Waitangi Day 2014 (Photo: Jason Oxenham/Getty Images)
Waitangi Day 2014 (Photo: Jason Oxenham/Getty Images)

ĀteaMarch 1, 2021

On the waka to carbon zero: Where have we come from, and where are we going?

Waitangi Day 2014 (Photo: Jason Oxenham/Getty Images)
Waitangi Day 2014 (Photo: Jason Oxenham/Getty Images)

The Climate Change Commission’s report is trying to stop our ship from sinking. Nadine Anne Hura goes in search of its whakapapa and a story to try to make sense of it.

I was 20 in 1998 and working at the New Zealand embassy in Buenos Aires. It was an unlikely job for someone so young, especially someone who failed School C and had never been to uni. Miraculously, I was just fluent enough in Spanish after a year as an exchange student to talk myself into the job. I packed a pair of tango shoes and swept through the departure gates at Auckland airport without a backward glance. 

The embassy was glamorous compared to the grill at McDonald’s. I issued visas and passports, helped out stranded New Zealanders, and chilled with my Argentine workmates in the kitchen when the ambassador was away on extended work trips.

By far the most unglamorous part of my job was the filing. Every night, while Buenos Aires slept, the secure fax chugged away in the belly of the embassy spitting out reems of classified news and reports from Wellington and offshore posts. In the morning, I let myself in through three security doors – the last one 120mm thick – and gathered the papers from the floor. I cast my eye over the subjects, classified them correctly, punched a hole in the corner, and circulated the bundle, innocuously dubbed “the clip”, to all staff. Think email, delivered by hand. 

Once read, the clip was returned to me for filing. It was a never-ending and lonely job, broken only by the occasional love note stashed between the papers by a work colleague I would later go on to marry. My in-tray was a cascade of papers that never stopped spilling. There may have been state secrets among those papers, but I wouldn’t have known because I didn’t read them.

Not doing the filing, New Zealand embassy, Buenos Aires, 1998 (Photo: Supplied)

It’s weird how you can look back on your life and see how you got the boring bits and the interesting bits the wrong way round. I had all the requisite security clearances to peruse everything I hole-punched, but I didn’t, because I didn’t care. Those papers weren’t written in a language I understood. I had a better grasp of conversational Spanish than academic English.

One memory I’ve retained from the thousands of reports I filed is something called the Kyoto Protocol. Apart from the disarmament file, this was by far the most heavyweight subject of 1998. Filed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol is basically a modern treaty. In it, the New Zealand government, along with most of the world, “agreed” (let’s put that in air quotes) to reduce our carbon emissions and sort out our shit. 

The whakapapa of the UNFCCC goes back to an even older environmental treaty, signed in Montreal in 1987. The Montreal Protocol said that member states would agree to act in the interests of human safety, even in the case of scientific uncertainty. This was the mechanism that was successfully used to ban the use of toxic CFCs that were destroying the ozone (aerosols). 

The wero for the Kyoto Protocol was laid at a 1992 United Nations hui in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Earth Summit was significant because at the time there was no consensus that the earth even had a problem with carbon – much less that we needed a forum to discuss it. In 1992, most New Zealanders were preoccupied with other things. It was the year Shortland Street kicked off, the year we voted for MMP in a referendum, and the year that Mark Greatbatch was dismissed for 17 in a dramatic World Cup semi-final that crushed the nation’s heart. 

One notable exception was the National Māori Congress. This group of iwi representatives successfully negotiated a position on the official New Zealand delegation to the Rio summit. They used the platform to raise a wide range of environmental concerns at home, including climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution of waterways, the plundering of indigenous resources, and the pursuit of development over conservation. They were joined by indigenous peoples all over the world pressuring governments to consider the inextricable links between development growth, consumption, poverty and environmental degradation. 

It still took diplomats more than a decade of closed-door and secure-fax negotiations before the Kyoto Protocol was ratified. One of the key things Kyoto did was establish a framework to buy and sell carbon credits as a way of meeting our overall global greenhouse gas emission targets. This led to the Emissions Trading Scheme, introduced by Labour in 2008. If Kyoto was the handshake, the Emissions Trading Scheme was the dotted line. 

