Nats and Climate

Just a quick rundown here on National Party position on climate issues, looking at the two main areas, ag and transport.

Some context


20 years ago, National MP Shane Ardern drove a tractor up the steps of parliament to petition against a modest tax on cows to fund research that might reduce their emissions. They called it the ‘Fart Tax’, and chanted ‘We don’t believe you’ to the Labour Minister at the time.

This was an important signifier from National. They not like the Greens, and they rarely do protest.

Over the next 20 years dairy multiplied in size, Fonterra was created and National continued to downplay the dangers of global warming. It was not uncommon for MPs to outright refuse the evidence. In 2016, climate change issues minister Tim Groser addressed a group of people at a pre-election discussion about the environment and said two interesting things 1) I don’t expect to get any votes from this room and 2) I can address a group of farmers this size and get asked more than once whether climate change is even real.

He didn’t say how he answered that question.

Rural people were encouraged to believe that it was made up. Scientists Chris de Freitas and Doug Edmeades, advocates like Robin Grieve and and long list of journalists, produced think pieces, attended talks and repeated the message for years.

All this time, the right, and the mainstream media, took a position on climate change that was more extreme than the oil companies. Behind the scenes, oil companies were among the first to know (which makes sense, since they employed most of the earth scientists) and that position was manufactured by them.

But it was promoted by grifters. There were plenty of people riding this wave, making money from conjecture. You could pack a house if you spoke with confidence and told people what they wanted to hear. One popular character at the time was a man known as Lord Monckton, a Brit with no science training (he was a classics man), and an Oxbridge bearing that people found especially comforting.

Presumably, some of the people who toured and promoted him around the world (small town farmers here will probably remember seeing him speak) knew that he also claimed to have invented a cure for Graves disease and AIDS.

He was a snake oil pitch was so conventional that somehow it worked. We expect more originality these days, and perhaps that’s a mistake. People love a show, and a good show works. Monckton combined the looks of Gene Wilder with the raffishness of Boris Johnson and the unconsidered appetite for data of Joe Rogan. It worked.

The point in telling you these things is that to be mindful of the thinking of voters, it’s worth thinking about what got them to this point. They have been given every reason to believe the pitch, and they are still receiving it. It’s important to get the facts straight beneath the pitch, you can’t build without foundations, but at the narrative level, it’s important to see the story. And with the Nat, is appears to be: “Trust us. This has always worked. We’ll keep doing it. It will continue to work. Don’t let others break the plan that was working”. Which is their message this season: “Back on Track”. Ironic train metaphor there.

Let’s get back to that day in Parliament, with Minister Shane Ardern and the tractor Myrtle. Around that time before the web people were informed by three TV channels so everyone knew the same celebrities.
One of them was a guy who ran hosted academic game shows, W3 and It’s Academic. He had a Phd in Animal Science. Everything in his look and demeanour said ‘You can trust me. I’ve done my homework. I look things up.’

Now think about the understandings about the anaerobic breakdown of grass in the first part of a cow’s stomach, or the workings of carbon in the atmosphere. While the general public might be ignorant, these were still things you might learn at the high school level, and science had been concerned with both for over one hundred years.

This man, Lockwood Smith, had obtained, quite legitimately, the trust of a nation. But he was a National MP too. He came to the protest with cows. We don’t know whether he said the words ‘we don’t believe you’ while standing in that crowd, but his position was clear.

There were plenty of other moments of course, but that I believe that one locked in some public understanding and set a direction that the Nats are trying to finesse today, as if they are coming to fast into a tight corner but thing they see and angle that will work.

Methane Emissions reduction

Complex carbon molecules contain energy. We get that energy when the molecules are broken into simple ones. Most of the time, whether it’s a hydrocarbon in a petrol tank or a carbohydrate in some food, the energy transfer releases carbon combined with oxygen, normally CO or CO2 (Carbon monoxide and dioxide).

Cows, and other ruminants, amplify the warming because their place in the Carbon Cycle results in atmospheric CO2 becoming CH4.

At that point, the Carbon heats the planet 100 times more than it would if it came from a gas tank. Now this next part it super important, because it informs the way ag emissions have been treated, not just by skeptics but also by mainstream science. These details, and misrepresentations of them, have inform the debates farmers have been engaged in for decades. Activists, politicians and journalists have swum these muddied waters for years and it’s only recently that we’ve started to see mainstream media broadly starting to get it right.

The first point is about where the Carbon atom comes from. Cows are not mining ancient carbon and adding it to the skies. The story of coal and oil makes sense to people because it’s familiar. Pandora’s box: the myth where a temptation led to the opening of a box that filled the skies with harm, is deep in our culture. Cows amplify the harm caused by carbon.

