Editor’s Note: Here is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.
Before I remove myself from the conversation, I’d like to wrap up my part in the discussion of climate change with a couple of key points. For decades we have known that the two largest impacts that individual people have on the environment are driving and eating meat. Compared with these, choosing paper or plastic bags at the checkout counter, or recycling your toothbrush are essentially meaningless. A friend recently called it “polishing the silver on the Titanic.”
Whatever happens at COP 21 in Paris over the next fortnight, I don’t see how drastic changes can be made to transportation or diets within a timeframe that will be meaningful for the next couple of decades. There are two reasons for this.
First or all, any transition would take a long time when we consider the number of cars in the world and the increasing demand for animal-based diets. Second, there is so much carbon in the atmosphere already that even if we stopped releasing it tomorrow the effects of elevated levels of greenhouse gases would persist for decades. We are already locked in a certain amount of warming. Think of it as carbon momentum. This is true whether you drive a Holden or a Prius or take the bus or ride a bike.
The best available data analised by the best scientists show that over the last half century there has been a measurable increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events. In other words, scientists made predictions, collected data, and proved the predictions to be accurate.
In 1969, the lead track of The Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed said it all:
Oh, a storm is threat’ning; My very life today; If I don’t get some shelter; Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Weather volatility hurts agricultural economies and costs municipalities near large water bodies. This is true whether you drive a Holden or a Prius or take the bus or ride a bike.
On a final point, climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor because those with disposable income can buy themselves out of many effects of climate change – in the short term.
Another thing that some people with disposable income do is buy certain ‘green’ products that allow them to maintain their lifestyles but to placate their carbon conscience. One example is “clean diesel” such as Volkswagen’s range of fine German automobiles.
In case you missed it, the latest chapter in the VW fraud story is that the carbon emissions and fuel consumption ratings on 800,000 vehicles were falsely reported to make them look better than they are, including the company’s own green tick of excellence called BlueMotion. Germany’s own Spiegel magazine call the claims “a fraudulent lie.”
Another example of where claims and actual numbers do not add up is solar electric power, also known as photovoltaic or PV. A paper published this year by the Electric Power Engineering Centre at the University of Canterbury concluded that the potential reduction in carbon emissions from PV in New Zealand was minimal, and that many PV panels have a carbon footprint 10 times greater over their lifespan than wind turbines or geothermal energy. These findings suggest it would be better for the environment to simply buy power from a company that provides 100% renewable electricity than to put solar panels on your roof.
Financially, there is only a small sliver of New Zealand households for which PV is a sound investment. Another paper by the Electric Power Engineering Centre found that the only households that get a good return are those with high daytime power use and that do not need to borrow money to purchase the panels. In other words, people who are paying cash and are at home during the day using lots of power.
Dr. Allan Miller, co-author of the study, gave the examples of a large family home with a heated swimming pool or a retired couple running heaters during the day, but only if they do not need to take out loans. The study also emphasised what we have known for many decades: investments should be made in energy efficiency and conservation before even considering solar electricity.
What this all goes to show is that no matter what we do, our community is likely to experience increasingly volatile weather in the coming decades and that many well meaning but ill-informed people are investing in the wrong things. As I wrote in last week’s column, quality matters immensely in the sustainability movement, and so does using the best available data. Unless we are able to leave dogma behind we will never move forward.