Commissioner on climate change: “At the global level, I think it’s very grave’

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, released a report this week recommending a re-think on how greenhouse gases are treated.  He said we were depending too much on planting trees.

He was interviewed on Newshub nation yesterday, where he said on the scale of our warming emergency: “At the global level, I think it’s very grave”.

I don’t think this sort of over-dramatics from Newshub Nation helps a reasoned debate on climate change:

Transcript of the interview between Emma Jollif and Simon Upton:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, released a report this week recommending a re-think on how greenhouse gases are treated. He said we were depending too much on planting trees to offset emissions – particularly carbon dioxide. I spoke to Simon Upton and began by asking him about the UN’s warning we only have twelve years to avoid climate catastrophe.

Simon Upton: Okay, the Paris Agreement talks about the second half of the century to reach a balance between sources and sinks, and that’s really what I’m aiming at. If you could do better than that, fine. In fact, Paris talks about well below 1.5, I think that is an extraordinary stretch. But, yes, of course, there is urgency, but the reality is that it takes time to put investment into these new technologies to build entirely new systems.

If it’s only farmers who can offset the emissions using the trees, where’s the incentive for farmers to actually reduce their emissions, because that’s ultimately what we’ve got to do, isn’t it?

No, no, farmers do have to reduce their emissions. And my report’s quite clear on that. We can’t leave agricultural greenhouse gases where they are either. There has to be a reduction. And I am not one of those people who say, ‘Well, look, let’s plant some trees, and you don’t have to worry about agriculture.’ We do.

I think the two fit together nicely, but the government would need to develop a mechanism similar to the Emissions Trading Scheme that we have for fossil carbon. It would need something similar in the agricultural space.

This month Air New Zealand, Contact, Genesis and Z established a forest portfolio to sequester carbon and help meet their targets under the ETS. Isn’t that at odds with what you’re suggesting?

Look, what they’ve done is perfectly rational in the world that currently operates. Forest sinks are available. They’ve been on the table for the last 25 years. And so what they’re trying to do is to purchase a future supply of units that they can surrender. So they see the carbon price going up, so if they can plant some forest today, they can get some units.

And in the future, they can hand over those units and say, ‘We’ve met our obligation.’ So they’re doing a perfectly rational thing. The question I would ask is, whether that is actually the best thing for them to be spending money on?

Wouldn’t it be better, maybe, to be spending money on reducing emissions? Or if they can’t, then they’re going to have to pay the full price. And that will be passed on to consumers.

How would you describe the scale of our warming emergency?

At the global level, I think it’s very grave. I have not seen anything comforting, either about what will happen with climate or, to be honest, what will happen in terms of the human response. I think it’s a very significant problem, and it’s going to affect us probably in ways that we haven’t thought about. People say we need to adapt, and adaptation is going to mean being resilient, being in a position to cope with the unexpected.

I’d really make this point — this economy, more than most developed economies, is absolutely reliant on what nature provides, in terms of ecosystem services; we are reliant on what comes from the ocean, we’re reliant on what comes from the land.

And so it’s very much in our interests that we can hang on to the best of what we’ve got there. Because we’re not Singapore, we’re not all living in buildings doing work virtually on things; we’re actually out there in the environment. And if that environment is no longer as friendly as it was, we are going to be severely hit.

Climate change report “thought-provoking” but Government action seems weak

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton has put out a report that Climate Change Minister says is thought provoking, but Shaw doesn’t seem to have been provoked into taking much action.

Climate Change Minister thanks the environment watchdog for his ‘landscape’ emissions report

“Commissioner, Simon Upton, has provided a thought-provoking document, as I would expect, and the Government welcomes it as part of our overall consideration of climate strategies,” James Shaw says.

“The Commissioner’s report questions some of the fundamental design principles of the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS).

“However, for the sake of providing policy stability and predictability for emitters and the forestry sector, the Government is committed to retaining the use of forestry off-sets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emissions.

“As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, there is a narrowing window of opportunity to stay within 1.5o Celsius of global warming. It is because that window is so narrow that planting trees to offset emissions is a necessity; at least in the coming decades.

“Nevertheless, Commissioner Upton is correct that trees only retain sequestered carbon for the life of the tree whereas emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

“I agree that the priority must be actual gross reductions in emissions,” says James Shaw.

“The NZ ETS reforms we consulted on last year, and which we will introduce this year, will provide necessary incentives to bring down domestic emissions. The ETS reforms being introduced are the result of consultation, review, and decisions made over the past five years.

“The Government believes those sets of reforms are the best range of policies available at this time.

“Fundamental changes, such as those proposed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, would need to go through the same processes that have brought us to where we are now with the current ETS reforms being put in place,” Mr Shaw says.

In other words, at best it would take years to make fundamental changes for what is said by the Government to be an urgent issue, and the biggest issue of the moment facing the world.

