IT’S GETTING TOO LATE

[As published in December/January BayBuzz magazine.]

In December, the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or Conference of the Parties (COP28), ended with mixed results.

The defining choice for our climate future involved committing to phase out all fossil fuel development and usage … the opposite of our government’s policy. The International Energy Agency projects that fossil fuel demand will peak by 2030.

As I write, COP in its final hours is debating whether to call for fossil fuel reduction, or total phase out, or ‘unabated’ phaseout (this with the assumption that carbon capture technology would become available, thus permitting continued fossil fuel burning). And most oil-producing states want no targeting at all of fossil fuels, saying any stipulated limits should apply to overall emissions, not the source of emissions.

A great deal of urgent rhetoric, but much less evidence of urgent action by the nations of the world, very few of which actually have formal plans to phase out fossils. As one pundit put it, COP was supposed to be about protecting the planet, not protecting companies.

Meanwhile 2023 was a year of catastrophic weather events, temperatures and records broken, ending as the hottest year ever recorded. As of November, the planet had already felt 38 days where temperatures exceeded 1.5oC. The UN climate agency chief said breaking the 1.5oC threshold would mean that “2 billion people will live in areas beyond the human limit.”

And then, on November 17th, for the first time ever, the Earth’s mean temperature breached the 2.0oC higher than pre-industrial average.

And of course, humans are just one affected species, albeit the culpable one. Facing extinction at our hands are hundreds if not thousands of other victim species.

The consensus is now that we will overshoot the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC, a level beyond which compounding feedback loops threaten to devastate ecosystems, biological processes and socioeconomic systems, leading us into what one report termed “uncharted territory”. Of particular concern are these ‘tipping points’: ice melt in Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheets (already breeched at current emission levels, some reports say), warm-water coral reefs, North Atlantic ocean current circulation, and permafrost regions (releasing massive amounts of methane).

Said one leading climate scientist: “I think everyone agrees that 1.5 degrees is in the rearview mirror at this point.” And from the US’s original ‘whistleblower’ on the matter back in 1988, Dr James Hansen: “The 1.5 degree limit is deader than a doornail.”

In the face of all this, although our emissions have held steady in recent years, New Zealand now needs to reduce its emissions by 7% per year to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. 

How worried are we?

A Westpac-sponsored survey in November reported that 64% of respondents were ‘Very’ or ‘Quite’ concerned about the impacts of climate change in NZ. Only 31% thought NZ was ‘doing enough’ to curb the main effects, with 56% saying the ‘government should take stronger action’ on climate change.

Concern about climate change rarely cracks the ‘top 5’ in surveys around the world, although interestingly the NY Times devoted a major feature last October to emerging ‘climate psychotherapy’, reporting that more and more therapists are encountering patients stressed out about climate. 

And what is vexing to therapists is that patients exhibit the same symptoms as those having experienced traumatic events, but in the case of climate change, there’s no end to the event. So how do you help a client overcome their stress over a plainly real but apparently unresolvable unfolding disaster? 

Many take comfort from taking small daily actions that reduce their carbon footprint. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from doing so. For any of us small individual players to not do our bit is to give credence to those that say there’s no point in New Zealand doing its tiny bit as a teeny global player. Notwithstanding that we do have the 6th highest per capita GHG emissions amongst OECD nations … which puts a new spin on punching above our weight.

So, by all means, reduce your personal carbon footprint. For most of us, most impactful would be less travel by car in absolute terms (in that Westpac survey, 58% said they would use the car less), and transition to more petrol-efficient or electric vehicles.

The radical position for individuals is to renounce material growth, perhaps cheating a bit by purchasing some personal emissions offsets – 52% of Westpac respondents said they would ‘buy fewer goods’.

That’s a viable posture for those who already ‘have’; not so viable, or just, for the ‘have nots’. Still, surely most of us could do with a bit less … and more durable … and more locally produced.

Businesses and public authorities also have the duty to reduce their emissions and, more broadly, to meet ambitious sustainability targets. Leading companies in Hawke’s Bay are doing just that, as you can read elsewhere in this edition. These are exemplars we should be proud of.

But more important than our behaviour as consumers and producers of goods and services is our behaviour as citizens.

What do we demand politically?

