Pacific Institute of Resource Management
advisory board

Submissions to New Zealand Government

Return to submissions list


Good news amongst great concern about climate

The Pacific Institute of Resource Management (PIRM) has been involved for some years in writing submissions and advocating urgent action on climate change. The most recent submission was to Ministry for the Environment in May 1999. We are delighted about this climate consultation initiative by government to involve the New Zealand community in the climate issue. A community that understands the threats to life that we now face is much better equipped to transform and survive in a healthy, coordinated way than one that is ill-informed. It is also good news to hear that the New Zealand government has indicated at last that it will ratify the Kyoto Protocol in September 2002.

It is vitally important that New Zealand does ratify the protocol along with the other 160 countries who agreed in Morocco in November 2001 to set mandatory targets to reduce warming emissions. The latest report from the IPPC shows that global temperatures are rising faster and higher than experts feared with temperatures projected to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8°C by the end of this century. The fact that 5°C is the difference between an Ice Age and the present, more cosy conditions in which our civilization developed 10,000 years ago makes those 1.4 - 5.8°C figures alarming, as does the speed with which the rise is occurring. As co-ordinating lead author of the IPPC's Third Assessment Report and biologist Stephen Schneider from Stanford University in the US says: "A degree or two temperature change is not a trivial number in global terms, as it usually takes nature hundreds of thousands of years to bring it about on her own…" (Global Warming, Stephen H Schneider) Ecosystems will be affected by the speed of change as well as the magnitude of warming. And equally important - a rise in temperature of just 4°C will give the earth a climate that it last had 40 million years ago, long before humans evolved. Below is a graph that identifies the dramatic nature of the change in climate.

TIME 40 million years ago 20,000 years ago 6000 years ago to 1800 AD 1900 AD 2000 AD 2100 AD (projected)
CO2 IN AIR c. 600 ppm c. 200 ppm 280 ppm 300 ppm 368 ppm 560 ppm
GLOBAL TEMP SHIFT FROM 1900 c. +4°C c. -5°C 0°C 0°C +0.6°C +1.4°C to 5.8°C
(Source: Greenhouse: coping with climate change: Bouma, Pearson & Manning (eds), CSIRO Publishing, 1996, updated from IPCC 2001, Report of Working Party 1)


This big increase (1.4 -5.8°) in the projection of severe climate change revises dramatically the range of predictions on global warming so far. It is precisely because responsible scientists cannot rule out the possibility of catastrophic outcomes that the predictions for warming have been revised upwards to 5.8° for the next 100 years. What level will the government aim its efforts to reduce warming emissions and CO2 particularly? This is the most important global warming gas to reduce since it lasts much longer in the atmosphere than methane, yet the consultation document scarcely mentions CO2 emissions.

Unless adequate measures are taken this century to mitigate climate change, future societies will be unable to deal with the consequences, climate experts say.

Professor Stephen Schneider, biologist of Stanford University, USA and lead author of IPCC reports and Michael M. Mastrandrea, Dept of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, say that unless plans are made this century to incorporate sufficient measures to reduce warming emissions - such as a CO2 tax at an effective level - severe consequences in the future will be unavoidable for both ecological and human systems. Societies next century would be unable to halt the complexity and abruptness of the damage.

"Following a path with little near-term abatement until after uncertainty about the occurrence is resolved … could make it impossible to prevent those damages from occurring, once they are identified, " say Michael D. Mastrandrea and Stephen Schneider, co-ordinating lead author of Chapter One of the International Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report.

In the article, "Integrated assessment of abrupt climatic change," (in press for Elsevier) Schneider and Mastrandrea explain that the early models for predicting effects for human-induced climate change have assumed it will happen in a smooth, gradual way and policies developed to meet this perception have done little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However this assumption of gradual climate change does not take into account the complexity of biological systems and the fact that abrupt climate change has been observed in the climate record.

"The translation of gradual warming into climate change damage omits a significant source of potential climate damage - abrupt non-linear climate changes. If climate changes are smooth then the capacity of society to adapt is higher. Changes that are gradual and more foreseeable lead to lower damages compared to very rapid change such as unanticipated events or 'surprises.' Many large-scale environmental systems have been shown to possess multiple equilibria and the potential to switch rapidly between them, as well as hysteresis behaviour. (Higgins et al, 2001).

