“I hope that through my role at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies I can do something to reduce the cognitive dissonance that is impeding action. I am convinced that one big reason the required changes are not made is because people are not aware of how bad things are. Thus, politicians and policy makers avoid the required changes, because they know they will be rejected by voters, because voters lack the necessary sense of urgency. I want to push for real change through information dissemination; and I want to challenge others, especially academics, to be more outspoken.”
Great initiative in Auckland described here by Heidi O’Callahan at Greater Auckland: The Climate Action Plan. Citizens and local groups are writing in on how Auckland can rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure Auckland is prepared for the impacts of climate change. Amongst other bold targets set in 2012, Auckland’s goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10-20% by 2020; instead they have increased. More ideas and action are needed!
Scientists talk of “tipping points”, the point at which the environment changes from one stable state to another, often abruptly, causing significant disruption. I believe New Zealand may be on the cusp of a tipping point – not in the state of its environment, but rather in terms of people’s awareness of the gravity of the environmental issues we face.
Despite our much-vaunted (but somewhat tarnished) “clean, green” image, we face some major environmental challenges. Many of our indigenous species of animals and plants remain under serious threat in spite of efforts to control pests and halt the decline of indigenous habitat. Many of our waterways and aquifers are under severe pressure from pollutant-laden discharges and increased extraction for irrigation.
New Zealand’s response to climate change to date has been characterised either by inaction (the “wait and see” approach) or potentially effective measures (such as the emissions trading scheme) considerably weakened by the meddling of subsequent governments.
But in the past few years, chinks of light have been starting to penetrate through the stubborn reluctance of successive governments to risk political power for the sake of the environment. Partly this is generational – the new leadership of both main parties are in their 30s and 40s, representing a generation that is less inclined to see environment as subservient to the economy.
But there has also been a growing public realisation that values that we hold dear, such as the ability to swim at our local swimming spot, or to drink water from the tap without falling ill, are in jeopardy. There is also a growing recognition of the inherent unfairness of ordinary people shouldering the burden of environmental degradation (whether it be the cost of remediation of degraded environments or the reduced ability to enjoy the environment) while others profit from the exploitation of “public goods”, such as fresh water.
Nevertheless, as a recently colonised nation, the pioneering mentality remains strong, where private property rights and personal freedoms predominate over values such as the collective good or social licence. (By way of contrast, in Japan, the subject of much of my previous research, rice farmers were traditionally compelled to co-operate with each other to guarantee an equitable and ongoing share of the limited freshwater resource, so vital to wet-rice agriculture.)
In Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand, I trace the history of environmental politics since the nationwide campaign of 1969 to stop the government from raising the level of one of our most spectacular lakes. Since then, environmental governance has progressed markedly. Whereas 50 years ago, there was no government body dedicated to environmental policy, there are now three agencies with major responsibilities in this area. And there is a body of law relating to environmental decision-making and governance, central to which is the Resource Management Act, hailed internationally as ground-breaking at the time of its enactment. Scientific knowledge, public awareness, and the public’s ability to participate in environmental decision-making have also grown exponentially.
But at the same time, environmental issues have grown significantly more complex – making them vulnerable to obfuscation, as was so patently seen in the government proposal in 2017 to make 90 per cent of rivers and lakes “swimmable” by 2040. Confusion reigned in the wake of the announcement, and it was finally admitted that the threshold against which “swimmability” was being measured had been lowered.
The signs of a growing impetus for meaningful change to address our most pressing environmental issues are tentative, but nevertheless offer hope. Earlier this year, National Party leader Simon Bridges announced that his party would support the Government’s proposal to establish an independent climate commission (albeit with some caveats). If Bridges honours this promise, it will be a rare example of bipartisan support for environmental policy.
The Government has also announced that it intends to introduce tougher regulations on agricultural land use to curb water pollution. This triggered the usual objections that stricter regulation is not required because farmers are doing good things like planting trees along streams, though these were more muted and less emphatic than in the past. And from being an obscure, “greenie issue” a year or two ago, the concern about the proliferation of plastic waste (particularly its effect on our oceans) is becoming mainstream, with the Government’s plan to ban single-use plastic bags greeted with widespread acceptance.
To make inroads into our most pressing environmental challenges, the Government not only needs to capitalise on newly emerged public concern, but also take up the mantle of leadership and not be afraid to lead public opinion through awareness-raising initiatives encouraging us all to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of our everyday activities and decisions.
My hope is that a future historian will be able to reflect back on this period, and identify it as a watershed era in terms of environmental awareness and action – a “tipping point” in environmental history, much like the Save Manapouri Campaign was half a century ago.
