Podcast with Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a writer, publisher, and host of the podcast “This climate business.” Recently he talked to Robert McLachlan about this blog and its stories about Ireland, Antarctica, and cats. But, if you’re here, you know that already, in which case you could check out his interviews with Julie Anne Genter and Eloise Gibson instead.

Climate explained: are we doomed if we don’t manage to curb emissions by 2030?

Thongden Studio/Shutterstock

By Robert McLachlan

A reader asks: Is humanity doomed? If in 2030 we have not reduced emissions in a way that means we stay under say 2℃ (I’ve frankly given up on 1.5℃), are we doomed then?

Humanity is not doomed, not now or even in a worst-case scenario in 2030. But avoiding doom — either the end or widespread collapse of civilisation — is setting a pretty low bar. We can aim much higher than that without shying away from reality.

It’s right to focus on global warming of 1.5℃ and 2℃ in the first instance. The many manifestations of climate change — including heat waves, droughts, water stress, more intense storms, wildfires, mass extinction and warming oceans — all get progressively worse as the temperature rises.

Climate scientist Michael Mann uses the metaphor of walking into an increasingly dense minefield.

Good reasons not to give up just yet

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the effects of a 1.5℃ increase in average temperatures in a special report last year. They are also nicely summarised in an article about why global temperatures matter, produced by NASA.

The global average temperature is currently about 1.2℃ higher than what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution, some 250 years ago. We are already witnessing localised impacts, including the widespread coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

This graph shows different emission pathways and when the world is expected to reach global average temperatures of 1.5℃ or 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Global Carbon Project, Author provided

Limiting warming to 1.5℃ requires cutting global emissions by 7.6% each year this decade. This does sound difficult, but there are reasons for optimism.

First, it’s possible technically and economically. For example, the use of wind and solar power has grown exponentially in the past decade, and their prices have plummeted to the point where they are now among the cheapest sources of electricity. Some areas, including energy storage and industrial processes such as steel and cement manufacture, still need further research and a drop in price (or higher carbon prices).

Second, it’s possible politically. Partly in response to the Paris Agreement, a growing number of countries have adopted stronger targets. Twenty countries and regions (including New Zealand and the European Union) are now targeting net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.

A recent example of striking progress comes from Ireland – a country with a similar emissions profile to New Zealand. The incoming coalition’s “programme for government” includes emission cuts of 7% per year and a reduction by half by 2030.

Third, it’s possible socially. Since 2019, we have seen the massive growth of the School Strike 4 Climate movement and an increase in fossil fuel divestment. Several media organisations, including The Conversation, have made a commitment to evidence-based coverage of climate change and calls for a Green New Deal are coming from a range of political parties, especially in the US and Europe.

There is also a growing understanding that to ensure a safe future we need to consume less overall. If these trends continue, then I believe we can still stay below 1.5℃.

The pessimist perspective

Now suppose we don’t manage that. It’s 2030 and emissions have only fallen a little bit. We’re staring at 2℃ in the second half of the century.

At 2℃ of warming, we could expect to lose more than 90% of our coral reefs. Insects and plants would be at higher risk of extinction, and the number of dangerously hot days would increase rapidly.

The challenges would be exacerbated and we would have new issues to consider. First, under the “shifting baseline” phenomenon — essentially a failure to notice slow change and to value what is already lost — people might discount the damage already done. Continuously worsening conditions might become the new normal.

Second, climate impacts such as mass migration could lead to a rise of nationalism and make international cooperation harder. And third, we could begin to pass unpredictable “tipping points” in the Earth system. For example, warming of more than 2°C could set off widespread melting in Antarctica, which in turn would contribute to sea level rise.

But true doom-mongers tend to assume a worst-case scenario on virtually every area of uncertainty. It is important to remember that such scenarios are not very likely.

While bad, this 2030 scenario doesn’t add up to doom — and it certainly doesn’t change the need to move away from fossil fuels to low-carbon options

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article, which featured a number of replies from readers taking a “Yes, we are doomed” position.

New airport at Tarras would drive rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions

By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan

Mike Kelley, “Flughafen Zürich 28 and 16 (Visual Separation)”, a montage of many actual departures. From “Civilisation, Photography, Now“, Auckland Art Gallery.

Last year a headline in the Australian Business Insider stated ‘Wednesday was one of the busiest recorded days in aviation history — and it’s going to keep getting busier’. More than 225,000 flights took to the skies on Wednesday, July 24 2019. But as Covid-19 started to spread around the world, the Flightradar24 site showed that flights plummeted to a low of just over 40,000 in early April. However, backed by significant government bailouts, they are now steadily rising, reaching over 140,000 per day.

Before Covid-19, aviation formed a significant part of global greenhouse gas emissions that almost entirely escaped regulation.  Jet fuel is responsible for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions. Other impacts of flying, known as radiative forcing, take the total impact to over 5%. Total air travel has grown 80% by 2009 and is projected to triple by 2050.  This is why a report for the UK Department of Transport concluded that

achieving a 1.5°C target will become irreconcilable with any continued fossil fuel usage by aviation at some point around the middle of the present century… Since aviation’s current goals are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement, in the absence of additional measures, then more ambitious goals should be set.

New Zealand charges no fuel duty on international flights, nor are the emissions covered under the Emissions Trading Scheme. There is no GST on international flights. In fact, the emissions are not even counted in our national greenhouse accounts, or in our greenhouse gas targets. These relative advantages have contributed to rapid growth of our international aviation emissions, which (until recently!) were up 33% in three years. In turn, the combination of a rapid growth of tourism with the global pandemic has created a particular problem.

Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, reported shortly before the lockdown on the environmental impact of tourism growth in New Zealand. He devotes a lot of attention to aviation, but concluded that

It appears to be a potentially existential risk that is being fatalistically run on the basis that for the moment there are no practical solutions and no imminent sign of concerted and stringent policy action.

This growth didn’t just happen

If “build it and they will come” applies to the capacity of the aviation sector, it is not surprising that flight numbers are forecast to expand. Planned expansions, coupled with heavy advertising and rewards schemes, mean the forecasts seemed to have every chance of “success”. Auckland Airport is planning for 40 million passengers per year by 2040, up from 21 million today. Wellington Airport’s billion-dollar upgrade, intended to double  traffic by 2040, is now on hold due to the pandemic. 

So the proposal for a new international airport at Tarras fits into a past pattern of rapid growth combined with a refusal to acknowledge its impact. Christchurch City Council (the majority owner of the airport) has a bold plan for Christchurch to reach net zero emissions by 2045. But its claimed emissions of 2.2 million tonnes CO2e per year don’t include international arrivals or departures. Those added another 1.7 million tonnes in 2019. Likewise, Queenstown Airport, which tripled traffic in the past decade to 2.4 million passengers in 2019 releasing about 0.8 million tonnes of CO2e, anticipated a further tripling by 2045. This demand growth, if facilitated by a new airport, and underwritten by government ownership, would mean extra emissions of 1.6 million tonnes a year, or even more if some travellers start from further away than the east coast of Australia.

The way forward

There are two kinds of fatalism. The optimistic kind says that technology will save us and we will muddle through regardless. The pessimistic kind says we’re doomed and there’s no point doing anything. Both are wrong. But in a difficult situation, we have to start with small steps.

The international No Fly and Fly-Less movements are starting to have an effect. In a pre-Covid survey, 75% of European respondents planned to fly less for holidays in 2020. In China the number was 94%, and in the US, 69%. Domestic air travel was already notably down in the UK, Sweden, and Germany. The EU is considering charging duty on jet fuel, similar to what is done for petrol. Our new Climate Commission will advise on whether to bring international transport into the ETS – a solution that has also been proposed internationally – but not until 2024. 

