Over-population central to climate debate

CLIMATIC HEADACHE: Footing the bill for climate change will not come cheap.
CLIMATIC HEADACHE: Footing the bill for climate change will not come cheap.

Long have I laboured over the issue of climate change.

From the start let this writer make one point clear. He is neither a climate sceptic nor a climate change activist - he simply wants to see if he can make any sense of it.

Quite frankly, at the moment thick fog is the only way of describing the issue and what is written about it.

Let's bring some facts into the discussion.

New Zealand is apparently responsible for 0.14 per cent (that's 14/100 of 1 per cent) of the world's total emissions. We have about 0.064 per cent of the present world population. Even though the figures seem minor we need to accept we are batting nearly twice the world emissions average on a per head basis.

Fact No 2 is that New Zealand has tried to get a comprehensive Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) system off the ground, but it has been swamped by northern hemisphere emission reduction units. The big eight world emitters are the United States, China, EU, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Japan and Russia. These emitting powerhouses contribute about 67 per cent of the world's total emissions.

The media has been saturated with climate change stories arguing both sides of the spectrum for several years now. Is it safe to say that most of us, despite this flurry of facts and theories, couldn't even vaguely write a sensible conclusive paragraph for our children and grandchildren on the subject?

So, let's try and look at a few issues. When you really get down to it, much of this is about population - in particular over-population. Can the world stop this over-population? No, the die is cast for the next 35 years despite many countries having reduced their birth rates significantly.

Are the big eight countries going to agree on anything really significant? Almost certainly no - any agreement will be only around very small issues, at least for a long time yet. Don't forget that China is building a new coal-powered power station about every 15 days. It will be years and years before the demand for and use of coal reduces significantly. And it won't come about in any of the present journalists' lifetimes.

Every time there is a major volcanic eruption - usually once a year somewhere - it sets the emission data back about a year. Mother Nature isn't helping the programme.

The various authoritative reports of recent years talk about the world having to feed another 2 billion to 2.5 billion people by 2050.

At the same time they often advise that this food supply increase must be achieved with less fertiliser, less land and less water.  

One of the world's greatest achievements to date is just how well it has coped with production and distributing the increased food supply required to get this far.  

Coping with another 2 billion to 2.5 billion people with less land, fertiliser and less water resources than are available at present is going to be a really tall order if the climate issues come to pass even in a relatively minor form.

The previous point almost certainly will mean that the price of food in many countries can only increase and in other countries food price volatility looks like a certainty. The trading profit surpluses for many farmers in many countries around the world are already quite low.

These farmers won't have the ability to absorb many costs without them having to increase the prices of their sale products - they have very little room to move here. Many countries are going to have to subsidise their citizens' food costs - India has just brought in a major subsidy in this way.

The world's politicians have no appetite for climate control issues. Why? Because it is not clear exactly what they should do and, secondly, because the financing cost in many cases will be quite beyond them. 

The activist argument that something substantial needs to be done and done right now may prove to have merit over time but the ability to finance the enormous capital costs required are just not available. 

The capital funding could, in part, come from penalties on heavy emitters who would then increase their costs accordingly. Outside that possibility, we are talking about government surpluses or borrowing or increasing income taxes.

About 80 per cent of the world's countries are already running deficits so you can forget government surpluses. 

There will be a real limit to how much many countries can borrow so increasing income taxes looks the most likely option. On any scale this would go down even worse than a lead balloon with most taxpaying citizens.

Certainly there will be some actions that governments can take or demand that will help and may help considerably with climate control issues, but don't start thinking of spending many, many billions of dollars here because that will come unstuck in cold-blooded economic terms quite quickly.

Where does this leave our grandchildren? 

Many of you would say not very well, but maybe we are going to have to deal more with the consequences of climate change rather than spend billions and billions of dollars on issues that are not precisely clear at this point.  

The exact areas to target are not clear and the cost/benefit per dollar of this is far from clear. Certainly a stitch in time can save nine later, but only if the stitch is the right one and only if the stitch is in the right place and only if the stitch can be sensibly financed.

The most pragmatic approach is looking like a continuation of the status quo, but keeping an open mind when the answers to the previous point are much, much clearer. 

For the foreseeable future I feel the world is going to have more than enough on its plate with fresh water issues around the world regarding its availability and distribution and with feeding the world's people. 

So, do we accept that we need to read about climate change? The answer has to be yes.

Do we make sense of it? No.

Will we have grandchildren affected by it? Perhaps.

- Pita Alexander is a specialist farm accountant at Alexanders.