Southerly by David Haywood

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Southerly: A Tale of Two Iceblocks: Part 1 (Or How Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in New Zealand Can Cause Us To Do the Wrong Thing)

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  • Bart Janssen,

    So back a few decades scientists figured out we were screwing up our atmosphere by emitting CFCs which were destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere and if we did nothing we'd all be fried to a crisp - actually we'd starve first because our crops would die.

    The solution was to ban the use of CFCs - which worked - this year saw the ozone hole decrease in size!!!

    Recently some other scientists figured out we were screwing up our atmosphere by emitting too much CO2 and methane and if we did nothing we'd all drown as the sea levels rose but again we'd probably starve to death first because all our crops would die.

    In a rational world we'd have banned high carbon emitting activities and solved the problem. But this time we let some accountants into the room and they came up with all these exciting formulas and theories about how they could use economics to solve the problem.

    The result is your popsicle problem. I'd argue that the solution is not to come up with more accountancy but instead to build a big spaceship and tell all the accountants and economists to hop onto it and the rest of us will be along shortly.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • John Farrell, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Telephone sanitisers as well?

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 499 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    But this time we let some accountants into the room and they came up with all these exciting formulas and theories about how they could use economics to solve the problem.

    I'm going to talk about Australia because it's easier for me. NZ *had* an almost entirely renewable electricity system, but some people decided that burning fossil fuels was important.

    We also get absurdities like Australia producing huge amounts of coal, but since it's largely exported as coal it doesn't count as greenhouse gas emissions. But when Australia stupidly burns the stuff to make iron, steel or aluminium, that counts as emissions. When the end product is sold, that doesn't count as emissions at all, per David's original point. It's all bullshit (economics) IMO.

    One of the many worst parts of it is that Australia has plans made and costed by at least three different groups including one commissioned by Treasury to shift to a 100% renewable electricity system. Technically it's all straightforward, the net benefit depends on assumptions about prices (to get it to cost money you can't just ignore the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation, you have to assume that solar will revert to 1970's pricing or we'll be able to buy second-hand coal plants from China for next to nothing or some other hand-wavy nonsense)

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1233 posts Report Reply

  • Moz,

    You know, let's just focus on measuring the scale of the problem for now, shall we.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1233 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    In a rational world we’d have banned high carbon emitting activities and solved the problem. But this time we let some accountants into the room and they came up with all these exciting formulas and theories about how they could use economics to solve the problem.

    The result is your popsicle problem. I’d argue that the solution is not to come up with more accountancy but instead to build a big spaceship and tell all the accountants and economists to hop onto it and the rest of us will be along shortly.

    Well I certainly have some sympathy for your viewpoint, Bart.

    The big difference between the ozone and GHG issues are that we had R134a and the R4xx group – replacements for R12 and R22, etc. that could be dropped into existing refrigeration systems (and new refrigeration equipment optimized to use them) as they needed to be recharged.

    Alas that – obviously – you can’t just drop sunlight and wind as replacement fuels in a coal thermal plant (or even to directly replace coal thermal plants with wind and solar). So there are billions upon billions of dollars of equipment and grid connections worldwide that can’t be replaced quickly or easily. Not to mention transport infrastructure and so on and so on…

    So you have to have a gradual transition; and that’s where the bean-counting comes in – to allow civilization to make the transition in the least disruptive manner (theoretically).

    The problem, of course, is that everyone is attempting to follow the old ACT climate change policy mentioned up-thread, i.e. attempting to freeload off others. And if everyone is attempting to freeload off everyone else then nothing actually happens at all.

    POSTSCRIPT: Ironically, the ozone savior R134a is a potent GHG. My prof in the late 1990s saw this coming and had me develop a near-ambient temperature Stirling-cycle refrigerator that used air as the refrigerant. Didn’t catch on obviously – the solution was a better refrigerant (HFO-1234yf) that could be used in current systems.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Moz,

    We also get absurdities like Australia producing huge amounts of coal, but since it’s largely exported as coal it doesn’t count as greenhouse gas emissions. But when Australia stupidly burns the stuff to make iron, steel or aluminium, that counts as emissions. When the end product is sold, that doesn’t count as emissions at all, per David’s original point. It’s all bullshit (economics) IMO..

    It's all a bit amazing isn't it? The weird thing is that I've tried to explain all this to (some of) the people doing the numbers and they don't get it. And I'm afraid that when I read those well-intentioned policy suggestions for emissions trading schemes and straight carbon taxes on fossil fuels (only) and... well, I just feel like weeping.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to David Haywood,

    I just feel like weeping

    that's the tragedy of the co₂mmons for you.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1942 posts Report Reply

  • Martin Roberts,

    Your criteria 2 and 3 are within our own power, but I like your idea of approximating the 1st criteria with an import levy. The politics of applying a suitable price without succumbing to accusations of trade barriers could be tricky. Even if you had to concede say 10% undercharging on imports then that would probably be big enough.

