Monday 1 February 2021

“Where Our Ambition Lies”

Time To Choose: Climate Change Commissioner, Rod Carr’s advice to Jacinda Ardern’s Government is uncompromising. The measure of our success at coping with global warming will be determined by how profoundly New Zealanders are willing to change their way of life.

, would seem to be the Labour Government’s response to the Climate Change Commission’s (CCC) uncompromising report. The media statement released on Sunday, 31 January, under the names of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Minister for Climate Change James Shaw, is nothing if not calming and reassuring.

“The report demonstrates we have the tools we need to achieve our target, but calls on us to accelerate our work. As a Government we are committed to picking up the pace and focusing much more on decarbonisation and reducing emissions rather than overly relying on forestry.”

Such remarkable sang-froid in the face of what some commentators are already describing as a change agenda every bit as revolutionary as Roger Douglas’ and Ruth Richardson’s. Having steadfastly refused to achieve transformation, the Prime Minister and her government are at risk of having transformation thrust upon them.

It is encouraging to learn that the Government is confident it possesses the tools to do the job. Encouraging – but not surprising. No one has ever suggested that successive New Zealand governments lacked the means to address the rapidly intensifying problems of global warming. For the best part of three decades, the question has rather been: “Do they have the will?” And for 30 years the answer has come back as: “No.”

The CCC’s report makes it clear that this lack of commitment is no longer acceptable if the target of reducing New Zealand’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 is to be met:

“[T]he Government must pick up the pace. Aotearoa will not meet its targets without strong and decisive action now to drive low emissions technologies and behaviour change across all sectors. 2050 is not far away – particularly if you consider the life span of infrastructure, vehicles, buildings – and people.”

It is about here that the problems begin. Outside the exceptional spheres of the Christchurch Mosques Massacre and Covid-19, the Ardern Government has, to date, offered no persuasive evidence that it knows how to do “decisive”.

Promise decisive action? Check.

Ask for advice on how best to take decisive action? Check.

Deliver decisive action? Ah well, you know, there are no silver bullet solutions to the problems this government inherited from its predecessors.

If the CCC’s recommendations are to be implemented, however, this government is going to need a significant quantity of silver.

Two of the principal contributors to our carbon emissions profile are the agriculture and transportation sectors. If our recent history is any guide, then driving down emissions levels in these key areas will be resisted furiously by industry lobbyists of every stripe.

To resist such pressure will require of our political leaders and senior public servants a so far unmanifested degree of staunchness. The exploiters of our soils and the users of our roads are not known for their willingness to compromise. They are, however, in/famous for getting what they want. And, at this moment, what they want most, and will move heaven and earth to get, is time.

For decades the industries in the crosshairs of carbon emissions reduction (most particularly the oil industry) devoted the greater part of their defensive effort to denying the reality of anthropogenic global warming. In this they were tragically successful, most notably in the United States, where, for the last four years, big emitters have enjoyed the protection of a climate-change-denying President. With the arrival of the Biden Administration, however, that protection has been removed. What the industries at the heart of the climate emergency in both the United States and New Zealand are rolling-out as fast as they can is a strategy of distraction, diversion and delay.

New Zealand’s dairy industry has begun already. Pre-empting the release of the CCC’s “Advise to Government” report by several days, Dairy NZ released a report indicating that the New Zealand dairy industry is already delivering the world’s lowest carbon footprint.

Measures intended to further reduce this country’s already small footprint, the Ag-Research produced report argues, will compromise seriously its international competitiveness and bring about an economically damaging reduction in New Zealand’s dairy production. The report further argues that any serious reduction in New Zealand’s dairy exports will only lead to foreign dairy producers, with much larger carbon footprints, making up the shortfall. New Zealand dairy farmers will suffer; the New Zealand economy will suffer; the New Zealand people will suffer; and the quantity of greenhouse gasses emitted globally will not be reduced. In short: a lose, lose, lose, lose situation.

As Richard Harman, writing for his Politik website, sees it:

“[A]s far as Dairy NZ is concerned the real point of the [report] and its publication [on Wednesday, 27 January 2021] is to try and get in ahead of what starting on Monday will be a national debate on who should cut what to enable New Zealand to reach its Paris Agreement targets.”

The road transport industry and private vehicle owners will be no less interested than dairy farmers in making sure that they are not the “who” lumbered with the burden of fulfilling New Zealand’s obligations.

So it has ever been when push comes to shove on Climate Change: everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

The CCC’s boss, Rod Carr, is only too aware of this problem. He knows that the measure of our success will be determined by how profoundly New Zealanders are willing to change their way of life:

“Now we must decide where our ambition lies. For my part, I want to be able to say I did as much as I could as soon as I knew about the impact I am having on this world. Increasingly I am sharing this sentiment with my fellow New Zealanders. To achieve a cleaner, greener, healthier and more sustainable future, no emission reduction is too small – or too soon. All of us have a part to play and a contribution to make.”