We are at the start of a decade in which the government’s stated aim is to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels. To have any hope of achieving this goal, all sectors of the economy, including aviation, need to dramatically and permanently reduce their emissions. 

Conversely, doing nothing would risk diverting ever more investment into an unsustainable part of our society and place the Net Zero 2050 goal in jeopardy. Even otherwise environmentally-aware travelers are in denial about the significance of their air travel emissions. It’s time to accept responsibility and to start choosing solutions.

This article appeared first in Stuff on 25 July 2020. Read the original article.

Ireland’s sensational climate plan

By Robert McLachlan

Ireland and New Zealand have a lot in common. Each has 5 million people. They are both scenic.

They both have a lot of cows. (New Zealand has 10 million, Ireland 7 million, both with rapidly intensified dairying.)

They are both windy.

They both play rugby.

They are both rich, although New Zealand is near the middle of the rich countries with national income of US$47,000 per person – the same as France and the UK – while Ireland is near the top at $67,000. They both run open, foreign-investment-friendly, low-tax economies, although Ireland really stands out on this one.

Of course, New Zealand is bigger than Ireland.

And for decades they have both talked a good talk on climate change while failing to reduce their emissions.

Ireland’s gross greenhouse gas emissions…
and New Zealand’s. ‘Energy’ is emissions from burning fossil fuels, ‘IPPU’ is industrial processes like manufacturing fertiliser and cement.

While New Zealand’s emissions, stuck on 80 million tonnes CO2e a year, are higher than Ireland’s at 60 million tonnes, the difference is mainly due to agriculture. Even so, Ireland’s agricultural emissions are themselves unusually high, and attempts to discuss them have run into the same roadblocks as in New Zealand.

As well as a traditional farming culture, we can think of the housing crisis, poor quality housing, a rural/urban divide, and inequality issues as roughly similar. In terms of addressing climate change, Ireland does face some extra difficulties: a lack of hydropower, and a lack of land for wind power, and slightly colder temperatures.

The 2020 election & the Programme for Government

The election in Ireland on 8 February 2020 delivered no clear winner. Coalition talks continued until June, when a 3-party coalition of the conservative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties together with the Green Party agreed an astonishing 126-page “Programme for Government“. Not only is it as long as a novel, just about every page consists of bullet points for action. This is the first national action plan that approaches what is required by the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The programme agrees to

  • Cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 7% per year, totalling 51% by 2030.

Although far bolder than any other country has yet managed or even envisaged, this is in fact what the whole world needs to achieve to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. The cuts are double what was already planned in 2019 by the outgoing Fine Gael government, and which were themselves already ambitious. They will require a rapid and complete revolution in electricity, housing quality, and transport, for starters.

A start has been made on electricity already, with renewable sources climbing from 7% in 2006 to 33% in 2018. The target is 70% in 2030. Ireland already has 4.2 GW of wind power, seven times as much as New Zealand, but they will need much, much more.

  • 10% of the entire transport budget will be reserved for cycling, and another 10% for walking.

The program includes pretty much everything a cycling advocate would dream of. For example: “Each local authority will be immediately mandated to carry out an assessment of their road network, to see where space can be reallocated for pedestrians and cyclists. This should be done immediately.” In addition, spending on new public transport will be double the spending on new roads. (For comparison, in New Zealand about 2% of the transport budget is spent on walking and cycling, and we are embarking on the largest program of new motorway construction in our history).

Ireland is also encouraging electric cars, bikes, and trucks. The target is for 950,000 EVs (out of a present fleet of 2.7 million vehicles) by 2030. Sales of fossil-fuels cars will be banned by 2030, and existing ones phased out from cities after that. This is ambitious: Ireland has just 9000 EVs. It’s going to require massive changes in the use and operation of cars.

  • The carbon tax, now €26 per tonne of CO2, and which last year was agreed to be increased to €80 by 2030, will now increase to €100.

That’s about what is needed in all countries to support the Paris Agreement. It led to lengthy disputes over what to do with the money raised, with the Green Party wanting it all returned to the public in a “fee and dividend” model. Instead, it goes to the government, but with some spending put towards “climate justice”: €1.5 billion for sustainable farming, €5 billion for retrofitting houses, and €3 billion to support a just transition – for example, to alleviate fuel poverty.

  • Grade B thermal upgrades to 500,000 houses by 2030, and switching the heating of 600,000 houses from natural gas to heat pumps. All new houses to be Grade A, or nearly zero energy.

In Ireland, houses are required to have a Building Energy Rating from A to G. Most existing stock is Grade C (a standard mid-2000s house) or D.

  • End the issue of new licenses for the exploration and extraction of gas, on the same basis as the recent decision in relation to oil exploration and extraction. Cancel the proposed LNG terminal.
  • Establish a Climate Action Council, which will advise the government on carbon budgets and policies. This will be introduced in the first 100 days.

This is very similar to the New Zealand model, with one important difference: the 5-yearly carbon budgets, once passed by the Dáil (parliament) become legally binding.

There is much, much more in the Program for Government, which covers pretty much every aspect of society, environment, and the economy. It’s well worth a look to see what can be agreed by very different political parties.

How did Ireland reach this point? Is it all pie in the sky?

Partly, this is the result of intensive action by climate and other civil society groups over many years. Two groups in particular, Friends of the Earth and Stop Climate Chaos, have been campaigning for carbon budgets and a climate action council since 2007. Over the years, they were joined by more groups, culminating in “One Future“, a coalition of nearly one hundred organisations. Public health groups, like the Irish Heart Foundation and Irish Cancer Society, joined forces with sustainable transport groups to argue that active transport is both low carbon and healthier.

Secondly, the poor record on emissions, combined with Ireland’s required contribution to EU climate targets, became an embarrassment. Work on transitioning electricity was already well underway. The previous government had already adopted an ambitious Climate Action Plan in mid-2019. A lot of the Program for Government is a strengthening of what had already begun.

That doesn’t mean the program will be easy to enact or to achieve. No country has yet managed sustained cuts in emissions by much more than 1% a year. The training and infrastructure programs will be massive and will need support from across society. Agricultural methane, always a sticking point, is treated respectfully in the document, but is as yet unresolved. A current plan to further increase dairy farming will likely have to be stopped, however.

In New Zealand, although we have the Zero Carbon Bill, we are only beginning to take tiny steps to actually reduce emissions. Many proposals have failed, and most people don’t realise what changes will be needed: the crunch will come with the Climate Change Committee reports their first budget in 2021. Although all countries find their own way, right now, New Zealand could learn a lot from Ireland.

Up to our necks in fossil fuels: interview with Sir Jonathon Porritt

Sir Jonathon Porritt has deep roots in environmental issues in New Zealand and worldwide. He is chair of the Air New Zealand Sustainability Advisory Panel and founder of the Aotearoa Circle. He was chair of UK Sustainable Development Commission for nine years and a founder of Forum for the Future. He has been a leader in Friends of the Earth, the WWF, and the Green Party. His books include Capitalism as if the World Mattered, The World we Made, and the forthcoming Hope in Hell.

Barry Coates was Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand from 2003–2014 and has been an MP as a representative of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is the founder of Mindful Money, a charity that promotes ethical investment. He talked to Jonathon Porritt on 17 June 2020.

The urgency of climate finance

BC: Can you tell us about your recent paper for the Aotearoa Circle, and what you found out about the notion of “Building back better” across sixteen countries?

