2019 summary

  • Started my fourth career – back in the private sector helping to stand up a ClimateTech private equity fund. This is basically my dream job, even if part-time for now.
  • Got through some major wins in my third career with $18 million for the Bioresource Processing Alliance and Product Accelerator, and increases for the Commercialisation Partner Network and PreSeed Accelerator Fund. Investment in research for the circular economy and for high-value manufacturing is where New Zealand’s long-term wealth will come from.
  • Spent a lot of time asking myself “What would Mariana Mazzucato do?”
  • KnowYourStuffNZ continue to step up our work – lots of great new volunteers and people taking more responsibility, lots of support from festivals and festival-goers, found new drugs before Customs found them, and I eye-rolled my way through my first live TV interview, gaining the nickname “Dr Jez the Fact Cannon”.
  • Made Chlöe Swarbrick cry, in a good way of course.
  • KnowYourStuffNZ made serious political progress with Young NZ First & Young Nats unexpectedly on board and “overwhelming” public support.
  • Wendy & I managed to remain polite with a certain Member of Parliament. It was close though.
  • Enjoyed being in a position to direct some career opportunities towards a few very bright younger people.
  • Went to too many festivals.
  • Went to Ignition without my usual crew… and had a great time because lots of people were looking out for me.
  • Billy christened my new bike the “magic future bike“, coz it really is.
  • Planted more, although not as many plants as Andrea.
  • Was complimented on the quality of my banter by Police officers. I was not expecting this.
  • Actually had fun in Auckland, with the help of several friends.
  • Didn’t do The Goat, again.
  • Did shear sheep, badly.

New Year’s resolution:
To stop being polite to people equivocating about the climate emergency because, to quote someone else working on the climate fund, “I’m done fucking around”.

The failure of the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme, or not

Everyone’s been slagging off the Emissions Trading Scheme for failing to reduce emissions.

PCE: Returned ETS bill a failure
University of Canterbury: Greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme more or less dead
Labour: National’s ETS will mean burning more coal; failure to reduce emissions

And here’s the NZ carbon price collapse:

Market prices from Carbon Commtrade

I think they’re missing a critical point – the ETS is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. People are assuming that the ETS is a tool for reducing emissions. Not quite – it is a tool for matching the incentive for emissions reductions with the desire for emissions reductions. Let’s see how this works

Sustainable carrying capacity – or what are limits anyway?

Last week, the Royal Society published two papers on the sustainable carrying capacity of New Zealand. I’ve been working on these for a while but, as ever, I don’t feel like I authored them. Instead, they’re a consolidation of discussions with experts, reviewed by yet more experts. There’s a huge list of names of the back of them, go see.

The papers are asking the question of how many people can New Zealand support and copiously failing to give a simple answer, but that’s ok, coz this stuff is hard. For instance, here’s some of the press about the papers:
Kiwis take more than a fair share – NZ Herald
Less television, more gardening suggested – Otago Daily Times

Both those articles miss the point, or rather they are casting about for a simple message – that we’re overshooting the planet’s capability to support us. There’s a bunch of issues with that simple message, which I’ll get around to describing another time, but the primary one is that we know we’re in overshoot, we’ve known that for really quite some time, and saying it again isn’t going to change that.
We know that, so let’s think a bit harder

Climate change – how we justify inaction to ourselves

There is fundamental question that baffles anyone who is paying attention: Global greenhouse gas emissions continue upwards at a faster rate than the worst of predictions. Climate change is a clear existential threat to civilisation, and yet our responses have been trivial and ineffective. At a society level, there is insufficient political mass to drive realistic, effective responses. At a personal level, we continue to live our lives as if in ignorance of all this. Why? Why can’t we connect the mass of scientific evidence about the problem with any kind of realistic solution?

Answering this is the most important paper I’ve read this year. Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change” by Kari Marie Norgaard. It has a classically dry title, I’d have called it something like “Climate Change: How we justify inaction to ourselves”.

There’s four existing explanations of why we fail to act. All are wrong:

  • “If only people knew” – yet we know more about climate change science than ever before
  • “If only people cared” – yet concern about climate change continues to increase
  • “People care about more immediate needs” – yet for most people in affluent societies, needs are social constructs
  • “Everything will be fine” – yet people place less trust in the governments or technologies that might solve climate change

Instead, inaction is a consequence of denial at both a personal and social level. It’s not denial of the science (except for some nutters) or of the threat. People are deeply concerned and care about the future. However, they also “work to avoid acknowledging disturbing information in order to 1) avoid emotions of fear, guilt and helplessness, 2) follow cultural norms, and 3) maintain positive conceptions of individual and national identity”.

