Qantas Airlines’ 7-hour “flight to nowhere”, that sold out in 10 minutes with prices from A$787 to A$3787, seemed like a sick joke to climate advocates. Apart from the waste of fuel and the pointless emissions, passengers would be able to see first-hand, from a plane just like those that carried coronavirus around the world so effectively, the sweeping devastation caused by last summer’s “climate fires” and the global-warming induced bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. “Would it be more efficient just to crash it in the Great Barrier Reef?” asked Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council for Clean Transportation.
Now a travel enthusiast has suggested that Air New Zealand could follow suit, offering scenic flights of the entire country (not forgetting the Chathams). Actually, New Zealand does have a proud tradition of scenic flights, from small beginnings in the 1930s, to the famous glacier landings that began in the 1950s, to the helicopter flights of today.
But apart from Air New Zealand’s flights to Antarctica in the 1970s – flights that have continued since then from Australia, and that Qantas is now offering in another of its Boeing 787s, departing from a choice of five cities – New Zealand hasn’t seen anything on this scale.
So why shouldn’t it? After all, if there were customers for an Air New Zealand flight to nowhere, they’d get something that’s valuable to them, and they’d get to help our national flag carrier through some tough times to boot. What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is how it looks. Air New Zealand has a fantastic reputation for sustainability. To a hardcore greenie that might sound like a joke, but even seasoned climate campaigner Jonathan Porritt, their chief sustainability advisor, called them ‘the least unsustainable airline in the world’. What’s more, our international tourist industry, which relies on aviation, is largely based around our environmental image – “100% Pure”. Even before the pandemic, many people were pointing out how important it is that that image should be based on reality.
Aviation is important to New Zealand for more than just tourism. It ties families together, it transports students and workers. It’s about the value of transporting people from A to B, not from A to A. On the back of that argument, the global aviation industry has been able to get a golden ticket fostering unlimited growth: air travel doubled in the decade to 2019, and is projected to triple again by 2050. (If that came to pass, aviation would then be using all of the available remaining carbon budget.) The industry has escaped taxes on jet fuel and limits on carbon emissions. There’s not even GST charged on international flights.
Since Covid-19, the industry has been a recipient of massive bailouts – about $150 billion worldwide, equal to their prior five years of profits. A lot of this government money will be wasted: a study published in May by Joseph Stiglitz and others found that airline bailouts were the very worst of all options on both financial and climate grounds. In New Zealand, the government has so far provided $600 million towards the aviation industry as well as a $900 million loan facility to Air New Zealand.
Somehow a way needs to be found to make a pathway leading towards both financial and environmental sustainability. It could involve less travel – administered through adjustments to charges, landing slots, and/or visas; it could involve investing in synthetic jet fuel. For the tourist industry, it could involve fewer tourists staying for longer. The Tourism Futures Task Force is considering the future of the industry right now, in the context of the ‘Four Capitals’ – economic, environmental, social, and cultural. You can send them your thoughts on this: in such an enormous disruption, the full effect of which hasn’t even begun to be felt, everyone’s voice is needed.
Late last year I wrote a remake of Waiting for Godot, called Waiting for Greta. The prospect of climate extinction seemed to match the existential angst of Becket’s original (which was perhaps influenced by Hiroshima and the subsequent threat of nuclear holocaust); the Swedish girl had just appeared on the scene and I was impressed by her address to the Climate Change Summit.
Since then, especially since venturing into New York, the heart of the beast, Greta Thunberg has become a prophetic (Naomi Klein’s description) force. Millions of kids have taken to the streets and now workers have been called in to support the movement. She is in the media as much as Trump or Johnson. She addresses parliaments, talks with the Pope, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama… and is subjected to the outlandishly intense scrutiny of the modern media and the lunatic babble of social media.
She seems to survive, unfazed. Most of the time she gives the floor to her admirers. When in the midst of her peers she seems shy and marginal. Yet when she speaks the message is crystal clear and very repeatable by others of her generation:
We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that the planet is under extreme threat of warming to the point that human life as we know it will be impossible.
Young people and future generations will pay the price. The leaders for the last thirty years, despite knowing the situation, have done nothing. The current leaders remain hesitant or are bent on destruction.
The least fortunate in the world will suffer most because rich people hang onto their privilege.
Continual economic growth is not the answer. The system has to change. Young people need to take to the streets and make that change.
No one is too small to make a difference.
There’s been nothing this clear and succinct since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. And the message is being forged, and the movement led, by this prophetic sixteen year old with Asperger’s.
Both the conservative right and the liberal left try and cut her down to size, either by dismissing her as a hysterical, mentally ill teenager, or by patronising her. Conspiracy theories abound. She’s in the employ of a PR firm. What’s the story with her parents? Some adults must be behind this. She’s a communist figurehead…
But then, she herself increased the intensity when she addressed the UN in New York. She took off the mask to show the anger, grief and pain of a generation. It became a poor theatre moment which created a frenzy. ‘She’s hysterical. She’s making young people anxious and suicidal. Why don’t her parents rein her in?’ For politicians don’t do this, nor do adults when in public. They can pretend anger and abuse one another, but only the mad reveal themselves in this way. Yet, in actual fact, she was on script. Here’s a quote from a book, The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of thefuture, by David Wallace-Wells:
‘Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole. Here the facts are hysterical and the dimensions of the drama incomprehensibly large – large enough to enclose not just all of present day humanity but all of our possible futures as well.’
Greta suddenly acted out this enormity (and immediately a Death Metal band turned it into a song). The adults are terrified at being called to account. Is this going to be something like Mao’s cultural revolution? The honest ones, like Michael Moore, are willing to admit failure. Obama? – no wonder he wants to be seen shaking her hand.
