Friday, July 5, 2019

Submission on the Zero Carbon Bill

Submission on the Zero Carbon Bill
to the Environment Select Committee

Dr Robert Howell
5 Kanuka Road, Sandspit, RD2
094222 091,

Dear Committee Members,

Thank you for the opportunity to make this submission.   This issue is one of the most important that faces this Parliament and New Zealand, and the decisions made will determine our future existence in the most fundamental way.  Because we as a country, and the world generally, have avoided facing the science and its implications  for too long, many of the easy options for transition have gone.  This Bill is therefore to be welcomed, but we will need radical changes to the way we live in New Zealand, if we are to avoid the threats that the climate crisis brings.

My expertise is in ethics and public policy, and I have written extensively about the relationship between science, economics and ethics, and the implications of this, particularly in the area of responsible investment [1].

A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report
concluded that human activity has already caused about a 10C increase in global
temperatures compared to pre-industrial levels. It also states that an increase to
1.50C will be reached by 2030 if emissions continue to be released at the current
rate. Pathways limiting global warming to 1.50C with no or limited overshoot would
require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure
(including transport and buildings), and industrial systems [2].

Leading climate scientists had warned that the Earth is perilously close to breaking through a 1.50C upper limit for global warming, only eight months after the target was set in 2015. According to John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, to achieve a 1.50C by 2025 we will have to have closed down all coal-fired power stations across the planet. And by 2030 we will have to get rid of the combustion engine entirely. That decarbonisation will not guarantee a rise of no more than 1.50C, but it will give humanity a chance [3].  

Despite the commitments made by each country in Paris, it is projected that global average temperatures will still increase to more than 30C over pre-industrial levels and we are currently tracking at 3.30C [4]. 

The above information indicates that the risk of climate warming and its consequences is very great, and that the time for avoiding widespread devastation through droughts, floods, storms, fires, hurricanes, and extreme weather events is very short.  As David Wallace-Wells in The Unihabitable Earth states at the very beginning of his book
“It is worse, much worst, than you think” [5].

It will be unlikely and most probably impossible to avoid a 1.50C increase before or during the decade 2030.  But because a 20C change will bring widespread ecological and economic damage, the Bill should aim to limit warming to 1.50C. The difference between achieving a 1.50C and 20C target is the death of 150 million people.  That is the equivalent of 25 holocausts, 3 times the size of the death toll of the Great Leap Forward, and twice the number of deaths ocurring in World War 2 [6].

Mitigation alone will not be sufficent, and adaptation is also required (it is good to note that this responsibility is included in the Commission’s tasks).  Targets for methane and non-methane gases should be required for 2030 and well as 2050.  The emphasis should be on rapid action as soon as possible, rather than delaying the hard choices we face, to later decades.

If targets are not met, strong remedies are essential.  Section 5ZJ must be removed to allow the court to take other steps than just declaring a breach.  There should be strict timetables for the government to make and publish plans, and the government should take targets and budgets into account.

It is important for the Climate Commission to be fully independent from government.  The Commission should report to Parliament, and its funding should be safegarded to avoid funding restrictions being used to curtail the Commission’s activities.  However, the Government should be responsible for preparing a National Climate Risk Assessment rather than the Climate Commission (but with the help of the Commission).   The Government  has greater access to resources to do this.

While the use of forestry to offset emissions is desirable, they are not a ‘silver bullet’, and do not address the causes of the climate crisis.  Efforts should be directed to stopping carbon emissions rather than ameliorating their effects.  Aviation and shipping should be included within the ambit of the Bill.

[1] Howell, R. 2017. Investing in People and the Planet. ISBN 978-0-473-38418-0
[2] IPCC. Global Warming of 1.50C. Retrieved from .pdf
[3] McKie, R. 6 August 2016.  Scientists warn world will miss key climate target. Retrieved from warn?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+AUS+v1+-+AUS+morning+mail+callout&utm_term=184996&subid=16872&CMP=ema_632
[4] Climate Carbon Tracker Retrieved from

[5] Wallace-Wells, D. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth. Allen Lane.
[6] Wallace-Wells op cit p28.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Science and Economics of Steam Trains 909 words

The Science and Economics of Steam Trains
Dr Robert Howell

Steam locomotives were first developed in the United Kingdom during the early 19th century.  Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive in 1802. The first commercially successful steam locomotive was built in 1812–13 by  John Blenkinsop.  In 1825 Locomotion 1 was the first steam locomotive to haul passengers on a public railway, the Stockton and Darlington railway.  It was built by George Stephenson and his son. In 1830 George Stephenson opened the first public inter-city railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Engineers and scientists were very interested in improving the efficiency of steam power, and in so doing came to recognise the limitations of Newtonian physics, and in particular, that the universe is not in an equilibrium.  Sadi Carnot published only one book, the Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire in 1824, in which he expressed the first successful theory of the maximum efficiency of heat engines.  In this work he laid the foundations of an entirely new discipline: thermodynamics. Carnot’s work attracted little attention during his lifetime, but it was later used by Rudolf Clausius and Lord Kelvin to formalise the second law of thermodynamics.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that all matter and energy in the universe is constant, that it cannot be created or destroyed. The Second Law (sometimes called the entropy law) states that matter and energy can only be changed in one direction, from usable to unusable, from ordered to disordered. The earth is a closed system except for the entry of energy in the form of sunlight. In earth’s system what goes into part of the system must come out, and it does so with its productive potential irrevocably diminished.  This means that the energy used to create the steam and move the engines, can never achieve a 100% efficiency and the energy can never be fully captured and recycled.  There will always be a loss. 

