On June 30, 2016, some 20 young people held up a lot of zeroes and a sign saying Zero Carbon Act in front of Parliament – and nobody noticed.

“We got no media there; it was hard to get anyone interested,” recalls Lisa McLaren, one of the organisers. “It was just a bunch of crazy youths thinking they could draft government law.”

Yet, this week the new government announced its timetable for legislation to set the country on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050; and National said it was warming to the idea, making almost certain all-party support for the bill.

Likewise, many major corporates and agricultural organisations such as DairyNZ back the bill and the climate commission that will set carbon reduction targets and measure progress on them over the next three decades.

“[T]he shift from the old economy to a new, low-emissions economy will be profound and widespread, transforming land use, the energy system, production methods and technology, regulatory frameworks and institutions, and business and political culture,” the Productivity Commission said in August in its issues paper on the subject.

How did New Zealand achieve such a dramatic shift in public sentiment, political will and policy initiatives in just 18 months?

McLaren and her colleagues in Generation Zero, the youth movement that has played crucial roles in the shift, are quick to credit many others. The Greens and some NGOs had long campaigned for such legislation, Labour added it to its manifesto in this year’s election, and an all-party group of backbench MPs led by Kennedy Graham of the Greens commissioned insightful research on NZ’s pathways to zero emissions.

Moreover, Jan Wright, when she was Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, supported UK style carbon reduction legislation, and a few corporate leaders began expressing support for the same in recent months.

Clubs day at Victoria University: Bill English talks with Young Nats behind the Generation Zero stand. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

But Gen Zero deserves lots of credit for what it does very well: identifying crucial issues, creating solutions to them, and building support for them. It has a talent for making complex problems understandable and the remedies to them attractive. Above all, its members are passionately motivated. Climate change is the defining challenge for their generation.

Here’s just one example of the way they work. Realising the enormity of climate change overwhelms many people, they often focus instead on solutions that are attractive in themselves while delivering the co-benefit of lower emissions.

One example is cycle ways separated from vehicles, which make cycling safer and more attractive and cities more livable, while reducing traffic congestion and emissions.

Some 18 months ago, Gen Zero members in Auckland reckoned a cycle way along K Road was the next crucial link to establish in the city’s nascent network. But council planners said shopkeepers would never give up kerbside parking to allow for a cycle way.

So, some members visited every shop on K Road to discuss the merits of a cycle way. If the shopkeeper supported it, they asked if they could take a picture of him or her holding up a “Yes” sign in front of their shop. Likewise, they asked for photos of those saying “No”.

When Gen Zero went back to the council, the planners gave them the same old line about shopkeeper resistance. In response, they laid out the array of “Yes” photos and the few “No” ones.

Public support for the cycle way grew so rapidly, the cycle way has morphed into a complete remake of the streetscape, designs for which will be finalised early next year.

The idea for Gen Zero came out of the New Zealand Youth Delegation to the UN’s climate change negotiations in Cancun in 2010. They realised many other delegations were backed by youth climate organisations in their home countries, which carried on campaigning between the annual UN meetings.

Simon Terry, the founder of NZ’s Sustainability Council, who was also at Cancun, strongly encouraged them to form such a group and mentored them for the first few years.

Gen Zero launched itself in front of parliament in July 2011, “but it was really hard to get much attention,” says Paul Young, one of the founders. Undeterred they began “movement building” with an eye on that year’s election.

Through social media, events, interviews with candidates, satirical publications such as the Daily Roast in Wellington and other ways they put climate change issues on the agenda and gained their first toe-hold on the political landscape. Meanwhile, it was working on difficult research, particularly starting to map pathways by which New Zealand could drastically reduce its emissions.

When the re-elected National-led government showed scant interest in climate issues, Gen Zero switched most of its efforts to local campaigns that helped improve cities while delivering climate co-benefits.

In Auckland, for example, they worked with the Transport Blog, a group of public transport advocates, to help develop the Congestion Free Network. They credit the Blog’s experts (“our uncles”) for the deep knowledge of transport, while they contributed to the communications and building of public support.
In due course, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and central government incorporated a number of crucial proposals advocated by the Transport Blog (now called Greater Auckland) and Gen Zero. These include the City Rail Link, light rail and cycle ways.

“The Congestion Free Network reshaped Auckland’s public transport,” says Young. For example, cycling is booming in the city, with fast growing use of the separated cycle ways, and some half a million cycle trips a year on Tamaki Drive.

