The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) synthesis report recently landed with an authoritative thump, giving voice to hundreds of scientists endeavouring to understand the unfolding calamity of global heating. What’s changed since the last one in 2014? Well, we’ve dumped an additional third of a trillion tonnes of CO₂ into the atmosphere, primarily from burning fossil fuels. While world leaders promised to cut global emissions, they have presided over a 5% rise.
The new report evokes a mild sense of urgency, calling on governments to mobilise finance to accelerate the uptake of green technology. But its conclusions are far removed from a direct interpretation of the IPCC’s own carbon budgets (the total amount of CO₂ scientists estimate can be put into the atmosphere for a given temperature rise).
The report claims that, to maintain a 50:50 chance of warming not exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, CO₂ emissions must be cut to “net-zero” by the “early 2050s”. Yet, updating the IPCC’s estimate of the 1.5°C carbon budget, from 2020 to 2023, and then drawing a straight line down from today’s total emissions to the point where all carbon emissions must cease, and without exceeding this budget, gives a zero CO₂ date of 2040.
Given it will take a few years to organise the necessary political structures and technical deployment, the date for eliminating all CO₂ emissions to remain within 1.5°C of warming comes closer still, to around the mid-2030s. This is a strikingly different level of urgency to that evoked by the IPCC’s “early 2050s”. Similar smoke and mirrors lie behind the “early 2070s” timeline the IPCC conjures for limiting global heating to 2°C.
IPCC science embeds colonial attitudes
For over two decades, the IPCC’s work on cutting emissions (what experts call “mitigation”) has been dominated by a particular group of modellers who use huge computer models to simulate what may happen to emissions under different assumptions, primarily related to price and technology. I’ve raised concerns before about how this select cadre, almost entirely based in wealthy, high-emitting nations, has undermined the necessary scale of emission reductions.
In 2023, I can no longer tiptoe around the sensibilities of those overseeing this bias. In my view, they have been as damaging to the agenda of cutting emissions as Exxon was in misleading the public about climate science. The IPCC’s mitigation report in 2022 did include a chapter on “demand, services and social aspects” as a repository for alternative voices, but these were reduced to an inaudible whisper in the latest report’s influential summary for policymakers.
The specialist modelling groups (referred to as Integrated Assessment Modelling, or IAMs) have successfully crowded out competing voices, reducing the task of mitigation to price-induced shifts in technology – some of the most important of which, like so-called “negative emissions technologies”, are barely out of the laboratory.
The IPCC offers many “scenarios” of future low-carbon energy systems and how we might get there from here. But as the work of academic Tejal Kanitkar and others has made clear, not only do these scenarios prefer speculative technology tomorrow over deeply challenging policies today (effectively a greenwashed business-as-usual), they also systematically embed colonial attitudes towards “developing nations”.
With few if any exceptions, they maintain current levels of inequality between developed and developing nations, with several scenarios actually increasing the levels of inequality. Granted, many IAM modellers strive to work objectively, but they do so within deeply subjective boundaries established and preserved by those leading such groups.
What happened to equity?
If we step outside the rarefied realm of IAM scenarios that leading climate scientist Johan Rockström describes as “academic gymnastics that have nothing to do with reality”, it’s clear that not exceeding 1.5°C or 2°C will require fundamental changes to most facets of modern life.
Starting now, to not exceed 1.5°C of warming requires 11% year-on-year cuts in emissions, falling to nearer 5% for 2°C. However, these global average rates ignore the core concept of equity, central to all UN climate negotiations, which gives “developing country parties” a little longer to decarbonise.
Include equity and most “developed” nations need to reach zero CO₂ emissions between 2030 and 2035, with developing nations following suit up to a decade later. Any delay will shrink these timelines still further.
Most IAM models ignore and often even exacerbate the obscene inequality in energy use and emissions, both within nations and between individuals. As the International Energy Agency recently reported, the top 10% of emitters accounted for nearly half of global CO₂ emissions from energy use in 2021, compared with 0.2% for the bottom 10%. More disturbingly, the greenhouse gas emissions of the top 1% are 1.5 times those of the bottom half of the world’s population.
So where does this leave us? In wealthier nations, any hope of arresting global heating at 1.5 or 2°C demands a technical revolution on the scale of the post-war Marshall Plan. Rather than relying on technologies such as direct air capture of CO₂ to mature in the near future, countries like the UK must rapidly deploy tried-and-tested technologies.
