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Heather Roy's Diary - Your Carbon Footprint?

Heather Roy's Diary

How Big Is Your Carbon Footprint? Let me first begin by saying that I don't consider myself a Climate Change denier: since records began, and from scientific evidence gleaned before that, it is clear that the world's climate has experienced fluctuations - sometimes wildly - since Adam was a boy. I actively care for the environment; my husband often tells me my recycling efforts are wasted because much of the cardboard, glass and plastic waste I carefully set aside for recycling goes to the dump - I don't know if he's right, but recycling feels like the right thing to do.

When my family moved from South Canterbury a few years ago, the hardest thing to leave was our 10-acre block of land on which we'd spent years planting tens of thousands of South Canterbury native plants - we'd begun planting in 1990, not to attract carbon credits but, to create an attractive and natural environment in which to hide a family home. The land was just starting to look like a forest, and was attracting native wildlife, when we moved city.

Yesterday saw the Government announce its climate change policy, the fiendishly complicated 'Climate Plan'. The plan revolves around a 'cap and trade' emissions trading scheme, to be phased in from next year starting with the forestry sector. Transport, energy and large industrial companies will follow from 2009 and agriculture - the biggest emitter - will be affected from 2013.

In the scheme, carbon credits will be traded as the 'New Zealand unit' - a unit being equal to a tonne of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. Companies must acquire units to emit and will be able to buy them from those who reduce emissions. In reality, deciding who gets these units and who has to pay for them is going to be a difficult exercise.

While individuals won't have to participate, costs will pass on to households. The Government has said that, if the carbon price increases electricity costs by 1c/kWh (kilowatt hour), average household power costs will rise $7 per month. This is the figure that has been widely publicised, but what the Government hasn't said is that if the carbon price is $45 per tonne - the price the Electricity Commission predicts is needed to make renewable energy sources break even with conventional generation - the price of power will increase 5c/kWh, an average increase of $400 per household per year. Petrol prices are predicted to increase four cents a litre.

The legal case for action is straightforward. In 2002, New Zealand ratified the Kyoto protocol. This meant we were committed to reducing our production of carbon dioxide by (2012) to the levels that were produced in 1990. New Zealand's actual levels are well ahead of that so, under the protocol, we have to reduce our production or buy credits internationally. ACT opposed signing up to the Kyoto Protocol right from the beginning, because of the costs that would be imposed on New Zealand industry for little or no gain in reducing CO2 emissions.

Because NZ would be considerably out of pocket as a nation if we had to buy credits, the Government has tried various initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. One was the proposed tax on cattle burping methane - also known as the 'Fart Tax'. This initiative was dropped before the last election, with former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff leading the charge.

New Zealand's situation is unusual in that a large proportion of our 'greenhouse gas' is agricultural. Yes, cows really do burp methane and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Farmers have been promised a five-year stay before any greenhouse taxes are laid on them.

Further, where most countries burn coal for the majority of their electricity generation, a large part of our production is hydro-electric. While electricity produced by hydro produces no greenhouse gas at all, we get no credit as most of this capacity was installed before 1990.

Given their rhetoric around climate change and sustainability, this leaves the Government little room to manoeuvre with a 'cap and trade' scheme: it can't build more coal-fired capacity, as coal burns to carbon dioxide. Hence the interest in wind power - an expensive option that, with wind being unreliable, requires back-up from coal-fired stations.

Cars also emit carbon dioxide, but our love affair with cars is too passionate - restricting emissions would mean restricting car use, which would lose votes. There's been much talk about public transport, and the Government has devoted some funding to encourage greater use of buses and trains - but the public mainly advocates public transport for other people, so there's room on the roads for their cars. Overcoming the psychological barrier is a major undertaking.

So, given its commitment to reducing CO2 emissions, the Government is in a tight spot. It talked the talk and must now walk the walk. The penalty will be to tell the voters that it had to buy carbon quota offshore - resulting, I suspect, in severe punishment in the voting booths.

Labour's glimmer of hope is in forestry. As trees grow they use photosynthesis to combine water and carbon dioxide into the compounds that it needs. In this way trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We could move ahead by planting a lot of trees and thinking of them as carbon stores - but the moment the forests are felled we have to pay carbon credits.

The problem with yesterday's announcement - and, in fact, decades of discussions on global warming (now re-named climate change) - is that it doesn't focus on scientific knowledge and a proper analysis of the problems that need to be fixed. Before we commit to the expense and economic disruption of the 'Cap and Trade' regime, we should look at the evidence:

* The world hasn't warmed since 1998 - and 2007 will not break any records. For the US, 1934 was the warmest year in the past 100 years. * Since 1900, there has been one 23-year period - 1975-1998 - when a temperature increase was associated with a significant increase in CO2. From 1940-1975, CO2 went up and temperatures went down. * There is increasing evidence that the sun and cosmic rays control our climate, not CO2. If this correct, then we're entering another little ice age. * The rate of sea level rise is small and is not increasing. * The Arctic had less ice in the 1930s and in the Medieval Warm Period.

* Recent research tells us that grass - through its roots - sequesters far more carbon than forests. So farms are better than forests.

* A carbon price of $45/tonne is needed to make wind power competitive with conventional generation. Cost of wind power is about 11c/kWh, about twice the average spot price. This will raise power costs $500 per annum per household. Generators and Government will reap huge profits ($1.8 billion pa) - even Genesis, owner of Huntly's coal-fired station. The price will have little effect on CO2 because we're short of generating capacity.

We must study the evidence, not believe people with hidden agendas - like trade protection, vote catching and profiting from carbon trading. We urgently need an independent, objective scrutiny of the evidence and then policies that provide the right incentives to produce and use energy carefully. Sadly, it won't be until power bills increase significantly, hitting people in the pocket, that they will start thinking in these terms and call for such independent scrutiny.


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