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Professor Michael Kelly FRS FREng

The Integrity of the Climate Change Debate in New Zealand

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In April 2016, the Royal Society of New Zealand published a report ‘Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand’ making 46 recommendations as listed in the visual supplement[1].  The report was deeply substandard in my opinion, and I am not alone.  There were faux diagrams (most without labelled axes, or numbers, or any real-world data) suggesting that emissions would rise and then fall in the future.   I contacted the chair of the working party to be told there was no real world data to review.  This was nonsense, and I spent four months of a subsequent visit to New Zealand getting the data required to make a serious analysis of the recommendations under the headings (i) value for money, (ii) the extent of actual carbon dioxide emissions reductions, and (iii) the capacity of the New Zealand economy to make the suggested changes.   Three of the 46 recommendations made sense (reforestation, using wood for buildings rather than paper, and reducing methane emissions from cows).  Eight recommendations were neutral (labelling an appliance, of itself, does not reduce emissions).  The rest to a greater or less extent would damage the economy and/or be ineffective in reducing emissions.

There is a simple guiding principle at stake here, as carbon dioxide emissions are a global problem, not a New Zealand specific one.  At present it costs $60-90 to remove one tonne of carbon dioxide from the exhaust chimney of a coal fired power station, the origin until recently of 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions.  The cost is predicted to fall to $40 by 2025.  If a proposal to reduce emissions in New Zealand costs $200/tonne or more, it is simply a waste of precious New Zealand resources which could be redeployed elsewhere to be more effective in meeting the same goal.

I wrote up my findings in late 2016 and the resulting paper was rejected by both the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Journal of New Zealand studies.  Through my career I have understood that papers are rejected because they are wrong, trivial or derivative.  Otherwise they are published to stimulate progress.  This was not the case this time.  Several referees agreed that the approach was a worthwhile one to undertake, and indeed that the original Royal Society Report was substandard, but they did not like the conclusions I came to.  They did not dismantle my data or my line of reasoning; nor did they offer an alternative.  They chose to cavil on details and on writing style, evidence of the bankruptcy of their position.  Both editors curtailed debate.   It is my contention that this shows a contempt for scientific integrity.  I am publishing the original paper and the redacted referees’ reports here to show how serious debate is being suppressed[2].    As a direct result of stifled debate, New Zealand is taking steps of great and certain futility and destruction of capital value.   I would invite the editors to respond.

I can sharpen the remarks I made in the paper, which is now two years old, about the continuing growth of Chinese emissions to make my point even more strongly today than two years ago.     Over the last 15 years, the Chinese government took 600M people from rural poverty into the urban middle class, with an increase of CO2 emissions equal to the total New Zealand missions every seven weeks of that period2.  The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is aiming to take a further 2B people from poverty to middle class in Asia and Africa over the next 20-30 years[3].   This project will go a long way to achieve the first of the UN sustainable development goals, the elimination of poverty on the planet.  The project will add 700 new coal fired power stations over 20 years, 10% of which are being built now, and will add a double today’s Chinese CO2 emissions at the same time[4].  Renewable energy alternatives cannot cope with the scale or the timetable of the Initiative.      

If you are digging a hole with a shovel as though your life depends on it, and you turn around to see ten people each with a wheelbarrow filling the hole in behind you, do you carry on digging?   Most would say they would stop and reconsider their position in the light of the actions of the others.   Both the UK and NZ governments are carrying on digging in this context, without considering the global context.  The new term for this madness is ‘virtue signalling’.  If and when there is need to adapt to future climate change, the coffers will have been depleted by mitigation efforts that would have been proven ineffective by the very need to adapt, for example by building metre-high sea walls around coastal cities.   If over 80% of the world’s population are on track to delivery over 4C rise in temperature according to the models, the other 20% including New Zealand and the UK can whistle until something happens[5].  

Part of the reason for this continuation with business as usual, with an ongoing drive for energy efficiency, is that the people predicting climate disaster persist in always describing the worst case scenario and not the most likely one.  The worst case scenario predicted 30 years ago would have world temperatures now 1C above what they were then, five times more than actually recorded[6].  Like the Y2K problem, the empirical evidence simply does not back up the worst case scenario: indeed, here it does not even back up the most probable prediction.  It is time that this flagrant abuse of science is terminated in the interests of integrity. 

