Smoke from Canadian wildfires reaches Philadelphia in the US

[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]

As I indicated in my comprehensive climate review in our last edition, it’s impossible to find much to celebrate on the climate action front – globally, nationally or from local government here in Hawke’s Bay. 


Globally, the latest UN climate change conference (COP 28) ended with a very tepid statement calling for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner” to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. More or less saying, “It would be nice to burn less fossil fuel by 2050, but here are some loopholes for the less committed.” 

Since then, the news has been replete with further examples of accelerating heating and consequent damage, especially in the form of more – and more intense – weather events.

The hottest January on record pushed twelve-month global average temperatures over the 1.5 degree threshold for the first time ever. 

This followed 2023 setting the mark as the hottest year ever recorded. Although we’ve lost the battle for 1.5C, such a target, as one pundit observed, “served as a kind of moral artifact and a bulwark against the casual normalization of warming”. So now our placards must draw the line at 2.0C.

Some consequences …

• Wildfires burned an estimated 13 million hectares of land in Canada – that would be half of New Zealand! Beyond Canada’s own damage, the smoke caused unsafe air quality throughout the midwest and northeast USA.

• And, as Greenland warms up and sheds unprecedented amounts of ice, we’re closer to a tipping point that would ‘turn off’ within the century the Atlantic Ocean current loop that presently moderates air temperatures for the UK and northern Europe, as well as upper North America. Europe could then lose 3 degrees Celsius per decade; parts of Norway would drop 20C or more. Ironic shifts unstoppable on human time scales.

• An estimated 2.5 million people – half of NZ’s population – were forced from their homes in the United States by weather-related disasters in 2023.

• Up to half of the Amazon rainforest could transform into grasslands or weakened ecosystems in the coming decades.

This list could go on as report after report documents the global situation.

New Zealand

Closer to home, the news was dominated by …

Anxious awaiting of whether the Coalition Government will do anything serious on the climate front; the resignation of the Green Party’s James Shaw, the first (and probably best) Climate Minister the nation will see for years; and a Supreme Court decision on a case brought by a Māori activist that will require major NZ players like Fonterra, Genesis, NZ Steel and four others to defend their use of fossil fuels and methane-producing livestock.

In this context, the NZ Institute of Economic Research has called for nationwide, standardised reporting of costs related to climate-related weather events (make no mistake, Cyclone Gabrielle was just the first one), given that insurers are beginning to refuse to insure at-risk properties – on which could sit your home, your local power hub, your local wastewater treatment plant.

Obviously, the posture of the government will determine the urgency and sufficiency of our nation’s action on climate change. So, watch our new Climate Minister (sitting outside Cabinet), Simon Watts. At least he has publicly recognised that more severe weather events are not an ‘if’ question, but a ‘when’. To some of his coalition colleagues, global warming is a hysterical hoax.

Most important will be the government’s approach to farmers, now that a small battalion of farmer-MPs have been elected. The knee jerk reaction is to back off demanding a greater contribution from farmers in curbing emissions (and other pollutants). Yet every NZ agribusiness executive realises inadequate NZ climate action will threaten access to the overseas markets our agrarian economy depends on.

It’s hard to square apparent recognition of these severe weather and market realities with positions like reviving NZ exploration for offshore oil and gas. The Government’s commitment to double renewable energy is welcome, but no details yet, as is its pledge to install 10,000 EV charging stations across the country. When can we start counting those?

The details should begin to emerge by mid-year, when the government must announce precisely how it plans to meet NZ’s emissions reduction targets over 2026-2030 set under the Zero Carbon Act, contending with recommendations from the NZ Climate Commission as it does so.

Speaking of the independent Commission, if the nation is lucky, perhaps James Shaw might become its next chairman. He needs a bully pulpit.

As for the Supreme Court decision, I’m not holding my breath for an eventual court order banning cow belching, but the legal process should generate a heap of useful data and analysis of corporate energy and emissions behaviour and its environmental and health consequences.

Hawke’s Bay

I recently interviewed in depth each of our region’s mayors and the regional council chair regarding their plans and priorities for 2024. None of them mentioned climate change until I brought the subject up. Of course, the typical line is, ‘Well of course it infuses everything our council does.’ 

And from the interviews there is no doubt that each leader makes the connection between the need for resilient recovery (which is top of mind to each) and the future severe weather events that climate change promises.

But so far that hasn’t led to a concrete climate action plan for the region. As the region’s official environmental protector, the regional council seems most committed, with a Climate Ambassador, Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau, as best I can tell the only employee at any council with climate as their full-time focus. 

HBRC Chair Hinewai Ormsby also chairs the Climate Action Joint Committee, on which each council is represented. But so far the ‘Action’ Committee has been a talkfest. In our interview, Ormsby said she was happy that the committee is “on a pathway”, but not happy that there isn’t more progress on a regional climate plan. She indicated that council mayors and CEOs recognise a need to elevate the priority of this work in their organisations. We shall see how this materialises in upcoming LTPs.

So far, the most impressive climate action in our region is coming from outside local government, in the form of sustainability programmes launched by HB enterprises large and small. Although a certain moral conviction to play one’s part in addressing this existential threat is surely involved, for businesses the driver is more economic – reducing energy and other input costs, reducing risk exposure (an increasing demand for insurers and investors), and securing access to markets and meeting trade agreement obligations.

Money talks, even when it comes to saving the planet. 


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