Tom: “Well, traveling overseas probably won’t be much of an issue this year, not with the pandemic still at full tilt. OK, we can resolve not to fly overseas this year. That’s one. So, what else?”
Marg taps her chin as she thinks: “We’ve already installed a low emissions wood burner and put a heat pump in the bedroom. That saves on electricity.”
Tom: “How about this: I decided not to go in with my brother on that bitcoin investment because of the emissions.”
“Good one, Tom.” Marg breaks a smile: “But you haven’t given up watching dancing cat videos. I’ve seen you watching them when you think I’m not looking. You know about the emissions from live streaming on the internet. Maybe you can download a movie of them instead.”
“OK, I’ll give up the cat videos. But, they are so cute! OK, that’s two resolutions. What else?”
Marg pauses and looks perplexed. “I’m running out of ideas.”
“Maybe we can ask Google Assistant. He seems to know everything.
HEY GOOGLE, WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO TO LOWER OUR EMISSIONS?”
Google: “There is still much more you can do. There are heaps of websites with emissions savings ideas. When you aren’t watching dancing cats, try visiting www.genless.govt.nz or www.mfe.govt.nz.“
Tom rolls his eyes, “OK, thanks Google.”
Google keeps going: “Think reduce, reuse, recycle. Marg, you could be repairing old clothes instead of buying new ones. I note your sewing machine has been gathering dust lately. Or maybe just check the op shops before going to the department store. Tom, you should be fixing things more instead of replacing them. You don’t need a new lawnmower – just sharpen the one you have. There is also volunteering…”
Marg: “Hey, good idea Google. You know, Tom, you’ve got free time on weekends. Maybe we could start volunteering for a few things, like planting trees or catching pests or delivering meals to shut-ins.”
“I’ve got enough to do, thank you! Why would I want to volunteer to do more?”
Google: “Maybe as restitution for stealing your in-law’s house cleaner?”
“Hey Marg, look at these beautiful grapes I picked up at the market.”
Marg looks up from her laptop: “Grapes? This time of year? Where are they from?”
“Er… Lemme see… California. Says here on the label.”
Marg looks daggers at me: “You mean those grapes came all the way from California? Do you realise how much greenhouse gas was spewed into our atmosphere to get them here? We are meant to be decreasing our carbon dioxide emissions.”
Google Assistant pipes into the conversation: “According to tables assembled by the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (the DBEIS) for 2020, one tonne of long haul airfreight creates 1.13382 kilogram of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas per kilometre travelled. The distance from San Francisco to Auckland is 10,487 kilometres, so one kilogram of grapes airfreighted from California creates approximately 11.8904 kilograms of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas.”
“THANK YOU, GOOGLE! Marg, it is so creepy the way he listens in on our conversations.”
Marg cracks a smile: “How do you know ‘he’ is a he? Google could be a ‘she’, you know. ‘Computer’ is a feminine word in many languages. And don’t try to change the subject – that 500 grams of grapes you just bought created about 6 kilograms of greenhouse gas.” That’s probably more than driving the Subaru to Picton.”
Undaunted, Google pipes in again: “Picton is 29.4 kilometres from Blenheim. Your Subaru makes 11.0 kilometres per litre of petrol and one litre of petrol creates 2.30176 kilograms CO2, so a trip to Picton creates approximately 6.15 kilograms CO2. About the same.”
“Wow, you’re right, Marg. That’s a lot more emissions than I expected. So, does this mean we need to stop buying imported fruits and vegetables?”
Marg (now with even a bigger smile): “Well, not necessarily. It depends on how they are transported. Produce sent on ships creates much lower emissions.
Google now hits his/her stride: “According to the 2020 UK DBEIS tables, long haul shipping of refrigerated produce creates 0.01308 kilograms CO2 equivalent per tonne-kilometre, or about 1.15 percent of the emissions due to airfreight. So airfreight spews about 87 times more greenhouse gas than sea-freight to move the same weight of produce the same distance.”
“So, how do we know which imported fruits and vegetables are airfreighted and which are sea-freighted?”