The real world data is now emerging to see what solar and wind farms can do.   In Germany 800B euros have hardly made any dent in that nations’ carbon dioxide emissions[7].   Indeed, their national grid has gone very close to a blackout more than once.  Gas turbines designed 20 years ago to last 40 years or more providing base load electricity are being mothballed.  If instead of spinning constantly they are always accelerating and decelerating to complement the vagaries of wind and solar the turbine shafts wear out more quickly, shortening the lifetime and producing less electricity than going flat out all the time. For both reasons the cost of electricity they produce rises.   All serious projections by infrastructure energy engineers suggest that these renewable energy systems will produce of order 10% of the world energy needs by 2040 on a continuing trajectory that started in the 1980s reaching 1% a decade ago[8].   The Chinese grip on key materials for wind turbine magnets is more severe than the Middle East grip on fossil fuels before the shale revolution, and the conditions in the mines are still primitive.

As New Zealand seeks to emulate the UK’s 10-year-old Climate Change Committee (CCC), there are lessons to be learned and not repeated.  The cost of domestic energy has risen because of green levies and the number of households in fuel poverty (defined as spending more than 10% of disposable income keeping warm in winter) has treble since 2006, undoing reductions achieved under successive governments over the last 50 years[9].  The carbon dioxide reductions have been caused by de-industrialising the economy (the deficit in manufactured good has grown 15-fold since 1990), and by completing the dash for gas at the expense of coal that started in the 1990s.  The UK now survives on services. It imports its manufactures and leaves the carbon dioxide emissions to be accounted for in other countries.  The latest call from the CCC is a 20-50 curtailment of beef and sheep farming[10]: such measures would open up export opportunities to New Zealand but bankrupt New Zealand if it adopted them!   The CCC focusses on environmental impacts and its recommendations have to be attenuated when due regard is given to the security of energy supply and its affordability.  A salutary report on the work of the committee is Rupert Darwall’s paper ‘The Climate Change Act at Ten: History’s most expensive virtue signal’.[11]   I have also made a submission on these and related topics to the New Zealand Productivity Commission[12].

There is much lack of integrity, especially around engineering issues in the current debate on the future climate.  One is reminded of the Tower of Babel in the Bible.  The Israelites did not know when they would reach heaven with their tower, nor how much it would cost.  Engineers insist on knowing when a project is finished and how much it will cost before starting out.  The same should apply to the future of New Zealand in an actually changing climate.  It would only take a megavolcano somewhere in the world to blow concern about the future climate off the agenda for a decade or more.

I pray for wisdom in considering the right thing to do in the face of these large and complex issues.  A kneejerk ‘something, anything, must be done’ is simply inadequate.  


[1] http://royalsociety.org.nz/media/2016/06/Report-Transition-to-Low-Carbon-Economy-for-NZ.pdf

[2] Give www address of the my paper on the Saga.

[3] http://english.gov.cn/beltAndRoad/

[4] http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/chinese-firms-to-build-700-coal-plants


[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/16/climate-change-champions-still-pursuing-devastating-policies-new-study-reveals

[6] D R McIntyre, ‘James Hansen’s 1988 predictions compared with observations’ Energy and Environment 20 #4 587-94 (2009)  

[7] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-21/how-merkel-s-green-energy-policy-has-fueled-demand-for-coal

[8] https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/pdf/energy-economics/energy-outlook-2017/bp-energy-outlook-2017.pdf  ,  https://www.ft.com/content/da13f524-8f92-11e8-b639-7680cedcc421

[9] https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2014/06/Kelly-climate-and-poor.pdf

[10] https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-reducing-emissions-and-preparing-for-climate-change/

[11] https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/11/10years-CCA.pdf

[12] https://www.productivity.govt.nz/sites/default/files/sub-low-emissions-172-professor-michael-j-kelly-229Kb.pdf

The paper Professor Kelly submitted to the Royal Society of New Zealand – and the subsequent communications – can be seen HERE