JP: It was a snapshot to see what’s happening out there in terms of government intentions. Practically nothing has actually started yet. Rather, governments are gearing up their recovery programs. There is plenty of good intent of governments to use some of their recovery funds to help promote low carbon prosperity, and that we must address the climate emergency as part of whatever we do. There is much less going on in terms of using the recovery to restore natural capital, to protect the environment, to put right some of the cumulative damage to rivers, forests, soils over the last twenty years.

The actual picture in terms of bailouts and subsidies is not so good. This was confirmed recently in a report from Vivid Economics. They found that $850 billion out of $6 trillion in bailout funds have gone straight to carbon-intensive, environmentally destructive companies. There’s a massive amount left to play for.

BC: Climate change has been on the radar of insurance companies, banks, and investment companies for three decades. But we haven’t seen it integrated into the way the finance system works. Where do you think the failing has come from?

JP: It is pretty remarkable. The science has become more and more definitive. And scientists are now warning governments that things are moving much faster, and the impacts will be much greater than thought previously. The risk to investors will be very substantial. What was going on in the minds of all the smart people in finance is a classic example of what Mark Carney described as the “Tragedy of the Horizon”. They’ve had a fixed view that value lies in generating revenue over the next three to five years. They thought climate change would play out much slower, and that they would be smart enough to keep their clients happy. 

A tragedy of systemic arrogance

So it’s also a tragedy of systemic arrogance. The world’s capital markets have constantly devalued the natural world. They have demonstrated staggering ignorance over decades. Even now, although more institutional investors are focused on climate risk, when I talk to our partner companies in Forum for the Future, the level of questioning is incredibly superficial. They have not got their heads around what climate risk really amounts to.

BC: And there’s so much they could be doing! They own the fossil fuel companies. They could be providing direction. Do you see any encouraging signs?

JP: The announcement a few days ago from BP that they would cancel a lot of scheduled oil and gas developments, leading to a $17 billion write-down and a need for more capital for renewable energy investments, had a huge impact here. People had very mixed responses. There were enormous worries from the pension funds that BP will reduce its dividend. The oil companies have been borrowing money to pay dividends. If that isn’t a signal of something a bit dodgy, I don’t know what kind of signal you need! BP’s decision is highly significant; it’s seen as a forerunner of what the other listed oil companies will be doing. 

On the other hand, we heard yesterday from Fatih Birol, the director of the International Energy Agency, that it was premature to talk about 2019 being the year of peak oil demand. He said that if governments aren’t careful – if they channel money to oil-intensive industries – then we could again be heading towards oil demand of 100 million barrels a day by 2021. Birol is not a patsy for the oil industry. He’s pretty clear that we need to see a massive shift in investment away from fossil fuels. This is a very strong warning that unless governments decarbonize their recovery programs we  could see oil and gas still in there, keeping investors happy, until the final crunch.

BC: You’ve established the Sustainable Finance Forum in New Zealand. It’s pretty much the only place here where these issues are discussed. What do you see as its role?

JP: The impulse behind the Aotearoa Circle was to put the spotlight on the physical underpinning of New Zealand’s economy. Soils, rivers, forests, coastal areas, fisheries. But you can’t simply say, “Let’s undo the damage and regenerate our natural capital”. It’s as much about financial capital. That’s why our first project was to launch the Sustainable Finance Forum. Their interim report was very clear. No country has successfully managed its capital markets to generate short-term prosperity without undermining the natural capital on which long-term prosperity depends. It’s an outstandingly clear report. It’s saying, “This is tough. Governments will have to regulate capital markets better.”

To take one small example, there’s a debate in New Zealand about whether large companies should be required to disclose their climate risks. That’s just the first baby step! If you don’t do that, how can investors make good decisions? New Zealand needs to seize this quickly.

BC: More fundamentally, we need to address the “Tragedy of the Horizon” and think more long-term. Is there an opportunity for New Zealand to have a more distinctive position on this? What other things can we do?

JP: There are opportunities to allow individual investors and pension holders to make decisions that focus on the longer term, and for that to become the default. If people take the trouble to find out about ethical and sustainable funds, they will find that they outperform conventional funds. The evidence is rock-solid. But it takes a long time for that evidence to trickle into the minds of financial advisers and consultants. 

BC: The government recently required default Kiwisaver funds to be free of fossil fuels. Now the critics of that decision are seeing the chickens come home to roost!

What next for climate action?

Your new book, “Hope in Hell: A decade to confront the climate emergency” signals a new direction for you. 

JP: It certainly does! 2019 was extraordinary from a climate perspective. We had a wonderful infusion of new energy from the School Strikes 4 Climate, Extinction Rebellion and so on. It caused me to look again at the size of the gap between the science and the political response. The gap is getting bigger. 

The science says everything is getting worse everywhere faster than anybody thought possible. The political response in inadequate. That gap is not going to be narrowed unless politicians come under a different kind of political pressure. For me that means a huge upsurge in political activism, including mass civil disobedience. We have to accept that “this is the last decade to get it sorted” is not just facile rhetoric. This is for real now. 

All the work that I do, and that Forum for the Future does with corporates, is not going to make things change fast enough. We have to shift the focus to decision makers in government so that they are compelled to act. 

BC: The Stern Report addressed short-termism though the lens of interest rates. It argued that with lower interests rates people would value the future more. Now we have low interest rates. Will this affect behaviour in a positive way?

JP: It’s too early to tell. Nicholas Stern is out there now making this very point. He’s been massively frustrated that governments and other economists haven’t accepted the basic point of his report, that you need to change the discount rate to get a proper balance between short-term and long-term planning. I think that at least with low interest rates, governments will be less obsessive about debt, and should feel freer to invest in all the low-carbon industries directly. 

To take an example, there are strong calls in the UK to shift the government’s planned 29 billion pound roading program into active and public transport, and into building low-carbon cities. There aren’t going to be private investors ready to shift the entire basis of urban infrastructure. Low interest rates make this easier for governments to take on.

The Green New Deal

BC: What is your wish-list for post-Covid recovery?

JP: I’m a big supporter of the Green New Deal. It’s been around for more than a decade. It’s a big source of insights for both the USA and the UK, and it can apply to almost every country. There are  three big things that could really make a difference. 

The first is urban infrastructure. There is no reason that New Zealand couldn’t have all of its towns and cities largely free of privately owned vehicles. 

Second, the retrofit of existing housing. New Zealand has a lot of very poor quality housing. This is getting big attention in the UK and elsewhere; it also generates lots of jobs and skills. 

The third idea is growing more slowly. It goes back to the original New Deal in the 1930s, when Roosevelt launched the Conservation Corps. We need a Conservation Corps, an Earth Corps, to allow young people put right damage around the country, to understand the dependence of their country on the environment, and to embed those values for the future. 

BC: Should governments put environmental conditions on bailouts?

JP: Not only should they, it’s absolutely fundamental. The signals at the moment are not brilliant. None of the central bank programs in Europe or the US have such conditions. It’s a missed opportunity of staggering proportions. A rare bright spot: the French government has confirmed the conditions placed on Air France, that they won’t be allowed to compete with rail on short flights. And in Canada, a country up to its neck in fossil fuel dependency, companies receiving bailouts must submit to climate risk disclosure.

BC: Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN climate program, has said that the time frame for getting the investments right is 6–18 months. Does that sound right to you?

JP: Yes. She’s building the logic of the next 18 months. If governments get things wrong with these recovery programs, and go back to supporting carbon-intensive industries and focusing on economic growth an any cost, then we’ll be locked into that course for the whole period of the programs. Then we’ll miss our targets for 2030. And if we miss those then we have no chance of limiting warming to 2ºC by 2100. If those trillions of dollars of government money go into carbon-intensive industries, she’s right: we’re screwed.


