WellUrban

Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Neutral aspirations


Thanks to ShoppingFix for pointing out that at tonight's Strategy & Policy meeting, Wellington City Council will consider becoming carbon neutral. At first I thought that this just referred to the council's own operations, but on reading the report it turns out that they also intend for the whole city of Wellington to become carbon neutral.

That is indeed a lofty aspiration: reducing and/or offsetting the emissions from all the residents and businesses in Wellington would be a huge task. How do they intend to do this? The short answer is that they don't know yet. The long answer is that the process will take three steps:
1. Set an aspirational vision. An aspirational vision can be useful in galvanising support and inspiring action. For example, the Government has stated its aspiration for New Zealand to become carbon-neutral in the longer-term. Such a vision for Wellington could have value and would provide a framework for intermediate targets.

2. Consider an increase to existing targets. ...the Council’s existing emissions reduction targets are modest, both in comparison to those of other cities, and to what is eventually required to keep global warming at a level which can be reasonably managed. Targets for the short-term (2010), and medium-term (2020) should be re-evaluated, and a long-term target (2050 or beyond) should be set that approaches the aspirational vision.

3. Scope a work programme. The chosen set of intermediate targets to achieve an aspirational vision will need to be supported by a detailed work programme that is likely to achieve each target. This will provide practical and quantifiable benefits to the Council and the city.
All that this meeting can (potentially) agree to is step 1: revised targets would then then be decided on in September this year, with the subsequent work programme intended to inform the 2008/09 annual plan. The closest the report gets to suggesting concrete measures is to list existing council programmes (energy, transport, urban development, water management, waste minimisation) and mention a few in-house measures (appointing an Energy Manager, Sustainable Building Guidelines for Council buildings, and partnering with Nova Gas to generate electricity from landfill gas). The report also suggests a few broader policies, including Sustainable Building Guidelines for the wider community, urban development and transport planning around a compact growth spine, travel demand management and bus priority planning.

Obviously, there's a lot of planning to be done before anything bolder can be suggested, but at the moment it does sound like just minor tweaks to the status quo. It's worth pondering this chart, showing sources of Wellington community CO2 emissions in 2001, from appendix 2 to the report:

sources of Wellington community CO2 emissions in 2001There are several things that can be read from this:
  • Switching to carbon-neutral electricity sources could make a major difference (so it's good news that Project West Wind's consent won't be appealed);
  • Petrol, diesel & LPG make up 38% of Wellington's emissions, so unless something drastic is done about transport, the council's going to be planting an awful lot of trees;
  • The council's report writers haven't learned that if there's one thing worse than a pie chart, it's a tilted 3D pie chart.
Perhaps the funniest thing in the appendices, though, is the list of existing council initiatives that contribute to reducing emissions: among the "public transport initiatives" section there is a bullet point for the Johnsonville Line. Hang on: is this the same council that did its best to replace the electric Johnsonville trains with diesel buses?

It's best not to be too cynical, though, and the council should be encouraged to set bold targets. The question is: can they back it up with bold action?

15 Comments:

At 4:54 PM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's hope they DON'T back it up with bold action- this would likely mean a pricey carbon tax on all fuels which go to fund a massive carbon bureaucracy, with no net effect on carbon emissions, but a big drag on the economy.

The whole thing's a scam anyway- even in ultragreen Germany, where they put solar panels on every roof, and wind turbines despoil the rural landscape, they are still building another 20-30 coal power stations in the next few years.

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2396828,00.html

Although improvements to public transport may reduce carbon emissions, there is really bugger all else we can do IMHO. And I question that electricity figure- I thought we got most of our power through the Cook Strait cable from South Islan hydro plants.

Since when did WellUrban become the voice of the Carbon Mafia? :-)

 
At 5:35 PM, June 07, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Let's hope they DON'T back it up with bold action- this would likely mean a pricey carbon tax on all fuels which go to fund a massive carbon bureaucracy"

I don't think local government have the power to impose a carbon tax, but I do think it's important to pay for the damage that a particular energy source does. I am a little wary of the whole carbon trading and offsetting thing, which is why I hope that some of this goes to actually reducing emissions rather than just paying some sort of indulgence for them.

"Although improvements to public transport may reduce carbon emissions, there is really bugger all else we can do IMHO."