We might start by looking at the climate policies of our new government. New Zealand was represented at COP by out-of-Cabinet Climate Minister Simon Watts and former Climate Minister James Shaw. PM Luxon said it was “really important” to be there. The delegation included HB’s own James Palmer, now CEO of the Ministry for the Environment.

NZ was castigated at COP for the government’s plan to reopen oil and gas exploration in NZ waters. NZ’s private sector, led by Pure Advantage, unveiled Recloaking Papatūānuku, an ambitious proposal to plant some 2.1 million hectares of native forests in Aotearoa over the next decade.

That aside, our key contribution carried there was confirmation of our current NDC – ‘Nationally Determined Commitment’ – which commits NZ to adopting policies that are consistent with limiting further temperature rise to 1.5oC. The official NZ position is that our current NDC aligns with that goal; however, on a global scale, the combined NDCs of all nations don’t come close to meeting that aspiration.

And Cabinet papers released late last year indicated that NZ’s current emissions reduction plans would not in fact enable us to meet our Zero Carbon target. James Palmer made a presentation last November to a HB Future Farming Trust forum. Here’s how the government’s senior civil servant on the case summarised the situation:

• Check our optimism bias – our tendency to expect things will work out okay in the end

• Check our assumptions the future will resemble the past – there is only evidence that it won’t

• Check our misperceptions of time – and underestimation of the pace and presence of change

• Prioritise our understanding of systemic and compounding climate change impacts

• Expect our environmental challenges of water insecurity, soil & biodiversity loss to get harder

• Anticipate and prepare for more worse-case scenarios of climate disruption

• Place building greater resilience into biophysical, economic and social systems at the heart of our strategies: soil, water and biodiversity, in particular… plus maximise sequestration

• The question needs to shift from ‘how much can we produce’ to ‘how much can we withstand (and still produce)’ 

• Don’t rely on global co-operation, and the cavalry to arrive! Community leadership critical. Our soils will only be more precious and valuable, so let’s protect, nurture and invest in them!

The government’s coalition agreements indicate a much more restrained approach to climate change. ACT is outright hostile to the existing legal framework, while NZ First’s Associate Energy Minister Shane Jones routinely refers to “climate hysteria”. And the Climate Minister doesn’t sit in Cabinet (nor does the Environment Minister).

But National did endorse adherence to the Zero Carbon Act and other fixtures like the Climate Change Commission, our current NDC obligation, and the Emissions Trading Scheme. That framework remains intact; however the government lacks a credible programme for achieving the targets now in place.

We can expect special ‘caution’ with respect to farm emissions. The government will “review” the currently legislated targets of cutting methane by 10% by 2030 and 24-47% by 2050. Changing these goal posts will invite legal challenge so long as the Zero Carbon Act remains in place.

The government is betting on technology to rescue farmers from their animals’ methane emissions – e.g., methane inhibiting genetics and animal feeds.

The coalition parties agree on scrapping the clean car discount and the Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry Fund. Indeed Luxon plans to use the $5 billion or so accrued in the latter for tax relief. 

Oil and gas exploration will be turned back on; but hopefully energy industry capitalists are more in touch with the economic folly of expanding carbon fuel sources, especially in marginal areas like NZ, than our politicians are. The NZ First Agreement does call for “a plan for transitional low-carbon fuels”, referring to hydrogen and methanol, while EVs might get an indirect boost via National’s plan to add 10,000 new charging stations if the business case demanded by ACT holds up.

The one area where all parties agree is on the need for more urgent attention to climate adaptation. At Shaw’s instigation, the outgoing standing Environment Committee had begun consultation on this, but that initiative would need to be re-confirmed by the new Parliament. ACT is enthusiastic about this, much preferring NZ to focus on adaptation than ‘punitive’ GHG mitigation policies.

And everybody seems to agree with the no-brainer of accelerating development of renewable wind and solar electricity.

How about Hawke’s Bay?

The entity charged with advancing the region’s response to climate change is the Climate Action Joint Committee, chaired by HBRC chair Hinewai Ormsby. The Committee includes representation from each HB council and iwi.

Although HBRC declared a ‘climate emergency’ back in 2019, the committee has been extremely slow to gain traction, having struggled to define its own terms of reference and even muster quorums. Supposedly these growing pains were resolved at its most recent meeting last December 11 (the day this magazine went to printer).