Retrofit housing stock, shift from mass ownership of combustion-engine cars to expanded zero-carbon public transport, electrify industries, build new homes to Passivhaus standard, roll-out a zero-carbon energy supply and, crucially, phase out fossil fuel production.
Three decades of complacency has meant technology on its own cannot now cut emissions fast enough. A second, accompanying phase, must be the rapid reduction of energy and material consumption.
Given deep inequalities, this, and deploying zero-carbon infrastructure, is only possible by re-allocating society’s productive capacity away from enabling the private luxury of a few and austerity for everyone else, and towards wider public prosperity and private sufficiency.
For most people, tackling climate change will bring multiple benefits, from affordable housing to secure employment. But for those few of us who have disproportionately benefited from the status quo, it means a profound reduction in how much energy we use and stuff we accumulate.
The question now is, will we high-consuming few make (voluntarily or by force) the fundamental changes needed for decarbonisation in a timely and organised manner? Or will we fight to maintain our privileges and let the rapidly changing climate do it, chaotically and brutally, for us?
What he said…
“Our wise and noble leaders have just concluded the 27th annual global climate conference known as COP27. They all seem jolly pleased with what they’d all decided to achieve including really very sincere commitment to work super-duper hard to put in place policy that would definitely address the idea of thinking about doing things that might contribute towards the possibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of maybe limiting global temperatures to only 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Then there were the 636 lobbyists—I mean delegates at COP27—representing the fossil fuel industry who reassured us all that increasing oil and gas exploration was actually an extremely important part of the transition toward achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.”
This is a submission on behalf of the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) on the Government’s Discussion Document Te Tātai utu o nā tukunga: Pricing Agricultural Emissions.
The submission responds to the schedule of questions included in the discussion document, reproduced in full with permission from Gary Taylor Chief Executive, Environmental Defence Society:
Question 1: Do you think modifications are required to the proposed farm-level levy system to ensure it delivers sufficient reductions in gross emissions from the agriculture sector? Please explain.
If farmers are to balk at the proposal as indicated by recent statements from Federated Farmers and others, and widespread non-compliance follows, then implementing a processor-level system would be a practical way forward. It is alarming how some farmers are signalling an unwillingness to comply with the rule of law. The farm-level option (which has benefits in sending price signals to individual famers) may therefore not be workable at least in the short term. Processors could develop their own incentive arrangements for their suppliers and some have experience in doing that already.
Question 2: Are tradeable methane quotas an option the Government should consider further in the future? Why?
There may be benefit in seeing the levy system as a transition to a cap and trade system. This means the levy system should be designed so that such a transition could occur. The cap should be set (and reviewed from time to time) by the Climate Change Commission (Commission) at the level that achieves the reduction targets. If Ministers were to make the decisions, then there should be transparent criteria in place, and they should be advised on the appropriate level by the Commission.
Question 3: Which option do you prefer for pricing agricultural emissions by 2025 and why?
A farm-level levy system, with fertiliser in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), would give individual farmers incentives to reduce emissions and reward those doing so. However, that may be an impractical option given that some farmers seem determined to not cooperate with any system. For that reason, we favour a pragmatic approach where pricing is set at the processor level, which would help avoid non-compliance. Processors could then develop incentives that would apply to their supplier cohort. There are also questions around whether a farm-level system could be developed in time.
Prices should be set either directly by the Commission, or if by Ministers, on the advice of the Commission and subject to transparent criteria.
Fertiliser should come under the ETS which would mean all fertiliser users are captured and the price signal applies across the sector.
Question 4: Do you support the proposed approach for reporting of emissions? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
Broadly yes but further work is needed to simplify the reporting system and ensure the obligations are proportional to the need.
Question 5: Do you support the proposed approach to setting levy prices? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
Price setting cannot be the responsibility of the sector itself. It must be independent and linked to the methane reductions required. As mentioned above, EDS favours this responsibility resting with the independent Commission (analogous to the Reserve Bank on interest rates). But if set by Ministers, then there should be clear decision-making criteria, and they should receive advice from the Commission. Further, the proposed ETS discount rates for long-lived gases are too generous given the persistent delays in bringing the sector into a pricing mechanism.