Google: “It has to do with how perishable the produce is. Importers prefer to send produce by surface because it costs less, but some things won’t last the journey. According to a 2007 Lincoln University report, most vegetables, including fresh asparagus, green beans, peas and sweet corn tend to be airfreighted, but only a selection of fruits, including cherries, berries, peaches and grapes are airfreighted. Apples, oranges and bananas are mostly sent by sea-freight.”
“Well, that’s lucky for you, Marg. You won’t have to give up your fresh banana smoothies.”
Marg, looking serious now: “So, the moral to the story is to buy local fruit and vegetables, when you can. Buying local also helps our local farmers and businesses during these tough times. This is what we’re meant to do.”
Google: “But local isn’t always better. The Lincoln report points out that in some cases, local heated greenhouse vegetables create higher emissions than imported vegetables because coal or natural gas is burned to keep the greenhouses warm and enrich the air inside with CO2 to promote growth. For example, a 2008 report by AgriLINK NZ states that hot house tomatoes grown with coal heating in Christchurch produce 4.475 kg CO2 per kilogram of tomatoes. Most of the greenhouses in Marlborough also use coal for heating”.
“Crikey, that’s almost as high as airfreighted from overseas! So, what can we eat?”
Marg smiles: “Well, we could go back to eating only what’s in season. I grew up eating only fresh fruit and vegetables when they came into season, and it didn’t spoil my childhood.”
“Spoil it? You mean those wild days you spent partying at Tahuna beach when you were a teenager? You know, I heard about that from some of your friends. Frankly, I was shocked to hear about it!”
Marg sighs: “Those were the days…”
“So, Marg, tell me again why we are planting a winter garden? The lockdown will be over soon.”
Marg: “There is no guarantee that lockdown will end after 4 weeks, and there is no guarantee that fresh veggies will always be available. What happens if we get hit by another disaster during the lockdown, like the cyclone that has just hit Vanuatu and Fiji? We may need garden veggies to get us and the neighbours through.”
Me: “We are feeding the neighbours too?”
Marg: “Of course we are! Where do you think we got all those figs you’ve been wolfing down? They share with us and we share with them. Besides, some of them don’t get out much anymore and could use a bit of help.”
Me: “This lockdown is getting to be hard work. Look how dirty I am! I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”
Marg looks over at me and smiles: “What do you mean hard work? Since you’ve been working from home, you hardly get out of your pyjamas. You can’t complain about that. A bit of gardening is doing you good.
And as far as getting back to normal is concerned, maybe we should think about making some of these lockdown routines permanent.”
Me: “Why should we do that? Our life was pretty good before this virus came to town. I can’t see much good coming from it.”
Marg: “Well, to start with, we are spending much less on fuel since you started working from home. Maybe when the lockdown is over you should try to work from home a few days a week. Less traffic, less emissions, less office overhead; it could be a good thing for you and the company. You did say that the online meeting you had yesterday was about as good as face-to-face.”
Me: “Yeah, …and I kinda like working from home. I can get so much more done without all the distractions. But with my hours cut back, we aren’t earning as much, either. I see your point, though. So what else is better about the lockdown?”
Marg: “I’m sure you’re sad about not visiting my parents at Easter. That lovely ferry crossing and drive up to Auckland. The friendly traffic. Those engaging political discussions with my dad. I’m sure a SKYPE session just won't be the same.” Marg winks at me.
Me: “OK, that’s two things. I suppose I can forgo your mum’s cooking for another year. So, what else?”
Marg: “I enjoyed watching you and Jim fix his bicycle yesterday. You two don’t spend much time together when you’re working all the time. We’ve had some good family time together these last few weeks.”
Me: “Yeah, it was good. He’s growing up so fast. I didn’t realise how much he’s learned about the world. I suppose I haven’t been paying enough attention. Been too busy.”
Marg: “One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the lockdown is that I feel that life has gotten simpler.”
Me: “You’ve got to be joking! What about all the new rules; 2 metres apart, no visiting friends, shops all closed, no unnecessary trips, job on life-support. It’s like being in home detention!
