Climate change’s biggest myth

Our Climate Declaration core group member Pat Baskett explains why - if we want even a chance at preparing for the climate future ahead - we need to bring forward our net zero goal to 2030.

The biggest myth of climate change is that achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will prevent the climate disaster from getting worse. This is New Zealand’s official goal and that of other countries including the European Union.

Also referred to as climate neutrality, there are many reasons why it won’t work and why we nevertheless have to pursue this goal. Achieving it involves a balancing act between net and gross emissions.

Gross emissions are the total amount of climate-heating gases produced by industry, transport, agriculture etc. The net amount is reached by deducting from that gross figure the quantity of gases calculated to have been sequestered or drawn down from the atmosphere by the effects of other, beneficial processes – such as those that take place in forests.

Theoretically, this means we don’t necessarily have to stop everything we’ve been doing for the last 200 years – not if we massively increase all drawdown or sequestering processes and step up our tree-planting projects. Thus, if I were to fly from Auckland to see family in Dunedin, I would tick the “offset” box, add a mere $6.44 to my fare and enjoy the flight, believing I am “flying neutral” because I’ve offset my share of the gross amount – 274kg – of CO2 and other gases my flight has generated.

Air New Zealand’s website explains a recent change in the projects that their offset policy supports. Originally half were native forestry but they can no longer find enough local projects to meet the demand. So they’re now sourcing their carbon credits “from international projects that comply with international best practice”.

Although it may not matter where the carbon is drawn down, it does mean that my flight wouldn’t help New Zealand’s efforts towards climate neutrality.

In such calculations, all gases - CO2 and other harmful gases such as methane and nitrous oxide - are lumped together as CO2-equivalent gases, or CO2-e. The latest figures from Stats NZ (October 2020) show that:

“Gross greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 78.9 million tonnes of CO2-e, 24 percent higher than 1990 and 1 percent lower than 2017... our net GHG emissions were 55.5 million tonnes, 57.2 percent higher than 1990 due to the underlying increase in gross emissions and a decrease in carbon uptake by NZ’s plantation forest. In 2018 net emissions were 2.6 percent lower than 2017.”

(The Stats NZ graph shows this more clearly here.) 

The same report notes: “Net uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by land use, land use change, and forestry was 17.6 percent lower than 1990 due to harvesting rates of planted forests.”

This means that the net figure, in proportion to our gross emissions, was higher before those commercial pine forests were cut down and exported - a Machiavellian use of statistics which should not have been claimed since it was known their benefits were short-term.

Think for a moment about how much of New Zealand we would have to turn into forest – not commercial pine – in order to offset our current energy-intensive lifestyle. How much land would be left to grow food? Would we also grow trees and crops to provide biofuels? How would we reconcile these competing demands?

The point is that we have to do both – plant trees and reduce emissions. Net negative is the real goal.

Other schemes for reducing carbon have been vexing scientists for years. These include ways of capturing carbon as it emerges from smokestacks, or before it does so, and storing it underground. Known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, such methods are expensive, of dubious efficacy and haven’t yet provided an excuse for the continued use of coal to generate electricity.

The net zero goal has been described by scientists and researchers, variously as a get-out-of-jail free card or an unworkable non-solution. It is inherent in our Emissions Trading Scheme. A detailed critical report recently presented to the Government titled Thriving within Planetary Boundaries and compiled by the Dunedin Seniors’ Climate Action Network (SCAN) says this:

“The current target of 2050 for net zero emissions is neither rational nor safe…. temperature rise is increasing; 1.5C will be reached before 2030…. Long-term targets are an excuse for procrastination.”  

Our minuscule reductions have been achieved with minor or nil change in our lifestyle and energy consumption. We assume that renewable energy will enable BAU and we can stop worrying about climate.

But it won’t. The climate extremes we’ve witnessed in the last couple of years are the result of what’s already up there. These extremes will continue because the trajectory of temperature rise for the next decades has already been determined, give or take a decade or two depending on the effects of tipping points.

Net zero won’t change that. Nothing will: not shooting sulphur into the atmosphere or fertilising the oceans with iron so they absorb more carbon. We know the global average is already 1C higher than in pre-industrial times – some say 0.8C. If emissions were already significantly reducing, the world might have a chance of meeting the Paris goal of keeping the rise to 1.5degrees. But nowhere are there signs of that.

Nevertheless, there is a justification for working flat-out for a net zero goal - not by 2050 but by 2030. As the SCAN report states, what we do in the short term, over the next three to four years, matters most.

Climate activist groups generally concur on the broad priorities for meeting this revised goal. They include:

1. A Government programme to scale back all energy use, beginning with a budget for fossil fuels. This will enable calculations of the amounts needed for the construction of the wind turbines and solar panels needed to reach 100 percent renewable electricity. SCAN comments “If we squander our limited budget of fossil fuels on frivolous consumption, then we will lose our last chance to make a global transition to renewable energy and infrastructure.”

2. Recognition that it will be impossible to scale up renewable energy use per capita to previous fossil fuel levels. This is because the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for renewables is much lower than the fossil fuels of the past.

3. Priority for electric public transport over new road construction.

4. Economics based on GDP and growth have had their day. SCAN: “Sustainable economic growth is an oxymoron and empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory. Either we have a planned, orderly contraction (de-growth) of our economy or else a far more disruptive contraction will be forced upon us.”

5. An equitable distribution of resources so that transition to a lower-emissions lifestyle does not disadvantage the less affluent sectors of society.

6. Recognition that climate change is just one symptom of the much larger dilemma of humankind’s profligate exploitation of resources. This is called planetary overshoot.

Our updated net zero goal will be just a beginning – or it should be. The path to achieving it can do two things. It will show us how to live with less and it can prepare us for the climate-changed future that lies ahead.

Climate change minister, James Shaw, is going to COP26 in Glasgow empty-handed. He could make up for our failures by announcing a commitment to a speedy catch-up programme that would get us to net zero emissions by 2030.


This article was first published by Newsroom on 13 October 2021.