The second point is about how long it last. CH4 breaks down naturally into CO2 over a period of years. After 20 years, it drops to 80 times, and about 28 times after 100 years.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are essentially permanent in human time frames. It stays up there for thousands of years. CH4 emissions are more like a slowly leaking bucket: if you fill it slowly, it won’t overflow.

This is partly the reason methane has been given a pass for so long. There is something a bit more manageable about it. But there’s another way to look at it. Reducing herds massively will, reliably, result in a descrease in warming. There’s really nothing else that can perform this function: it’s humans that put them there: animals managed by humans (mostly livestock but also pets) make up two thirds of all land mammal. Humans themselves come close to a third. Wild mammals are under 5%.

Overall, the warming from the mammals (the grass eating kind, ruminants) make up 23% of all greenhouse warming

That’s not far behind transport.

Methane Vaccines

Here’s the problem. The whole point of the rumen, that part of a cow’s stomach where grass is fermented, is to introduce enzymes that break down grass without oxygen (anaerobically). This means carbon combines with hydrogen, not oxygen.

You can’t change that. It’s fundamental.

This hasn’t stopped people trying to find ways to make cows NOT emit CH4. There’s a lot of money riding on it, presumably plenty of grifter and misinformation and hype, but also, from a scientist’s point of view, a really interesting problem.

AgResearch, here in New Zealand, has been working on this for decades. When they began, milk came in a bottle and was stored in a fridge. Now its common for an half a supermarket aisle to contain milk alternatives, plant based ice cream is delicious, and companies (Perfect Day is one) have formed that take the fermentation problem out of the cow, using bovine enzymes in vats to create milks that come close to the original.

As Henry Ford said: if you asked people what they needed, they would have said a faster horse. Reverse engineering a cow could well be much harder than fermenting milk in a factory. We’ve been good at that for a very long time. Synthetic milks make remote locations that create it the old way kind of irrelevant. Why have the factory so far from the market?

the theoretical reduction from a methane vaccine is 30%

A recent presentation from AgResearch on the current state of this research show it is a very long way away. By adding some antigens to a cow’s feed it has been possible to reduce the emissions, but not at that level, and not over a long time frame and not in any way where it might be said there is a timeline for this work. It may simply never come. That is possible. After decades. Nuclear Fusion is probably closer. (that would also be a game changer, but in a different way. Expect hype about that to continue as is has for many decades).

What does it mean, this 30% reduction? In the face of Fonterra’s need to continually expand milk production, not much. Even if it worked.

But wait. It gets worse.

Here in Aotearoa, most of our milk gets dried into powder and exported to Asian markets. In the North Island, this is done by burning gas, while in the South, they mostly use coal. The quantities are huge. Fonterra reported that they were burning waste wood in one location to dry milk (this is good, since the wood comes from and returns to the air, so not adding to the problem). They claimed it was the equivalent of taking 35000 cars off the road. But looking at the size of this operation compared to the rest of the drying, it showed that milk drying overall will be in the order of many hundreds thousands of cars.

we produce the cleanest, greenest meat in the world

Switching to meat for a moment, a study, funded by Beef and Lamb, concluded that NZ grown read meats presented a lower carbon footprint than European counterparts, even after shipping around the world to their markets. This is essentially a catechism at this point. Most can’t tell you where the information came from, or what it actually meant. It’s just common wisdom.

The studies summary began with a point that is NOT repeated much, but puts things into context a little. Shipping makes up around 5% of the overall carbon emissions. This catechism gets much of its power from the notion that shipping must make up a decent portion of emissions: meat is flown or shipped 10,000 kms. The truth is, whatever carbon is release to ship 100kg of meat to Spain, it will have emitted 19 times while it was here in New Zealand.

The second point, high in the studies’ abstract, is that over 20% of the overall reduction in emissions is a result of tree planting.

Which is to say, this was an accounting exercise. Ruminants emit about the same levels of methane, wherever they are, since they are performing the same function using the same enzymes.

The Emissions Reduction Plan

these notes from the Q+A podcast - interviews with Jack Tame
Simeon Brown had a slightly evasive, ‘we are committed to the plan’ response to these target for lowering emissions over the near future. Part of this plan is a reduction in the number of kilometres travelled by 20% in 2035.

During the interview he announced setting a cap on the spending on walking and biking infrastructure (750 million spent recently) because he said the money came from road users.

Of course, without alternative infrastructure, everyone becomes a road user, so defending their decisions when they don’t have them is a problem here.