In an interview on RNZ yesterday Shaw struggled to demonstrate he was on top of this – Trees still best short term option on emissions – Climate Change Minister James Shaw

The government won’t change the way forestry is used to offset carbon dioxide emissions despite advice by the Parliamentary Commissioner, Climate Change Minister James Shaw says.

Mr Shaw told Morning Report he agreed with Environment Parliamentary Commissioner Simon Upton’s report that tree planting was only a short term fix but said it was the only option while ways of bringing down CO2 emissions were worked out.

“The emphasis has to be in bringing down your actual emissions not just in buying your way out by getting forestry offsets.”

The commissioner’s report, Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The Next Great Landscape Debate said too much focus was being put on planting trees and businesses would be better off investing in new technology.

It concluded using trees as a carbon sink could only buy a little more time as CO2 lasted hundreds of years in the atmosphere but could be quickly released from trees at the end of their life or in the event of fires.

Mr Shaw said the government would stick to the strategy of allowing people to use trees to offset CO2 emissions they can’t bring down.

“It buys us time to work out how to bring down our gross emissions … and also to develop other solutions for longer term storage.”

Buys us time? How much time?

Shaw may not have much time – if he can’t get the Government to make major moves to address climate change by next year he and the Green Party may find it hard to get enough voters to return them to Parliament.


Preparing for rising seas

It’s widely accepted that climate change and sea level rise are likely to be a reality in the near future, with the only uncertainties being how much, how soon and how much we can or are willing to do about it.

A report from the Commissioner of the Environment:

Preparing New Zealand for rising seas: Certainty and Uncertainty (PDF)

From the Overview (edited):

The subtitle of this report is ‘Certainty and Uncertainty’. It is certain that the sea is rising and will continue to do so for centuries to come. But much is uncertain – how rapidly it will rise, how different coastal areas will be affected, and how we should prepare. And we do need to prepare. After all, as an article in the New York Times put it this year: “Human civilization is built on the premise that the level of the sea is stable, as indeed it has been for several thousand years”.

The rising sea will lead to flooding on low-lying land near the coast, erosion of many beaches and ‘soft’ cliffs, and higher and possibly saltier coastal groundwater.

  • Flooding of coastal areas will become more frequent, more severe, and more extensive.
  • Erosion – a long-familiar problem around some of our coasts – will become more widespread.
  • Groundwater linked to the sea will rise and possibly become brackish.

However, care must be taken with generalisations. Local features matter a great deal.

For instance, open unsheltered coasts experience the full force of the sea, so are more vulnerable to flooding than enclosed bays. Beaches regularly replenished with sediment are less prone to erosion. Groundwater problems are most likely to occur in land that has been reclaimed from the sea.

Natural hazards like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and river floods can happen at any time. In contrast, sea level rise is incremental and inexorable – its effects on our coast will unfold slowly for a period before accelerating. We must start planning, but there is enough time to plan and do it well.

Certainly the world, including New Zealand, needs to act urgently to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. However, during this investigation, I have realised that the same urgency does not apply to much of the planning we need to do for sea level rise. Indeed, haste can be counter-productive.

Because current government policy on sea level rise emphasises the need to take a ‘precautionary approach’, technical analysts have been embedding ‘precaution’ into coastal risk assessments to varying degrees. This takes various forms such as assuming ‘high end’ amounts of sea level rise.

One particular need is to avoid referring to ‘one-in-50 year’ or ‘one-in-100 year’ events. Not only is it difficult to understand, it is not a stable measure over time. The ‘high water’ caused by a storm surge riding on top of a king tide that is now expected to occur once every 100 years will occur more and more often as the sea rises.

There are aspects of planning for sea level rise that should be done with some urgency. One is concerned with the granting of consents for greenfields development. New suburbs and the expensive infrastructure they require should be viewed as long-term investments. We now see building new suburbs on land prone to liquefaction in much of the country as foolish. We should see allowing new subdivisions on vulnerable coastal land as equally foolish.

Another is the need to establish much more extensive monitoring systems. This is required before we can develop better models of shoreline erosion and accretion. Such monitoring is also needed for adaptive management, which will be the appropriate strategy in many cases. Adaptive management involves staging interventions over time as trigger points are reached.

Unusually, one of my recommendations in this report is to the Minister of Finance. It is not too soon to begin to consider the fiscal implications of sea level rise. Both central and local government will face increasing pleas for financial assistance – whether it be for building a seawall, maintaining an eroding coastal road, or, as will eventually happen, moving entire communities further inland.

What the world, including our small country, does now will affect how fast and how high the sea rises.

That’s signed by Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

The detailed report: Preparing New Zealand for rising seas: Certainty and Uncertainty

It’s difficult to know what can be done to mitigate possible problems and what might be futile.

But it’s become increasingly clear that we should be increasing our awareness and caution about possible changes.

Ignoring it and doing nothing is not an option.

One positive aspect is that whatever we do in response to growing concerns is not going to do any harm and will likely benefit us and our planet, regardless of how accurate predictions are of impending problems.

We should be more aware  and care better for our planet, no matter what the climate does.