The significance of the Entropy Law is still lost on many mainstream economists.  The current dominant economic model is based on Adam Smith’s work, and has been developed by economists such as David Ricardo (1772-1823) , William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) , Carl Menger (1840-1921), and Léon Walras (1834-1910), amongst others. 

Using Newtonian physics with its notion of equilibrium, classical economics posits that, if individuals pursue their self-interest in a competitive free-market system, the market will eventually reach an optimal and stable equilibrium that will benefit everyone. Competition will bring about the most efficient price for goods and services through a balance of supply and demand. The price mechanism will also deal with scarcity, encouraging substitution of diminishing resources.  There is no limit to growth.

When economists developed classical economic principles, they believed in the existence of natural laws of economics that were analogous to the laws of physics of the time. They substituted economic variables for physical ones; however, the physics they used was soon to be outmoded.  The thermodynamic laws are in direct contradiction with the equilibrium law that is one of the foundational principles of the current dominant neo-classical economic model.

Not all economists accepted these out-dated assumptions.  A number of developed economic analyses based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. For example, Kenneth Boulding, in an influential article in 1966, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, contrasted an open-ended economy with a closed economy. The open economy he called the “cowboy economy,” the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman economy.” Here the earth is seen as a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution.

Building on these ideas, Herman Daly proposes three rules for an economics
based on modern science.  The Output Rule states that wastes should be kept
within the assimilative capacity of the local environment. The Input Rule states
that the harvesting rates of renewable inputs shall not exceed the regenerative
capacity of the natural system that generates them. The third rule says that the
non-renewable depletion rate shall equal the rate at which renewable substitutes
are developed by human invention and investment.

Another more recent example example is Kate Raworth, who developed an image of The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries, showing how social and ecological limits are related. 

The Club of Rome produced a book, Limits to Growth, in 1972, which was based on computer simulations of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies.  Scenarios based on business-as-usual, with its belief in unlimited inputs to the economic system, could not be sustained. In 2012 Graham Turner has shown that their predictions about limits to growth were justified.

In the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, signed by 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, wrote:
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent
is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

Unfortunately the lesson of the of steam trains has still to be learnt.

An Environmental Ethic 758 words

An Environmental Ethic
Dr Robert Howell

In an article written in 1947, Aldo Leopold wrote that when Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged a dozen slave-girls whom he suspected of misbehaviour.  The girls were his property, and hence outside the moral domain.   During the Middle Ages, it was considered that there was no responsibility for animals because it was thought they had no soul.  This changed when the Utilitarians such as Bentham (1748-1832) and Mill (1806-1873) promoted the idea that right and wrong were determined by the increase of happiness and the reduction of pain.  Because animals experience pain they were brought into the moral sphere.  But, Leopold, argued, we now need to extend this to include soils, waters, plants and animals.  He proposed an ethic where a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Leopold’s claim that this extension was needed overlooked that there have always been people throughout history who have included human-Earth relations in their ethic.  These include people from many indigenous cultures, Francis of Assisi, Blake, Wordsworth, John Muir (Sierra Club), Gandhi, Rousseau and Schweitzer.  German foresters influenced in part by Rousseau, and the movement promoting wilderness, included a human-Earth perspective into their thinking.  But because the dominant notion was that the Earth’s resources were there for human benefit, the extension Leopold argued for was justified.

It was twentieth century scientists such as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold who led the modern development in environmental ethics.  Carson’s influential Silent Spring, published in 1963, described a town where there were no birds because they were killed by chemical pesticides.  Carson argued that we need a moral notion of respect for nature.

It has been the last few decades of the twentieth century and this century, with the growing awareness of the deterioration of the Earth’s ecological systems, especially those that are critical for human survival, that the need to rethink our values has become urgent.  The climate crisis is the obvious threat, but there are other aspects including water, food supplies, atmospheric and water borne toxins, and species loss.  This is linked with the limits to growth, and this is in contrast to our dominant economic activity that sees no limits to the exploitation of Earth’s resources for human utility.

Modern philosophers have used the tradition ethical frameworks, which focussed on a human-human ethic, to include a human-Earth ethic.  Hursthouse builds on Aristotle’s Ethics: she has developed the virtue of respect for nature as a new virtue. 

Singer is a modern utilitarian or consequentialist.  He argues that we have a responsibility to avoid harming people.  Individually and collectively through our emissions we are causing harm.  We have an obligation to act individually and to change the policy of governments to slow climate change.

Shue uses the social contract tradition to advocate for a rights approach based on fairness.  He states that the purpose of a right is to provide protection for human beings.  The climate crisis threatens in particular the right to life, the right to health, and the right to subsistence.

In 1987 The World Commission on Environment and Development (known as “the Brundtland Commission”) launched Our Common Future Report with a call for a “new charter” to set “new norms” to guide the transition to sustainable development.
Following that, discussion about an Earth Charter took place in the process leading to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Rio Declaration became the statement of the achievable consensus at that time, but it had its limitations.

In 1994, Maurice Strong (Secretary-General of the Rio Summit) and Mikhail Gorbachev, working through organizations they each founded (Earth Council and Green Cross International respectively), launched an initiative (with the support from the Dutch Government) to develop an Earth Charter as a civil society initiative. The initial drafting and consultation process drew on hundreds of international documents and people.  The Earth Charter uses a number of concepts including respect, ecological integrity, and care.

Elsewhere I have expanded on a number of these issues, trends and developments, and included the ANZ Bank’s Code of Conduct and corporate sustainability principles as an example.   I have recommended as a General Principle:
Respect and care for the Earth and its ecological systems by living within the energy and material capacity of the Earth to support human and other forms of life, encourage resilience, and take responsibility as stewards of the Earth (kaitiakitanga).

For a more extended discussion goto