Jack Tame asked Simeon Brown where he was familiar with induced demand: the situation where building a specific infrastructure increase the users of it. His reponse was that the solution to induced demand is congestion charging.

It’s a little like suggesting that the solution to alcoholism is more expensive beer, rather than offering thirsty people soft drinks and tea.

In this interview he stated that there were no emissions modelling for transport plans to meet the required 40% reduction by 2035.

His agument was that EVs would fix the problem. That the fleet with fill with them so quickly that emissions will drop accordingly.

EVs won’t come fast enough, by past experience

TODO I have some info on that to pull out, but essentially, EV advocates who have been watching the market for years have stopped believing this will happen. The biggest selling new car in NZ is the Ford Ranger, and continually, every advance possibly suggested by a new EV is wiped out but the increasing popularity of trucks and SUVs which are constantly getting bigger.

Car makers simply can’t make the money they do now selling EVs. They last longer, require less maintenance and threaten the tight relationship car makers have held with the oil industry (and road builders) for more than a century.

Our fleet turnover is slow

TODO - get the numbers on this.
Many of our imports are used, and we keep cars for 20 years. It we are relying on the replacement rate of new cars here how can it drop that rapidly in 12 years. He said himself they haven’t done a costing but it can’t be hard to estimate.

The costs

Congestion, and congestion pricing

The solution to induced demand is congestion pricing
Congestion pricing is the changing the costs of using a service to spread its load across time. Our power networks routinely switch of bulk loads (like domestic water heating) to ensure that there is enough power for everyone during peaks. Airlines spread the costs of seats widely to get closer to congestion, since flying with empty seats is a waste.

It’s a solution used across the world, although more common in places that have properly big cities. Our relatively small cities are artificially congested due to the absence of alternatives: you have to drive to get where you’re going.

Congestion charging places and extraordinary burden on people with a lower income, They are more likely to live away from transport hubs, more likely to work jobs with longer and less flexible hours, and more likely to have less help with other commitments, extra jobs or running after kids, which means they don’t have choices and the charges are forced on them.

The uptake of EVs

The quality of public transport

The reason we don’t have public transport, or that we do but find it under-subscribed, becomes in this nation a tale about our people’s innate love of cars. The truth is, people are very attached to cars: European micro-states notwithstanding we have the highest rates of car ownership in the world: 9 cars for every 10 people, while only 8 of them are old enough to drive.

The Japanese and the Germans love cars. They have some of the best trains in the world. People’s attachment to cars here is more about dependence than affinity. If you don’t have a car in this country, it can be almost impossible to lift yourself out of poverty. If you’re poor and you do have one, it frequently becomes your home.

What happened here also happened in Canada and to a lesser extent Australia. It did not happen, to this extent, across Asia and Europe, but since our media experience it largely North American and our lived experience is, well, here, it become very, very hard to imagine transport services that much of the world take as a given.

This is the Highway Model. It was created by General Motors a little before the Second World War, and soon after, it massively explanded across the U.S, where 45 states saw public transport crumble away to be replaced by roads and cars.

The key to this strategy is going to sound familiar. If you take something away from someone, something they like, they’re going to complain. But if you make that same thing awful, and dangerous, and essentially in-usable, then they’ll start looking around for alternatives. Then GM gets a sale, the highway builders make money, and so does the oil industry.

This happened here too. Andre Brett’s recent book., ‘You can’t get there from here’ details the slow and steady decline of rail in this country from the largest employer with its own ministry and lines connecting most towns of any size, to the relic it is today. InterCity passenger rail is the cheaper version of a cruise ship: infrequent, overpriced services that miss most of the stops and, heading North, throwing people out at a car park, 1km short of Britomart station.

Rail, and other forms of reticulated energy

The International Energy Association: a body concerned with helping people understand the direction of energy in these times, is effusive about rail. That’s because their studies find that rail emits less carbon than all other forms of transport, which the exception of powered and unpowered cycles.

It’s a little counter intuitive when you look at the mass of a train compared to a bus or car: you might imagine it tracks a little closer. The advantages are 1) low rolling resistance. A train wheel on a track rolls almost as freely as a ball bearing. Nine slow moving carriages came loose from a train in Masterton years ago and they rolled freely, unpowered across a plain for nine kilometers before hitting a car at a crossing. A car in neutral with the handbrake off pretty much stays where it is in most of the Wairarapa.
2) longer unit life. The energy cost to manufacture a vehicle is close to the energy cost of running it in its lifetime. While one person might get through serveral cars in a lifetime, a single carriage might serve thousands for more than a generation.
3) wires. It’s pretty easy to electrify a train. Most people drive the desert road without noticing the electrified rail because they look much the same as the other power lines criss crossing the country. The reticulated power, the fact that usable energy is constantly available across the journey, makes most other considerations disappear.