Agenda papers for the public meeting indicated that a concrete ‘Table of Actions’ to be initiated in 2024 would be produced covering sectors like transportation, waste, biodiversity (these first three are the most developed at this point), primary industry, urban/housing, and freshwater. Actions might be taken by councils directly, or urged upon the wider community and individual consumers. Proposed Action Plan is here

Commendably, the Joint Committee now seems to agree that both mitigation and adaptation actions are required, after initial hesitation by some members about mitigation. That said, there’s more official appetite for adaptation than mitigation.

Missing from policy/action development to date has been any real planning or engagement regarding the ‘elephant in the room’ – primary sector climate mitigation or adaptation. Yet HB’s primary sector accounts for two-thirds of the region’s GHG emissions – most importantly, biogenic (animal-produced) methane, the most heat-trapping emissions, but energy use as well.

The view seems to be that any local/regional planning and action on agricultural emissions must await the re-vamped (i.e., relaxed) policy settings and associated timetables to be determined by the new government. This timid approach is unfortunate given that the Joint Committee could already be getting behind farming and farm forestry practices clearly identified to both sequester carbon and improve the climate resilience of our soils (e.g., by significantly improving water retention).

In addition, farmers and growers use significant fossil fuel to power their operations, and HB boasts some exemplary rural solar power usage that could be expanded.

Also still missing from HB planning are any quantitative targets across all sectors for emission reduction for the region. And as they say, ‘If you don’t measure …’! Four years after declaring a ‘climate emergency’, we’ll get a ‘Table of Actions’ without metrics for accountability. 

So, what to expect?

HBRC has provided each territorial authority with detailed information on the emissions footprint of its jurisdiction. Each TA should be expected to have an action plan – none do yet. Nor is high level accountability for such action clearly identified. So some higher sense of urgency and prioritisation is required by the TA’s.

The Regional Council is working on Kotahi, its re-write of the overall Regional Plan. This will contain a chapter on climate change, which would include any policies that would regulate activities generating emissions or thwarting adaptation.

Effectively, this draft plan, scheduled for public consultation in April, will provide the first look at whether/how HBRC might use regulatory tools or incentives to address climate mitigation and/or adaptation. Should be the occasion for some robust public education and debate.

HBRC is also hatching its ‘Land for Life’ programme (an evolution of ‘Right tree, Right Place), which would seek to integrate carefully planned on-farm tree planting with regenerative farming practices … a holistic farming approach with multiple environmental and productivity co-benefits.

BayBuzz will report on each of these – TA plans, Kotahi, Land for Life – as they shape up (or not) as answers to our regional climate challenge.

As for the Climate Action Joint Committee itself? Its staff-proposed mission is to “play a leadership role to address the complex challenge of regional climate-resilient development. We work collectively with a common purpose, share costs and maintain a sense of urgency for action. We show leadership, empower our community and connect back into our own organisations as advocates for climate action.”

We shall see!

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2 Comments

  1. That’s all very well. NZ creates around 0.17% of total global emissions, much of it in food production for export. The countries that contribute the greatest percentages have the poorest populations. NZ has no hope of convincing those populations to stop burning fossil fuels. The core issue is renewable energy sources. Creating schemes to uplift the economies of those countries by developing renewable energy sources and providing them cheaply, to developing countries in particular, would be a better strategy than planning to plant trees. The solution lies external to this country.

  2. Tom, a good summation and interesting to compare with Bay Buzz 30.12 23 publication New Directions – 5 voices, especially the article from David Truebridge. People generally don’t want to give up what they have become accustomed to, especially when wealthy and entitled, and advertisers say they deserve it. That includes return flights to Europe each year and two carbon emitting vehicles in the garage. Compare this to subsistence living in Fiji or Vanuatu. Thus we have bun fights at the COP meetings, and governments shy of frightening horses.
    And it appears the horse has bolted on the 1.5 degree limit and we await the carnage. I agree we need to adapt and be resilient, as much as mitigate, because with a warming ocean who knows when and where the next Gabrielle type Cyclone will strike.
    We in NZ may well do our bit, but will the big emitters in the world do theirs?
    As a grandparent I do wonder for the future of our next generations living in a sustainable stable planet, be it calmly or in serious friction.

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