Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash
Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash

Peter Williams: Why you should be sceptical about the Climate Change Commission report

Opinion 10/06/2021

OPINION: So now we know what the Climate Change Commission is recommending what the government does to stop the planet warming. It is gross interference in the way we are expected to live our lives, the way we will travel around, the way we will keep ourselves warm and the way we will earn our living as an exporter of food. 

But at the end of this massive four hundred page report, there was still one absolutely basic unanswered question: if we become a carbon zero country in 29 years time, will it make any difference at all to the world’s climate? Surely, and most absolutely certainly, the answer to that question is no. 

Why then are these fundamental changes to society seemingly being accepted by the political and media class without the slightest questioning?

Tell me I’m wrong. I’m happy to accept explanations as to why what was proposed yesterday will make any difference at all to the world’s climate. New Zealand, remember, produces 0.17 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet we are expected to make basic changes to our lifestyle, to reduce the quality and convenience of our way of life while China and India keep on building coal-fired power stations and together contribute more than 35 percent of the world’s GHGs and are not making any significant effort to reduce that percentage. 

This is the thing that gets me annoyed, particularly with China. We just love trading with them. We sort of make criticisms about their human rights record. But we never make any comment about their contribution to man-made emissions. Yet, just last year, China brought online 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired generation capacity. There are a further 247 gigawatts in planning or production. 

To compare, New Zealand’s total electricity generation is 9.2 gigawatts. And we’re making these sacrifices while China just keeps smoking merrily on - and nobody seems to be putting any pressure on them at all.

So how do you feel about what the Climate Commission here is telling the government? The move to electric cars is probably going to happen steadily anyway. Not because of government policy but because the world’s largest car manufacturers will most likely have stopped making internal ICE cars within ten years. The difficulty in this country will be having enough electricity capacity. 

Unlike China, we’re not building power stations at any scale to match our population increase, and our power prices are just going through the roof. Transpower publishes a weekly Market Insights sheet, and the most recent one available is only for the last week of May. The average wholesale spot price for electricity in that week was $367 per megawatt-hour, 36.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. You can go back a few years to see what the equivalent price was in that week, say in 2018. It was $38 per/MWH, or 3.8 cents per/KWH. 

Remember your household electricity price is somewhere between 25 and 30 cents depending on the deal you have, the plan you have and who your retailer is. If we can’t get the wholesale price down, and in May the weekly average spot prices were between $242 and $367 per/MWH, then obviously the retailers are going to be increasing domestic prices.

Now even if the retail price per kilowatt-hour went up to say 40 cents, the price to power up your EV will still be a whole lot cheaper than filling up at the petrol pump, but it will still take you a lot longer to charge up, and you will not have the same range as in your petrol-powered car, and it will most likely cost you a whole lot more to buy in the first place. 

Now, who knows what the battery technology will give us in 10 years in terms of fast charging, range and cost, but there is still the issue around how much power we’ll be generating in this country to power up that fleet. And most worryingly, where that power will be coming from. 

We like to put it about that we have one of the highest percentages of renewable electricity generation in the world, and in terms of capacity, that’s true, with a combination of hydro, geothermal, wind and solar. Except when we have a dry year, which is what’s happening in the hydro lakes again this year. During the month of May, hydro accounted for only about 49 percent of electricity generation, wind is still inconsequential at about six and a half percent, solar is even smaller but thermal - that is coal and gas - produced 23 percent of our electricity. Don’t we need to be really, really aware of that number? If the Huntly power station is shut down, that means the backup - the emergency power generation when the wind isn’t blowing and the lakes are low - means we won’t have any power for parts of the country. That will just be unacceptable, surely?

So how much have you followed the Climate Change Commission’s report? Are you enthusiastic about the changes proposed? I think the idea of electric planes is fanciful - but then, who knows what technology might emerge in a decade? But if we currently have one electric plane in the country, and it can carry one passenger with the pilot and it has a range of 90 minutes, maybe the potential is there for the size to increase in the next decade? But I’m sceptical. 

What gets me is the Climate Change Commission’s requirement that we walk, cycle and catch buses more often to cut down on carbon emissions. Isn’t that forced behavioural change? Is that what you want in a supposedly free country? I don’t. I want to be able to make my own decisions.

Catch Peter Williams every weekday morning from 9am on Magic Talk.