The IEA notes the massive rise in new electric metro lines around the world, in most countries but here. One quarter of all metro lines are less than five years old according to them. Most of these are in China, but the sheer number of metro lines that were never removed in first place, across the world, gives you a sense of this scale.

Battery electric vehicles are terrible. Opponents of climate action have been complaining about them for ages, and many of their arguments are quite valid. The mining and energy required to build a car is enormous: a decent percentage of the energy it will emit in its life time. The electricity used to run them often comes from fossil fuels (not so much in NZ where 85% of electricity is renewable) , the rare earth elements needed to generate electric motors and batteries are mined unethically and can’t last. Finally, while traditional lead-acid car batteries are among the most recycled products on the planet (in the 90 percentile), lithium batteries are not, generally recycled, and are manufactured in tiny (a little larger than an AA cell) form factor that makes it way harder.

Battery buses are even worse. The Wellington electric trolley buses, introduced specifically because they were better at climbing hills than deisel, were replaced with units so heavy they began to damage the roads. They really don’t work in hilly places, which the comparatively flat cities of San Francisco and Prague discovered long ago. They elected not to use them, while we experimented with some Frankensteinien adaptions (deisel jet engines on the roof of the old trollies) before going to all-battery buses. Mostly on the flat routes.

Nat like Christopher Bishop are strong proponents of

The Carbon fiscal hole

It would be terrific to see people expecting numbers to prove estimates like we do with the monied part of the economy, where leaders get punished if there are holes in their accounting. Seems like the demand for this is not as high as it should be, and National certainly seem to get by with a lot of hand waving at the moment.

CCUS Carbon Capture and Underground Storage.

IPCC plans now expect that some future technology will be able to sequester carbon back into the ground. This tech does not exists, and Prof James Renwick (in an interview with me back in 2018) likened it to predicting that a Time Machine would come along.

When I asked another climate scientist, Shaun Henry, what his genii in a bottle wish was he said all physicists hope for something that can split water with light. In other words, endless efficient, clean energy. (I need to talk about Hydrogen somewhere here).

What we’d do with that endless energy, is stuff the carbon genii back, in the bottle. The problem with sequestering carbon is simply that make it a solid again you need to re-apply the energy that was released when you burned it.

In that way, burning fossil fuels is not selling the future, exactly. It’s more like pawning it. But if you can’t buy it back, that becomes much the same thing.

One alternative is to not turn the carbon into a solid. When billionaire Richard Branson responded to Al Gore’s movie by creating a lavish prize for the best carbon solution, the most successful team inadvertently created a tool that was used in fracking: pumping large quantities of CO2 underground to dislodge more burnable gas.

So much for good intentions. Virgin Airlines is flying more passengers than ever and we can’t trust in billionaires. Ever.

The voice of the oil industry in New Zealand is a group called Energy Resources NZ (formerly PEPANZ - they took petroleum out of their name but it’s the same people doing the same thing).

While the climate commission may outline a plan for the future, it’s only advisory to a government which at the end of the day, has limited powers of its own. ERNZ represents and writes the plan for the industry itself.

So maybe, against our better wishes and judgements, this is the plan that will be followed. Certainly under a National Government, under the party we see today with extraordinary faith in incomplete technologies and the benficence of the market, it seems likely.

This plan is slightly over 100 pages, and the term CCUS appears about that many times.

This has never been proven at scale, and industries have an huge amount to gain by convincing people it will work, since they get to keep drilling. The few places that actually HAVE CCUS sites don’t function at anywhere near the scale provided - and even capturing and pumping gas underground represents and extraordinary volume of energy. It may be less that was gained by burning oil. But how much?

And where does it get stored? Pushed back into the caverns left by extraction. Can we assume these holes in the ground are airtight? That’s a tall order to start with, but in many cases we can absolutely assume they are not. Fracking, the process used to extract ‘unconventional’ oil and gas, works by breaking up these caverns so that the fuels can be captured as they leak out.

So we may be pushing this stuff into bottle that we know to be broken, because we did the breaking.

These installations would need to capture and pump 37.12 billion metric tons a year to keep up, before they every made a dent in what will be there permanently. Who pays for that?
Who actually expects it to happen, let alone actually work?

Like the methane vaccine, this is a tech that is absolutely fundamental to the plans the Nats intend to follow. And it’s about as credible as Uncle Rico’s Time Machine.