Dr Catherine Knight is an environmental historian and author of Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics (Canterbury University Press, 2018), New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history (CUP) and Ravaged Beauty: An environmental history of the Manawatu (Dunmore Press). She works as a policy and communications consultant and lives on a farmlet in rural Manawatū.
On 6 February, 2018 average temperatures were released by most of the major providers. Harry Stevens at Axios has made a compelling spinnable globe comparing temperatures before and after 1970. A snapshot of the northern hemisphere:
And the southern hemisphere, particularly striking when you live in New Zealand, which has already seen 1°C of warming since 1910:
Until a few year ago it was widely believed that New Zealand would be spared the worst consequences of climate change. Temperature rises more over land than over sea, and the New Zealand climate is dominated by the oceans. Although the weather is changeable and often stormy, the climate is temperate, startlingly so to people used to continents: in Wellington typical maximum temperatures are 20°C in summer and 12°C in winter. In addition, we are not close to the north pole, where rapid changes have led to large regional climate changes in the northern hemisphere. And tropical cyclones are rare.
While all this is true, there are signs that climate change is affecting us.
NIWA’s main long-running temperature record is their ‘seven city’ series. It shows a warming trend of 1.1° since 1909, close to the global average.
January 2018 was the warmest month since reliable records began in 1867 – 3°C above the 1981-2010 average.
The East Australia Current, an energetic warm current linking the Pacific and Indian oceans that eventually turns east towards New Zealand, has become warmer (2.28°C/century), saltier, and extended southwards by 350km in the past 60 years. These changes have been linked both to ozone depletion, changes in the Southern Annual Mode, and to increasing atmospheric CO2. A study by Ridgeway and Hill concluded that “There is strong consensus in climate model simulations that trends observed over the past 50 years will continue and accelerate over the next 100 years.”
There is some evidence that New Zealand may be beginning to suffer from changes in rainfall patterns, similar to the “weather bombs” that have affected parts of the northern hemisphere in recent years. For example, the central Bay of Plenty experienced a “1 in 100 year” rainfall event in July 2004; “Phenomenal, unprecented high rainfall”, a “1 in 500 year event” in May 2005; and in April 2017, the remnants of Cyclone Debbie led to record flows on the Rangitaiki river, which breached the stopbanks and flooded Edgecumbe. This last event was just a month after widespread extreme rain events affected many parts of the North Island, in a pattern linked to climate change. The rainfall in the Hunua ranges (275mm in 1 day, 454mm in 5 days) affected Auckland’s water supply.
New Zealand is proud of its glaciers. There are more than 3000, although only the Tasman, Fox, and Franz Josef glaciers are well known, the latter two being famous for their combination of low altitude and low latitude, and the drama of a glacier in a rainforest. They also became famous for growing for some decades. A recent study in Nature, “Regional cooling caused recent New Zealand glacier advances in a period of global warming“, examines this in depth. (In 2005, more than half of all known advancing glaciers were in New Zealand!)
Overall, however, New Zealand’s glaciers lost 25% of their volume in the past 20 years. Since 2012, the front face of Franz Josef glacier
has been too dangerous to visit, while east of the main divide, in 1990 Lake Tasman formed at the terminus of the Tasman Glacier and is now 7km long:
Some of the events of the past three years, such as the record loss of snow cover in the Southern Alps
and the Port Hills fires
are likely related to El Nino and the record Tasman sea temperatures of 2016-2017. If so, they may be a harbinger of what we can expect in most years after another decade of global warming.
Cimate change is a complex issue and there are many views as to the best way forward. One point, however, risks getting lost in the details: to address climate change, we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Total warming is basically determined by the total amount of fossil fuels burnt. The graphic below shows the total CO2 emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution:
The massive increase in burning fossil fuels starting around 1960, now called the Great Acceleration, is clearly visible, as is the rise of China from 2005. You can see how we have eased off on the accelerator in the last few years. Now we need to slam on the brakes.
We may miss the 1.5C target, we may even miss the 2C target; somewhere in this range risks triggering the melting of all of Greenland and Antarctica, with associated 70 metres of sea level rise over a few thousand years. (Already, late in the 20th century, the large grounded ice sheets began peeling off the sea floor, destabilised and melted from below.) But whatever point we reach, we will still need to continue to focus on stopping burning fossil fuels.
Yes, agricultural emissions are important too, both in New Zealand and globally. One large dairy cow emits the equivalent greenhouse gases as one large car. But the cow earns money and produces a useful product, while most cars do not earn money – they are a large money sink and, in many cases, more of a consumer item. New Zealand spends $5 billion a year importing fossil fuels, a terrifically bad investment. Whatever happens with agriculture does not avoid the primary need to stop burning fossil fuels.
