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Far-reaching changes essential

Opinion Piece

Quite a debate ensued in The Gisborne Herald as a result of Clive Bibby’s column published last week, the thrust of which was that our response to global warming should aim at mitigation of the effects (mainly the construction of water storage) rather than the global community dedicating itself to arresting it.

So we keep doing all the things which now are scientifically determined as contributing to global warming, but protect ourselves and future generations by building defences against the effects, like rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather patterns?

Currently, around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere every year, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels and the discharge of methane. One doesn’t have to be scientifically qualified to think that, just maybe, this doesn’t seem so smart.

Since 1960, global temperatures have risen by around 1 degree Celsius. The speed of this is unprecedented in the planet’s history of temperature variations, and the effect is manifest — like 1.2 trillion tonnes of ice melting annually, greater bush fires, more severe storms, more droughts, and destruction of our land and ocean biodiversity. Where will it end?

Building more reservoirs and ever higher sea walls might help our survival, but seems like fiddling while Rome burns. The very prospects of life for future generations is at stake, no less.

There’s no denying that changing our behaviour to an extent that at least slows the process down and hopefully, in the longer term, stabilises it, will mean sacrifices. This will at best be inconvenient but, unavoidably, often costly.

The time for transnational finger-pointing is past. The global community must accept, and is accepting, the need for far-reaching changes. This will take leadership in every nation — and the change of leadership in America, the country that has added the most carbon dioxide to our atmosphere, is encouraging after the disastrous administration of Donald Trump — who walked out of the Paris Accord after declaring climate change a “Chinese hoax”. (How stupid is that?)

Our most demanding challenge is to drastically reduce dependence on fossil fuels, which make up 85 percent of our energy source worldwide. Climate considerations apart, we’ll have to do this anyway as the time will come when they will run out.

But there’s hope, as there must be. New and exciting technologies that help are being developed all the time. Humans are an incredibly resourceful species, so no surprises there. The harnessing of solar power is just one, evidenced by panels being installed on roofs everywhere, and it has just been announced that a 12-hectare solar farm is to be built in the Far North. We have pretty much exhausted our potential to harness hydro power, but wind and geothermal generation is being added to. And the technology to store electricity has made great strides in recent years, portending game-changing possibilities.

One of the great worries is the ongoing destruction of global forests, especially in the tropics. As forests sequestrate carbon (as well as protect soils and water), the planet needs more trees, not less. The Government’s commitment to increasing our forestry profile is represented by the “Billion Tree Programme”, so the objective is to be applauded. But we need to be careful. This looks like a politically-driven numbers game, whereas what we need is a more enlightened approach to our forestry development, with better species selection dedicated to the right places.

And there will be challenges for New Zealand’s farmers too. We can’t escape that fact, with our methane emissions being so high, though our livestock production is otherwise environmentally well ahead of other nations. But, as has been proved countless times through history, problems are there to be solved.

The elephant in the room, however, is surely global population growth. How much longer can the planet support an added billion people every 15 or so years? This is a difficult one, for it means the frustration of a pretty compelling human instinct.

While I believe the sceptics are clearly wrong, I hope that it is I who is wrong and it turns out in a few decades that this current warming was just a blip, and all those sacrifices and discomforts to our affluent way of life turned out to be unnecessary. Well, we would have ended up with an environmentally healthy and liveable planet anyway! In the meantime we must prepare to avoid the worst.

■ Ewan McGregor is a Waipawa farm forester, a former president of HB Federated Farmers and deputy chairman of the HB Regional Council. He is the author of several books, including a recently published history of Williams & Kettle, and is currently completing a book on New Zealand forestry.

Ewan McGregor

  1. Tony Lee says:

    There is an excellent Ted Talk by Hans Rosling: https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_global_population_growth_box_by_box?language=en

    Here he demonstrates how population will grow to about 9 billion over the next 40 or so years and importantly that only by improving the living standards of the poorest can population growth be checked.

    Rosling died in 2017 having received many international awards for his scientific and humanitarian work.