Meanwhile, among many activities in Wellington was a protest against the National government’s heavy investment in its “Roads of National Significance” at the expense of investment in public transport. A group of some 30 Gen Zero members stripped down to their underwear and rode a commuter train into Wellington.

“We were revealing the government’s dodgy spending by revealing ourselves,” recalls Jamie Young-Drew.

“The light-heartedness and fun has been part of the culture that has helped draw people in,” says Young.

Adds Young-Drew: “I was drawn by the values of a group of young people who seemed like they really had their heads screwed on, who were very enjoyable to spend time with, and who were very purposeful.”

The fun’s important because the hours, all volunteered, are long. McLaren, a PhD student, gave up a part-time job so she could work half each week as national convener of its Zero Carbon Act campaign while she kept studying.

These days, Gen Zero reckons it is in regular contact with some 50,000 supporters on social media. While some volunteer for specific tasks, the core organisation is small and highly collaborative with some 12 people in Wellington and some 15 in Auckland.

Through all this, Gen Zero has never forgotten the big picture. In the run up to the 2014 election it produced two research papers: The Challenge to our Leaders laid out the climate issues in stark terms, and The Big Ask offered practical solutions.

But once again, the re-elected National-led government placed a low priority on New Zealand’s response to climate change. Our gross emissions kept rising, particularly from transport, when they had to be falling fast to meet our international pledges.

The turning point for the world was the Paris climate agreement in late 2015.

But the negotiations were “soul-destroying,” says McLaren, who was once again in the NZ Youth Delegation. The process was “very cold, a big bureaucracy”, nations’ commitment to emissions reductions were inadequate, particularly New Zealand’s, and there were no mechanisms to ensure nations’ delivered.

“We weren’t winning yet; and we definitely weren’t winning at home.”

Climate Change demonstration in Wellington, 2015. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

In February 2016, a group of Gen Zeros met in a café in Wellington to work out what to do next, drawing in part on the research papers they’d done in 2014. At a hui in April they fleshed out these plans into the campaign for the Zero Carbon Act, then launched it at that event in front of parliament on that cold, windy grey day June 30, 2016 which attracted zero attention.

“But we got some photos, which is all we needed to say ‘look, we’re going to do this’,” recalls McLaren.

The next crucial step was to spend some five months on extensive consultation and research on what will need to be in the Act. While there is a successful precursor in the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008, ours will have some big differences such as provisions for the Treaty of Waitangi, our heavy agricultural emissions and our relationships with Pacific island nations.

“This blueprint really helped us to understand what the policy could really do, and that helped us generate our communications and engagement strategy,” says Young-Drew, who led the work. “Then we had something to sell to communities, businesses and politicians.”

Gen Zero waited to launch this work, and the website that supported it, until a week after the backbench MPs had released their work on a zero carbon NZ. This they had commissioned from Vivid Economics of the UK. It laid out scenarios by which NZ could reach that goal by 2050.

When Gen Zero went public with its plans on April 10 this year, its message was “Hey, you know those pathways we need to be on? Well, here’s a way to get on them that’s worked in the UK,” Young-Drew says.

Unlike the year-earlier launch that attracted no one noticed, this one was backed by many allies such as WWF, Forest & Bird, Oxfam, ActionStation and the Anglican Diocese of Wellington. Crucially, Gen Zero gained the support of the youth sections of all political parties, including National.

Soon after, an alliance of 14 international NGOs created their own campaign, Back the Plan, to support Gen Zero.

“We ran a mainstream campaign,” says McLaren. “But because it is a high level framework we are not pushing policy. We are saying this is going to be an overarching way we’re going to get New Zealand to net zero. But we’re not telling each government how to do it. It’s up to them.”

Gen Zero also knew it was crucial to give the plan a name. While they weren’t at all sure Zero Carbon Act would catch on, they are delighted it has.

It’s a sign of “how much the mainstream narrative has shifted on climate change, of how many people know about the Zero Carbon Act and can tell you a little about it,” says McLaren.

“That’s huge, that’s such a win in itself. People on the street are talking about climate change in a way that’s solutions focused, rather than saying either that it doesn’t exist, or that it is something we can’t do anything about, or that they don’t know what to do.”

The campaign, she says, has given climate change “a home.”

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