Greta’s secret of course is her Asperger’s, which means she doesn’t ‘play the social games you folk are so fond of’, to use her words. She’s focused, obsessed perhaps, sees the issue without compromise, doesn’t chat, remains a vulnerable figure physically. Prophetic because in this situation, to quote Wallace-Wells again, ‘there is no analogy to draw on outside of mythology and theology’.
She is also remarkably astute. In a sweet interview with a Swedish talk show host, safe in her language and culture, she talks about her Papa – she won’t let him go shopping in New York, he’s untidy and probably sick of having to follow her around (having to pick her up from the UN rather than the school disco). She will keep assessing the public exposure and withdraw if it gets too much. I’m sure she’ll be capable of disappearing for a while just as effectively as she appeared. And she’ll have a remarkable knowledge of the way the political world works.
So far she has survived the maelstrom of the Empire. After all, it’s nothing compared to what the planet’s going to throw at us. And to copy her in three simple ways would change the world: stop flying, stop stupid shopping and become vegan. Let the whole human race do that, starting tomorrow. Whew! Yet it is possible. That’s the point she’s making.
All decision-makers who are exercising any form of public power have to act lawfully. That includes cabinet ministers, ministries, councils, and statutory bodies like the New Zealand Transport Authority. If they make decisions that aren’t consistent with the law or with their statutory powers, then anyone affected can apply to the court for judicial review to determine if the decisions are legal or not.
Decisions can be found to be unlawful if they are outside the scope of the decision-maker’s legal powers or lawful purpose under the relevant Act; if irrelevant considerations were taken into account, or mandatory considerations were not taken into account; if they are unreasonable or irrational; or if they have been affected by bias.
Often, an Act will spell out the considerations that a decision-maker must take into account, but, in addition, a court may find that some things which are not explicitly referred to are so obviously relevant that they should have been taken into account.
The usual result of a decision being found to be unlawful is to render it invalid and of no effect. The court will typically ask the decision-makers to do their work again, lawfully this time.
What is clear is that both in New Zealand and overseas, the courts are increasingly willing to get involved in decisions relating to climate change. This was the case inThomson v Minister for Climate Change. Sarah Thomson challenged the failure by the then-Minister for Climate Change to review New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. The court was willing to get involved and did find that there were problems with the decision, but that since the government had recently changed, there was no need to order a review.
In New Zealand, sources of the legal duty to decarbonise lie in international and domestic law, and in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
International law, such as the Paris Agreement, is not directly enforceable in New Zealand courts. But courts do interpret domestic law in a manner consistent with international obligations where possible, for example inHelu v Immigration and Protection Tribunal(see paragraphs 143-145 of the decision). International obligations can also be found to be mandatory considerations for decision-makers. The best recent example is the Heathrow runway case from the UK. InR Plan B v Secretary of State for Transport, the court found that even though the Minister had no statutory obligation to consider the Paris Agreement in approving the third runway, “There can be some unincorporated international obligations that are so obviously material [to a decision] that they must be taken into account. The Paris Agreement fell into this category.” This was an incredibly powerful lawsuit and an incredibly powerful finding by the court.
The centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate law is the Climate Change Response Act 2002, amended in 2019 (the “Zero Carbon Act”). All powers under the Act must be exercised in a manner consistent with its purposes, which include contributing to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.
Section 5ZN permits all public decision-makers to take the 2050 zero carbon target and national carbon budgets into account in performing a public function, power, or duty. During deliberations over the bill, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argued that the subsequent clause (which said that there could be no legal remedy if the 2050 target or carbon budgets were not taken into account) should be deleted. We argued that the courts must have the power to determine the appropriate remedy if the decision-makers are not taking the right things into account, and this was accepted.
On this basis, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold the view that the 1.5ºC target, the 2050 target, and the carbon budgets are so obviously material to decisions in some areas, like the transport system, that they must be taken into account. We’re looking forward to testing this in court, if necessary!
There are also many Acts that govern local government and the regulations applying to various polluting activities. For example, the Local Government Act provides a legal duty to “promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future”, and to “maintain and enhance the quality of the environment”; the transport system must be “in the public interest”. A transport system pumping out ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases simply cannot be in the public interest.
The right to life
Urgenda is a civil society group in the Netherlands, active on climate issues. For several years they have been arguing in the Dutch courts that the Dutch government’s efforts to cut emissions are insufficient: specifically, that they were not consistent with 1.5ºC and that therefore they are not consistent with the right to life, because climate change creates a foreseeable risk of loss of life. On 20 December 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court agreed.
Like the European Convention on Human Rights on which this case depended, the New Zealand Bill of Rights includes a right to life. Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argue that a similar positive legal obligation also applies in New Zealand and that decisions inconsistent with protection of the right to life are unlawful.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi
Article 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi protects Māori tino rangatiratanga over Māori whenua, kāinga, and taonga, which extends to climate and the environment.
In 2013, the Supreme Court inNZ Māori Council v Attorney General held that Te Tiriti imposed a duty on the Crown to actively protect Māori use of their lands and waters to the fullest extent practicable.
The Waitangi Tribunal, inWai 262, found that Te Tiriti imposes a duty of active protection of the environment and a duty to recognize the continuing role of Māori as kaitiaki of environmental taonga.
Two claims are pending, one in the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2607) and one in the High Court (Smith v Attorney General) alleging breaches of the Crown’s obligation to take positive action to protect Māori against the threat of climate change.
To sum up, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold that Ministers must take our obligation under the Paris Agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5ºC into account; that they must comply with the Crown’s obligation to Māori under Te Tiriti to protect against climate change; that they must take into account the 2050 target and successive carbon budgets, as set out in the Zero Carbon Act; and that they must act consistently with the right to life. Failure to do so will make their decisions unlawful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.