BC: Are politicians actually capable of taking this agenda on? What is the role of citizens?

JP: I don’t think politicians are capable of doing this at the moment. Their understanding of the state of the planet – climate, collapsing ecosystems – is far too low to enable them to be the decision makers they have to be. I retain an image from 2019 in which young people from the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office. Pelosi is an experienced and progressive politician. She is utterly useless on anything to do with climate. The young people said, get going on this or we’ll find another way. Pelosi was patronizing and humiliated. 

I read this event symbolically. I think we need the offices of politicians “occupied” by young people all over the world. My job is to support them.

Saving heritage – the sustainability argument

By Michael Kelly

Erskine College Main Block (1906), Island Bay, Wellington, under demolition, October 2018. Photo: Wikipedia.

Moral and emotional arguments for saving heritage can only go so far; there are many people who feel no particular attachment to the past and act accordingly. But what if there was a way to completely rethink how we manage old buildings that allows us to drastically cut CO2 emissions? After all, most people acknowledge the massive threat that climate change poses. The answer is pretty simple really and it could save most of our built heritage.

To help save the planet, we have to make a fundamental shift in our attitude to the materials already in our building stock. And that shift is to regard buildings and the materials in them as non-expendable – essentially reusable and recyclable. Construction debris makes up 50 per cent of all waste in New Zealand. In the United Kingdom it is as much as 63 per cent annually. Those are finite resources gone forever.

The building industry has a sky-high carbon footprint. The use of concrete is one of the biggest culprits, along with steel, but forming any new material generally carries a large carbon footprint. We extract finite resources out of the ground, use huge amounts of energy to turn them into building products and more energy transporting them and putting them together to form something new. Quite simply, erecting new buildings is catastrophically bad for the environment. (Building roads produces huge CO2 emissions, but that’s another story.)

So, the first principle of sustainability should be, do not demolish buildings. Refurbishing should be the default position for any building no longer needed for its original purpose. Refurbishment is not a carbon-free option of course but it’s many magnitudes better than to demolish and start again. Not all buildings can be refurbished for the same or similar use or even a compatible use and the further you get away from that, the greater the loss of fabric, including, of course, heritage fabric. Building fabric gets tired or worn out, so some replacement will be necessary.

Saving every heritage building is a laudable goal, but it may not be feasible to save every old building. The next step down is to deconstruct a building but then reuse most of its material in a new building. The worst thing that can happen to a building is to be turned into demolition rubble. In New Zealand, a significant amount of construction material is recycled (and turned into a less valuable product) but what is being proposed internationally goes far beyond that. A movement has begun in Europe to institute ‘materials passports’ for new buildings so that every component of a new building gets a digital record and can be identified and re-used, mostly for the same purpose, at a later date in a new building. Think of it as if the components of a building are on loan for a particular purpose and then when they have done their bit, moved on to another building. It’s not quite saving heritage, but, again, at least it’s better than demolition.

The challenge is to convince people that the materials bound up in an existing building have a value; that keeping them will significantly reduce building costs and will help the environment. A campaign in the UK called RetroFirst, run by the Architects’ Journal, champions refurbishment over demolition and rebuild. One of its targets is a peculiar anomaly in VAT (the equivalent of GST) that taxes refurbishment of a building at 20 per cent but exempts new building.

In a country like New Zealand where the relentless pursuit of the bright, shiny and new still holds sway, it would take a major cultural shift to achieve such an approach, but it’s essential if we are to survive on Planet Earth.

Michael Kelly is President of PHANZA, the Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa. Republished with permission from Phanzine vol. 26 no. 1 (May 2020).

Climate explained: why switching to electric transport makes sense even if electricity is not fully renewable


By Robert McLachlan

I have a question about the charging of electric cars. I understand New Zealand is not 100% self-sufficient in renewable energy (about 80%, supplemented by 20% generally produced by coal-fired stations). If I were to buy an electric vehicle it would add to the load on the national grid. Is the only way we are currently able to add the extra power to burn more coal? Does this not make these vehicles basically “coal fired”?

New Zealand is indeed well supplied with renewable electricity. In recent years, New Zealand has averaged 83% from renewable sources (including 60% hydropower, 17% geothermal, and 5% wind) and 17% from fossil fuels (4% coal and 13% gas).

In addition to being cheap and renewable, hydropower has another great advantage. Its production can ramp up and down very quickly (by turning the turbines on and off) during the day to match demand.

Looking at a typical winter’s day (I’ve taken July 4, 2018), demand at 3am was 3,480 megawatts (MW) and 85% was met by renewable sources. By the early evening peak, demand was up to 5,950MW, but was met by 88% renewable sources. Fossil fuel sources did ramp up, but hydropower ramped up much more.

Flipping the fleet

Even during periods of peak demand, our electricity is very clean. An electric vehicle (EV) charged during the evening would emit about 20 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.

Even an EV charged purely on coal- or gas-fired electricity still has lower emissions than a petrol or diesel car, which comes to around 240g CO₂/km (if one includes the emissions needed to extract, refine, and transport the fuel).

An EV run on coal-fired electricity emits around 180g CO₂/km during use, while the figure for gas-fired electricity is about 90g CO₂/km. This is possible because internal combustion engines are less efficient than the turbines used in power stations.

Looking longer term, a mass conversion of transport in New Zealand to walking, cycling and electric trains, buses, cars and trucks is one of the best and most urgent strategies to reduce emissions. It will take a few decades, but on balance it may not be too expensive, because of the fuel savings that will accrue (NZ$11 billion of fuel was imported in 2018.)

This conversion will increase electricity use by about a quarter. To meet it we can look at both supply and demand.

More renewable electricity

On the supply side, more renewable electricity is planned – construction of three large wind farms began in 2019, and more are expected. The potential supply is significant, especially considering that, compared to many other countries, we’ve hardly begun to start using solar power.

But at some point, adding too much of these intermittent sources starts to strain the ability of the hydro lakes to balance them. This is at the core of the present debate about whether New Zealand should be aiming for 100% or 95% renewable electricity.

There are various ways of dealing with this, including storage batteries, building more geothermal power stations or “pumped hydro” stations. In pumped hydro, water is pumped uphill into a storage lake when there is an excess of wind and solar electricity available, to be released later. If the lake is large enough, this technology can also address New Zealand’s persistent risk of dry years that can lead to a shortage of hydropower.

Smarter electricity use

On the demand side, a survey is under way to measure the actual charging patterns of EV drivers. Information available so far suggests that many people charge their EV late at night to take advantage of cheap night rates.

If demand gets too high at certain times, then the cost of both generation and transmission will likely rise. To avoid this, electricity suppliers are exploring smart demand responses, based on the hot water ripple control New Zealand began using in the 1950s. This allows electricity suppliers to remotely turn off hot water heaters for a few hours to limit demand.

In modern versions, consumers or suppliers can moderate demand in response to price signals, either in real time using an app or ahead of time through a contract.

New Zealand’s emissions from land transport continue to rise, up by another 2% in 2018 and almost double on 1990 levels.

New Zealand’s land transport emissions in kt CO2.

To address climate change, we have to stop burning fossil fuels. Passenger cars are among the biggest users and also one of the easiest to change. Fossil fuel cannot be recycled or made clean. In contrast, electricity is getting cleaner all the time, both in New Zealand and in car factories.

If you switch to an EV now, your impact is far greater than just your personal reduction in emissions. Early adopters are vital. The more EVs we have, the more people will get used to them, the easier it will be to counter misinformation, and the more pressure there will be to cater for them.