People do not like to feel threatened by problems that are out of their control. They do not want to face large-scale problems that have no easy solutions. They do not want to feel guilty that their actions are contributing to the problems. They do not want to see themselves as bad people. All of which adds up to inaction.

Her recommendation for enabling action is to provide a “sense that something can be done” and accurate information about effective action. The approach to personal action should focus on media information campaigns and opportunities for effective actions “that build on a favourable view of the self”.

An example of this approach could be the UK’s 10:10 project:
“10:10 is an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind one simple idea: that by working together we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions in 2010… Cutting 10% in one year is a bold target, but for most of us it’s an achievable one… It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a huge problem like climate change, but by uniting everyone behind immediate, effective and achievable action, 10:10 enables all of us to make a meaningful difference… Let’s get started.”

Their approach is positive, personal, uniting, and enabling. Go them.

If you’re not keen on reading 68 pages of wonkery, then here’s a clear comment on the paper What retards action on climate change? and a Wired interview with her: The Psychology of Climate Change Denial. (Just don’t even glance at the comments, it’s a disheartening parade of the kind of denial that she’s talking about).

(So I could go back to the first paragraph of this article and completely re-write it to avoid the doomyness. Then again, I’m a scientist who grew up in the cold War – I’m entirely happy with doubt and doom. But I recognise that few people have that kind of approach to reality.)

How much can we reduce NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions, at what cost, right now?

That’s a big question, with lots of data-heavy answers, so let’s sum that all up in one graph:

This is the cost curve1. Each action or new technology is a block on that curve2. The width is the saving of emissions; the height is the cost. The options are sorted by cost, because we want to take the most cost effective actions first.

First of all, we start with energy efficiency. Basically, our houses are so crap that improving them is cost-negative, it’s actually profitable. The same is true for commercial buildings and several industry processes.

Then there’s the nitrification inhibitor DCD, you put it on pastures, it stops cow piss turning into the third-most important GHG, nitrous oxide. Then after that, things start getting expensive, and undefined. The dark green colour is forestry, and trees start to matter a lot. Pink is transport and electricity generation.

The certainty of this curve is pretty shaky. Even for DCD, it works well under some farm conditions, less well under others. Similarly, the dark green forestry blocks are just “Afforestation and avoided deforestation: $15 price signal”, $25, $50, and so on. Basically, the ETS puts a price on carbon, in response, the forestry, transport, and electricity generation sectors respond to that price by doing whatever it is they do.

And yes, it looks tricky for agriculture (the light green blocks). Nitrification inhibitors are cost effective, but provide reductions that are nowhere near enough. Every other option looks expensive.

But we can reduce emissions, right now, to a given level, with some idea of the cost. So, what level of reductions do we need? Here’s that curve of our reduction options, put in the context of NZ’s emissions:

Yeah, we have options to save getting on for 20 million tonnes per year. NZ’s emissions are 75 million tonnes per year. Oops. The saving grace is that this curve is for our options right now. Better technology means the curve changes for the better.

1 – The data here comes from this MfE briefing
2 – Yes, strictly speaking, each action won’t deliver a set benefit at a set cost, it will have it’s own cost curve of given benefits at given costs, but that just gets complicated. These are reasonable assumptions, and if you don’t like it, go and argue with McKinsey, who started the trend for this kind of curve.

Energy research geekery – carbon capture and storage

“Carbon capture and storage: Fundamental thermodynamics and current technology”, Shannon Page, et al, Energy Policy, 37 (2009), pp 3314-3324

New Zealand’s energy system is pretty unique. We’re isolated and can’t trade electricity with anyone else, we’ve got more hydro than nearly anyone else, geothermal’s big here, and we’ve vast amounts of coal that we’ve yet to dig up. Oh, and governments that have varied between big state projects and market fundamentalism.

So it’s no surprise that there’s lots of research on our energy system. In fact, there’s a special issue of a journal called Energy Policy devoted to NZ (September 2009 issue). I’m reading through this, as the work tails off from my current project (Project “Jump into the Firing Line”). I’ll be looking at a couple of the articles in detail, as they’re fairly key to where NZ can go with energy (and they’re not online for free, so it’s not like many people can just go and read them).

