Friday, July 23, 2010

Environmental Footprints 2010 Tax Year - Encouraging Results

Good news! As best we can measure, Heather and I have reduced our CO2 footprint to 30% below the global average. This is a sizeable step1 towards the 40% rich-world reduction which groups like Oxfam are calling for by 2020, a supposedly unreachable target which will 'destroy the economy'. We were encouraged how close we were with 10 years to go, after only moderate changes. No "extreme" measures like detaching from the grid or composting toilets.

Remember, though: we still need 3 planets to absord the carbon emitted if everybody on earth lived like us. Let's not get too self-congratulatory.

Heather and I are constrained to a quiet life by her health, but it's still a distinctly Kiwi lifestyle and we enjoy the benefits of living in a wealthy country. We have made choices to constrain 'expenditure' which gave low return on investment, so that we have plenty to put into activities which bring abundant enjoyment.

Our lifestyle is specific to ourselves, and features several elements that will be particularly difficult for some. For example, we have found work, friends and shops close to home which eases the choice to cycle. Others may find that choice harder until they move house, but over time more walkable (and cycleable) communities will emerge. We also utilise interim practises like buying second-hand, which clearly don't work if everybody tries to do them. These represent further problems to solve, and of course there are plenty of things (like raising kids) that we just don't do. Nonetheless, we are encouraged by the progress we have made and feel confident that others will be making progress on those other challenges.

One challenge all Kiwis face is that public services cost 840kg CO2e/person/year. That represents 2/3 of the globally sustainable per-capita level (2010 population), before we make any direct personal consumption choices. Fully 1/2 this figure comes from building and maintaining roads!

All this thinking comes from the environmental footprint data for the two of us which hardworking Heather has again compiled. She put them together from a detailed 3 month audit and ongoing tracking of unusual consumption items. This data was primarily recorded to calculate a Greenhouse Gas footprint, but she has worked to extract additional estimates from the data.

There is also a year-to-year comparison of our CO2 figures, with retrospective adjustments for new factors added to our audit spreadsheet in the last year. The graph clearly shows the impact of my flying to China in late 2008 (2009 tax year). Something to chew on as I consider flying to Christchurch next month for a cycle polo tournament, which would cost 0.6T -- 15% of my 2010 total emissions.

See the main report for details, graphs and comments, but here are the key numbers as multiples of the sustainable global average footprint
  • CO2e - 3
  • Fresh Water (crops) - 1.43
  • Fresh Water (industrial) - 1.08
  • Agricultural Land - 0.7

  • Forest Land - 0.04
  • Fisheries - 9
Those last two numbers are separated out because they are quite sketchy: the Forest Land number fails to account for the wood used to build our house, and the appropriate baseline for comparison for Fisheries is unclear.

About the fish, I can say that Heather eats a moderate amount of tin fish for health reasons but our fish sauce use is the biggest contributor to that number. We were surprised to find that, and are looking into whether this is an artefact of valuing a genuinely 'cheap' fish at the average rate or whether we need to hold the sauce for special occasions. I have a strong preference for one outcome over the other!

1. It is hard to exactly correlate the GHG footprint figure to numbers like the 40% reduction which Greenpeace is calling on New Zealand to make because our numbers are consumption based and the big public figures are production based. (I hope to write more on this soon, if you're not familiar with what I'm talking about.) We're actually at a 60% reduction from NZ's 2001 consumption figure, and if all of the rich world dropped their consumption that much then the production required to enable that consumption would drop dramatically.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Goal vs Fear

Memo to the TV News people:

We do not fear that the ETS will drive up petrol prices: that was exactly the desired outcome. We may fear that the ETS as implemented won't drive them up enough, or that the government's ongoing rejig of taxation and benefits will fail to provide households with the capacity to pay a fair price for their basic needs, but not that this particular law change will work as intended.

Please return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Various GHG Emissions Graphs

With the scope of New Zealand's ETS expanding to cover petrol and electricity last Thursday (July 1st), there have been some protests organised by Federated Farmers and the ACT party. Leaving aside the irony of ACT standing against people paying for the resources they use, I want to look at how the way you present the statistics on carbon emissions may shape your response.

When ACT says that "New Zealand's ETS will not make one iota of difference" they have presumably been looking at the leftmost of these two graphs from a public consultation on NZ's proposed emissions reduction target for 2020.
I'm not sure how an iota stacks up against 0.2%, but there is a point to be made that NZ going it alone won't solve the problem. Another point is clearly seen in the right hand graph--that NZ is above the median emissions level on a per-capita basis and has a moral responsibility to act.

If we can't go it alone, then the answer is not to pike and leave the problem for others (aka the global poor, who will die in their millions) but to show leadership. Rather than being so-called Fast Followers (aka laggards and shirkers) we should bend every effort to creating an international solution. I would be more sympathetic to those opposing the ETS if they showed willing to work for an alternative.

Those countries who are willing to take action are deadlocked over who should do how much. Once again, different graphs give a different spin.

Let's start with this graphical analysis of proposed reduction targets for NZ, from the same set of documents as the previous graphs. I think it's quite cleverly compiled, presenting many different data points to show that the government is balancing competing domestic demands and taking a fast-follower position vis-a-vis other countries.

These percentage reduction figures seem to function as a proxy for the effort made by each country. Certainly the domestic conversation was predominantly about what level of reduction we could manage, and how hard other countries were(n't) trying. The level of effort can be emphasised by graphing projected emissions over time as well as proposed reduced rates, but such a graph runs the risk of making the problem look urgent as well as difficult.

Oxfam and Greenpeace tried to shift the discussion towards impact rather than effort. How much can we afford to emit? This question is better answered by the blue bars in the next chart, which takes the per-capita data from one of the first graphs and adds in a Goal value representing the long-term sustainable emissions level. Suddenly a 40% reduction for NZ seems less outlandish.

Another question arises once we see a long-term goal. How will any initial commitment develop? Will everybody close steadily on the Goal amount, or will their be an ongoing inequity? What is the equitable way to close to a common goal from such disparate starting points?

The red bars on this graph represent data that we rarely see: estimated emissions embedded in the provision of goods and services consumed within a country. These contrast strikingly with the emissions generated for the goods and services created in the country. This data is harder to measure, which I assume is why the Kyoto process isn't using it, but is significant in terms of where the dollars would end up if there were a global carbon price.

How do these numbers change the picture? Is it in our interest to negotiate an international deal based on the blue numbers, so long as we have a global market and our export customers cannot avoid paying us the difference between the red and blue bars? Should China be our ally, as their blue bar has outpaced their red throughout the decade since the figures shown above? Are the Americans even less likely to sign up to such a deal?

I guess I should stop there for now and post this thing. Perhaps in the future I'll get back to other datasets, such as total emissions since 1850 by country per capita of current population or NZ's emissions with and without changing land use factors. (For the latter, look into the consultation paper referenced above and marvel at how the timing of a spike in forestry saves NZ's bacon for Kyoto then reverts us to being way behind for any future commitments!)