Editor’s Note: In August, Climate Change Minister Tim Groser announced that “New Zealand has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2020”, a weakening of the Government’s previously stated target range of 10-20% below 1990 levels. Scientific advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates developed countries like New Zealand should be making reductions of 25-40% below 1990 levels on average to put the world on track to protect the globally agreed two degree warming limit.

In a 2012 survey by Horizons Research of just under 3,000 New Zealanders, 64% said that Parliament should be doing more about climate change, and 68% said that businesses should be doing more.

This is the silent majority who are concerned about the issue and who believe that New Zealand ought to be doing its fair share. Unlike the vocal minority of environmentalists, the voices of this silent majority are not often heard. They’re simply ordinary New Zealanders who care about the world that we hand to our children and who want to be part of the solution.

They know that climate change is too important to be left to a fringe group of environmentalists, and they know that confronting it will require leadership at all levels from all ends of the political spectrum.

This silent majority no doubt takes heart from the increasing evidence that countries around the world are taking climate change seriously.

China, whose per capita emissions are far less than New Zealand’s, has launched a price on carbon which will cover 700 million tonnes of carbon emissions, almost double the 380 million tonnes of carbon emissions covered by Australia’s price on carbon.

President Obama, after difficulties passing climate change legislation, is taking the initiative and using his executive powers to roll out limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants and a host of other measures to promote clean energy and energy efficiency.

In Scandinavia, they’re a long away ahead of this curve. Denmark has a fully costed plan out to 2050 for how they will transition to a fossil fuel free country – one where they use no coal, oil or gas for their energy needs. After peaking in the early 1970s, the Swedes have been reducing oil consumption year on year, and achieving sustained and positive economic performance at the same time.

What happened to ‘fast follower’?

These developments give the lie to the line that New Zealand is being a ‘fast follower’. As we continue to bury our heads in the sand, with our Government in fact reducing its commitment to rolling back greenhouse gas emissions, it’s looking like we’re being left behind.

What’s at stake is New Zealand’s share of the growing global economy in low-carbon goods and services. Price Waterhouse Coopers valued New Zealand’s market share of this economy at $7.5 billion to $22.5 billion. Investment New Zealand was even more optimistic, suggesting New Zealand could create a $150 billion high-value, low-carbon export economy by 2025.

Behind these big numbers lie big opportunities – using our established skill with renewable energy generation to help countries around the ‘ring of fire’ exploit their geothermal potential. Or offering skills and resources to support the Pacific nations who were promised $635 million for renewable energy investments at this year’s Pacific Energy Summit.

In a country awash with renewable energy potential – our wind energy potential alone is three times our current electricity demand – we could also seek to attract energy-intensive industries to New Zealand, lowering their carbon footprint at a time when triple bottom line accounting and business sustainability are becoming the new mantras of the corporate world.

An inspiring example of business collaboration exploiting this renewable potential is the recently announced biofuels partnership between Norske Skog and Zed Energy. Norske Skog is a paper processing facility already leading the way in low-carbon energy – they’re the world’s largest direct user of geothermal energy. They also have lots of leftover wood waste. Zed Energy, who acknowledge that they are currently at the ‘heart of the problem’ see that wood waste as a potential source of biofuel to replace imported oil at the pump.

Ignoring the warnings

The risk of not getting on board is not just that New Zealand farmers will be hit with more severe droughts, or that extreme weather events will become more frequent.

The risk that really matters to New Zealand is that, in an increasingly carbon constrained world, we’ll be late to the party and face heavier costs when we are forced to change our infrastructure at the last minute.

In 2007, we were given our first big fright when United Kingdom supermarket chains like Tescos started thinking seriously about ‘food miles’, and choosing local produce over imported goods on the basis that this would lower the carbon footprint of the product. Knowing the consequences of being locked out of even a small part of the European market, we scrambled to point out that there’s far more to the carbon impact of food than how far it travels.

The next warning came when, in 2011, the European Union launched plans to make aeroplanes flying in to the European Union pay the carbon cost of their travel.

Should measures like this expand to other commodities, New Zealand would be forced to pay the carbon cost that we’re currently avoiding. Whether the push comes from heightened consumer consciousness or from governments, it seems we are heading towards a world where the ‘carbon intensity’ of your supply chain really matters.

The factors driving this global shift are diverse; often it’s concern about climate change. Sometimes it’s based on the pragmatic recognition that oil, coal and gas are limited resources. Other times, it’s a concern for energy security. As a country that spends $8 billion per year on imported oil, New Zealand knows the costs of oil dependency all too well.

But fundamentally, when New Zealand decides whether to join in this global effort or not, we are also making a moral decision. In 1939, Nazi Germany’s fascist policies posed a threat to global stability and fundamental principles of human dignity.

New Zealand was just one country back then. And each individual who fought in the war was just one individual. Our army was small compared to that of the United States, Great Britain or Australia. Our participation did not guarantee the success of the war effort, nor did it guarantee its failure.

And yet thousands died and thousands more gave years of service for a cause that was greater than themselves.
We could have chosen to free ride on the work of others. We could have sat by and hoped for the best and, if the allies had still won, enjoyed the peaceful aftermath, albeit knowing that we’d done nothing but cheered from the sidelines.

The war was won because countries like ours didn’t let the cynicism of individual action undermine the urgency of the collective challenge facing the West at that time.

This time, the collective enemy isn’t a foreign country. But as a young person looking ahead at the next 50 years, the challenge feels just as important.

That’s why I’ll stand with the silent majority and say that it’s time we got on board.

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