First, carbon capture and storage. The glorious future of clean coal

Thought experiment

“Climate fears are driving ‘Ecomigration’ across globe” and some are coming to NZ – From the Washington Post

Taking this article at face value, why the hell not? NZ grows enough food for at least ten million people. Make agriculture a bit more intensive and I reckon we can fit twenty million in, no probs.

How about we tell everyone the party is here, and see how many people are keen to come?

(Grumble, grumble, bloody immigrants taking our jobs… oh no, wait, that’s me. Great people, immigrants, keen to get off their arses and build a new life for themselves, just the kind of people this nation needs!)

Curse you, unstated chain of dependencies

Back on the Mitochondrion head-banging trek. It was doing weird stuff, as usual, but when it’s doing really weird stuff then there’s probably a problem deep, deep down in the code. Spend the day looking, and trying to sort out other things.

Power regulator still exploding. NFI but I have a backup plan.

Can’t reproduce the Canaan Downs bug, grr…

Yup, pointer bug in the lowest level of the code. Took till 9 pm to find it, but find it I did, and then a whole bunch of pretty lights just started doing what they should. I’m getting really fed up of having to deal with BASIC, it’s like giving a fire-spinner nothing but petrol – it might be okay, but it’s just so easy for everything to go horribly wrong. Next project will be an Arduino, coz then I can use C (sort of), and have such delights as:

  • functions
  • passable function arguments
  • local variables
  • libraries so I don’t have to write my own linked lists
  • header files
  • and other programming advances from the 1970s

In other news, “Coal firm pays for emissions report”. Well, what do you expect? A company’s entitled to defend its business position. What disappoints me is that the report (“The impact of the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme on New Zealand’s economy”, briefer summary) was given so much credibility when it first came out, given that’s it’s a transparent and egregious attempt at producing the numbers that the client wanted, rather than numbers that anyone might believe. At least the Minister of Climate Change at the time called it just plain wrong.

Anyway, as mentioned, speed gospel:

And gabbatubbies:

Includes Rotterdam Terror Corps, all good gabba should.

Peter Dunne in ‘Peter Dunne says something sensible’ shocker!

The terms of the Select Committee on Climate Change are out (PDF, at the end) and they’ve dropped the ludicrous call to rake over the science once again.

“The science is pretty clearly established,” Dunne said. “It’s somewhat ludicrous and arrogant to expect a New Zealand parliamentary committee to review the science which the IPCC, Stern (UK economist Lord Stern) and every notable committee in the world has adjudicated on.”

This makes me a very happy bunny, as I won’t have to waste my time flogging a horse that’s long buried.

Still, in a great example of failing to connect with reality, Rodney Hide said as far as he was concerned the committee will get to look at the issue of the science theory behind climate change.

Back to where we were fifteen years ago…

The incoming US government is planning to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and cut those by 80% by 2050.

Barack Obama on climate change:
“Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.”

The incoming NZ government is planning to set up a committee.

Draft terms of reference from the National-ACT agreement on confidence and supply:
“The Committee shall:
hear competing views on the scientific aspects of climate change from internationally respected sources and assess the quality and impartiality of official advice”

Why do I bother?

Well, coz:
“The early bioneer Bill McLarney was stirring a vat of algae in his Costa Rica research center when a brassy North American lady strode in. What, she demanded, was he doing stirring a vat of green goo when what the world really needs is love? “There’s theoretical love,” Bill replied, “and then there’s applied love”—and kept on stirring.” – from RMI

Long Gully wind farm

(For those of you not in Wellington, NZ, it’s a tad windy here. So we’re building three wind farms, two big, one small, within ten miles of the city. One is close to my in-laws’ farm. I don’t know of any other city that’s building so many, so close. Then again, there’s no other cities this windy. One is close to my in-laws’ farm.)

The Long Gully wind farm proposal is out. It’s different to the bigger projects at Mill Creek in Ohariu and West Wind at Terawhiti Station, smaller turbines, NZ-made, two-bladed not three, no major access roads to be built, feeding the Wellington local grid, not the national grid.

