Action the best antidote for climate despair

New Zealand's performance at COP26 was disappointing, but having a say on our emissions reduction plan is a critical opportunity to make amends, writes Pat Baskett, Our Climate Declaration co-convener.

Quick decisive government action got us to where we are now with Covid. Can we expect the same for climate?

Results from COP26 in Glasgow have exacerbated rather than dispelled our fears. Negotiations are said to put the planet on track for warming between 1.8C and 2.5C.

Will that change what we can expect from our Government?

History beams a sardonic leer. No government anywhere has acted to prevent the emergency that faces us now. But before gloom overwhelms you, take a look at New Zealand’s Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP). Submissions are due by November 24.

According to this document, if we do it well, we’ll be better off in many ways. The transition to a low-emissions, climate-resilient future will bring social justice, ecological improvement, and a healthier environment. Here’s a clip from Climate Minister James Shaw’s introductory message:

“…many of our everyday tasks will be powered by clean, renewable energy; there will be cleaner air to breathe; cars charged overnight by renewables … we’ll have lower energy bills, so there is more money in people’s pockets to enjoy what they love … A future that is more equitable, more prosperous, and more innovative – and all within planetary boundaries.”

It’s difficult not to see the hard-working Shaw as indulging in a form of political spin which, given the reality of reduction targets set by the plan, is close to magic realism. Planetary boundaries? This is their only mention, as if they have little to do with reducing emissions.

Lower energy bills? If only. 

Energy specialists continue to point out the embedded fossil fuel costs of wind turbines and solar panels and their lesser return in net energy relative to that invested in their construction. There will inevitably be less to go round, and less to power all the EVs which those who can afford to are encouraged to buy.

Reducing emissions “will have an impact on all aspects of Aotearoa’s economy and society in some way” we are told, but if we start making the required changes now, life as Shaw foresees it appears assured.

But here’s the rub, and the plan’s most important message: reducing emissions is up to us. The targets we need to meet are divided into three budget periods: 2022-2025, 2026-2030 and 2031-2035. Government policy will not, by itself, meet the full extent of any given emissions budget. “Therefore,” the introduction states, “we are also seeking proposals and commitments from the private sector”.

This means you and me.

The first proposed budget requires a reduction of 7.7 Mt (million tonnes) of CO2e but it seems we will only get to somewhere between 2.6 and 5.6 Mt CO2e. This leaves a huge gap for communities, businesses, industries, and citizens to fill - up to one third of the targeted reductions – in a mere three years.

We need to act as though our lives depend on it. Which may well be the case for our children.

If you made a submission to the Climate Change Commission’s report earlier this year, you need to get to work again on the ERP because the Government needs to hear from us. We need to support the strategies they propose. We need to tell them where these don’t go far enough and to put before them our priorities for this crucial time.

Action is the best antidote for despair. If you’re unfamiliar with the process there are several ways to go about it.

The full emissions reduction plan can be found here.

Its 127 pages are rich in intentions, principles, general directions, potential developments, investigations and guidelines for the multiple sectors of society. But it is often short on the detail or the means of implementing specific policies, except in the section on transport, which accounts for 47 percent of our CO2 emissions. This will only continue to grow unless we radically switch funding from roads for cars, to electric buses and trains and do the same for freight.

The full document is daunting but there are shortcuts.

A “snapshot” of the ERP at makes it easy to submit on specific topics by providing links to 20 different areas.

A “quick” submission at the same website has only three questions of a very general nature and is designed for those who feel strongly about principles or priorities rather than detail.

Of a very different nature is the “Full list of questions” at “Have your say and shape the emissions reduction plan”. There are 114, the first of which sets the tone. It asks whether you agree that the plan should be guided by a set of principles. “If so, are the five principles set out above the correct ones? Please explain why or why not.”

The principles are not included there but I did eventually find them. They are: a just transition; a science-led response; enhancing the role of nature-based solutions; genuine partnership with Maori; a clear, ambitious, affordable plan.

There's nothing that expresses the urgency, the rapidly reducing timeframe we have to prevent parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, and no reference within those admirable principles of what living within planetary boundaries means. No mention that action to reduce emissions must be part of an overall strategy to reduce our ecological footprint.

The 113 questions that follow are divided into sections - transport, energy, waste and F-gases (refrigerants), building and construction, agriculture and forestry, and moving Aotearoa to a circular economy.

Many are a mixture of simple yes/no with the opportunity to give reasons. For example: Question 53 on transport: “Do you support the target to make 30 percent of the light vehicle fleet zero-emissions by 2035, and the associated actions?”

It’s easy to reply “No”, that 50 percent, or more, should be the target, without turning to the full document to find what the associated actions are.

The Climate Change Commission’s report is a frequent reference, with many questions referring directly to that report. For example, question 13: “Do you agree with the objectives for an Equitable Transitions Strategy as set out by the Climate Change Commission? What additional objectives should be included?” Don’t be put off. Say what you think about the importance of equity.

The references are inevitable since the ERP is the fruit of the commission’s work and this body is charged with ultimately assessing the adequacy of the final plan.

In some questions the Government appears to be seeking help in working out what is necessary versus what will be acceptable. For instance, question 46 on moving to a circular economy asks for a definition of the bioeconomy and what its opportunities are for us.       

Some are clearly for experts, eg question 61 in the section on energy: “What are your views on the outcomes, scope, measures to manage distributional impacts, timeframes and approach that should be considered to develop a plan for managing the phase-out of fossil gas?”

Energy is the key issue and one we’ve taken advantage of with our 80 percent renewable from hydro. But that’s no longer enough. We have some catching up to do and little time to do it. We deserved the fossil award we were given on COP26’s penultimate day when Shaw rejected the need for us to update our Nationally Determined Contribution to emissions reductions.

This consultation is a critical opportunity to make amends.