Question 6: Do you support the proposed approach to revenue recycling? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
Recycling revenue into finding new abatement approaches makes sense in theory, but the problem is that over $100m of public money has gone down that route since the early 2000s, with very little to show for it. If revenue is to go into research it needs to be to entities that offer prospect of deployment of real technologies into the field. Research criteria therefore need to focus on deployment.
The answer to emissions mitigation is to reduce land use intensity. Some compensation for that might also be needed given the farming sector has simply been following the economic signals to date. There is virtue in the model of low-impact pastoral farming with indigenous forestry, and recycling could support that kind of transition.
The big gap in the policy settings, at present, is the lack of strong and effective incentives for indigenous afforestation. Revenue recycling should be used to create such incentives, given the longer term sequestration and biodiversity benefits that would follow.
Further consideration should be given to whether revenue from the levy should also be used to support farmers needing assistance with adaptation crises on the farm (such as droughts and floods).
Question 7: Do you support the proposed approach for incentive payments to encourage additional emissions reductions? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
The price signals should be robust enough to incentivise the emission reductions required. Otherwise the sector is getting disproportional assistance / subsidies from the Government over other sectors.
Question 8: Do you support the proposed approach for recognising carbon sequestration from riparian plantings and management of indigenous vegetation, both in the short and long term? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
Two approaches are required here.
The first is to create a biodiversity incentive payment to support native forest and related plantings or regeneration. The proposed interim approach will achieve that, in part, but biodiversity enhancements need to be considered in the broader context and be designed to encourage and support native forest restoration at landscape scale.
The second is to ban permanent exotic carbon forests in the ETS.
The first approach can help support related government policies such as the National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity. The second would prevent widespread monocultures with their attendant adverse landscape impacts and fire and disease risks.
Question 9: Do you support the introduction of an interim processor-level levy in 2025 if the farm-level system is not ready? If not, what alternative would you propose to ensure agricultural emissions pricing starts in 2025?
Yes. In fact we think that should be the way forward in any event.
Question 10: Do you think the proposed system for pricing agricultural emissions is equitable, both within the agriculture sector, and across other sectors, and across New Zealand generally? Why and what changes to the system would be required to make it equitable?
It is time that the sector played its part in mitigating the impacts of climate change. It has got away with too much, for too long, and continuing taxpayer subsidy and support and the proposed incremental nature of the pricing obligations continue that approach. It is inequitable for the primary sector to be relying on others which are paying their way through the ETS.
With respect to Māori landowners, there may be a case for some interim support given they appear to be disproportionately impacted by the proposal. The best way to do that is to create a special category in the ETS for native forest regeneration and establishment that gives a long-term revenue stream as good as or better than permanent exotic carbon forests.
Question 11: In principle, do you think the agricultural sector should pay for any shortfall in its emissions reductions? If so, do you think using levy revenue would be an appropriate mechanism for this?
Yes and that calculation should be made by the Commission.
Question 12: What impacts or implications do you foresee as a result of each of the Government’s proposals in the short and long term?
Unless the Government’s proposals are enacted, we see widespread planting of permanent exotic carbon forests and rural non-compliance with the law. There will be some emission reductions, but the sector will continue to hold out on meeting its fair share, as it has since 2002. The climate will continue to warm with consequent droughts, floods and sea-level rise and farmers will continue to hold out their hands for Government support when impacted.
Question 13: What steps should the Crown be taking to protect relevant iwi and Māori interests, in line with Te Tiriti o Waitangi? How should the Crown support Māori land owners, farmers and growers in a pricing system?
By changing the pricing incentives to favour permanent native forests over permanent exotic ones. Māori landowners have indicated a preference for natives but the pricing incentives are going the wrong way.
Question 14: Do you support the proposed approach for verification, compliance and enforcement? Why, and what improvements should be considered?
Question 15: Do you have any other priority issues that you would like to share on the Government’s proposals for addressing agricultural emissions?
The glaring gap is the absence of the right pricing incentives to encourage native forest restoration that would lead to a virtuous mixed land use in which native forests offset some on-farm emissions over time.
It comes as no surprise. Following COP 26, in December last year it was evident that the carbon budget to stay under 1.5C already was bankrupt. Some simple arithmetic clearly demonstrated that.