As ever, Greenpeace NZ Director, Russel Norman – the bane of the dairy and road transport industries alike – cuts to the heart of the matter in his tweet on the CCC’s report:

“The Climate Commission message in its draft advice today that fossil gas is no bridge to zero energy emissions and that pine forestry can only be a marginal part of the NZ strategy is really welcome.”

If Norman’s right, then this is a truly revolutionary admission on the part of the CCC. Contained within it is the crucial recognition that ours is a civilisation based on the ready availability of coal, oil and natural gas. That this extraordinary twenty-first century world we inhabit could not exist without the cheap and abundant energy extracted from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, those same fossil fuels lie at the heart of the threat posed to humanity’s future by runaway climate change. So if, as Norman alleges, the CCC’s draft advice to the government envisages a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels, then the level of economic and social transformation New Zealanders will be expected to shoulder between now and 2050 is enormous. It is not only the source of our energy that the CCC is calling upon us to revisit, but the entire shape of our society.

In the report’s own words:

“We have heard consistently through our engagement that localised transition planning will be needed where communities work together to tailor a transition plan to their particular needs and aspirations. We also heard that this localised transition planning will need to be proactive, inclusive and transparent, and co-developed through a bottom up approach that involves iwi/Māori, local government, local communities, businesses, civil society groups and other stakeholders.”

What’s being demanded here is not a silver bullet, Jacinda, but a red/green one. You got that?

This essay was posted on the website on Monday, 1 February 2021.


Mike Grimshaw said...

We already require a long overdue social and economic transformation that is, in the words of liberation theology,'a preferential option for the poor'. My fear is that this response to the CCC will be yet again the NZ choice of ' a preferential option for the white middle class'and the burden will fall disproportionately onto those already suffering and marginalized.
A response to the ccc test does not deal with social and economic inequity will be a yet again the politics of the populist status quo.

Nick J said...

Jacindas government are "good managers" as opposed to visionary leaders.

Transforming our economy and society under the guise of climate action is laudable. It anticipates the reality that our coal and oil fueled international economy faces; the rapid depletion of these resources.

There is a common misconception that we can retain all the benefits of a fossil fueled economy by converting to wind, solar, hydro electricity. Fact is that these alternatives will neither scale, nor are they as portable. Our economy is energy, as aggregate energy reduces so will the economy. Many will say that technology will save us. Technology is not energy, it consumes it.

The real fundamental question this government should plan for is how over a medium, say 25 year time frame we as a nation put in place the fundamentals of how to clothe, house and feed our people. And importantly how to rejig our economy without the shock therapy of a Roger Douglas. If Jacinda and Labour can anticipate this, and begin the ball rolling the response to Covid will be forgotten, future generations will praise their vision. If not they will be damned as just another bunch of self serving managers.

David Stone said...

Yes Nick
The only thing that will significantly reduce our use of oil is it's depletion. Which seems to be expected at about the time we become carbon neutral. So that makes the goal at 2050 probably quite realistic; but not anything to look forward to.
The CCC seems to be claiming that all this can be done with a 1% reduction in GDP. That will require a lot of QE to bring the value of money that low.

Anonymous said...

Turning off the gas on bbqs and heating will be the government's low-flow showerheads moment. I'd rather they spent their political capital on poverty issues.

Brendan McNeill said...

When it comes to Human Induced Climate Change we enter the world of politicised myth and conjecture. The climate is changing but by how much and to what extent are humans responsible? You could rely upon the IPCC for answers, but when have their models and projections ever been accurate?

The biggest myth we are being asked to believe is that the cost of implementing the Commissions report could be as little as $1 - $2 Billion dollars, but a report produced by NZIER two years ago suggested a figure of 16.8% of GDP, or more than $30B USD in today's figures.

How could two Government agencies or Government sponsored entities draw such widely different conclusions if they were both dealing with facts as opposed to.... well, conjecture? The short answer is we don't know what it would cost, but we do know that all New Zealanders will suffer a considerable reduction in living standards, and those who can least afford it, the poor, will be most affected.

So, while I'm driving my future EV, the poor will be walking and busing, assuming they can afford the fares.

But hey, we are saving the planet right? Well, no. New Zealand emits 0.17% of the worlds CO2 output. Nothing we do good or bad, will have any impact on the climate. There is a case to be made that we must show solidarity with the rest of the world, but in making that case, let's not forget who will carry the cost. It will be all of us, but especially the poor.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Agreed Nick. Our governments have a habit of putting stuff off and handing it on to the next iteration and eventually to the next generation. We can't keep doing that. But as usual conservatives will panic and swear blind that:
1. Climate change is a "con". That beggars belief but there you go.
2. We can't afford to do anything about it – whereas we can't afford not to.
3. It's not worth us doing anything about it because we produce a very small proportion of the world's pollution. Except our per capita production of pollution is very high, and as someone said on national radio the other day eventually countries that have made sacrifices won't allow us to export our stuff to them if we haven't.