Still, smaller turbines, less of them, but closer to Wellington itself. It’s in prime mountain biking country. A lot more more people will be able to see it, but the turbines themselves won’t be as huge (about same size as the Brooklyn turbine). Also, smaller, fewer turbines so less elecy, 14 MegaWatt, rather than 210 MW for West Wind.

So what do people think? Good approach, bad approach? Can’t we put them in the Wairarapa? Ah, f’it, let’s burn coal instead?

Our very own climate deniers, now in Parliament

I know there’s probably not too many ACT voters here, but ffs, Rodney’s latest speech on climate change could have been written by the nutters. It’s like looking into a parallel world, where words don’t mean what you or I might think they mean:

“ACT’s commitment to freedom commits us to something else too – something vitally missing from our politics at the present time – reason. Side-by-side with freedom stands reason – our human ability to think, to discover, to know, and to grow our knowledge by testing our ideas against logic and experience makes freedom possible.”

“I remain sceptical that greenhouse gases are the cause of a global warming.”

“A warmer climate with more CO2 in the atmosphere is an unambiguous benefit to New Zealand and to the world.”

“All official measures of global temperature show that temperature peaked in 1998 and has been declining since at least 2002”

Not surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him at any of the scientific talks that the Royal Society has organised at Parliament.

Silly me, I’d have thought that a press release mocking the RSNZ as “a harem of whores” and calling the Society “Floozies for Fascism”, “Tarts Against Technology”, and “Doxies for Despotism” was actually an ironic, if slightly unhinged, way of mocking the Climate Science Coalition (our main critics who, truth be told, are much more polite). Such mocking has happened before, with some style, by the Flat Earth Society.

However, given that the press release came from one of NZ’s few objectivists, it’s entirely possible that he’s being serious. You’d think an objectivist would have some respect for science, objectivism being based on the idea that there is an objective reality, that humans can perceive? Seemingly, no, ‘objectivism’ here means not much more than pointing and yelling “Statists!”.

Anyway, in other news, in the UK there’s a waiting list of up to twenty weeks for hybrid cars. I guess the Statist conspiracy to destroy civilisation by making us buy more efficient cars is doing quite well then?

Mitochondrion news – having got the driver boards working properly, I’ve been thinking about the main board. This has three bodges on it already, and there’s at least seven more things I’d like to fix, which is a fair bit for something that’s all of fourteen centimetres long and two wide. So I’m thinking of rebuilding that next. What, you wanted me to finish something?

Word of the week – “pantiwadulous”

The Royal Society of New Zealand released its statement on climate change last week. No, I didn’t write it, we have real climate scientists for that, but I did comment on the drafts. It says what the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences and all the rest have said, namely that:

  • it is happening
  • we are causing it
  • we should do something about it

Here’s the response from our own bunch of skeptics, running roughly:

  • we don’t like the people who said this
  • we don’t believe the huge pile of very consistent evidence that everyone else believes, coz it’s just circumstantial
  • there has been no warming since 1958 (that’s a new complaint to me)
  • the climate varies anyway
  • you can’t predict the future with absolute certainty, so we’re not going to try at all, and nor should anyone else

So, when a small number of people have dug their feet in this much, it’s hard to see what possible evidence could ever change their positions. What can be done, other than (to paraphrase Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) to be polite and wait for them to die?

Anyway, on to lighter fare, the Ministry of Transport’s report on “Surface transport costs and charges” (overview, full report.) The headline numbers are that, surprise, surprise, no-one pays the full costs of their transport:

  • cars directly pay 64% of their costs,
  • trucks directly pay 56% of their costs
  • buses directly pay 68% of their costs
  • rail users directly pay 77% of their costs

The main costs that aren’t directly paid for are building roads, congestion, deaths and injuries due to accidents, pollution, and noise. The main difference between road and rail costs are that rail users are supposed to pay back the cost of building the track; road users do not pay back the cost of building the road.

So those who travel less subsidise those who travel more, and taxpayers are subsidising road users more than they subsidise rail users, and truckers get more subsidy than anyone else. Of course, these figures aren’t entirely accurate and changes in costs can alter them (oops – $1/litre petrol drives NZ’s roading programme).

You can argue about whether this system is fair, you can argue about whether truckies should have to pay what they are asked to pay, you can argue how sustainable this is, and how sustainable it might be if there were no subsidies and every user paid the true costs, but please, at least start the discussion with the facts.