Since COP26, the ‘Don’t-Look-Up’ mentality, or perhaps the ‘war-in-Ukraine’ and ‘post-Covid-economy’ have become diversionary topics. The latest UN GAP Report begins with a clear admission, and an admonition. Nations have shaved just 1% off their projected greenhouse gas emissions for 2030, at a time when reductions need to be 45% to have even a chance to keep temperatures under 1.5C. In short, there is no credible no credible pathway in which global temperatures under that 2.8C, and “...uncertainties in the climate system mean that warming of up to 4C cannot be fully ruled out.”
These uncertainties are the dangerous tipping points explained in more detail on this website.
If you’re not up to reading the full report, Carbon Brief has an in depth analysis. While the report also offers solutions, the window is closing on fingernails barely clinging to the sill.
“Every year, the negative impacts of climate change become more intense. Every year, they bring more misery and pain to hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Every year, they become more a problem of the here and now, as well as a warning of tougher consequences to come. We are in a climate emergency.
“And still, as UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2022 shows, nations procrastinate. Since COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, new and updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) have barely impacted the temperatures we can expect to see at the end of this century.
“This year’s report tells us that unconditional NDCs point to a 2.6°C increase in temperatures by 2100, far beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement. Existing policies point to a 2.8°C increase, highlighting a gap between national commitments and the efforts to enact those commitments. In the best- case scenario, full implementation of conditional NDCs, plus additional net zero commitments, point to a 1.8°C rise. However, this scenario is currently not credible.
“To get on track to limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we would need to cut 45 per cent off current greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. For 2°C, we would need to cut 30 per cent. A stepwise approach is no longer an option. We need system-wide transformation. This report tells us how to go about such a transformation. It looks in-depth at the changes needed in electricity supply, industry, transport, buildings and food systems. It looks at how to reform financial systems so that these urgent transformations can be adequately financed.
“Is it a tall order to transform our systems in just eight years? Yes. Can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by so much in that timeframe? Perhaps not. But we must try. Every fraction of a degree matters: to vulnerable communities, to species and ecosystems, and to every one of us. Most importantly, we will still be setting up a carbon-neutral future: one that will allow us to bring down temperature overshoots and deliver other benefits, like clean air.
“The world is facing other crises. We must deal with them. But let us remember that they also offer opportunities to reform our global economy. We have missed the opportunity to invest in a low-carbon recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we are in danger of missing the opportunity to boost clean and efficient energy as a response to the energy crisis. Instead of missing such opportunities, we must capitalize on them with confidence.
“I urge every nation and every community to pore over the solutions offered in this report, build them into their NDCs and implement them. I urge everyone in the private sector to start reworking their practices. I urge every investor to put their capital towards a net-zero world. The transformation begins now. ”
This is fast emerging as a critical issue for billions of people. As part of its week-long series on the topic, Carbon Brief hosted a free webinar (video below) on whether it is likely to be the defining issue at the next round of UN climate talks, COP27.
See this interactive article: Should developed nations pay for ‘loss and damage’ from climate change?
It comes after Carbon Brief published this interactive article ‘Should developed nations pay for ‘loss and damage’ from climate change? addressing the key questions surrounding loss and damage, a timeline detailing how the issue has featured at UN talks, a feature profiling victims of “non-economic loss and damage”, and an article asking various stakeholders to comment on how it links to climate justice.
“In a landmark decision, a United Nations committee on Friday found Australia’s former Coalition government violated the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to adequately respond to the climate crisis.”
This decision sets a precedent that has direct implications for Aoteora. For the first time:
“Significantly, deep Indigenous cultural and ecological knowledge, rather than Western climate science, proved key to this UN decision. This marks a departure from broad international climate politics where Indigenous laws, cultures, knowledges and practices are often sidelined or underrepresented.”
“The Torres Strait Islanders ‘Group of Eight’ claimed Australia failed to take measures such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and upgrading seawalls on the islands. The UN upheld the complaint and said the claimants should be compensated.
“This decision is a breakthrough in Indigenous rights and climate justice, including by opening up new pathways for Indigenous communities – who are often on the frontline of the climate crisis – to defend their rights.
“The Albanese government, which has stated its commitment to work with the Torres Strait on climate change, must now meet this moment of possibility and challenge.
“…The evidence was backed by findings from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which called for urgent action to protect the vulnerable region.