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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksJune 13, 2023

We’re at the starting blocks of climate action – here’s what the sprint looks like

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

James Renwick’s new book Under the Weather: A future forecast for New Zealand is an overview of where we, and our neighbours, are at with climate change and what we as a nation could do to lead the world in pushing back the dial. This is an edited excerpt from the chapter ‘Local Action’.

If any country can become carbon-zero, surely it is ours. We’ve got a small population, with a small and agile economy. We are super well-endowed with renewable resources – plenty of wind, sun, water and geothermal energy. We are smart and innovative. We have demonstrated over and over that we can be leaders on the world stage, on terrorism, on the nuclear threat, on social welfare. We can definitely lead the world on climate change as well. 

“But what we do or don’t do makes very little difference to the climate system,” some will say, overlooking the fact that the most powerful thing that every single nation in the world can do right now is get on track towards a zero-carbon future. To put things in stark perspective, in 2021, the world collectively put around 41 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Of that, New Zealand contributed just over 37 million tons. If the global community wants to stop warming at around 1.5°C – the goal at the heart of the 2015 Paris Agreement – we need to make enormous cuts, reining in emissions by 45% by 2030, and getting to zero emissions of carbon dioxide around 2050. If we want to keep warming under 2°C, the upper end of the Paris target, we need to cut emissions by 30% by 2030, and get to zero emissions by around 2070. 

Getting to zero emissions is the only way that we are going to halt global warming. That’s true zero – not just a reduction. To get to zero by 2050 and get halfway there by 2030, we need to be reducing global emissions by around 7% every year, starting right now. Here in New Zealand, we need to reduce our national emissions by around the same amount every year. 

So how long do we have to get started? Well, we definitely don’t have Bowie’s five years left to cry in. We’ve got zero years. The longer we wait to get started, the harder it’s going to get, and the more drastic the emissions cuts we’ll have to make. If the world community doesn’t really get started on emissions reductions until 2030, we’ll be at 1.5°C warming, well on the way to 2°C warming, and we would then have the same race to reduce emissions, just less time to do it. If we’re to have any chance of real success, action has to start immediately – better, it would start yesterday. As it is, we’re already going to see more extreme heat, fires, floods, crop failures as this decade progresses. If we do nothing, we may have 20 or 30 years before things get really ugly. 

James Renwick, author of Under the Weather. (Photo Supplied)

So far, New Zealand has achieved very little in terms of overall emissions reductions. Total emissions are slightly down on a peak in 2005, but total gross emissions and net emissions (after subtracting offsets from tree-planting and other land-use changes) have changed little this century so far. Where we have made progress is in the legal and policy settings. We now have zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 as a legal requirement, with 24–47 per cent reductions in biogenic methane by 2050, under the revised Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Act. And, as mentioned, that Act also set up the Climate Change Commission, which has already delivered a roadmap for emissions reductions through to 2035 and has advised on methane emissions pricing and Emissions Trading Scheme settings. The government has in response published its emissions reduction plan, and has drafted its first national adaptation plan.

So, we are at the starting blocks. Now, we need to see action. In particular, I really want to see national emissions start to come down in 2023. Reductions in carbon dioxide emissions can come mostly from the transport sector, and from industry and energy production.

Here’s what I would love to see happening over the next few years:

Big boosts in renewably powered public transport across the country

That means strongly upgraded bus services in cities, and the introduction of light rail where appropriate. Combine that with big investments to breathe new life into the national rail network, moving people and freight across the country in a network even better than we had when I was a kid hanging out at Springfield Railway Station. We also need to see improvements in the inter-city bus network. Essentially, the aim should be for people to get from wherever they are to wherever they need to be almost exclusively by public and renewably powered transport.

Improved facilities and incentives for active transport

For places not covered by the transport network outlined above, we need to make it easier and more appealing for people to get around by walking, cycling or similar. That means things like dedicated cycleways, clear and safe walking paths, and subsidies for the purchase of non-car vehicles like e-bikes, e-scooters and e-skateboards.

Comprehensive and affordable access to car-sharing schemes

For those who need a car to get around, it needs to be easier to either borrow or share one. By providing this option, along with improving access to public transport, we’d almost do away with the need for anyone to own a car!

Incentives for purchasing electric vehicles and a national charging-station network

I’ve deliberately put this point after the improvements to public and active transport, as the future is not about each of us swapping our petrol-powered cars for electric equivalents. We need to get out of our cars, or the congestion will continue. Cities in many countries have already shown the benefits to be gained by kicking the car habit. We just need to join the trend.