    Another angle would be to organise international pricing for certain products. Then we wouldn't have to refund the PGST on exports. Fonterra's website suggests that 7 countries produced 84% of dairy exports in 2014. Could we stitch up a deal with them? Has anybody even thought of trying?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 93 posts Report Reply

  • Martin Roberts,

    Does anybody have carbon costs for refrigerated shipping, btw? I know it's beside the point, but numbers are fun. My wife would also be happy to add that data to her household footprint spreadsheet.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 93 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen, in reply to David Haywood,

    I think it's recognised that the Kyoto Protocol (and therefore the ETS) doesn't make any sense if there are parts of the world outside the system. China does at least report its emissions under the UNFCCC, so we do get to see the ice block manufacturing emissions even if they don't enter an accounting system.
    Shifting everything to a point of consumption would be interesting - we could sheet home most of those livestock methane emissions to someone else. The flip side is that the plantation forests that have offset over one-third of our gross emissions for the last 25 years have mostly been grown for someone else too. (One of the proposed accounting approaches did allow us to claim credit for sequestration by trees here, while making the wood product end-users in our export markets liable for emissions at the end of the product lifetime. Great for a country with a small population and big net exports. Naturally none of the heavies at the negotiating table were keen to join NZ in pushing for that option).

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 254 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    When I lived in Woolston by the railway line I would hear the coal trains rumbling past to Lyttelton, then rattling back empty. I used to ponder how peculiar it was to dig up bits of ground on the West Coast and load them on a train going across the island (and THROUGH a mountain), then load them on a ship and send them for vast distances across the ocean to India and China. How is that even viable?!

    Without the discovery of fossil fuels, we wouldn’t have had the Industrial Revolution and the vast technological innovations that followed it. Fossil-fuel energy is so cheap to extract; it’s hard for us to grasp that the true cost is deferred. And not only deferred, but distributed freely: through the air and water that recognise no national boundaries. Are we grown-up enough to work together to save ourselves?

    The ETS is clearly not ideal even if all countries use it. Arrrgh.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    I imagine a Gary Larson drawing of alien scientists viewing post global-climate-change Earth and crossing "Big brains" off their list of "Good ideas".

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Lilith __,

    ...then load them on a ship and send them for vast distances across the ocean to India and China. How is that even viable?!

    Economists know things that physicists and climate scientists don't. For example, in India and China there are these magic chimneys. Whatever travels up those somehow manages to emerge with zero emissions.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4593 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __,

    I don't claim to understand how it works, but there is a process for making steel without coke or carbon emissions.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3891 posts Report Reply

  • M Thomas, in reply to David Haywood,

    If you rode a bicycle in Las Vegas then you have me (partially) to thank for not having to wear a helmet.

    How so?

    Auckland • Since Jul 2016 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Lilith __,

    I don’t claim to understand how it works, but there is a process for making steel without coke or carbon emissions.

    Yes, I've been following this development (Sadoway is one of the rock stars of the materials science world). It works by using electrical energy as the input to split the oxygen off iron oxide -- just the same way that you can use electrical energy as the input to split the oxygen off water (to produce hydrogen). It's actually an old idea but no-one had previously been able to design a cost effective anode that could survive the high temperatures in molten metal.

    You can bet that I was emailing people at Glenbrook when news broke...

    As an aside, there is also a method whereby you can use electrolysis to make cement -- thus avoiding nearly all the CO2 emissions. But alas it doesn't seem to be economic at the moment.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Martin Roberts,

    Another angle would be to organise international pricing for certain products. Then we wouldn’t have to refund the PGST on exports. Fonterra’s website suggests that 7 countries produced 84% of dairy exports in 2014. Could we stitch up a deal with them? Has anybody even thought of trying?

    The politics of this is way out of my field of expertise, but my thinking is that we should do both – and that having an internal system (within NZ) already would be a good bargaining chip to bring to any negotiations.

    Ultimately a system of international GHG traceability on goods and services would solve numerous problems. This would work in a similar manner to the documentation that you get when you buy an engineering product such as steel i.e. a certificate showing the exact composition.

    A manufacturer (or rather an independent certification body) would get the embodied GHG off the certification for their raw materials and then add that up to get the total embodied GHG in their manufactured product. This would go on their own documentation to pass on to the next company in the manufacturing chain. This way we’d know the embodied GHG in any good or service to a high degree of accuracy and could enact policy to reduce use & encourage GHG reduction.

