The prime minister said yesterday that we need to move faster on climate – but does the government really understand how fast it’s going to have to act? Yesterday’s report suggests the message still hasn’t got through, writes ecologist Mike Joy.
“The time is now” is the headline for the Climate Commission’s final advice to the government released yesterday. After looking at the detail I think a more apt title would be “The time is later”.
This final advice suffers from the same issues as those in the draft advice, which led the group Lawyers for Climate Action to conclude that “the Commission appears to have focused on what is ‘achievable’ rather than first asking ‘What is necessary to contribute to limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius?'”
It lacks the urgency required and again sets targets that are too weak and too late. The critical changes we all need to make – like reducing consumption of everything, especially energy, and avoiding waste – are a crucial omission.
The lack of urgency is highlighted by the latest analysis of climate risk by Breakthrough, Australia’s National Centre for Climate Restoration. Its Climate Reality Check found that to avoid catastrophic outcomes, net-zero emissions will have to be reached globally by 2030, not 2050.
Meanwhile, Coal Action Network Aotearoa yesterday blasted the Climate Change Commission for weakening its stance on coal: the final advice allows for twice the level of coal use that was in the commission’s draft advice earlier this year.
While there have been some welcome improvements from the draft advice regarding land use – the commission now envisages a 20% conversion of grazing land being converted to native forests, up from none in the original draft – de-intensification of agriculture barely rates a mention.
The obvious mitigation of significantly reducing farming intensity is passed over in favour of technological fixes that ignore the co-benefits that would come from reducing ruminant numbers. The impacts of intensive agriculture in New Zealand are more than just climate related; there are also major impacts on soils and freshwater that could all be significantly reduced with fewer animals on our farms.
The commission’s final advice calls for a reduction of biogenic methane of 12% by 2030. Contrast that with a recent UN Environment Programme finding that methane production needs to be cut by 40-45% by 2030 for us to have a chance of meeting the 1.5deg warming target. Methane also has plays a big part in sea level rises, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
The beefed up suite of regulatory tools to accelerate the uptake of low emissions vehicles is welcome, but there’s a clear problem with any solution that involves manufacturing new things using fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are a good example: a big chunk of the greenhouse emissions for an EV has been released before the car even leaves the showroom. Many would argue that the EV manufacturing process represents a short term hit to carbon reduction targets for a long-term gain – but it’s in the short term that we most desperately need reductions.
Worryingly, the report says biofuels are likely to have a much greater role in the transition than was envisaged in the draft advice, despite the impact of biofuel production on arable land use in a world struggling to feed people. Then there are the net energy limitations of biofuels, which see almost as much energy going into producing many of them as is gained in the end.
From a climate perspective the news about biofuels is even worse. In 2014, the IPCC found that indirect emissions from biofuels “can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products”. Another study commissioned by the European Union focused on indirect emissions and concluded that CO2 emissions from biofuels are four times higher than those of petroleum-based products. The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that the climate benefits from replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels are close to zero. Finally a study by Chatham House found that “biodiesel from vegetable oils is… worse for the climate than fossil diesel”.
All of the above is why I found the final advice from the commission so disappointing. We must act much faster and harder than the course of action this report recommends, because kicking the can down the road for future generations has gone on too long.