Many people have found that switching to an electric car has been empowering and has galvanised them to start taking other actions for the climate.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


In recent years electric vehicles have become something of a whipping boy in some circles. Even if their emissions from driving are radically lower that fossil-fueled vehicles, their total lifecycle emissions (including making and recycling the car and batteries) are only moderately lower, by about two-thirds. And they don’t solve all of the other problems created by cars, including congestion, suburban sprawl, safety, and the creation of an urban environment which some see as unpleasant.

In recent years New Zealand has been importing about 320,000 vehicles a year, with the total fleet growing by 140,000 vehicles, nearly all fossil-fueled. It’s the same situation world-wide: there about about one billion motor vehicles in the world, with 100 million new ones built every year and the total fleet increasing by about 40 million. Again, nearly all are fossil-fueled. All wildly unsustainable.

The solutions involve less travel, higher-density cities arranged around transport networks, more walking and cycling, and higher-density transport modes like electric buses, trams, and trains. But in New Zealand, and nearly everywhere else, we are starting from a very difficult place. The longest journey may begin with a single step, but that step can be the hardest. We need to start on our journey.


Steve Trewick

They’re cute, they’re cuddly but will they burst your bubble?

Time spent with cats is never time wasted, as Sigmund Freud is said to have said but didn’t. And a good job too because it might turn out to be poor advice in the post-COVID19 world. Evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that cats should probably be kept at a distance or strictly kept within your household bubble. Bluntly, you don’t know where your cat has been and cats are emerging as potential vectors of the COVID19 virus. They can be infected, get ill, exchange it with other cats and (given the origins of the disease) it is likely they could pass it on to humans. Cats within rest homes (aged residential care facilities) should be tested because there is any potential of them spreading the COVID19 virus between residents. 

First things first though, the name of what Donald Trumps calls the ‘invisible enemy‘. The handy tag-name COVID19 that was quickly adopted around the world was coined by the World Health Organisation early this year; it means COronaVIrus Disease 2019. However, it is critical that we understand that the virus is related to other similar viruses, and so it helps to use a formal name that links related viruses together (a more robust approach set out by the WHO). The better we understand where this virus came from the better we can prepare for future pandemics (which are a certainty) and work out how to battle this one. Virus naming has special rules because of the particular ways they multiply and the rapidity with which they can evolve, and now most information comes directly from the DNA (or RNA) sequence of the virus. Adding information from COVID19 to the existing pool of viral genetic data has revealed its nearest evolutionary relatives. The virus family tree shows that the current nuisance is similar to the virus that was named SARS when it emerged in 2002. When Severe Acute Respirator Syndrome was unique the name SARS was sufficient but we now know: 1) that SARS and COVID19 are both members of the same subgroup of coronaviruses, 2) they share a common ancestor most probably hosted by bats, and 3) they are closely related to one another. Hence the decision to adopt the names SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19).

Pink branches indicate bat related coronaviruses. Blue boxes indicate representative SARS virus variants including the two closely related epidemic types SARS-CoV (SARS 2002) and SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19). Some of the known mammal hosts of these viruses are shown on the right. Annotated after CSG 2020.

New diseases do not emerge spontaneously but result from the evolution of existing disease-causing microbes, one route to novelty in humans involves ‘zoonotic’ transfer. This involves a disease causing microbe moving to a human host from some other animal, and reflects the normal background pattern of microbes moving among potential hosts in nature. Humans are not specifically targeted by disease-causing microbes but our activities sometimes increase our exposure to potential microbial parasites; in particular the burgeoning population of humans on Earth means increased contact between species in our competition for resources. Situations where wild animals, farm animals and people interact are ideal for transfer.

Examples of Zoonotic Diseases and Their Affected Populations. From US Government Accountability Office report.

It appears that SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19) are descended from viruses transmitted amongst bats, but that does not mean a human caught the disease directly from a bat. In fact, we do not know all the different animals that can be infected by these virus; we have not had time to test extensively among humans for SARS-CoV-2 let alone other species. Current evidence indicates that the intermediary might have been another wild mammal traded in a Chinese market. Genetic samples from animals in markets show a high prevalence of SARS-CoV in masked palm civets Paguma and other carnivores including racoon dog Nyctereutes, fox Vulpes, mustelids Melogale, and cats Felis. Significantly, although there is high SARS-CoV incidence among civets in markets, wild-living civets that have been tested are free of infection. This supports the idea that zoonosis is associated with human activity.

A masked palm civet.

To invade a host cell, so it can replicate, a virus needs to connect to a particular cell protein in the host. For SARS-CoV-2 this is a blood pressure-regulating protein called ACE2. The ACE2 protein in human cells to which the so-called ‘spike protein’ of SARS-CoV-2 attaches (allowing it entry to human cells) is universal among vertebrates. In fact, the ACE2 protein of humans, several other primates, and domestic cats are nearly or completely identical.  This means SARS-CoV-2 (=COVID19) can break into cat cells as well as human cells where ACE2 is expressed (especially the lungs). Human SARS-CoV-2 can still bind to palm civet ACE2, despite the genetic mutations that distinguish palm civet SARS-CoV that gives SARS-CoV-2 access to humans.

Having near identical ACE2 protein means there are many species of mammal that can host SARS-CoV-2, not only humans, but also domesticated cats, dogs, tigers, ferrets and many others. Although there is some evidence for transmission via dogs in the Italian outbreak, domestic cats have shown a greater potential to spread SARS-CoV-2 because they are more easily infected and roam widely. The behaviour of domestic cats in approaching other cats and new people increases the chances of them acting as disease vectors. Domestic cats are so susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, that it has been recommended that “Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in cats should be considered as an adjunct to elimination of of COVID-19 in humans.

During Lockdown level 4 in New Zealand we have focused on people socially distancing and maintaining their small household “bubble”. Meanwhile most cats have roamed and continue to roam uncontrolled. There are more than one million domestic cats in NZ with 44% households providing homes to an average of 1.5 cats each, most of which roam outdoors. Many rest homes for the elderly have a resident cat, or promote therapy using contact with cats. Households with children are the most likely to have companion animals and in the majority these are cats, which in suburbs roam across an average of 16 neighbouring properties (= 16 social distancing bubbles). A study in Wellington city where the average house section is 600 square metres, found cats roamed on average over 3 hectares. That is the equivalent of 50 city sections, but roaming depends on the cat and the location, and one cat roamed over 200 hectares.

Swelling the domestic cat population in New Zealand are an estimated 2.4 million feral cats roaming under the radar in urban and rural environments. Little is known about the contact between domestic and feral cats in New Zealand. Globally there is a long list of zoonotic diseases associated with cats, and the role of free-roaming cats is well recognised.

As yet cats have not been tested in New Zealand but pet cats in New York and Belgium have tested positive. In Wuham China 15% of cats tested had antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, showing that they had recovered from the disease. No link has been found between the SARS-CoV-2 hospitalisation of cat-loving UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Larry the cat who roams in and out of the No.10 bubble. But the implications are clear. Cats are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and can transmit it to one another and experience shows that human–animal transmission of viral diseases are significant. MERS-CoV for instance is known to be transmitted to people by close contact between camels and people and the pool of genetic diversity within the related MERS-CoV is shared among human-camel community.

If you want to share an upper-respiratory tract virus, rub noses.

The success of a viral strain is measured only in its survival. As a surviving host individual will usually eventually develop some immunity to a particular infection, viral survival requires a large and accessible pool of susceptible hosts, so there is a selective advantage to being able to invade different species. This means that viral (and bacterial) pathogens will continue to cross species boundaries and pandemics in the most abundant, widespread and mobile mammal species on Earth is inevitable and probably devastating.

