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Jacinda Ardern speaks on the declaration of a Climate Emergency (Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern speaks on the declaration of a Climate Emergency (Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)

PoliticsDecember 2, 2020

NZ joins a groundswell in sounding the climate emergency alarm. Can it make any real difference?

Jacinda Ardern speaks on the declaration of a Climate Emergency (Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern speaks on the declaration of a Climate Emergency (Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)

Bronwyn Hayward has her reservations about climate emergency declarations. Can today’s win her over?

Today New Zealand became the 33rd country to declare a Climate Emergency. Around the world, more than 1,800 cities and local governments have already declared climate emergencies, including 16 New Zealand city and district councils. “Climate Emergency” was the Oxford Word of the Year in 2019. Labour had been unable to make a such a declaration earlier thanks to the objections of coalition partner New Zealand First. Given estimates that 75% of New Zealand’s population already live under some kind of local state of climate emergency, will this national declaration really make a difference?

Advocates argue that a symbolic gesture can be used to hold a government to account for its actions. It also provides a badly needed reset moment. New Zealand has lost momentum across all parties on climate action since the prime minister memorably declared it was her generation’s “nuclear-free moment” and launched a bold ban on new oil permits. Since then much of our action has lagged behind our rhetoric. So much so that last week it was revealed New Zealand had not yet been invited to a high ambition virtual summit to mark five years since the Paris Climate Agreement. The UK high commissioner, speaking as a critical friend, pointed to the widening gap between our ambition and the reality of our lack of action implemented on the ground.

So will today’s declaration make a difference? Quite possibly. For a start, the climate minister, James Shaw, indicated that New Zealand has now received an invitation to the virtual climate high ambition summit. More importantly, for all its symbolism, this particular declaration of emergency has been accompanied by a remarkable pledge to ensure all government agencies are carbon neutral by 2025. In the words of the prime minister, “we must get our own house in order.” So alongside government departments measuring their emissions and taking action to get to carbon zero (or having to purchase of carbon credits), there is a three-point plan to phase out use of coal boilers in the state sector, to mandate the purchase of electric vehicles for future use and to ensure energy efficiency in buildings spanning more than 2000 square metres of floor area.

Why does it matter if public servants go carbon neutral? Arguably the government is now role modelling what it wants all of us to do: in our cities, clubs, sports groups and businesses, around the country. Our government is also learning by doing. By making changes within a wide range of services from education and health, to transport and policing, reducing climate emissions becomes an immediate part of everyday life – in our public agencies, our schools and hospitals. This has the potential to deliver a long term impact for all of us, showing how change is possible.

The declaration nonetheless carries significant political risk: imagine it is 2025 and a government agency like Oranga Tamariki hasn’t reached carbon neutrality. Will it be forced to choose between spending its precious budget on carbon credits rather than child protection?

As a political scientist who works on climate and issues for youth and future generations, I confess I am not a fan of climate emergency declarations. They are usually associated with exceptional powers of government that suspend day-to-day democratic decision making. In reality we badly need to find ways to maintain democracy through the increasing disasters we will face in a changing climate – otherwise we risk stripping children of their rights to a democratic future as well as a sustainable one. In addition most declarations of climate emergency often reduce the complex issues that have historically driven climate change (like inequality, economic development based on fossil fuels and colonisation) down to very narrow metrics about reducing carbon. I also agree with the opposition when Stuart Smith, Simon Bridges and Nicola Willis argue “actions speak louder than words”.

But, as the minister for Pacific peoples, Aupito William Sio, said today, words also matter. And you would have to be a very hard-hearted cynic to listen to the passionate debate in parliament today, and not feel moved. It does matter that New Zealand publicly pledges our obligations to the Pacific. It does matter that public concern is heard and responded to. Many speakers acknowledged the sustained vigil in parliament’s grounds led by campaigner Ollie Langridge and the hope, anxiety, leadership, and demands of a powerful new school strike generation. Today New Zealand passed a declaration of climate emergency which, as Māori party MP Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said, is an important step for our mokopuna. Now, it is what we as a nation do next to cut emissions and protect our communities that really matters.

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