New Zealand met its Kyoto targets in 2012, with carbon to spare, which is either divine or dodgy considering our emissions have done nothing but balloon since 1990. Today, New Zealand is one of the worst emitters of carbon per capita in the world – three times our share – which isn’t a hashtag NZ Tourism is likely to adopt any time soon.

After Kyoto came the 2019 Paris Agreement. This was a big one (famous for Trump’s withdrawal), in which signatories agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees, preferably 1.5 degrees, compared with pre-industrial levels. There have been other agreements, and plenty of negotiations on different paepae around the world (the most recent of which was held in Madrid in 2019). But the Paris Agreement is important because two decades on from Kyoto, people no longer need convincing. Now all of us can see and hear and feel the impacts of climate change with our own eyes and ears. Tangaroa is pulling houses and urupā and cliffs into the sea. We’ve seen Rangi’s chest swollen pink and grey with smoke from fires burning hundreds of miles away.

Facing the rising tide, Taiao Marae, Pawarenga (Photo: Supplied)

So perhaps the big difference between Kyoto and Paris is the light between them. The language of climate change has taken root. It’s no longer just indigenous people calling for the protection of Mother Earth. The deniers have lost their air time and school students are protesting in the streets to force governments to remove the air quotes from their talk and actually do something. 

A few weeks ago, the Climate Change Commission, He Pou a Rangi, released its draft advice to the government – which is intended to do just that. The final report will be the dotted line to the Paris handshake. Set up under the Zero Carbon Act in 2019, the report reads like a Pākehā GP delivering test results on a cold and sober Monday morning. As if we didn’t already know, the GP has told us that if we don’t change our diet, our kids and their kids are screwed.

To put us on a pathway to carbon zero, the commission prescribes three bitter-tasting but urgent budgets. The first will cover us from now until to 2025, the second from 2025 to 2030 and the third from 2030 to 2035. Regardless of which political party is in power, the government of the day is bound, in principle at least, to keep taking its medicine. If we stick to the regime, the commission predicts we will reduce our carbon emissions on target – 2% initially, followed by 17% and 36% by 2035. Some say the plan is too ambitious. Others say it doesn’t go far enough.

The commission says the targets are achievable, but it won’t be easy and it will require collective commitment. The crux of it is that we pretty much need to halve our current carbon emissions. No more using the ETS to fake our way through. No more gas-guzzling V8s – no more new petrol imports at all beyond 2032. We’re going fully electric and renewable. Coal is finished. Gas is also on notice. Herd sizes need to reduce – which, contrary to misinformed panic on talkback radio, doesn’t have to mean less milk, meat, money, or compulsory veganism. It just means greener and more efficient technologies. And the quick solution of planting more pine forests to soak up C02 isn’t a solution to climate change. Instead, as if it’s some kind of rocket science, the report says the way of the future is to incentivise putting back the native forests that were cleared by settlers over a hundred years ago to make way for farms. 

Rod Carr, the chair of the Climate Change Commission, wrote in the covering letter of the commission’s advice to the government that he wants to be able to say he did as much as he could about climate change as soon as he knew about the impact he was having on the world. I think that’s true for most of us. But the key words are “as soon as I knew”. 

There’s all this information – the Climate Change Report is 188 pages – but an absence of story. How do we make sense of all these targets and percentages? What are the whakapapa links between and among all these global agreements and reports and commissions? And most pressing of all, what does it mean for me, for my whānau and my iwi? 

I tried to think of a pūrakau, but I couldn’t find a better metaphor than the movie Titanic. The ship is our gluttonous relationship with fossil fuels. This includes all the conveniences and luxuries that technology has brought to those travelling in first class: from international travel to central heating to food security. The benefits have not been shared equally – think of the workers below the waterline in the bowels of the ship filling the engines with coal. But for the Roses of the world, and the global corporates that insist the ship is fine and can go faster and further, it’s nothing but ballrooms and sparkling silverware. 