Bunnies are Better

Mary Morgan-Richards

A cracker treat

Cats and dogs are carnivores which means they need to eat meat. The more cats and dogs we own the more meat we feed them. In NZ there are currently about 2 million domesticated cats and dogs (one carnivorous pet per 2.4 people). Animal production (farming sheep, cows, chickens, pigs) has a range of environmental impacts, from converting land to pasture, nutrient leaching into water ways, extracting water for irrigation, pollution of water sources with microbes, nutrients and pesticides, heavy reliance on fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases. Our cats and dogs and the livestock needed to feed them adds up to about 25% of the greenhouse gasses (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) released each year.

In contrast, a rabbit doesn’t eat meat so their contribution to greenhouse gasses is limited to the fossil fuels used harvesting and transporting food (grains and hay). As vegetarians rabbits have a much smaller carbon footprints than meat-eating dogs and cats, and what’s not to like?

Ten more good reasons to choose a bunny:

1) Indoor rabbits are easily house-trained.
It’s easy to train a domesticated rabbit to use a litter box so it can range freely indoors. You-tube has many clips that provide advice, but it’s common sense if you know a bit about rabbit behaviour. Our male rabbit was house-trained in one day when he was about 8 months old and still able to reproduce (we haven’t had him de-sexed-spayed/neutered). We put a card board box with straw down where he did his first wee and he came back to the same corner for the second. Then we moved the box to where we wanted it and he returned to the box. Each time we clean out his toilet box and put in fresh absorbent material (newspaper, straw, sawdust etc). We add a little of the old box paper/straw to carry a bit of smell across that is detectable by rabbits but not usually by people. In nature, rabbits choose one or few places as a latrine and indoors this is usually in a corner. If their cage also contains a litter tray then cleaning out the cage is very quick and easy. Our rabbit has an outdoor cage and comes into the house when we are at home, especially in the evening, which is normally an active time for rabbits (crepuscular).

2) Bunnies are quiet and friendly. Keeping pets is good for human mental health and there is even research suggesting that it helps children develop into independent people with self-control and high self-esteem. Rabbits provide these benefits plus they are friendly on the environment and do not bite small children and they do not bark. Every year a number of household dogs cause injury to people, and in New Zealand about 500 people every year seek hospital treatment for dog bites.  Domesticated rabbits don’t attack people (except the Rabbit of Caerbannog).

3) Safe for wildlife. Domestic bunnies don’t attack native animals like small birds, skinks and wētā, all of which are known to be killed by domestic cats. Keeping an indoor rabbit gives you the pleasure of a warm, gentle furry animal without the anxiety of its after-dark activity.

Leo dozing on the hearth

4) In NZ rabbits have no fleas or lice. In its native range (Spain & Portugal) the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus has its own species of flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi) and in Australia rabbits are infested with local fleas (Echidnophaga myrmecobii), however rabbits in New Zealand are usually free of fleas and other ectoparasites. It is possible for a house-rabbit to catch cat or dog fleas but this is not common. The lice and mite species infesting rabbits in Europe and Australia do not seem to be present in New Zealand so our pet rabbits are free of these troublesome biters – which means healthy happy pets and no flea bites on you.

5) Low odour. A house-rabbit has a slight smell of hay, but even when damp he has very little odour. Compare that with your favourite pooch. Even when freshly washed a wet dog can smell bad due to the stinky volatile compounds released by the microbes (fungi and bacteria) that live on the fur of the dog.  While a dry dog likes to roll around in smelly places a dry rabbit likes to wash his ears.

6) Their fur is very soft. All rabbits have very fine soft fur (down hair makes up about 95% of their fur and these follicles are 14–16 microns in diameter). Angora rabbits have particularly long fur which has been used for spinning yarn.

7) Rabbits can be taken out for walks with a harness (for your exercise). Rabbit can be taken out for a walk on a leash if they are happy to wear a harness.  You will have to do at least as much exercise as your rabbit because they will not fetch a ball or stick, and they probably will not walk at heel. But it’s nice to be outside in the fresh air stretching your legs and exploring the smells and dandelions.

8) Cheap to keep. Bunnies don’t need lots of space outside and expensive cages. Your house rabbit can be brought inside to bounce around and then sleep in a basic hutch outdoors. Food can be dandelions, grass, some vegetable peelings and hay or dry rabbit food from a shop. You don’t need to register your rabbit or have regular vet bills. In New Zealand it is good to get your bunny vaccinated for rabbit hemorrhagic virus.

Claude lounging about

9) Low hair shedding and low alergenic. Many people get hay fever from their pets -usually caused by flaking skin cells and the saliva attached to then from cats and dogs. Some people will also have allergic reactions to rabbits, but short-haired bunnies are often suitable. Because they shed little fur, house rabbits do not result in lots more house work.

10) They are warm and cute. As mammals, rabbits are endotherms so are warm to touch. With their big ears and big eyes, they fit our perception of “cute”. Each bunny has his/her own personality.

Climate Commission is cleared for takeoff: James Renwick talks ice, snow, and climate action

James Renwick is Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University of Wellington. He studied at Canterbury and the University of Washington and has worked on diverse aspects of climate science, including global atmospheric circulation and Antarctic sea ice. In December 2019 he was appointed to the New Zealand Climate Change Commission, which will recommend carbon budgets and mitigation strategies to the Government. An outspoken voice for climate action, he was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for Communication in 2018. He talked with Robert McLachlan on 3 February 2020.

James Renwick, a.k.a. @CubaRaglanGuy

Huge winds, giant currents, storms all over the place.
And he’s not talking about summer in Wellington.

Robert McLachlan: I’d like to start with Antarctica, because the changes in Antarctica were one of the main things that fascinated me when I started learning about climate change. First, the grounded ice sheets.

James Renwick: The Doomsday Glacier!

RM: Exactly. The IPCC say that there’s a risk, somewhere between 1.5ºC and 2ºC of global warming, of destabilizing these ice sheets so that they start peeling off from the sea floor and accelerating towards the sea. Others say that they are already in retreat and the instability has been triggered.

JR: That’s correct. It’s still uncertain. My take on the science is that the vast majority of the glaciological community would say that we’re not past the threshold yet. There are some results just coming in now from a visit to the Thwaites Glacier. These are some of the first observations of what the ocean is actually doing under the ice, which is what controls all of this. Their preliminary results show that the grounding line retreat is slower than expected. That’s just one new result, but it supports the idea that we’re not yet at the tipping point. We must be getting close, it’s looking quite dangerous. The rates of ice loss from that area – the Pine Island Glacier, the Thwaites Glacier, all that region just to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula – have gone up hugely. Thwaites is about the size of the UK, and very thick, so the potential for sea level rise is there.

Schematic of the Marine Ice Sheet Instability (source). See antarcticaglaciers.org for more information.

RM: And this is where the uncertainty about the rate of sea level rise is coming from.

JR:  Yes. If all we had to think about was the thermal expansion of the ocean, and the melting of glaciers, we could be quite precise about sea level rise. We would expect half a metre or a bit more by the end of the century. But the rate of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica has gone up rapidly in a few decades, and just how much more we get by 2100 and beyond is the big wildcard.

RM: Are they actually sending remote devices to the sea floor, right up to the grounding line?

JR: Yes, they drill a hole through the ice, which in itself is a pretty big effort, and send a drone down the hole. Once it’s down there it deploys its fins and swims around, measuring temperature and so on. There is similar work planned in the Ross Sea region, funded a year ago, to look under the Ross Ice Shelf with a remote operated vehicle.