Marg: “No, I mean we’ve been forced to focus on the things that really matter, like our health, everyone’s health, and where we get our food and what we really need. I feel like it is preparing us for the next disaster, whatever that might be. We’re headed into uncertain times, with the climate changing, worldwide political tensions and, now, the pandemic. It seems like new disasters just keep popping up, with this virus just being the latest one. I keep thinking about all the people who are out of a job right now. That could be us. Or there could be some other disaster, like another earthquake. We need to be prepared.”
“So keep digging up those weeds and get the dirt mounded into rows. I’d like to get these seeds in the ground before it gets dark.
Me: “OK, OK. I’m digging. And by the way, I got it wrong a minute ago. This is more like a labour camp than home detention.”
Marg smiles at me and squirts me with the hose.
“Are you still on Facebook?” Marg looks over my shoulder. She looks annoyed. “You aren’t only wasting time, you are adding to greenhouse gas emissions”.
Me: “What? This laptop uses very little power. And besides, most of our electricity is from hydropower, which has no emissions.”
Marg: “It’s not your power use that I’m worried about. It’s the electricity running the Facebook data centres. I’ve heard that if the internet were a country, it would be the 6th biggest user of electricity in the world. You cyber-stalking your work mates is using heaps of electricity, most of which is probably generated using fossil fuels.”
She can’t be right. I’ll ask Google Assistant. “Hey Google! What’s the greenhouse gas emissions from using Facebook?”
Google: “Facebook reports 51% of the electricity to run its servers is from renewable sources in 2017, the most recent data available. Facebook’s nearest servers to New Zealand are in Singapore, however, whose power comes predominantly from burning natural gas.”
Me (under my breath): “Humm. Fossil fuel. She’s right”
“So Google, is looking at pictures on Facebook the worst thing I can be doing?”
Google: “No. Video streaming uses much more electricity. According to a recent Fortune Magazine article, the music video Despacito set a YouTube record by being viewed 5 billion times, using up as much electricity as 40,000 US homes use in a year. This is estimated to have generated 367,000 tonnes of carbon emissions”
Me: “Crikey! That’s a lot of emissions! Now, how much energy was that? Let me see, if I remember my maths right, there are 365 days in a year and 24 hours in a day…
Google: “Relax Tom, I’ve got this! The average US home uses, on average, about one kilowatt of electricity continuously, so using these numbers I calculate each view of the music video uses about 70 watt-hours of electricity.”
Me: “So, what’s that?”
Google: “It’s the same as leaving a 70 watt light bulb on for an hour. But the music video lasts only 4 minutes and 40 seconds, so streaming the video uses 900 watts of electrical power; close to that of running a microwave oven or a hair dryer.”
Me: “So, Google, if I watch the video now, where is it coming from?”
Google: “Google and YouTube’s nearest data centre is in Singapore.”
Me: “Humm, natural gas again.”
Marg barges in: “So Google, how do we keep our emissions from the internet as low as possible?”
Google: “Firstly, stay away from Bitcoin.”
Google: “Bitcoin. It’s an internet currency, like money, that doesn’t use the traditional banking system. It uses a significant amount of energy to create or “mine” using large computers. For this reason, authorities in China are clamping down on Bitcoin mining in Mongolia, which uses coal-fired electricity.”
“Also, high definition (or HD) video uses lots of server and data transmission services, like the YouTube video. Standard Definition (or SD) resolution uses about one-quarter the power of HD, so if you can, choose SD rather than HD. And, avoid websites with lots of non-essential video. In fact, any streaming service, such as music or podcasts, will use more energy than playing downloaded content. So, download your music rather than steaming it.”
Marg: “What about artificial intelligence services, like Google Assistant?”
Google: “It’s true, my computations are energy intensive but Google is committed to using 100% renewable energy”
Marg: “When will that be?”
Google: “The Company hasn’t set a date yet.”
Marg: “Good night, Google.”
The author would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of Chris Cookson of Create IT, Blenheim, in providing the technical information used in this article.
These are a collection of opinion articles principally 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. Some articles have been written by other CKM members, and their names appear with those articles.