Zero carbon action

nz-ghg.pngThe Zero Carbon Bill is most likely the most important piece of legislation to be debated and enacted in New Zealand’s history. No other law has been such a stark reminder of the existential crisis the whole planet is facing.

In signing the Paris Agreement, New Zealand agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. In 2014, New Zealand contributed 0.17 per cent to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. However, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is a significant emitter – the 21st highest contributor in the world and fifth highest within the OECD (other developed nations).

The proposal to be debated relates to targets of 10% methane reduction on 1990 levels by 2030, and 24-47% reductions by 2050; and establishing a series of emissions budgets to act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target of zero carbon dioxide.

However, the question is the speed and amount of action NZ will take? The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane over a 20 year period is 80 times higher than that of carbon dioxide, and the GWP of nitrous dioxide is 298 times than that of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period.

Agriculture is the major contributors of both methane and nitrous dioxide so the question arises whether it is moving fast enough? The science points to a high likelihood that instead of gradual heating of the planet we might see a rapid phase change, and the aggressive GWP of agricultural green house gases could contribute to a tipping point.

The target of reducing methane emissions by 10% by 2030 appears to be more of a measure the reflects interests of the agricultural lobby rather than a precautionary approach towards zero emissions based on the current scientific consensus on the reductions needed to prevent further self-reinforcing feedback loops from driving further temperature increases. The energy sector is also likely to lobby in favour of the protection of their current revenue streams.

Globally, governments are still in the early stages of exploring a transition to new non-fossil fuel economies. Currently the global economy including agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and there is a very high risk that political compromise will delay the end of outmoded practices.

Given the urgency for rapid green house gas emissions to limit self-reinforcing climate feedback loops, even a 2 or 3 year delay before embarking on a path of drastic emissions reductions may lead the climate into a territory where any attempts to limit the average temperature rise to 2°C or less become futile.

Adaptation to potentially severe climate change

In order to mitigate the risk that humanity will not move fast enough to avoid social and environmental crises, we should prepare ourselves by concentrating on our ability to adapt. The Zero Carbon Bill’s discussion document includes a section on adaptation for this purpose.

From a scientific perspective, based on the data available and the observable trends, actions to de-carbonise the economy by 2050 are likely inadequate. Firstly the time frame is not aggressive enough to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of warming, and secondly given the complexity of the climate there is also an urgent need for actions based on the precautionary principle.

In the same way that no one would allow their children to an board an airplane if the risk of a deadly crash would be 10% (or even 0.1%) we should not have blind confidence in our collective ability of de-carbonise the global economy in time to prevent severe climate changes.

Adaptive actions must consider scenarios of at least 4°C of warming by 2100 and the likely consequences of such levels of warming in terms of

  • sea level rise,
  • impact on agriculture and food production,
  • the spread of diseases,
  • increases in extreme / catastrophic weather events,
  • the ability of local communities to cope with these consequences.

Preparing for adaptation to severe climate change must seriously consider the risk of social collapse at local, regional, national, and even transnational levels, and the options that are available to reduce the risk and to contain the impact.

In a global economy, when a major event of climate induced social collapse occurs in any geography that our economic supply chains depend on, we can not assume smooth continued operation of the global economic and financial system. Furthermore any de-carbonisation initiatives that depend on concepts such as financialised emission trading schemes may turn out to be ineffective.

Essential technological support for adaptation

Preparation for potentially severe climate change and economic disruption is only possible with the help of advanced economic and ecological modelling and simulation tools that don’t make implicit (hard-coded) assumptions about the way our economy works. In this context financial economic modelling techniques are best inadequate if not useless.

We need a suitable multi-dimensional economic and ecological modelling tool for reasoning about human collaboration and resource flows at various levels of scale that can be configured on demand, to reflect emergent economic and ecological practices that may differ radically from current “best practice”.

The human lens is a meta language that can be used to design a multi-dimensional modelling and simulation tool for resource flows between economic agents as well as resource flows between ecological systems and economic systems.


The human lens provides thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time – it provides an ideology independent reasoning framework for exploring different forms of human collaboration on our planet. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world and the natural environment from a dynamic perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human economic endeavours accordingly.

The human lens can be used to model all aspects of the relationships between economic agents and all aspects of collaboration within economic agents. Furthermore the fractal characteristic of the human lens allows the representation of groups of collaborating economic agents and the representation of abstract relationships between such groups.

Agent based economic and ecological models can be created and populated with available data and assumptions (scenarios) about economic and ecological practices at various levels of scale in time and space, and these models can then be used

  1. to run agent based simulations of activities in the economic and ecological spheres to explore different scenarios and their implications,
  2. to generate corresponding multi-dimensional economic and ecological accounting tools that can be used to coordinate human economic activities.

In an increasingly unpredictable world that can easily be disrupted by severe climate related events, a modelling and simulation tool as described above may be essential for preventing or limiting social collapse, allowing local populations to rapidly explore the viability of new sequences of adaptive actions, before jointly agreeing on and committing to specific (and potentially radical) changes in economic and ecological practices.

Creating the right environment for adaptation

At the moment, the way we respond and adapt to climate change impacts is not well coordinated. Many of the risks, impacts and actions to adapt are dealt with across a number of different legislative and regulatory regimes.

There are gaps in our information. We have some knowledge about the physical impact of sea-level rise on our coastlines and communities but we currently don’t know much about the impact that rising rising seas and temperatures will have on our economic and ecological systems. We do not know what unwanted plants and animals might arrive and thrive as a result, or the impact of ongoing extreme weather events on production in the primary sector. There is more work to do to understand the possible impacts on our health, biodiversity and culture over time.

The Zero Carbon Bill could include requirements in law that we must take action to understand the risks and have a plan to manage them. Setting up the right tools for decision-makers would help us consider the risks to the whole of society and the economy. We could also introduce ways to encourage or require some organisations to share more information on their exposure to climate change risks.

Onwards towards adaptation and collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 7 September (Auckland) and 14 September (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.

Dates and times


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