Reframing the costs of smart climate action

NZ ParliamentAccording to a recent survey, 87% of New Zealanders have at least some level of concern about the impacts of climate change on society.  The government is currently consulting on how we want to translate climate concern into a target for reducing New Zealand’s emissions after 2020.

Rather than offering mitigation proposals, the government’s discussion document addresses the national context for setting a target and has a strong focus on the costs that accompany ambition.  But looking at the underlying modelling by Infometrics  and Landcare Research reveals more about the cost story in the discussion document than first meets the eye.  It also highlights the importance of discussing pathways alongside targets. …

New Zealand’s journey toward a low-emission future: Today’s climate change landscape

Note: Through Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, I have just published two Motu Notes on climate change issues prepared as background papers for Motu’s Low-Emission Future Dialogue. The first in the series presents an overview of the climate change challenges facing New Zealand and the current policy context.  This information is highly relevant because in 2015 New Zealand will need to present its post-2020 emission reduction commitment – referred to as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – under a new international climate change agreement currently under negotiation. The paper’s executive summary is provided below.  The full paper is available here.

Motu note v3 300In the coming decades, New Zealand will face important choices shaped by both the risks and opportunities created by climate change. This paper provides an overview of the current climate change landscape from which New Zealand is starting the next stage of its journey toward a global low-emission future. The key findings are:

Climate change science, emission trends and mitigation scenarios The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reinforce the case for significant reductions to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under business-as-usual growth in emissions, the global mean surface temperature in 2100 could increase by 3.7oC to 4.8oC compared to pre-industrial levels. A least-cost pathway to limit temperature increases to not more than 2oC above pre-industrial levels would involve reductions of 40–70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 on the way toward a zero-net-emission global economy. A key objective should be limiting cumulative emissions, and delaying action significantly increases the costs of mitigation. …

The gift of the present: Making climate karma count

Beach scene for web ed 1
Why climate karma counts

Over the holidays, a gracious lady from Tonga shared with me the story of Tu’i Malila, the “Little King.”  This Madagascar radiated tortoise was presented as a gift to the King of Tonga by Captain Cook in 1777 and he lived until the age of 188, dying in the mid-1960s.  This tortoise had bridged the human eras of sea exploration and space exploration.  I wondered if Captain Cook had any inkling how long his gift would endure and how much the world would change over that time.

I’ve been reflecting on how the choices we make each day about climate change represent our gift – or our burden – to future generations.  They don’t have a say in what they will inherit from us, they can’t vote for today’s visionary leaders and they can’t remind us to change our habits.  The collective impact of what we emit now will extend well beyond the typical climate change modelling threshold of 2100, which lies within the lifetime of today’s children.

Willingness to change: The “elephant in the room” for climate mitigation

By Mara Ellis | © Xtremesafari | Dreamstime Stock Photo

I read an inspiring story recently about Dr Donald Berwick, former CEO of the US Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).  His research showed that hospitals were repeatedly making avoidable mistakes that were costing patients’ lives. Although he only had a tiny staff and limited resources, he decided that things needed to change. At a convention of US hospital administrators in 2004, he set out a challenge: saving 100,000 lives in the next 18 months.  He spoke to the heart of why change was needed, identified six clear, manageable interventions and launched a campaign to enrol hospitals in making the necessary changes.  He knew it would be hard for hospitals to admit they were routinely making mistakes and change standard practices, but he made it easy for hospitals to join and provided mentoring, information sharing and feedback.  Eighteen months later, they had prevented an estimated 122,300 avoidable deaths (Heath and Heath 2010).

How does this story relate to climate change?  Collectively our society is repeatedly taking avoidable actions which are changing the climate and causing harm.  Like the hospitals at the beginning of the story, we have practical solutions with valuable benefits at our fingertips but we aren’t using them seriously yet.   Fundamentally, the challenge of climate change is a challenge of people change.  In government departments, businesses and households, our lack of willingness to change is the figurative “elephant in the room.”

“Hot Air”: Searching for the winds of climate policy change

On 2 November 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Synthesis Report 2014 with the headline “Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects.” The report is a sobering reminder that limiting temperature increases below 2° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels could entail reducing emissions by 40-70 percent of 2010 levels by 2050, and bringing net emissions near or below zero by 2100.  It emphasises the clear benefits of near-term action given the inertia of economic and climate systems.

A White House report issued in July 2014 also highlights the costs of delaying action to reduce emissions.  Two key findings were:

  • Based on a leading aggregate damage estimate in the climate economics literature, a delay that results in warming of 3° Celsius above preindustrial levels, instead of 2°, could increase economic damages by approximately 0.9 percent of global output… The incremental cost of an additional degree of warming beyond 3° Celsius would be even greater. Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.
  • An analysis of research on the cost of delay for hitting a specified climate target (typically, a given concentration of greenhouse gases) suggests that net mitigation costs increase, on average, by approximately 40 percent for each decade of delay. These costs are higher for more aggressive climate goals: each year of delay means more CO2 emissions, so it becomes increasingly difficult, or even infeasible, to hit a climate target that is likely to yield only moderate temperature increases.

The global case for near-term action is clear.  What about the case for near-term action in New Zealand?

This issue has proven challenging for New Zealand so far.  In addition to economic and climate inertia, New Zealand has faced a third important dimension: political inertia.  This was the subject of Alister Barry’s 2014 documentary Hot Air”.  Using archival footage and retrospective interviews, the film traces New Zealand’s successive attempts to price and reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.  Across policy cycles from the government’s initial consideration of emission pricing to the choice of voluntary greenhouse agreements, consideration and abandonment of a carbon tax and agricultural emissions research levy, the monumental passage of legislation for the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) and the subsequent decisions that reduced its impact, a similar story was repeated.

Attempts to shift New Zealand toward a lower-emission development pathway were resisted effectively by those with powerful interests in maintaining business as usual.  

The trillion-tonne challenge: Think cumulatively, act immediately on infrastructure

In the international climate change negotiations, countries agreed to the global goal of limiting warming above pre-industrial levels to not more than 2 degrees C. According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, to maintain a 66% chance of achieving that goal, cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions starting from the period 1861-1880 must remain below about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (3.67 trillion tonnes of CO2). That drops to an even more restrictive budget when non-CO2 greenhouse gases are taken into account.

How are we tracking so far? By 2011, we had already spent half of the trillion tonne budget.

Personal sustainability: The undoing of overdoing

I am a Person Who Does Too Much.

I know I am not alone. There is a whole industry producing self-help books, meditations and page-a-day calendars for people like me. I have them all sitting on my shelf without enough time to read them.

The pattern of overdoing was set very early in life in response to fear which proved very adaptable. In elementary school, my fear was rejection by my teachers. In junior high, my fear became not getting into college. I started studying for college entrance exams years early and stressed over every assignment. By high school, the fear extended to not earning a scholarship. College was then dominated by the fear of losing that scholarship. By the time I graduated, the fear had become job insecurity in a bad economy. As my career has matured, the fear has shifted to failing to make a real difference. Throughout my life, overdoing was supposed to deliver security. Of course, it never has.

Naturally I sought out a career that was custom made for overdoing: climate change policy. Here is a problem of monumental proportions with potentially devastating consequences and practical solutions with obvious co-benefits which society is largely ignoring in a form of global self-sabotage. Overdoing to the rescue! For the past 20 years, my work has been fascinating, rewarding and totally exhausting. I joke that my life would be just fine if only I had an extra twelve hours in the day. But even that would never be enough.

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