There’s no going back, so what can be saved?

The recently released Climate Commission final report has a lot to like, but there are unanswered questions. Our Climate Declaration's convenor Pat Baskett asks if the recommendations match up to the reality we face.

The terrible truth is dawning. The extreme heat wave - or 'heat dome' - over Canada’s British Columbia and the US state of Oregon is tragic evidence that it’s too late. We can’t reduce the blanket of greenhouse gases we’ve put up there. It will remain, virtually forever.

The focus now is on what we can and must do to stop it getting worse.

In the map of the world below, countries are coloured according to where the highest temperatures have been recorded. Broad bands of deep red signify 50C or above, brighter red for 45C or above, 40C or above in orange, and thus down to 20C. The Kuwaiti city of Nuwaiseeb recorded the highest temperature ever, of 53.2C.

New Zealand’s insignificance (we’re an easily missed orange streak nestling under Australia) is misleading. Consider this: our tiny 'team of five million' has contributed close to 0.3 percent of the 1C warming that has already occurred since pre-industrial times. This estimate, made by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, is quoted in the Climate Change Commission’s Advice, published last month.

Map of world showing record temperatures

Our contribution to global warming is high compared with our small population because the lifestyle we enjoy is fuelled by our energy use - we have been rated as having the seventh highest rate per individual in the Western world.

NASA’s Global Climate Change Website says that in many regions, warming has already surpassed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. More than one-fifth of all humans live in regions that have already seen warming greater than 1.5C in at least one season.

Almost three years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning the world has (or had) a mere decade left to stop the blanket of greenhouse gases getting thicker. And to do so, they warned, every country has to reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030.

At the 2015 Paris climate talks we decided our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) would be a 30 percent net emissions reduction on gross 2005 levels. The commission’s advice comments that the reduction would need to be “much more than 36 percent net” in order to be effective.

The advice’s 400 pages secrete these and other salutary words of bleak wisdom amongst a general optimism. The strategies outlined for doing our bit towards keeping temperature rise under 2C are mostly business-as-usual.

“The transition to a low-emissions society can be economically affordable and sociably acceptable ... We are confident that Aotearoa can reduce emissions while continuing to grow the economy and improve wellbeing.”

But Lawyers for Climate Action New Zealand have challenged the commission’s methodology in working between net and gross emissions. Nor, the lawyers point out, do the proposed budgets line up with those the IPCC would have us meet.

The commission’s proposed budget is a 27 percent reduction in net emissions on 2019 levels by 2030.

Yet even the IPCC can give no guarantee of success - as the commission sagely points out: “The IPCC has outlined a number of different global pathways that have a likely (50-66 percent) chance of limiting warming to within 1.5C...”

Our lives have been safer and more comfortable than in many other countries under Covid and our comfort will become more marked as areas become too hot to be habitable. We’re one of the lifeboat nations to which people will want to escape and where wealthy foreigners have already established boltholes. Will we attempt to close our borders then, as we’re doing now?

While the commission’s pragmatic approach - going for what is achievable, emphasising the co-benefits of a low carbon lifestyle - is understandable, it denies the grimmer reality which should jerk us, as Covid has done, into making the effort.

We should burn no more coal. The Government must reject the commission’s advice which allows its use for NZ Steel and Fonterra. Coal should not be used to provide electricity. This should be rationed at peak times to ensure basic needs are met.

Jobs in the fossil fuel industries in Taranaki need to be rapidly replaced by employment in alternative energy.

Would you drive across a bridge if the chances of it holding were 66 percent? It’s not as if we have any choice ... and we’re already halfway there.

The key admission in the commission’s advice is that there is a "big gap” between what we can do domestically and what we must do to meet our international commitment - our Paris NDC. Within this gap exists the pain: the equivalent for climate change of what we’ve done, and continue to do, for Covid.

Fracking must cease.

Excluding methane from animals, transport is our largest source of emissions at 33 percent. It’s also our fastest growing. So we need to drive less, but it seems the hardest thing to do. City councils could immediately introduce congestion charging (as the advice recommends) and fund more frequent, and smaller electric buses.

Use of public transport is limited at peak times in cities because of parking space. Councils should allow Uber-type electric shuttles to bring commuters to the major transport hubs.

Air travel has never been included in any emissions calculations anywhere. The commission promises to rectify this by reviewing their position in 2024. Will they propose replacing air points for frequent travellers with a system of penalty prices for those who travel regularly? But how will people travel between cities when rail travel is mostly non-existent (and diesel-powered)?

Can we really not afford to change this situation? The attempt to introduce a passenger train from Hamilton to Auckland has not been well-patronised and it’s no surprise. This one-way service runs twice in the early morning and again late afternoon and only as far as Papakura.

Upgrading and electrifying rail would require diversion of huge amounts of money away from roads but the effects, especially for freight transport, would usher us into the new post-carbon future.

We in New Zealand have been fortunate - so far. But the heat dome in the region of western Canada and the US was a surprise. Scientists are warning there will be more surprises because climate changes are non-linear. A small rise of the average global temperature can spur a proportionately bigger increase in dangerous heat. Tipping points will occur and, in the latest terminology, “cascades” of tipping points.

This emergency is bigger than Covid and the question is no longer whether we can avoid severe climate change. The question is how much of life on earth can we preserve, including civilisation.


This article was first published by the Newsroom on 14 July 2021.