Yes, planting trees can help, effectively taking carbon out of the air and storing it in solid form above ground for as long as the bush or plantation lasts. Planting trees can buy us a little time while we stop burning fossil fuels.
For individuals, the best course of action is straightforward. For transport, switch from burning petrol or diesel to walking, cycling, public transport, or an EV – already cheaper on total cost of ownership than petrol or diesel for most New Zealand drivers. If you burn gas, switch to electricity or (for space heating) wood. Avoid unnecessary air travel. A few individuals doing these things doesn’t help much on the emissions front, but it builds a community of experience, awareness, and support which will help our whole society stop burning fossil fuels.
For businesses, the best course of action is to adopt a carbon management plan, certified by (for example) Enviro-Mark Solutions, a New Zealand company with growing export earnings that has been extensively reviewed and validated by international studies. There are two options: carboNZero, which means that your entire operation is carbon neutral, and CEMARS (Certified Emissions Measurement and Reduction Scheme), which ensures a measured reduction in emissions over time.
The results can be startling. Auckland International Airport reduced emissions 35 per cent in 5 years with significant cost savings. Kāpiti Coast District Council is well over halfway towards reducing emissions by 80 per cent by 2021, with cost savings of $1.3m per year. The Warehouse is CEMARS certified. Even large, carbon-intensive companies like Mainfreight are strongly focused on reducing their emissions.
In the words of University of Auckland physicist Richard Easther, “If you’re in charge of something in 2019, you’re in charge of the climate. If your job has anything to do with transport, what’s your plan to ‘decarbonise’, starting right now?” For many sectors, including land freight, city buses, and rubbish trucks, imports of diesel road vehicles can stop right now.
After 30 years of climate change discussion, planning, and action, the burning of fossil fuels is still on the increase in New Zealand. It needs to stop.
Robert McLachlan and Steve Trewick. This article appeared first on stuff.co.nz on 29 January 2019. See original article.
We congratulate Stuff for its series on climate change. But one area has received relatively little attention – that of flying.
Though aviation is emission-profligate and the fastest growing source of emissions, it presents particular challenges. You can replace your petrol-driven car with a modern electric car. But flying is more complex, as there is no easy way of reducing its heavy dependence on fossil fuels in the foreseeable future.
For New Zealand, it is especially challenging. It has been estimated that, at any point in time, more than one million New Zealand residents are living or travelling overseas.
More than a quarter of New Zealanders were born overseas, many retaining close links to friends and family in their country of origin. Keeping in touch with whānau is a strong driver of the wish to fly. In addition, within New Zealand we don’t have fast rail linking our major centres, and low-cost long-distance bus travel is currently of poor quality. Our rapidly expanding tourism industry also depends on people often travelling long distances to get here.
The problem is that flying is an important contributor to our greenhouse gas emissions. This impact is forecast to increase in absolute terms and as a proportion of New Zealand’s total emissions.
The increase comes about through the rapidly growing popularity of long-distance travel, as well as a massive growth in airfreight driven in part by online retailing. (The Auckland airport company is currently planning for 40m passengers a year to pass through its facility by 2040.) The increase in flight emissions counteracts the reduction in greenhouse emissions that other sectors of the economy are working towards, including farming.
So what is the size of the challenge? New Zealand’s international aviation emissions, unregulated by the Paris Agreement, were 3.4m tonnes of CO₂ equivalent in 2016, up 152 per cent from 1990. There is insufficient land to produce enough biofuel and it’s a major challenge to go electric, even for short flights.
What can we do to change the trajectory?
Individuals can choose to fly less. Inspired by Sweden’s #flygfritt 2019challenge to be flight-free, Britain has launched its #flightfree2019 campaign. There is now a Fly-less Kiwis Facebook group.
Businesses, government agencies and universities can reduce their dependence on flying through video conferencing, virtual workshops and by examining the necessity of each trip. They can stop the practice of giving employees airpoints for personal use, a tax-free incentive to fly.
We can remove wider incentives including airpoints, flybuys, finance company loans for international travel, and subsidies for regional airlines.
We can improve low-carbon forms of travel within New Zealand, for example with high-speed trains between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, and improved long-distance bus services.
As Wellington lawyer Tom Bennion states in Chris Watson’s book Beyond Flying, “Air travel is the ultimate low-hanging fruit in terms of a significant step that individuals can take immediately to prevent catastrophic climate change.”