The only thing I would pick at is the idea that the "average family" will be better off. These days the average family is middle-class, the people that can afford to buy an electric car, and install various sustainable devices in their homes.
The poorest sort will be left paying increased prices for petrol for the old dunger cars that they can afford, and still using electric bar heaters to heat their homes.
We need to do something about that, and we need to do it soon, or at least in conjunction with the other changes that are made to avoid increasing social inequity even more. For one thing, we have to completely rejig our public transport options to make them more suitable for people who work 24/7, because even in Wellington the public transport system pretty much sucks for those people, and for those people who live in outlying suburbs often.
It's not helped by the fact that coal and oil prices are artificially low given that they are heavily subsidised. I'm surprised conservatives don't ever mention this, but then they've never been particularly opposed to corporate welfare.
Perhaps by the time Tiwai point has managed to extract the last few concessions from successive governments we can start using that excess electricity to do something constructive with. Like producing green hydrogen, or reducing the price to consumers. But call me a cynic, I can't see anyone doing a great deal other than pushing it on to the next generation. Really, the only government that actually does any long-term thinking is the Chinese. :)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

See...?Exactly as predicted.

Nick J said...

Dont disagree with your assessment GS except to say it might be a little rosy. I suspect that it will be far worse.

A good primer is Kunstlers book The Long Emergency, recently updated. Wellington public transport comes to mind when he describes sprawling automobile serviced suburbia as the "geography of nowhere". In future terms it is a massive misinvestment. Kunstler talks of the death of the age of "happy motoring", and the localisation of everything. He is an optomistic realist with a highly unsettling message.

Myself I believe that if our grandchildren can retain a material lifestyle the late Victorians possessed they will be doing well. Thats how serious it is, and as you say governments dont want to address it.

sumsuch said...

Just amusing how Jace responded to her previous housing challenge, on which you said she'd be judged. She's a PR professional. Is that the person you want for The End?

Yep, she can be and is willing to be nudged, but that is never leadership. Despise these 84ists.No fkn anything in'm.

'War Govt' excuses all socialism.

America is very close to civil war by not actively addressing reality for many more years than us. Everything the Biden Govt does now will be interpreted as diabolism by their Right Media. Like their first civil war it'll be a 75% to 25% proposition. Fox's Hannity, being an idiot, doesn't matter to me but Carlson must be faced with his crimes.

Trev1 said...

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions with a view to 'holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels'. This commitment is the focus of New Zealand's Zero Carbon Act. Can anyone tell me please when these "pre-industrial levels" occurred and what those levels were? They are not defined in the Paris Agreement and the scientific literature I have read suggests there is no agreement. Was it perhaps the Bronze Age, the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages? Or perhaps the early 18th century is the baseline, before the widespread exploitation of the steam engine belching smoke and CO2? But that period lies within the "Little Ice Age" (1350-1850 approx.) when temperatures were much lower and for example frost fairs were held in winter on the frozen Thames River. Hardly "normal". Anyway in 2020 we entered another Grand Solar Minimum, the deepest since the Maunder Minimum of 1645-1710, so temperatures are set to drop for perhaps the next 50 years. Pity about the gas heating being turned off then. 1.5 degrees Celsius above what?

adam said...

So long winded, and so little content - governmental reports on this issue just get worse and worse whilst we slip further and further into this nightmare. 2020 was a frightening year for all the environmental trigger points we blew right past. And that was a year we cut down our consumption and flying.

Consumption and a heady lifestyle are the problems. A economic system which believes in infinite growth in a limited biosphere is the other major factor. Lets not leave out the whack jobs who want the world to end - those perverters of the Bible who believe they need to bring about the end of days. Their own apocalyptic fantasy - looking to be whisked away in the rapture.

John Hurley said...

What a ridiculous situation. We have been concentrating on destroying old NZ and creating Aotearoa while ignoring the humdrum things necessary for well-being. Ranginui Walker pointed out that at 2.1 children /couple we had decided to live within our resource base but the academics knew better.

sumsuch said...

Brendo, my b.a. sister calls climate change a 'religion', straight from the American bullshit funnel, for christ and the rich. I think we can keep you foulies off from Oz, they rely on mines unlike us.

greywarbler said...

Brendan You are such a sad sack. The poor will likely be unable to afford Leaf EVs I think, but an enterprising sensible government will see that there is low-cost transport provided in low-emission, low-cost vehicles with clever call-up synchronising. Probably provided directly by government at taxpayers cost. You can do your bit as a thinking, progressive citizen to press for this sensible approach from a government worthy of its name, perhaps we will call it 'Kawanatanga' - which delivers the necessaries for nga tangata - the people, the people, the people.