More efficient buildings could make a huge difference: if everything were built to the standard of new green buildings such as the Meridian one at Site 7, there are potentially big savings on power use.

"And I question that electricity figure- I thought we got most of our power through the Cook Strait cable from South Islan hydro plants."

A lot of the power companies that service Wellington (such as Genesis) are heavy users of gas and coal.

"Since when did WellUrban become the voice of the Carbon Mafia? :-)"

How long have you been reading?

 
At 10:05 AM, June 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is going to be very tricky given the nature of Wellington as a employement location for many residents of other cities ( Hutt/Porirua/Kapiti) is where is the line drawn,

Does someone driving into wellington city count all the carbon on their trip or just that when they come across the city limits,

Another big question is will they count things like West wind even if the electricity is sent to other parts of the country,

Also the whole "carbon neutral" label being thrown round currently is very spurious,as it is only on present emissions. not whoel carbon lifecycles

I.E you build a wooden house and heat it with reticulated gas, and incur a large carbon footprint,

however if you build a concrete house, and heat it with meridian Energy Electiricy you can claim a 0 Carbon footprint,

Despite a wooden house having a much lower life-cycle contribution than a concrete one.

BUT no one has calculates the carbon used in the the construction of the house or the Hydro Dams that allow you the carbon neutral claim,

To be serious Wellington would need to include the carbon released in the construction of all the concrete and steel intensive CBD,

But I doubt they will.

 
At 10:52 AM, June 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curing concrete absorbs carbon dioxide. You'd actually have a negative net impact.

 
At 11:05 AM, June 08, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Curing concrete absorbs carbon dioxide. You'd actually have a negative net impact."

Though concrete does (AFAIK) also require a lot of energy to make, so it does have a large upfront cost unless it's made entirely with carbon-free energy.

The question of embedded energy's impact on the whole life cycle depends on the length of that life: if a concrete building is still being used in 50 or 100 years time, then it has a lot of time to recoup its initial embedded energy through savings in heating etc.

 
At 2:57 PM, June 08, 2007, Blogger Andy said...

"The whole thing's a scam anyway- even in ultragreen Germany, where they put solar panels on every roof, and wind turbines despoil the rural landscape, they are still building another 20-30 coal power stations in the next few years."

That's a pretty poor argument for throwing in the towel on climate change. How many coal power stations would they have had to build if they didnt use wind turbines and solar panels? Have any older coal power stations been closed down as these ones are being built, and are they newer, more efficient designs?

I'm not a fan of coal power, so it's disappointing to see them building coal plants, but you'll need more - including a working link for a start - to argue that attempts at carbon neutrality are a scam.

 
At 6:22 PM, June 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I added up the CO2 emission sources from fossil fuels for wellington in the graph above and it adds up to 54%

 
At 8:54 PM, June 08, 2007, Anonymous erentz said...

Neat. Welcome to nuclear free and carbon neutral Wellington. Sounds like the kind of vision I'd expect from one of the progressive European or North American cities, not the Wellington of recent years. Feels like there's been a bit of a shift lately with the council finally coming around on things like FTTH, the environment, public transport priorities, and such.

It is ambitious, but I like seeing grand visions set, it gives something to aim for and get inspired by. The visions wont necessarily become a complete reality, but you'll do a lot better by aiming high than aiming low.

 
At 5:52 PM, June 09, 2007, Anonymous maximus said...

Anonymous said...
"Curing concrete absorbs carbon dioxide. You'd actually have a negative net impact."

Well, you're right and yet totally wrong. Yes, cement does, when it sets, absorb some CO2. However, to make cement, and therefore concrete, a vast amount of CO2 is released:

"In all, cement manufacture contributes about 5% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. CO2 is emitted from the calcination process of limestone, from combustion of fuels in the kiln, as well as from power generation.

"Estimated total carbon emissions from cement production in 1994 were 307 million metric tons of carbon (MtC), 160 MtC from process carbon emissions, and 147 MtC from energy use.

"Overall, the top 10 cement-producing countries in 1994 accounted for 63% of global carbon emissions from cement production."

http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.26.1.303


...so, no, using more concrete is not a good idea...

