Are we doing enough? How much time do we have left?
(Image: Monika Kubala)
Are we doing enough?
- We have run out of time to avoid some worsening climate impacts over the coming decades.
- New Zealand is one of the worst-performing countries, ranking 44th out of 45 of the world’s Industrialised countries (Annex 1). We’re using more than six times our fair share of the carbon emissions budget that would keep global temperature increases below 1.5°C.
- New Zealand’s pledges under the Paris Accord won’t even help keep global temperatures under 2°C (Figs. 1 & 2). Globally, we are on track to reach 3-5°C.
- New Zealand’s agricultural sector produces 47.8% of our emissions but are exempt from the emissions trading scheme until 2025, and even then at a 95% discount, propped up by taxpayer dollars.
- The Emissions Trading Scheme to plant trees makes it more financially lucrative to plant forestry timber rather than regenerate native forests (Fig. 3).
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 might have given the world a 63% chance of staying below 2°C of global average temperature rise, and a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C. This is the threshold associated with the most dangerous climate threats and what was agreed by most countries at the time. These risky odds do not include most feedback loops and non-linear (i.e. irreversable) tipping points.
Covid-19 emissions reductions has made no difference, indeed a staggering 5-billion-tonne gab in the carbon budget is identified: some countries are under-accounting how much they are emitting and/or drawing down through forestry.
“The world is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century – far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.” – UN Emissions Gap Report, 09 December 2020
We have run out of time to return our climate to the stability that our global civilization enjoyed for the past several thousand years. We must cut net emissions to limit the magnitude of impacts. The faster we can do this, the more we can save, and the less we will lose—for ourselves and our children’s futures.
“The time is now, Ināia tonu nei, to lead the change we want to see and to remain steadfast to the values that underpin our nationhood—values like whanaungatanga, kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga.” – Climate Change Commission 2021
“The idea of planting trees in vast areas to remove carbon dioxide from the air and reduce the impact of climate change, for example, has attracted a lot of attention, with some claiming it’s the best “low-hanging fruit” approach to pursue, McElwee said. But large-scale tree planting could conflict directly with food security because both compete for available land. It could also diminish biodiversity, if fast-growing exotic trees replace native habitat.” – Rutgers University, 2020
Run out of time
The climate takes time to react to changes in the atmospheric chemistry (that is, more greenhouse gasses). Today, we have passed 1.2°C and yet we are only feeling the effects of greenhouse gasses that were released into the atmosphere decades ago. Temperatures will continue to increase, and ice caps will continue to melt for decades to come. However, the more we can limit how much we continue to add to the atmosphere, the less painful our futures will be.
“We have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We are going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” – John Holdren, US Office of Science and Technology Policy
Net emissions means gross greenhouse gas emissions (‘spending’ carbon) from all industrial activities, burning fossil fuels for energy, and agriculture, minus carbon sinks (‘saving’ carbon) from forestry, changing agricultural to improve soils, and regenerating natural ecosystems. However, instead of declining, global emissions continue to increase each year. Covid-19 resulted in a minor reduction in emissions in 2020. However, emissions were being under-reported by a staggering 5-billion tonnes annually. Moreover, agriculture emissions in New Zealand and elsewhere were not reduced, manufacturing in China has resurged, and dangerous tipping points are being breached, which means natural carbon sinks are now becoming sources of methane and carbon dioxide.
References and further reading
- 2021: Ināia tonu nei:a low emissions future for Aotearoa – Advice to the New Zealand Government on its first three emissions budgets and direction for its emissions reduction plan 2022 – 2025, Climate Change Commission
- 2021: Grassi et al; Critical adjustment of land mitigation pathways for assessing countries’ climate progress, Nature Climate Change 881
- 2020: A safe operating space for New Zealand/Aotearoa:Translating the planetary boundaries framework; Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
- 2020: United Nations Emissions Gap Report
- Climate Action Tracker: New Zealand
- Ministry for the Environment: About New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets
- 2020: McElwee et al; The impact of interventions in the global land and agri‐food sectors on Nature’s Contributions to People and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Global Change Biology 12 June, 2020
- Rutgers University interview with the authors: How to tackle climate change, food security and land degradation
- 2020: Gibson; New Zealand’s Paris target too weak for 1.5C – official advice to Govt; Stuff.co.nz
- 2019: Tollefson; The hard truths of climate change—by the numbers Nature special report
- 2015: The Paris Accord
- IPCC: Special Report – Global Warming of 1.5°C