The Icefin drone (source)

RM: The Ross Ice Shelf hasn’t shown much change yet, is that correct?

JR: The short answer is no. But we don’t know what the underside of the shelf is doing, whether it is getting thicker or thinner. It’s much bigger again, it’s the size of France! If it went, it would uncork an awful lot of ice. Not good. We know from the geological record that it’s come and gone many times. This is one of the great discoveries of the last decade or so: the Ross Ice Shelf is not stable at all.

RM: Like the grounded ice sheets, the floating shelves are also quite complicated physically. It’s a bit surprising: they’re hundreds of metres thick, the warming has melted a few metres mostly from below, and yet some of them have completely disintegrated.

JR: Like Larsen B, that’s right.

Collapse of Larsen B ice shelf in 2002. Image: NASA (source)

RM: It was spectacular, and not really expected, would that be right?

JR: Yes, that’s fair enough! You could say they were relatively small, thin shelves, but even so they are still large pieces of ice. As they disintegrated, the glaciers that flow off the Peninsula into the ocean have sped up dramatically. It’s hard to see through several hundred metres of ice what is going on. Most of the melting in Antarctica is happening from the bottom. Greenland is much further from the pole, so it’s exposed to much warmer air, so it’s mostly melting from the top down. Antarctica is melting from the bottom up. We can model it, but we have very few observations.

RM: What would you most like to know?

JR: I’d like a detailed profile of the thickness of the ice shelves around Antarctica, plus fifty years of annual records, please! But another thing I’d like to know, and this is more my area, is how thick is the sea ice around Antarctica? That’s completely unknown. It’s a feature of how the sea ice operates there. In the Arctic, the sea ice is right over the North Pole, in the coldest, driest place. The Antarctic sea ice is at lower latitudes, in the 60s, so it’s exposed to warmer air, and it gets a lot of snow falling on it. It’s very hard from a satellite to tell if you’re looking at ice or snow. If it’s snow, how deep is that snow? That controls how much of the ice is above sea level. You need to know that to know how thick the ice is. Sometimes there’s so much snow that the top of the ice is below sea level. You can get spot measurements from a plane, that’s happening now, but to get comprehensive, continuous measurements you need satellites, and so far they’re not up to the task.

RM: Also the weather patterns in the south are very different from the north.

JR: They are. Usually, there’s not much happening over the Arctic Ocean, whereas the Southern Ocean is one of the most dynamic, turbulent places on earth. Huge winds, giant currents, huge waves, storms all over the place. 

RM: For many years the Antarctic sea ice was expanding, but for the last few years it’s been receding. Is this the start of a receding trend?

JR: That’s my supposition. But all the ups and downs of the sea ice over the past forty years have been to do with the winds. Antarctic sea ice is incredibly sensitive to what the winds are doing. Even El Niño explains a lot of the variation. But we have gone to a decreasing trend since 2014, and the atmosphere and the ocean are warming up. So there has to come a point where it’s hard for the ice to grow. If it hasn’t happened already, it’s bound to come along fairly soon.

Back to the Goldilocks zone

RM: Can changes in Antarctica affect New Zealand, or is it too far away?

JR: That’s a really good question… I’d give it a “maybe”. We know that if there’s a lot more sea ice, that will push the westerlies further north and that would affect the weather in New Zealand. But the changes so far have been quite small, a few percent, and it’s hard to find evidence that that affects New Zealand. Generally, it’s the other way around. The tropics hold most of the energy in the climate system, and New Zealand is more affected from the north than from the south. I’d love to find some evidence that sea ice variation can affect the weather in New Zealand, but I’ve been looking for twenty years and there’s nothing obvious there.

RM: There’s been a idea around that New Zealand is relatively protected from the effects of climate change.

JR: Things are happening more dramatically in the northern hemisphere, especially at the pole. Now we have the wavy jet stream. As the pole warms up, the north–south temperature difference decreases, and that’s what drives the strength of the winds. So you have a weaker jet stream, so it’s able to meander more. Even that is debated, it’s hard to say that those two things are connected but there’s a lot of other things going on. But New Zealand is – well, protected is the wrong word, but buffered by the ocean. The climate is already temperate, although variable. It’s usually fairly wet in most places. So you’ve got to change the climate quite a bit before it becomes really extreme. Whereas Australia was already extreme, so it doesn’t need much more change before you’re into what we’re seeing now with the fires and droughts. 

RM: Speaking of the Australian fires – everyone was expecting change, but surely it’s come along more quickly and severely than people were expecting? And even New Zealand has had flash floods and bushfires. 

JR: Yes, and even for New Zealand the projections are that the fire danger will double or triple in the east, but still not like Australia. The situation in Australia this summer has been quite shocking for everybody. Yet it’s what the climate projections have said for thirty odd years. It’s one thing to write a report saying, “Extreme fire danger in the 2000s, blah blah”, it’s another thing to see it happen. The reality is quite confronting for everyone.

RM: So many national parks burnt out in their entirety! Some ecologists say the ecology of the parks may be tipped over into a different state; the fire regime has changed and they’ve lost species.

JR: Even though they are fire adapted, I don’t know the ins and outs and how much more extreme the latest fires have been and how affected some species are. Even though they are fire adapted,  it could have been the death knell for some species.

Chicken and egg

RM: Yet it remains difficult for people to get the connection between mitigation and impacts. Even in New Zealand some argue that we should focus on adaptation instead of cutting emissions. I feel like we could be arguing this point until the end of the world.

JR: You’ve got to do both, obviously, because there are already impacts, obviously. They’re only going to get worse if we don’t cut emissions. The number one priority is to slow down the rate of change. These things can go together. You can improve your coastal defences by growing mangroves, and they also absorb carbon dioxide. 

RM: You’ve been doing a lot of climate outreach, and recently you were involved in a public reading of the IPCC 1.5ºC report.

JR: 1.5 Degrees Live! People volunteer to read for half an hour from the IPCC report. It’s a way of engaging with the science, engaging with the public. People come along and listen and ask questions. It took a whole week.

RM: The 1.5ºC report has caught the public imagination more than the others. It says we have to halve fossil fuel burning by 2030.

JR: Yes, the way that was packaged and messaged was very good. “Twelve years to halve emissions.” But that morphed into “Twelve years to save the planet”, “Twelve years till we’re all dead” – that’s not so helpful. Get across the urgency, sure, but people shouldn’t think there’s going to be some kind of armageddon in 2030. I would hate to think that that would demotivate people. It’s always going to be under our control, how much global warming we get.

RM: The message is out there, but there’s still a disconnect. People are still driving around in petrol cars and bringing in new ones all the time. There’s a gap between what people say they would like to be done about climate change and what they’re actually doing, or voting for.

JR: It’s a very complicated problem from a sociological, political, economic point of view. We have the society that we have because of the course of several hundred years of development and economic thinking. We’re all used to it. Most of us don’t think about the roots of our society and how it could be configured differently. It’s hard to imagine doing anything differently! So it’s not surprising to me that most people haven’t changed their lifestyles. And people still don’t get the urgency – the day to day weather is still the same, it’s just a bit hotter when it’s hot and a bit drier when it’s dry. They have plenty of other things to think about. That’s why this is very much a government-level problem. If it’s difficult or expensive to do the right thing, most people won’t go there. 

RM: But the government can only do what they can get away with.

JR: Exactly! It’s a chicken and egg problem. One role of government is to persuade the population that there is an urgent problem to deal with. The protest marches help. That ball is rolling. Still, it’s hard for governments to get away from short-term thinking. Taking a political risk is literally a risk for a government. Our whole system is not set up to deal with a problem like climate change. The time scale is centuries and the consequences are beyond anything we’ve had to deal with before. We have to do a managed retreat from fossil fuels, like we’re envisioning a managed retreat from the coastline.

