Total national emissions not the point

Martin Hanson

COLUMN

I am grateful to Gordon Webb for his comments on my column “Are governments serious about climate change?”, partly for giving me the opportunity to clarify his misunderstanding of New Zealand’s and China’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also because he set me off on a train of thought that has clarified my own thinking.

Gordon’s statement that “we are not statistically part of the problem” because we emit “roughly 0.17 percent of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions” is seriously misleading. Total national emissions are not the point — figures for China are far higher than for New Zealand because there are far more people in China.

The only two meaningful yardsticks are emissions per capita and emissions per unit of GDP, and on both of these, New Zealand is widely reported to be among the top half dozen emitters.

But it’s not as simple as this; even these two measures are misleading. If goods produced in each country stayed in that country, such comparisons might be valid, but they usually don’t. China’s industrial energy expenditure is largely used in the manufacture of goods for export, of which New Zealand is a consumer. Realistically therefore, the CO2 China produces in manufacturing the goods we import from it should be included in the accounting of our emissions and deducted from those of China.

But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; to be consistent, it could equally be argued that greenhouse gases emitted in New Zealand’s production of meat and dairy produce that is eaten in other countries should be deducted from our emissions and added to the emissions of those other countries.

All of which suggests it’s more complex than either Gordon or I had realised.

As to his first paragraph, such is industrial society’s total dependence on fossil fuels, I doubt if anyone can claim to be independent of them, but some people do try harder than others.

Though I use my small car relatively little, I admit I could do more; it could be argued, for example, that I should have purchased a trailer for my bicycle so that I can do my shopping without using my car. I do, however, minimise my use of my car by, as often as I can, combining the few trips I do make.

I do, however, eat no meat or dairy produce, and I don’t take holidays overseas, and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gratuitously blatant as to go jet skiing or support competitive motorsport by attending such functions.

Finally, I note that Gordon makes no statement about his position on global warming. Does he accept the view of the overwhelming majority of actively researching climate scientists that it is real, anthropogenic, and serious? It would help discussion if he were to state his position on the issue.

If any future archaeologists study our civilisation’s binge on fossil fuels, they may come to regard it as a Faustian bargain in which we traded the amazing benefits of cheap, abundant energy for the price of our own extinction.

I am grateful to Gordon Webb for his comments on my column “Are governments serious about climate change?”, partly for giving me the opportunity to clarify his misunderstanding of New Zealand’s and China’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also because he set me off on a train of thought that has clarified my own thinking.

Gordon’s statement that “we are not statistically part of the problem” because we emit “roughly 0.17 percent of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions” is seriously misleading. Total national emissions are not the point — figures for China are far higher than for New Zealand because there are far more people in China.

The only two meaningful yardsticks are emissions per capita and emissions per unit of GDP, and on both of these, New Zealand is widely reported to be among the top half dozen emitters.

But it’s not as simple as this; even these two measures are misleading. If goods produced in each country stayed in that country, such comparisons might be valid, but they usually don’t. China’s industrial energy expenditure is largely used in the manufacture of goods for export, of which New Zealand is a consumer. Realistically therefore, the CO2 China produces in manufacturing the goods we import from it should be included in the accounting of our emissions and deducted from those of China.

But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; to be consistent, it could equally be argued that greenhouse gases emitted in New Zealand’s production of meat and dairy produce that is eaten in other countries should be deducted from our emissions and added to the emissions of those other countries.

All of which suggests it’s more complex than either Gordon or I had realised.

As to his first paragraph, such is industrial society’s total dependence on fossil fuels, I doubt if anyone can claim to be independent of them, but some people do try harder than others.

Though I use my small car relatively little, I admit I could do more; it could be argued, for example, that I should have purchased a trailer for my bicycle so that I can do my shopping without using my car. I do, however, minimise my use of my car by, as often as I can, combining the few trips I do make.

I do, however, eat no meat or dairy produce, and I don’t take holidays overseas, and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gratuitously blatant as to go jet skiing or support competitive motorsport by attending such functions.

Finally, I note that Gordon makes no statement about his position on global warming. Does he accept the view of the overwhelming majority of actively researching climate scientists that it is real, anthropogenic, and serious? It would help discussion if he were to state his position on the issue.

If any future archaeologists study our civilisation’s binge on fossil fuels, they may come to regard it as a Faustian bargain in which we traded the amazing benefits of cheap, abundant energy for the price of our own extinction.

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Gordon Webb - 7 days ago
I think Martin Hanson has some daft ideas. Suppose you have a 10 litre pail and want to fill it with water. You use three equally-sized hoses each operating at different flow rates. Surely the hose flowing at the faster rate contributes the greatest volume in filling the bucket. Most science teachers would acknowledge that. Likewise it is the total volume of the nasties that are emitted skyward that we should be worried about. New Zealand is not responsible for very much at all of the problem. It really is not very helpful to get into a blame game about how much greenhouse gas is produced and where the consequences of it are consumed. The nations of this planet are unlikely to even be able to agree on where to meet to begin discussing this aspect. But that aside, I still don't know what you want me and the rest of our country to do that will make a meaningful dent in planet Earth's total greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, and to really get you going, my last reading suggested that New Zealand was pretty much carbon neutral and that if the goodies that the pre-1990 forest canopy produced were measured, we would be in credit.

Baz Davies - 7 days ago
Dear Sir.
I had to laugh at Martin Hanson's statement that Gisborne Speedway enthusiasts were giving the middle finger to the global warming problem and to their grandchildren's future with the opening of the speedway season. A rather over-the-top viewpoint.
In his defence, he did make a later point of stating that he only drives a small car and doesn't eat meat. No doubt every truck driver, hill and dairy farmer, forestry contractor, fisher, car owner and industrialist in Gisborne is also presenting the middle finger and cares nothing about their children's future. Absolute rubbish.
Half the world's population eats rice. The growing of rice produces 20 percent of man-made global methane emissions and this figure will rise with the growing population. After carbon dioxide, methane is the second major contributor towards climate change. China produces the most rice globally.
Coal use accounts for a further 20 percent of total global gas emissions. China is the leading user of coal with a growing 3.8 million tonnes burnt every year.
As a prolific writer, along with Bob Hughes, Martin must know that the pulp and paper industry in NZ produces a percentage of both water and airborne pollution. This may well be an uncomfortable truth for a newsprint writer but in a small way they are also contributing towards climate change.
A good idea would be for both Martin and Bob to start writing about climate change in Chinese and having their prose published in Chinese papers. Lecturing China about their shocking contributions towards our extinction on a weekly basis would be far more relevant than attacking a Speedway club for what really amounts to a small bit of flatulence in a very strong methane and coal gas gale from China.
Your faithfully
Baz Davies