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Celebrity endorsed climate change targets – a big ask....

It is interesting to see that Greenpeace has corralled a group of NZ celebrities to endorse its call for NZ to sign up to an emission reduction target of 40% by 2020 at the next round of climate change negotiations. The list includes Lucy Lawless, Stephen Tindall, Cliff Curtis, Peter Gordon and Jim Salinger.

While targets to aspire to are one thing, international emission reduction commitments will come at a high cost for New Zealanders’ if the target proves to be unrealistic.

There is no country in the world to date that has been able to achieve anywhere near 40% emission reductions (and many have been trying hard for the past 20 years) apart from those that have suffered economic collapse, like the Eastern European countries after the collapse of communism.

It is now widely accepted that economic growth is strongly correlated to emissions growth, whether through our energy use for industry, to facilitate road, sea and air transport, or to power all the new technology people are increasingly coming to rely on. A recent report by the International Energy Agency, for example, warned that energy used by computers and consumer electronics will not only double by 2022, but increase threefold by 2030, with most of the increase coming from developing countries where economic growth is faster and the ownership rates of gadgets is the lowest.

I wonder if the celebrity’s gave much thought to how we reach this target. A common theme from the celebrities quoted was their desire for their children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the same resources they have had the privilege of enjoying. However, to achieve a 40% emission reduction in eleven short years we would have to take drastic action that would pretty much wipe out all the comforts these people grew up with themselves. If you took all transport off the road you would save around 20% of our national emissions, if you shut down our industry you would save a measly 12 %, if you went to 100% renewable electricity you would save an even more measly 11% (given we already have a high percentage of renewable electricity generation). Clearly it is not feasible to require 100% emission reductions from these sectors of the economy, but that is the sort of drastic action that would result in 40% emission reductions. Even to halve emissions from these sectors, remembering that we are unlikely to have any major technology breakthroughs that are economic and widely deployed in 11 short years, would have a dramatic negative impact on our economy and lead to massive job losses.

I am sure the celebrities who signed up to the target are all well intentioned people promoting a worthy cause, but are they really prepared to give up all air travel, all private motor vehicle travel, sell the second car and second property (rich people tend to have bigger carbon footprints than poor people) and support the end of the tourism industry (which is a high carbon activity)? Is Steven Tindall’s ‘The Warehouse’ prepared to stop importing consumer goods from countries that are not prepared to accept emission reduction limits, and which are high in carbon intensity due to their reliance on coal fired power stations? I think not, yet a 40% emission reduction in 11 years time would require all the drastic action we could throw at it.

Beyond 2020, it is likely that technology which allows for more significant emission reductions will be coming to our aid, but at the moment that technology is not even on the shelf, let alone ready to be taken off the shelf. For example, even if you considered electric cars to be market ready now, they are expensive, only travel short distances and even if people were prepared to buy them, the fleet turnover is pretty slow. It would take more than 10 years of purchasing 100% electric cars to replace the fleet. The AA estimate electric cars will not have much presence until the 2030’s.

New Zealand is highly unusual amongst developed countries in having 50% of our emissions coming from agriculture, a very small (by Annex 1 country standards) industrial sector, and one of the highest amounts of renewable electricity generation in the world.

The big danger for New Zealand in setting future emission reduction targets is that our emissions can swing wildly in either a positive or a negative direction depending on what happens in our land use and forestry sectors and depending on the rules devised by the United Nations. Caution should be the order of the day, and it could be tree planting that makes or breaks us.

If we can’t reduce our emissions or plant our way out of trouble, we will be forced to pay others for doing so and that could come at a very high price. New Zealand does need to make its own efforts to reduce emissions (and many large industrials have already exceeded the Kyoto target), but we need to do so in step with new technology development and our trading competitors. While this will happen eventually, it will be a longer journey than can be achieved in 11 short years and Greenpeace are being unrealistic to suggest otherwise.

By Catherine Beard, Executive Director, Greenhouse Policy Coalition.

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