Huge increase in the minuscule is still tiny

Last Wednesday the NZ Herald tried to shame New Zealand into more grown-up climate behaviour.

A body grandly known as the UN Climate Change Secretariat, a moniker which smoothly conveys an image of sponging up large amounts of cash for no earthly good, had just released figures showing “the growth in New Zealand’s emissions between 1990 and 2006 to be among the worst in the world’s industrialised nations.”

The Herald, through the pen of Paula Oliver, went on to say this meant that New Zealand’s “poor record” of increasing greenhouse gas emissions had been “exposed” internationally.

Being exposed feels bad, but what does all this really mean?

Countries were ranked according to the percentage change in their emissions—measured in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent—and only five countries fared worse than New Zealand: Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Australia and Greece. Our emissions grew over the period by about a quarter, those five by more.

Emotive descriptions not really ‘journalism’

Of course, a quarter of a shipload represents a larger quantity than a quarter of a teaspoon. So, for a sense of proportion, what were our actual emissions, excluding land use changes and forestry, in millions of tonnes of CO2-e (carbon dioxide equivalents)? What grounds does Paula have for criticising her nation? The UN website says our emissions in 2006 (the latest year available) were about 78 million tonnes. In the same year the USA’s emissions were 7,017 million tonnes. Great Britain’s were 656 million tonnes. Portugal, 3rd on the list, put out 83 million tonnes. So our emissions were very small.

According to the UN figures, measuring factories, power stations and the like, New Zealand supplies about 1.1% of human emissions; when you include forestry, farming and land use changes, we supply only about 0.3% of human emissions. By either measure, our contribution to alleged dangerous man-made global warming is minuscule.

So, yes, our emissions increased by about a quarter, but only up to a still tiny proportion of global emissions. You might wonder, as I did, where we actually stand in absolute terms in the panoply of nations? I searched for it. In 2005, we ranked 73rd among 211 nations for CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use, cement production and gas flaring. There are many nations below us—138, to be precise—and they are all small. That means we contribute very little to “global warming”, no matter what the greens say about us.

Odourless, colourless carbon dioxide

The headline was “NZ gets ‘dirty’ rating”, so there’s no doubt that we’ve done wrong; but we’re not told what ‘wrong’ means. So did Paula tell us what our emissions growth actually caused? No, she didn’t, she described them only as ‘dirty’. With the implications hanging in the air (so to speak), she went on to discuss “carbon” taxes and left us with an image of the air full of dirty black carbon.

In reality, the odourless, colourless carbon dioxide moves invisibly into the atmosphere and generously feeds the plants we all eat. There’s no dirt, no pollution and no deleterious effects from a gas comprising a mere 0.0385% of the atmosphere.

The casual reader could scarcely be blamed for gaining the impression from this twisted piece of Herald journalism that the climate is overheating just because New Zealand has neglected its climatic responsibilities. Which is entirely incorrect.

Thus, with emotive, imprecise journalism is untruth confirmed in unquestioning minds.

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