Big investments in solar and wind power

When it comes to solar generation, we need to see both large plants and panels distributed across private home roofs. We also need increases in wind generation. If we set our minds to it, we should be able to turn off the Huntly power station this decade and go to a 100-per-cent-plus renewably powered grid before 2030, one that has even more generating capacity than we have now. Imagine that!

Better home insulation

Part of the future energy equation is saving energy, as well as increased renewable generation. Houses that are insulated properly require far less energy to heat and cool, but New Zealand’s current building standards do not meet the conditions healthy and energy efficient homes require. To improve the standards, the legislation needs to change, and subsidies and incentives for building climate-conscious housing need to be prioritised.

More efficient home appliances

Tighter standards for how much energy home appliances use goes hand in hand with saving energy

Goodbye, coal boilers!

Where they are used – in schools and other facilities, and for industrial heat – coal boilers must be replaced by solar and other zero carbon energy production.

More climate-conscious development

Changes to legislation are needed to encourage increased urban density and the end of suburban sprawl. We also need to find new ways to encourage infrastructure that allows adaptation to climate change, as well as facilitating the reduction of emissions.

More climate-conscious land-use

We need to change the way we use the land to work with regional climates more than we currently do. In my opinion, for instance, the dry country in the eastern South Island would be better used for growing grain than for dairy farming supported by massive irrigation schemes. Moreover, it would be great for our agriculture sector to move to supplying a more plant based diet, raising less meat and more vegetation, grains, pulses, vegetables and so on.

That should do for a start! 

I know it will take many years to realise some of the things on this wish list, so the sooner we get started, the better. Dealing with climate change is a long-term commitment but it has real urgency up front. If we can make these changes over the next decade, it will put us in a good position for the future. And it will give us things to export – our technologies, our policy and planning processes, our philosophy generally. 

If we can use what we do to help and inspire other countries, even better. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career over the last two decades has been contributing as a lead author to the IPCC’s Assessment Reports. These massive reports involve many, many hours of work on the part of thousands of scientists from around the world, and they have become a vital tool for building the case for action now. 

Assessment reports are released every six or seven years and are, by nature, very technical and thousands of pages long. Crucially, each one is accompanied by a Summary for Policymakers, a document that usually runs to no more than 30 pages or so, and distils the central messages of all those observations and scientific analyses in order for senior policy  advisors the world over to understand the bare essentials. This important summary is what’s used to brief politicians – those who have the power, if not always the will, to speed up the process of decarbonising the world’s economies.

A diagram from the Summary for Policymakers from the IPCC Report called ‘AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023’

However, as useful as the summary has been in guiding policy decisions here in New Zealand, there was, until recently, a disconnect between the scientific advice and actual on-the-ground decision-making. Various government departments took responsibility for providing climate related advice on everything from the Emissions Trading Scheme to public transport and fisheries, but no one body or agency was tasked with taking a big-picture view, considering the evidence and – most importantly of all – outlining pathways to a low-carbon world. The establishment of the Climate Change Commission has started to change that, and has restored some of my hope that New Zealand may actually be able to step up to the immense challenge facing us and our world. 

Some might say it’s not our job to get to zero, that we’re doing fine. “What can we do? Globally, we are small players.” But, being small players has never stopped us on the sports field, so why should it stop us when it comes to climate change? Just as we do in the sporting arena, we have a chance here to play a key role in leading the change. We can set the trend, just by providing leadership – thought leadership, political leadership, social leadership.

Currently, there is a lot of talk about living up to the Paris Agreement limits, about becoming carbon-neutral, but no country has actually demonstrated those things in real life yet – and that can make it hard to believe in. It can be hard to believe that a zero-carbon future is a real possibility. As the old saying goes, “We can’t be what we can’t see.” But, all we need is for someone to show us the way. Once that happens, I think it’ll open the floodgates. Every country will want to join the parade. If any country can become 100 per cent carbon-neutral, surely it’s Aotearoa. And just imagine if we did manage it! Imagine if we did it before any other developed nation!

We could even do it before 2050 … We’d win the zero carbon world cup, and we’d also garner international attention and investment. We could become a global hub for green technology and innovation, for innovative policy, for sustainable urban design, for sustainable low-carbon agriculture. The sky is the limit. There is no reason at all why New Zealand couldn’t be the country to show the rest of the world how it is done. We have already demonstrated that kind of leadership before, with our responses to Covid-19, the Christchurch terror attacks, nuclear testing. Why not be that brave little country yet again, at this time when the world needs inspiration more than ever before?

Keep going!