Climate change emergency: Time to slam on the brakes

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:

Historic CO2 emissions from globalcarbonproject.org; budgets from IPCC 1.5C report.

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.

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