Loughlin - Integrity and commitment needed for zero carbon future

MIA chairman John Loughlin says while inherent future uncertainties cloud Labour’s zero carbon pledge, it’s important we commit to it as a nation.

Loughlin says there are opportunities ahead for New Zealand to convert to electric transport and continue to develop renewable energy sources - both important steps towards drastically lowering emissions - but with these opportunities come significant challenges:

“In a country like NZ, where we have a big renewable base of hydro, wind, emerging solar, geothermal energies and so forth, we have quite a big opportunity to electrify transport. Unlike other countries, where stopping burning petrol in the car means burning coal in the power station to power the car, which really isn’t a winner for the environment.

“So there are opportunities there. Electricity for normal day to day use is a bit harder. Most of our electricity is renewable (we’re 85% renewable). The challenge, however, is that our peak electricity consumption is on winter nights, where we’re heating houses, lighting houses, cooking dinners and so forth all at the same time, and solar power can’t provide a solution, nor can you rely on wind to blow. Gas fired electricity generation is quite an important top up in terms of keeping people warm and healthy and dealing to the peaks of demand. So there are challenges there.”

Part of the government’s plan to reach net-zero emissions involves planting trees on a mass scale, starting with one billion over the next decade. While Loughlin believes this can be effective, he feels the decision to plant Pinus radiata, a species with a short rotation that nullifies much of its carbon sequesting effects, is a deferral of the problem, rather than a solution:

“Short rotation Pinus Radiata, which matures in about 28 years and then gets cut down, does a sequestration job for the time the tree is growing, then it tends to reverse a chunk of that when the thing is harvested, and the log is carted back out on trucks and shipped to market, and energy is used for sawing it up and so forth.”

“So it’s basically short rotation pine plantings on agricultural land, which really just defers the problem. Whereas, if you were to go to a conservation state and plant long-life natives then you are having a genuine impact. Really, the impact of planting trees depends on what trees you plant and the impact on farming depends on where you plant them.”

The emissions trading scheme (ETS) is another key aspect of this debate.

For the uninitiated, the ETS puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions in order to create a financial incentive for businesses to invest in technologies and practices that reduce them. Whilst the system should, logically, be an effective way of clamping down on high-emitting activities, Loughlin says it has been exploited in many cases:

“The expectation was that carbon trading would produce an increasingly high price and create an economic incentive for those who were less profitable to be moved out economically. However, my understanding is that a number of countries have been somewhat “entrepreneurial” in their claims of doing good things and have generated credits and sold them well in excess of the good things they’ve actually done. So the global carbon price, instead of going up and creating an incentive for people to stop emissions, has gone down, and people have written small cheques and carried on. So it hasn’t really had the intended effect. Logically it should work though, provided the measurement systems are accurate and the carbon sequestration activities have genuine integrity.”

Looking to the future, Loughlin says it remains an uncertain one, but if we don’t commit to achieving the zero-carbon goal now, then we never will:

“Our ability to get to net zero carbon will depend on technologies that we haven’t yet developed, and that is acknowledged by everybody, including the minister. The minister would rightly say that if we didn’t commit ourselves to this goal and didn’t commit ourselves to achieving it, then it would never happen because we won’t make the investments in the rights areas of research and development in order to get the outcome.”