RM: Yet the fossil fuel industry isn’t talking about a managed retreat, they’re talking about exploring more, and also doing it.

JR: Yes, and they claim to be investing in clean energy but it’s 1% of their total budget. They’re still investing in disinformation campaigns and greenwashing, measures to slow down action on climate change. It’s a profitable industry and making money is attractive. It’s super frustrating. They’ve known the consequences for decades. To continue to push the extraction and use of fossil fuels, having that knowledge, seems…

RM: Wrong?

JR: I was thinking of stronger words that that! But, yes, wrong. I’m sure that if we’d started thirty or forty years ago we would be in a much better place now. The energy companies need to reimagine how they operate. This is part of the idea of a just transition: we don’t want to harm anybody’s livelihood, and I’d include the oil companies in that, but still we need to move away from fossil fuels.

RM: The steps that have been taken, like subsidising renewable energy, have been extremely effective.

JR: Yes they have. Incentivising the right behaviour, disincentivising the old behaviour. Put a price on carbon, subsidise electric vehicles, all kinds of measures. New Zealand is dabbling with these. But the fossil fuel industry is still subsidised here and around the world. 

Time to stop dabbling

RM: And now you’re in the hot seat. Soon you’re going to be telling us what to do. Pretty exciting!

JR: It is! Being part of the Climate Change Commission is very exciting. Also daunting. And frightening. And in a year we’ll deliver our first carbon budget.

RM: We had a debate about the powers of the Commission and we’ve ended up with the British model of an advisory panel. But what I like about that is that they can be quite feisty and issue very stark advice to the government. And they seem to be respected.

JR: Yes, that’s a good model. I would like the Commission to have more regulatory power, but I accept it’s the way it is. It’s down to the government of the day to listen. It’s as good as we’re going to get.

RM: To do this on top of your job as a climate scientist and head of department, it’s a lot.

JR: It will need some juggling. We meet two full days a month, plus the background work. We’re also starting an engagement process, talking to sector groups. We have excellent people on the secretariat who have come from the Ministry for the Environment.

RM: Business is very important. I was disappointed by the Motor Industry Association, who represent the $6 billion new car industry, for their opposition to the proposed fuel efficiency standards. They asked the government to scrap it and start again. That’s not a way forward, industry needs to be onside.

JR: And argument is really not helpful; we don’t want to see one group offside of another. We need to find a way to all work together. It’s better to be on the crest of the wave! I think the debate will move forward quite quickly. Look at what’s happened in agriculture, where the climate focus has shifted rapidly from away from costs and towards benefits.

RM: There’s a call for a Citizen’s Climate Forum, which has been tried in Ireland. Is that something the Commission could be involved with? 

JR: Possibly. I support the idea. I’m not sure if the Commission would be active in it, but it would look on with interest.

RM: It could capture media and public attention.

JR: That’s right. It’s a good way of getting ideas about how to reduce emissions out there and focusing on solutions. But in Ireland they had strong support from the government from the start, which helped.

RM: Ireland is quite similar to New Zealand. They had been dragging their heels for a long time, good talk but no action, and now seem to have changed. They also have a lot of cows. They’re planning to offset their agricultural emissions with trees, which is what Simon Upton recommended here, but which we’ve decided not to do.

JR: There’s lots of moving parts, aren’t there. There is the billion tree programme.

RM: I’m becoming skeptical of the whole idea of planting trees. It’s a risky delaying tactic.

JR: It is a delaying tactic, but you’ve got to use that time you’ve gained to actually reduce emissions. Globally, there isn’t enough land anyway. In New Zealand, although we hear a lot about agriculture, the biggest growth areas have been transport and industry. Those are easier targets. We know how they work and what the alternatives are. For agriculture, the solutions, as laid out by the IPCC last year, involve people and agriculture moving from animals to plants. Fewer cows, more beans. Yes, it’s a change. I grew up in Canterbury; when I was a kid it was very different, it was dry country, sheep and grain. So I know that farmers are very adaptable and flexible. There are alternatives to betting on dairy.

RM: Have you met people from the School Strike 4 Climate?

JR: Yes, and I’ve spoken at a couple of the strikes. I’m really impressed with the whole movement.

RM: It’s so exciting, and so dramatic how it’s grown so quickly. But people could get frustrated. They need to know what the next step is and how they can be involved.

JR: Yes, although there is power in persistence. Greta Thunberg is now in week 76 of her climate strike. School strikers, keep it up! Getting your voice heard politically is really important for everybody. If anyone wants to get involved in climate action, send your MP an email! That’s the minimum effort.

The university formerly (and still) known as Victoria

RM: You work at Victoria University, which has set a goal of Net Zero by 2030, and they have a bold plan to get there. Is everyone on board with that?

JR: I think so, I think they’re pleased to be part of it. It does involve planting trees, but it’s done in a smart way. The university is buying some land and using it as an outdoor laboratory. We’re also phasing out gas boilers and moving to heat pumps and solar panels.

RM: Can you see academics flying less to international conferences?

JR: You do see some academics flying less. And there is offsetting. The Antarctic Research Centre is offsetting all their flights with Ekos. But science is a global enterprise. Colleagues and conferences are all over the world.

RM: It’s the rate of increase of flying which is a concern. Even a little thing like asking at every invitation if you can present remotely will make a difference.

JR: I have done remote presentations in New Zealand, but not at an international conference yet. But there are conferences where you can register to present remotely, and the whole thing is livestreamed. It’s possible. You miss out on the informal interactions. Maybe the way forward is a purely online conference with a fluid timetable… let’s get creative. But even flying less is better than doing nothing at all. I do have a trip coming up, to the IPCC which is preparing the 6th assessment report, due in April 2021.

RM: One of the criticisms of the IPCC process is that it’s a bit slow.

JR: Yes, I’ve thought for several years that it should be overhauled. But apparently governments are very keen on the IPCC as it is now. And it has seen some changes towards faster turnaround and rolling reporting. The 6th assessment began last year in 2018 with the 1.5ºC report, then the oceans and cryosphere report, then the land report.

RM: There’s also the UN’s parallel policy process, with their annual COP meetings. Everyone was very disappointed with the most recent COP, in Madrid, and yet for all that, 2019 did see a lot of renewed climate action from many countries.

JR: It’s a hard problem. Emissions are still going up.

RM: It’s a pity that in New Zealand there isn’t some community that is more progressive and is showing us the way to get out of fossil fuels.

JR: I don’t suppose there is. That’s what I’ve said at Victoria University, perhaps we can be the role model for other universities. And perhaps Wellington can be a role model for New Zealand. It’s a race that I would love to see everyone competing in! That’s how the Paris Agreement is supposed to work, and this year countries are supposed to upgrade their pledges. Let’s see what happens.

RM: We’re in a better position in New Zealand than some other countries. Even though we haven’t started cutting emissions yet, we are at least well placed to start.

JR: There’s a good amount of political goodwill there.

RM: James Renwick, thank you for your time.

Our conversation is over. It’s midmorning and the chain café has filled up with retirees meeting for coffee. Outside, SUVs prowl around the enormous shopping mall car park which merges into big box stores. Further away lies new suburban development and the new motorway, presently being extended another 30 km further north. It’s a scene repeated dozens of times across New Zealand, all supported by countless interlocking agreements and habits. If anything, we are still accelerating down a path we chose fifty years ago. But we’re not yet out of control, not quite. As James Renwick has said, it’s up to us to decide how much warming we get.