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The BulletinMarch 27, 2019

The Bulletin: Trees aren’t a climate change credit card

A very subtle stock image (Getty Images)
A very subtle stock image (Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Climate change report recommends major changes to land use and policy, Westland hit by heavy flooding, and St John in trouble with paramedics over donations call.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has released a major new report into New Zealand’s approach to greenhouse gas emissions. There’s one big takeaway from it all, reports Radio NZ. While tree planting is great for a whole lot of reasons, and everyone should be planting more trees, it’s a poor and risky solution for actually combatting climate change if the main approach taken is to plant trees to offset emissions.

Why? Because trees aren’t a credit card by which emissions can be spent and then paid off later. Yes, they help take carbon out of the atmosphere. But they only hold onto it for decades or centuries, rather than the millennia that the carbon will stick around for. They are also themselves susceptible to the changed weather patterns climate change will bring – for example hot dry conditions. When California was hammered by wildfires at the end of 2018, it was estimated that the burning trees released the same quantity of carbon as the entire state produced through electricity generation over the whole year.

That’s not to say that trees aren’t valued by the report – far from it. PCE Simon Upton recommended that a ‘landscape approach’ be taken to NZ’s climate action, on the basis that changes in land use have been New Zealand’s main contribution to climate change. “More than 3 billion tonnes of carbon have been shifted to the atmosphere from the land, largely as the result of forest clearance to make way for agriculture. The approximate scale of warming associated with these changes is estimated to be around seven times larger than our contribution of fossil emissions,” he said. Making any sort of dent in that would require land use changes to go back the other way.

One idea that mooted by Mr Upton was to radically reshape the emissions trading scheme, so that only biological gases (methane, nitrous oxide) could be offset by tree-planting. Interest reports that general carbon emitters are treated more harshly in the report than farmers. This is because biological gases stay in the atmosphere for a similar amount of time as a pine forest might be expected to be around for. It’s considered to be a highly debatable point by many, including Greenpeace, because the warming effects of methane and nitrous oxide are far stronger in the short term than carbon, and there’s an increasing awareness that human society making it through the to the end of the century amid climate change will be difficult anyway.

But changes to the ETS were ruled out immediately by climate change minister James Shaw, reports Stuff. Mr Shaw said the window to act was so narrow that tree planting was highly necessary, and agreed that the goal should be cutting emissions rather than trying to offset them. But he also noted that the ETS as it stands provides predictability and stability, and as such forestry would continue to be used as an offset for all gases.

It could be seen as setting a bit of a precedent, as to how climate change politics could go in the future. Under the Zero Carbon Act (which we assume will one day, eventually, be presented to the public) a climate change commission will be set up, though it is unclear if they’ll work in an advisory role, or actually have power. Mr Upton described his proposals as a “more ambitious approach to reducing fossil emissions” than current policy settings, and arguably the most climate focused minister New Zealand has ever had didn’t go for them. If a hypothetical Climate Change Commissioner told the government – from a position of an advisory role – that progress was too slow, would they be listened to?

Finally, two more crucial points to remember about all of this: Firstly, any sort of cut in global carbon emissions isn’t currently happening. New Scientist reports that a new high from energy emissions were recorded in 2018, to go with general records in emissions for the year. And secondly, carbon dioxide emissions contribute to ocean acidification, which is in and of itself a nightmarish problem to grapple with. Regardless of how many trees are planted, sooner or later there’s going to be a hefty bill from all the carbon we’ve been spending, and the more we emit now, the more interest we’ll have to pay.

Raging floodwaters have taken out a Westland bridge, leaving much of the region isolated, reports this Stuff live updates page. It is considered a once in 100 year flood for Haast, and a state of emergency has been declared. There’s expected to be a lot of wild weather around the country generally this morning, so do be careful out there.

St John is in trouble with paramedics after a call for donations was put out in the wake of the Christchurch attacks. Newshub reports many paramedics were furious about it, because of the implication that the money would be going to the paramedics, who are currently locked in a bitter and entrenched pay dispute. The appeal was later pulled by St John, with a spokesperson saying it was never something the organisation had promoted – rather it was just in response to interest from the public.