"One example is the multiple stable equilibria of the thermohaline circulation (THC) of the North Atlantic, creating the possibility of rapid and irreversible (in the near term) ocean circulation change with significant detrimental effects." Climate models are now showing abrupt, non-linear responses, in particular the weakening or collapse of the thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic that warms northern Europe by as much as 10°C. Such abrupt non-linear changes could rapidly change the rate of temperature increase in as little as a decade, could cause regional surface temperatures to alter much more rapidly than global averages, or could even produce a regional decrease while the rest of the world warms," the paper says. Models also now suggest that this circulation is sensitive to both the level at which greenhouse gases are stabilized in the future and also to the rate at which such concentrations develop in the atmosphere (Stocker and Schmittner, 1997)

"Because of geophysical processes, changes in THC overturning, lag by many decades behind the CO2 emissions that cause them. Thus damages from THC changes are pushed far into the future."


Earlier climate models lacked internal dynamics. The new Integrated Assessment Models couple social and natural systems of climate and ocean with the human economy. The research is showing that choices made now by governments and implemented over the 21st century will crucially affect the future - 100 years hence. Unless measures take into consideration not just mean global temperature rise, but rapid, non-linear change of the THC, they will be insufficient to slow down the rise in emissions of CO2 and prevent devastating effects in 100 years time.


However, if there is responsiveness to this potential, the carbon tax, will be increased substantially - starting at $US61/tC in 2000 and rising to $US453/tC in 2200 - preventing full collapse of the THC. A THC collapse can occur even when substantial mitigation measures are adopted, if these measures are insufficient to prevent crossing a threshold. So only when the potential damages of an abrupt climate change are internalised into the models and policies is it likely that mitigation measures will increase sufficiently to prevent a collapse. As well, the search for "robust strategies" based on acting and learning over time rather than acting with perfect foresight may not be able to prevent abrupt events if there is no explicit account for threshold-crossing possibilities.

"Research suggests a THC collapse could be effectively irreversible on civilization time scale.(Rahmstorf, 1999) Subsequently any THC collapse would persist long after natural sinks (or deliberate sequestration activities as well) remove anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, leaving Europe considerably cooler (by as much as 10°C) than under present conditions. Under such conditions the sustainability of European sector economic activities and natural amenities could be radically different than during the enhanced greenhouse era anticipated for the next several centuries in most IPPC scenarios. Society 400-500 years into the future would likely have to live with the consequences of decisions made now if the decisions cause a THC collapse."

As Schneider and Mastrandrea observe, the ethical legitimacy of actions taken this century through calculating an "optimal" path for the "economy" in the face of such dramatic possibilities of irreversible future "legacies" should create a wider debate.


There are four priorities:

set a price for emitting carbon that ensures Protocol targets are met
  as mentioned above

make funds available for investment in energy efficiency and clean

regulate sectors where an economic instrument would have little effect

establish full carbon accounting before any "sink credits" are used

Setting a Price Making it more expensive to pollute will encourage emitters to adopt more environmentally friendly production methods by either reducing energy consumption through efficiency gains or switching to renewable energy sources. With NZ's CO2 emissions increasing 25% since 1990, the base line of the Protocol it is imperative that CO2 emissions are cutback and at a sufficient level as suggested by Professors Schneider and Mastrandrea (see above).

Funding Efficiency and Clean Production The chief advantage of a carbon tax is that it creates a fund which could be used to invest in efficiency/renewables and to protect and enhance our major carbon reservoirs (especially native forests). It could also be used to reduce other taxes (for example GST) to minimise any impact on low-income earners. Analyses suggest that recycling revenue in such a way results in a double dividend - not only do we become more efficient and reduce emissions but we also boost job numbers and improve economic performance. The funds raised by a carbon tax would stay within NZ. In contrast, trading would inevitably involve the purchase of emission units from overseas, further enhancing the negative economic effects of such a system.

