If it’s not the cars, it’s the cows
Climate change: for many an issue too big, too complex, too controversial/divisive, too abstract, too depressing, too inconvenient . . . too hard.
Climate change provides an opportunity to reshape our communities to be safer, healthier, more equitable and resilient all while decarbonising, but it will require real conversations about what might happen and what we might do.
First the basics. Assistant Professor John Cook from George Mason University summarises a complex topic wonderfully in 10 words: It's real. It's us. It's bad. Experts agree. There's hope.
The surface temperature of the Earth is around 1C warmer than pre-industrial times and this has been validated independently many times. This warming is caused by humans through the release of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide and methane. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases the planet will keep warming.
There is no debate about any of this in the climate science community. Several reviews of academic literature and thousands of journal articles supports this. Unfortunately there has been a well-funded misinformation campaign, akin to what the tobacco industry ran in the sixties to cloud the link between smoking and lung cancer, that has thrown a veil of confusion over climate science and delayed action.
The continued warming of the Earth will be bad in many ways. Weather events will be more extreme, there will be more floods and droughts, our crayfish and shellfish will struggle to grow shells as the sea's chemistry changes. We'll get new diseases. The Ministry for the Environment says “Parts of the North Island are likely to become receptive to populations of the major mosquito vector of dengue fever”. The changes are here today. Water bubbling up through the drains during a king tide in Thames wasn't part of the plan.
The impacts of climate change won't be felt equally either. The New Zealand Medical Association has said, “Those at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change in New Zealand include the most vulnerable population groups, eg Maori, Pacific peoples, children, the elderly and those on low incomes.” Communities in Tairawhiti will bear the brunt of this change if we allow it to continue.
But there is hope and we can avoid the worst of climate changes' impact by contributing fairly to global efforts to reduce greenhouses gases. New Zealand can't do it alone but then neither can any other country.
The passing of the Zero Carbon Amendment in 2019, whose purpose is to contribute to keeping global warming below 1.5C, means that, in the words of James Shaw The Minister for Climate Change, “. . . global CO2 emissions need to at least halve in the next 10 years”. This is transformational in ways that are generally poorly understood.
Reducing greenhouse gases by at least 50 percent in a decade is a lot, but it is possible and will see us better off. How to do it?
There are many ways we could reduce our emissions and some are less hard than others. But they're all pretty challenging. Our analysis suggests the least hard path for New Zealand is the almost complete decarbonisation of road transportation by 2030. If that sounds pretty radical that's because it is. The scale of change required globally to avoid the worst of climate change is large and has not been well communicated by governments, including our own because, in the words of one New Zealand politician, “it is not a vote winner”.
Decarbonising our fleet is possible by changing the way we travel. Less cars, more active and public travel. If the Gisborne fleet moves to electric vehicles supported by government policies, up to $60m every year would stay in the pockets of the people of Gisborne and much of the rest would flow back to the region for community-owned electricity distribution, rather than being paid to oil and gas companies. Other parts of the world are doing this, to the health and wealth benefit of their communities.
If we chose not to largely decarbonise transport by 2030, other sectors will need to take the load and the two big candidates are ruminant animals, that account for half New Zealand's emissions, and forestry which soaks up about a third.
The forestry and agriculture sectors should now be screaming from the rooftops for policies to decarbonise the New Zealand transport fleet, to allow them time to rethink and evolve their business models. Their lack of voice and support for transport decarbonisation policies is a risk to their jobs and communities.
Climate change will transform New Zealand and Tairawhiti whether we act or don't act. If you want a say in how the transformation looks then you need to engage now.
So what can you do? Start by talking constructively to someone about climate change today. Get petrol and diesel out of your life and business. And come September, vote for climate action like your lifestyle and that of future generations depends on it. Because it does.
■ Dr Paul Winton is an investment adviser who has specialised in climate change issues.