 
At 10:53 PM, June 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Power generation and combustion in the kiln are irrelevant; they're incidental to the production and totally avoidable. The release from limestone calcination is roughly equal (it is slightly greater) to what will be absorbed in the curing process. So it's not a hugely important consideration, and it depends largely on the other factors involved in the building that could tip things either way.

 
At 8:37 AM, June 10, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

I recently applied for and was offered a job in the development group of Vestas - who I think have the largest share of the windmill market - and who have supplied the tubines in the big windmills farms in New Zealand. I turned it down - mostly because of the location - a paddock in rural Denmark - but a few things that I came across during the process were interesting.

There have been huge quality issues with windmills - at Vestas particularly, but throughout the industry. Gear assemblies in particular - supposed to last 20-30 years often crack up on the bigger windmills within a year or two. Reflecting their inability to solve the problems - Vestas recently dropped their guarantee on a new windmill from 5 to 2 years - not exactly a vote of confidence in your new and very expensive generator.

Vestas have lost money for years and years, and even in today's market - with political support, and a market full of hungry customers - they still lose money year after year. Despite this the share price stays high - not because of confidence in the windmill producer, but mostly because speculators are waiting for a large actor - Siemens or ABB to make a take-over bid.

Sort of related I have been looking for a house to buy in Denmark, and by law every house is required to be rated for energy-efficiency in sales documentation, and the cost of annual power-usage and heating bills is always provided when viewing a house. I was amazed at the level of efficiency in new houses compared with ones only 20-30 years older (which compared to New Zealand housing standards are really well insulated) - but the difference in the cost of heating between a new energy-efficient house and the older ones is around a factor of 4 times cheaper/less power per year. I shudder to think how the average New Zealand house would rate!!!

 
At 12:53 AM, June 11, 2007, Blogger David said...

Won't this just move carbon to other NZ cities? I'm guessing that closing the airport will be one of the first actions they settle on and that'll help them meet their target, especially if it discourages tourists from visiting and using energy. But some people will still fly in and out of Palmerston North and Auckland and raise the carbon footprint of those cities, and then use energy driving down to Wellington.

 
At 3:05 PM, June 11, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Anon4: "I added up the CO2 emission sources from fossil fuels for wellington in the graph above and it adds up to 54%"

True. For that particular point I was looking at the fuels used for transport, so I only counted petrol, diesel & LPG. Natural gas (at 14%) and coal (at 3%) aren't generally used for transport (perhaps the odd steam train?!), so I didn't count them in that sum.

 
At 3:15 PM, June 11, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Won't this just move carbon to other NZ cities?"

Some measures could do that, but the key is to switch GHG-emitting activities to non-emitting activities where possible (e.g. by switching car journeys to walking, cycling or wind/hydro-powered transport).

Part of the problem with declaring "carbon neutrality" for any specific entity (individual, city, nation) is that it's difficult to know where to attribute the emissions. Should we blame China for increasing emissions due to increasing western demand for their products? Or should my new laptop really count towards Wellington's emissions, because the consumer lives here?

That all gives reason to be sceptical about the definition of "neutrality", but not to the goal of setting specific targets for specific emitting activities. If we can reduce Wellington's transport-related or power-related activities by x%, then that's got to be good, whether we count it towards Wellington's "allocation" or not.

 
At 3:47 PM, June 12, 2007, Blogger David said...

>it's difficult to know where to attribute the emissions.

So I could claim to be carbon neutral already, because I don't personally burn anything? No. It only makes sense if you look at the carbon generated as a result of all your economic and personal activity.

I don't think there can be any ambiguity about the term "neutral" either. It means that all the carbon generated by activity in Wellington MUST be balanced by Wellington's trees. I'm guessing that implies a population of a few thousand people not involved in any sort of industrial activity. I'd be surprised if the voters who elected the council will support a policy that means that 19 out of 20 of them have to move out of the city, with their homes being worthless as there will be no demand for them.

If, in a few weeks time, the council announce that the first stage of carbon neutrality will involve closing the airport and port (which could be done quite easily in the short term) and that they've asked central government to move the capital and the public service some where else, then I'll believe they're serious. But I'm guessing it was just a meaningless platitude. Sort of like NZ signing Kyoto, when it had no intention of stopping its carbon outputs growing.

 

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