The question of cyber-surveillance has come up a lot since the Christchurch terror attack. Security analyst Paul Buchanan has made a rather dramatic intervention into it all, by telling Radio NZ that failure to prevent the attacks had nothing to do with technological capability. His comments come after it was suggested by National Party leader Simon Bridges that Project Speargun should be reinstated – for those who don’t remember that was one of the things discussed at the ‘Moment of Truth’ event back in 2014. Mr Buchanan was against the idea, and said the reality was that the security services were more than capable of doing their work – the fault was in his opinion all to do with misplaced priorities.

A Muslim group is urging a massive donation towards the Christchurch attack victims raised by associates of businessman Zhang Yikun to be returned, reports Newsroom. The Khadija Leadership Network say the treatment of Muslims in China (covered in yesterday’s Bulletin) is an example of the Islamophobia and persecution Muslims face. The money was pledged at a gathering of business delegates from China.

The Wairarapa Free Budget Advisory Service is under severe funding pressure. The information comes from this excellently written report in the Wairarapa Times-Age by Eli Hill, who went along to a public meeting about the challenges the service faced. It was unanimously voted at that meeting that the service should continue, on the grounds that it had turned so many lives around, but quite how it can be paid for remains up in the air. A meeting has been set up between the service and MSD for April.

The PR tactics of the National Rifle Association have been revealed in an Al-Jazeera sting. Their story was in relation to the One Nation party in Australia, who have pushed for Australian gun laws to be relaxed, and were seeking a big money donation from people linked to the NRA. Among the tactics included that in the wake of a mass shooting, gun advocates should go on the offensive and smear people calling for tighter controls.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Teuila Fuatai writes about the road toll lessons from Gothenburg in Sweden, and what Auckland should learn. Samuel Te Kani offers a challenging perspective on some of the recent Christchurch commemoration events in Auckland, in light of criticism that they have become ‘too political’.

Meanwhile Maria Slade speaks to an AI expert about bots that can read and write, and how we’ve only scratched the surface of where the technology could go – in a scary way that is. Oskar Howell comments on whether more scrutiny needs to be put on how games are classified and censored. And I spoke to Stuff’s editor in chief Patrick Crewdson about why the site is getting rid of huge swathes of their notoriously nasty comments sections.

Here’s a topic that has been getting an increasing amount of attention recently – why is hospitality work viewed as unskilled labour? In New Zealand, advocate Chloe Ann-King has been doing a lot of work in this area, particularly with regards to money in hospitality not compensating for poor workplace conditions in much of the industry. But this feature below from The Outline tackles a similar, but slightly different question in an American context – the job is obviously demanding, stressful and requires extremely strong interpersonal skills. Why isn’t it treated as valuable? Here’s an excerpt:

Waiting tables can be more stressful than being a neurosurgeon, but one of the most chaotic of all restaurant positions happens out of view. Working “expo” — being the person who stands opposite the line cooks in the kitchen to expedite every order and make sure each meal goes to the right table, while also fielding complaints and requests from servers — is one of the most intense jobs in any restaurant. Dominique Giovannelli, a 28-year-old who is in charge of quality assurance at a sports bar outside Nashville, works expo every weekend.

An aspiring restaurant owner, Giovannelli told The Outline has worked in the service industry since she started scooping ice cream at 15. She’s been a hostess, server, bartender, and sous chef. She loves the adrenaline rush she feels when the kitchen reaches peak insanity — “It’s like a party without the party,” she said — but is less in love with the customers who regularly ask condescending questions like, “What do you really want to do?” and “What’s your main job?”

Remember the St Kents rugby poaching saga? There’s been something of a resolution to it all, with the school agreeing to not use some of their poached players for the first six weeks – which seems like a harsh outcome for the kids themselves, but the schools seem satisfied. The NZ Herald’s Gregor Paul has a good take on it all though, saying that the schools that accused St Kents of crossing the line now have to take a good hard look at themselves. Paul has a great line in particular about King’s College, “which has sat through this whole escapade like some guilt-ridden ghost at the feast”.

From our partners: Climate change has already affected how electricity gets delivered to customers, and it’s only going to get more challenging. Vector’s Chief Networks Officer Andre Botha outlines what the lines company is doing to respond.

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