    Unfortunately, in a similar manner to the certification of steel, there would be an incentive at every step for manufacturers to cheat the system.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Martin Roberts,

    Does anybody have carbon costs for refrigerated shipping, btw? I know it’s beside the point, but numbers are fun.

    I can't point you to anything recent (my post-earthquake attempts to keep up with the literature have been very tightly focussed), but you'll probably find something in Prof Saunders's body of work (below from 2007):

    https://researcharchive.lincoln.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10182/144/aeru_rr_297.pdf?sequence=1

    There's also the National Inventory Reports from the MFE, which contain loads of useful information:

    http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/climate-change/new-zealands-greenhouse-gas-inventory-1990-2013

    You might also be interested in this report from the Motu people:

    Greenhouse Gas Emissions in New Zealand: A Preliminary Consumption-Based Analysis

    Alas -- as with so many people -- the authors of the above report can't write an abstract (they somehow believe that they're writing a suspense novel instead), but it's a very interesting read, nevertheless.

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to M Thomas,

    How so?

    Oh Lord, why did I mention this (an even touchier subject than anthropogenic climate change)…

    So one of the state legislators in Nevada was keen on encouraging cycling in Las Vegas so as to reduce fossil fuel consumption, local emissions, traffic congestion, etc. as well as the public health issue of fighting obesity, etc.

    As part of the deal they thought that compulsory (or mandatory, as they say over there) cycle helmets would be a good idea. Unlike the NZ parliament they decided to do some research before enacting the legislation (unusually the NZ parliament didn’t do this when they passed our cycle helmet laws).

    I merely pointed out that there was no evidence that compulsory cycle helmets in NZ had encouraged non-sport cycle use. Also that for adults it appeared to have made no statistical difference to the head injury rate per kilometre of travel by cycle. To my surprise they literally went: “Oh okay, we won’t do that then.” And that was it.

    This was all some time ago and I don’t have the details of the literature that I consulted at my fingertips (nor do I want to derail the discussion of GHG accounting, of course).

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Lilith __,

    coasting to barbarism...

    Are we grown-up enough to work together to save ourselves?

    ...and there lies the tipping point question for humanity's choices 'going forward' - it dwells at the heart of 'Trump or Clinton?', 'National or Labour/Greens'?, 'Help or Hinder?'...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7950 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to David Haywood,

    “Oh okay, we won’t do that then.”

    Las Vegas is a town built on betting, especially when the odds are stacked towards the 'House'.

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7950 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Ian Dalziel,

    Las Vegas is a town built on betting, especially when the odds are stacked towards the ‘House’.

    That may explain it!

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to David Haywood,

    Alas that – obviously – you can’t just drop sunlight and wind as replacement fuels in a coal thermal plant (or even to directly replace coal thermal plants with wind and solar). So there are billions upon billions of dollars of equipment and grid connections worldwide that can’t be replaced quickly or easily. Not to mention transport infrastructure and so on and so on…

    Which is all true. We could not have switched instantly. But we could have said we need to switch as fast as we can so here's how long it takes to replace powerplants with hydro/solar/wind/nuclear, we stop building any more coal and gas plants at all and everyone has this long to replace their transport fleets with mass transit and electric.

    The engineers and science wonks could have come up with numbers for reasonable timeframes and got it done. By now we'd be worldwide all renewable.

    Instead we got an economic solution that would encourage everyone to change behaviour. The outcome was we got a bunch of politicians and lawyers and accountants who combined to figure out how to subvert the system and now we still have all those coal and gas powerplants and most of the world transport is still powered by gasoline and our atmosphere is getting worse all the time. The lesson is economic solutions don't work, someone always cheats.

    There is nothing about the economist's solution that has worked. And yet we still let the accountants and economists into the room whereas it's clear the only time they should be allowed into the room is to deliver the coffee and doughnuts.

    While I understand the point of your popsicle example, that the economics is wrong, I disagree with the solution.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to ,

    To bloody right, helmets law has no place in science or accountancy.

    Next you'll be asking us to believe in statistics

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • David Haywood, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    While I understand the point of your popsicle example, that the economics is wrong, I disagree with the solution.

    Thank you for expanding on your earlier comment, Bart.

    I don't think we disagree on the solution: I agree that the best solution would be a binding global agreement as per the ozone depletion response.

    Given that such a global agreement appears impossible in the near future, I think the next best thing is to reduce New Zealand's genuine GHG emissions -- but making sure we do so in a manner that also reduces global GHG emissions (i.e. that doesn't cause an even bigger problem elsewhere).

    That being said I don't think we should give up on working towards a binding global agreement.

    This may be a case of engineer's pragmatism vs. scientist's idealism...

    Dunsandel • Since Nov 2006 • 1156 posts Report Reply

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