When scientists and indigenous activists first glimpse the iceberg rising up in the darkness they raise the alarm (#Rio). But the captain isn’t in the wheelhouse and the impact can’t be avoided. For the next 30 years, the ship continues to glide along, its passengers oblivious to the danger they are in. Meanwhile, scientists plead with politicians to listen to the evidence in the face of opposition from economists and lobbyists who debate everything from the existence of the iceberg to the unsinkability of the ship. 

Diplomats propose that time can be bought by using the pumps to expel the water from the hull (#Kyoto). But indigenous communities, researchers and climate modellers do the math and quickly establish that there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone. In the words of the Titanic’s boat-builder Mr Andrews, it’s clear that sinking is “a mathematical certainty”. (#Paris)

It’s 2021, and we’re up to the bit in the movie where water is smashing through the lower decks. Remember those horrific scenes as families locked in the lower decks were refused access to the upper decks? Remember the scenes of drowning? These are the peoples of Tokelau, of Bangladesh, of Mozambique, of New Orleans. These are also the coastal iwi of Aotearoa New Zealand. For Māori, if our whenua drowns, we drown. We are not separate from our wāhi tapu, our kōiwi tūpuna, our pepeha.  

The focus of the commission’s report is mitigation – trying to stabilise and prevent any more water spilling over the bulkheads. The communicators and activists are on deck with their violins to help translate the urgency of the situation. But countries who’ve made arrangements to abandon ship have a head start on the rest of us. 

The sirens are sounding, and when our time comes to launch the lifeboats we know who’s getting in first: well-off white people. They’re closer to the lifeboats, and the music the communicators are playing is a tune they recognise. They’re the ones who can afford to buy an EV and will take the carrot and enjoy the compounding rewards as petrol prices go up and renewable electricity goes down.

For coastal iwi, it’s not possible to avoid the impacts of sea-level rise. These are our marae. Our ancestral homes. We need to plan for, and adapt to, the environmental changes that are already upon us – changes that we are not responsible for causing. As Māori, we’re good at adapting. But how can we take care of our own if we’re stuck behind bars on the lower decks? By that, I mean the political, social, economic, legalistic, and literal bars that prevent us from exercising tino rangatiratanga over our lands. This is a Te Tiriti issue as much as an equity issue. Māori weren’t the ones drinking Veuve Clicquot on the deck while the ship steamed headlong into an iceberg. 

In the two decades that diplomats have been negotiating, I’ve been to university, got married and divorced, raised three kids, and learnt a third language. I think back to the three secure doors behind which I used to sit and file papers about a faraway place called Kyoto. I was like the guy running messages between the officer on the bridge and the captain. I should have known what was coming but I didn’t back then, because even more imposing than the excessive security was the language those reports were written in. 

Failure to communicate across languages is a form of exclusion. As Māori, we are shut out too often. Not because we’re not capable of understanding, and definitely not because we don’t care. We have to lobby and self-fund delegations to attend international forums just to get our own Te Tiriti partner to listen to us at home. That sucks, not just because we’re the most likely to be left til last to get in the lifeboats. It also sucks because our knowledge and our value systems are consistently under-utilised. We know how to avoid sinking. We’ve always known. 

That’s not to say that western science has no value. I’ve seen climate modelling technologies and they’re breathtaking – if not a little boring. But we need all of it. The time to get off this sinking ship and onto a waka that can carry all of us is now. The good news is it’s already been envisaged, almost 30 years ago, by the National Māori Congress that attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 – proving the solutions to climate change are right here. We need only look behind us.

National Māori Congress Contribution to the Rio Earth Summit, 1992 (mage courtesy of the Treaty Resource Centre, trc.org.nz)

The Climate Change Commission, He Pou a Rangi, wants to hear feedback from Māori. To help make the submission process easier, the commission has launched a website, 100coastievoices.net. There are also a number of online zui happening this week. Check the commission’s website, and download the whole report here.

Illustrations by Sharon Lam

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Sharon Lam corresponds with the canine love of her life.
Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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