Regulating - Exhaust emission checks - transport etc An economic instrument is not a panacea for all our carbon ills. Transport would still need to be addressed separately since even a very high cost for CO2 would still only raise the price of fuel by a few cents per litre and have minimal effect on vehicle use. A few basic regulations would achieve quite a lot. At the very least, NZ could join every other developed country and require mandatory exhaust emission checks as part of a Warrant of Fitness. Tamper-proofing diesel injectors may prevent some owners deliberately setting rich mixtures, a move that enables a diesel engine to develop more power at the expense of a serious decline in fuel efficiency and air quality.

Alternative fuels could make a real difference. We used to have a great CNG network - now the installations have been sold overseas to countries that realise the benefits of gas as a fuel. Diesel made from vegetable oil is carbon neutral, only marginally more expensive than fossil diesel and a lot cleaner. In Germany, taxes are adjusted to ensure "biodiesel" is slightly cheaper and widely available.

The real key to our transport dilemma is a fast, efficient rail network for freight and passengers combined with realistic public transport systems in our chronically congested cities. More motorways and bigger trucks on our roads is a bizarre response to our problems.

Full Carbon Accounting At this stage the government seems keen on using plantation forest sinks as much as possible. But there are increasing doubts in the scientific community as to the efficacy of trading any biological sink against fossil carbon.

Government has repeated many times that it wants "environmental integrity." At the moment, it is proposed to only use the credit side of plantation forests planted since 1990 covered by article 3.3 of the Protocol. The debit side (especially carbon emissions from soils under pine trees planted on pasture, soil erosion and - the really big one - collapsing native forests) is virtually unknown because the work hasn't been done.

Full carbon accounting is a big task for NZ and if adopted, the debits will almost certainly wipe out plantation forest credits to a large degree. It would be somewhat embarrassing if NZ was criticised internationally for claiming credits while ignoring the debits, especially with the talk of "environmental integrity."


The recent research on abrupt, non-linear climate change presented in this submission is also being taken seriously by the National Research Council, the research arm of the US National Academy of Science who have set up a Committee on Abrupt Climate Change. Dr. Richard B. Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and chairman of the committee, compared abrupt climate change to a light switch, while gradual climate - what most climatologists study - is like a light dimmer. Press upward on a dimmer, and the light brightens a little. Press more, and the light brightens more. With a switch, press lightly and nothing happens. Press hard enough, and the light abruptly turns on. "What the research shows is that there are switches as well as dimmers in Earth's system," Dr. Alley said. Although the sudden shifts occur naturally, the changes in the environment, including flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide or cutting swaths of rain forests, could act as a final push, the scientists said. "The harder you push, the more likely you are to cross a threshold," Dr. Alley said. "We are likely to be surprised."

At the meeting of the American Geophysical Union on 11 December in San Francisco, scientists presented computer simulations indicating that a rise in carbon dioxide levels would lengthen the time that a low-pressure weather system hovered over the North Pole and a high-pressure air mass over the Atlantic. That pattern tends to blow in warm air from the Atlantic into Europe, potentially leading to wetter and warmer winters over the coming decades. But that gradual shift to warmer and wetter winters may also cause an abrupt climate change.


To be fully responsive to the mandate of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change "to prevent 'dangerous' anthropogenic climate change," PIRM along with scientists Professors Schneider and Mastrandrea encourage a risk management framework for the government that is aware of the scientific uncertainties and encompasses in policies and measures such serious outcomes as the THC collapse (as well as the current ongoing effects on Pacific Islands of climate change). For when abrupt, non-linear climate change is involved, and coupled with the" wait and see" approach it will lead to disastrous consequences. "By the time the threatening outcome is clearly identified it may then be extremely expensive or even impossible to avoid," say Schneider and Mastrandrea. We must consider the effects of continuing warming emissions on future generations, if we are to prevent misery or death to millions or billions of people in the next century.

Pacific Institute of Resource Management
PO Box 12125 Wellington
New Zealand - PIRM/Pacific Ecologist, POBox 12125, Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand -
fax +64 (0)4 939 4551

Pacific Ecologist