A world leader for the new rocket science

Just as policy wonks and scientists were settling in last Wednesday to plot how to ramp up research into agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and as business was yet again pushing John Key to delay the emissions trading scheme, Tokyo announced one.

New Zealand’s ETS is due to come into effect on July 1 for all sectors but agriculture, delayed to 2015, and forestry, in since January 2008. Delay now would need rushed legislation.

ACT would vote for that. John Boscawen, backed by Rodney Hide, has been peppering Science Minister Wayne Mapp on the accuracy of temperature readings collated by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

ACT thinks climate change is a hoax. It listens to sceptics who think there has been no global warming and/or humans are not the cause and reckon the United Nations’ scientists cooked the books to scare us into green penitence.

Have they really? In last week’s New Yorker Elizabeth Kolbert turned sceptic on the sceptics: “No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax.”

Try this: the honour of being picked for the project, then a reputation to keep up, then (to coin a phrase) a snowball effect — or, to quote Citigroup chief executive Chuck Prince in 2007 a month before his and other banks started sliding towards subprime-induced bankruptcy: “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Plausible? Hardly. Key’s cabinet goes with the United Nations’ scientists.

That has, paradoxically, put him where he swore he would not go: ahead of trading partners with his, albeit much softened, version of the all-sectors, all-gases ETS. His ETS is broader than Europe’s. Australia’s pale ETS is stalled until after this year’s election (when the Greens might have the numbers to get it toughened). The United States is exploring regulatory routes round a hidebound Congress.

The only movement has been in Japan but then only modestly and only in Tokyo, where rightwing governor Shintaro Ishihara last week decreed large non-industrial emitters must cut emissions by 8 per cent and large industrial sites by 6 per cent on average between 2010 and 2014 from their highest three-year average in 2002-07 and if they miss they must buy credits in an ETS. The centre-left national government’s plan is stalled.

Despite the ETS front placing, Nick Smith has not backed off the July 1 date. He reaffirmed it at another New Zealand world-leading climate change initiative: last week’s inaugural Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions conference.

Key, under lobbying pressure, was less unequivocal but did say he intended to bring it in on time..

Smith’s reaffirmed line, noted here last month, is that changes are being made to allocation and other regulations, in part because there is no Australian scheme to align to, as he had intended, and in part because a large number of smaller businesses, including hothouse growers, now qualify for credits. If trading partners go slow, Smith’s line is to use the scheduled 2011 review to extend beyond 1 January 2013 the present temporary 50 per cent concessions to big emitters.

Some businesses want no delay in the start date. The forest industry has been in the scheme 27 months already and is adapting and starting to plant. Holcim needs certainty for its new, more energy-efficient cement plant (the alternative is imports, possibly from dirty plants).

But in climate change “certainty” is a slippery word. Princeton University’s Tim Searchinger, an expert on “interdisciplinary environmental issues related to agriculture”, told the 31 countries at the research conference: “Don’t trust the numbers. They are all generated in the second best way.” He was referring to options for increasing food production, not the temperature readings.

Searchinger underlined the population challenge: how can enough food be produced for a population set to grow by a third by 2050 when roughly 1 billion of the present 6.8 billion are underfed? Having canvassed a wide range of options promoted as solutions, including no-till cropping, biochar and bringing undefined “other” land into production, he settled for increasing productivity.

By genetic modification? a delegate asked. It had “real potential”, Searchinger said, and is a “useful tool” but “not nearly as important as a lot of other things”. Greens will puzzle whether to grump or cheer.

Searchinger said climate change adds to the food problem because, the United Nations’ scientists say, it will reduce productivity. Nevertheless, he ended on an optimistic note “because there has been so little effort to solve these issues” and, if world-leading Key’s global alliance scientists put their minds to it, “we can solve it, just as we built rockets”.

It’s that simple? Sometimes climate change talk ascends into a kind of mysticism. Key might lead the world but he stays on earth.