The ridicolous 40% by 2020 campaign

I despair for the people who will see the cute ads on television about how we need to cut our 40% by 2020, and say you should text your name in support. They fail to point out what sort of country we would live in, if anyone was insane enough to agree to such a goal.

On NewstalkZB I described it as this:

First you would have to stop all transport emissions. So all cars and buses are gone. Then you would have to stop all electricity emissions. So NZ would have no cars and no electricity. But even that would not be enough to get emissions in just a decade to 40% below 1990 levels. You would have to hire gangs of vigilantes to hunt down any cows they can find and shoot a decent proportion of them.

Now you may think I am exaggerating. But not really. No one should think one can cut greenhouse gas emissions by around a half in just a decade without a massive impact on NZ society. Hopefully someone somewhere has hired some economists to work out what the consequences and costs would be of such a dramatic reduction over such a short period of time.

Colin James looks at what the reduction should be:

Advocates of a 40 per cent reduction from 1990 levels have been crowding Smith’s meetings. Opponents of a 40 per cent reduction say that would cripple the economy (though their models exclude unpredictable growth possibilities). John Key has said the economy must trump the environment when the two clash. So 40 per cent is most unlikely.

Too right.

On the most recent (rubbery and constantly changing) computations, New Zealand will more than meet its Kyoto commitment for 2008-12 of net emissions at the same level as in 1990 because, although our gross emissions are around 23 per cent above 1990 levels, enough trees were planted in the 1990s to offset this (though forest owners might claim some of those credits and taxpayers would then have to buy matching foreign credits).

The recession has also helped. We emit less when business is slack.

The 1990 tree plantings are projected to keep our net emissions around 1990 levels until 2016. But from then the trees start to be harvested and by 2020 our net emissions are projected to match our gross emissions — 41 per cent above 1990. After 2020 the figure soars.

So Colin correctly points out that if no changes are made our emissions in 2020 will be 41% above 1990 level. So if we were to follow Australia and say we will get emissions down to 5% below 1990 levels by 2020, that would be a reduction from 140% to 95% – still a massive reduction.

So to get to 40 per cent below 1990 levels in 2020 we would have to cut by around 60 per cent compared with going on as we are (“business as usual”) — or buy a swag of credits offshore, which may be very expensive if other rich countries are also buying for their “responsibility” targets. Or, some argue, we could plant masses of trees, starting now.

So a 60% reduction over the business as usual scenario. And now look at our emissions profile:

  1. Agriculture methane 30%
  2. Transport 20%
  3. Agriculture nitrous oxide 16%
  4. Stationary energy 15%
  5. Electricity generation 9%
  6. Industrial processes 6%
  7. Waste 2%

So as I said, let us say we get rid of every car and bus in New Zealand. We all walk to work, video-conference, cycle or take the solar powered train. That takes out 20%. Only a third of the way there.

Then we decide to join Great Barrier Island and survive off solar power. We close down all the power plants and turn off the electricity supplies. It’s candles for warmth in winter. That gets a another 9%. 29%.

To get to 60% we also really need to wipe out those agricultural methane emissions by shooting every evil cow we can find. That gets us to 50%. Yes I know it will mean no more dairy exports. In fact we may even need to import our milk and butter, but hey we will have met our target.

There is an upside though. Our incomes will all drop by thousands of dollars as we wipe out the agricultural sector. And it is tough having less money to spend. But as cars would have been outlawed, and there will be no electricity bills, as we have no electricity, then that should allow you to survive the drop in income a bit easier.

Now of course technology may make the job easier. I certainly hope so. But consider how much of an impact technology can have in just a decade. By 2050 I think technology will have allowed us to make much more significant reductions. But 2020 is not far off, and even if within a few years someone does work out how to stop cows emitting methane, it would take many years to produce and roll out the technology.

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