“I can cut my emissions by 8 percent, so what are you doing about yours?” a cockie challenged me, a townie, at a recent climate change forum in the Bay of Plenty, an event in its annual Sustainable Backyards programme.

“No worries,” I replied. “We can all do better than that.”

Last week’s column gave examples of farmers working on big emissions reductions. This week’s looks at the other half of our emissions – from transport, industry and our built-environments – which are mostly urban. Next week’s will look at the synergy between the two.

The sense all this is too hard is widespread in town and country.

But once you start looking, all kinds of economically viable opportunities open up. For example, we could cut our energy use and emissions by 20 percent by 2035 by using it more efficiently and relying more on renewables, estimates the Government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.

EECA sees three broad areas for progress:

– businesses could reduce their energy use by around 19 percent through smarter energy management, more efficient equipment and replacing existing process heating systems with electric technologies;

– households could reduce their energy use by around 20 percent through more efficient space heating, water heating and lighting; and

– transport energy use could be reduced by around 27 percent through more efficient driving practices, improved fuel economy and electric vehicles.

Those reductions, and a similar scale of cuts in agricultural emissions, will give us a good start to being net zero carbon by 2050. That’s the goal all humanity has to achieve if we want to keep changes in climate to manageable levels.

To go all the way, though, we will need radical changes from the 2020s onwards in technologies, energy sources, business models, food production, manufacturing methods, consumption patterns, built environments such as towns and cities and – above all – our values.

In all this we have some advantages many other countries don’t, such as innovative farmers, nimble companies, and abundant sources of renewable energy. Also, our business community is getting its act together better than in many countries. For example, 85 companies with emission reduction commitments have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition, an initiative of the Sustainable Business Council. They generate about a quarter of our GDP and half our emissions.

Some of those companies are also members of The Aotearoa Circle which is seeking to put care for and enhancement of our natural capital at the centre of their businesses. We have the highest store of natural resources per capita of all countries except for oil and gas producers. But those fossil fuel economies are utterly unsustainable. Ours, though, will be sustainable if we use our natural capital wisely and renewably.

Businesses committing to change

A good few New Zealand companies have begun that journey. Their progress is modest so far, and their bigger challenges and opportunities are ahead of them. So they deserve encouragement for their ambition, rather than cynicism about their achievements to date.

Here are some examples:

The Warehouse Group has set a goal of reducing its emissions by 2030 by 32 percent from 2015 levels across its domestic business, supply chain and international shipping activities. It had begun measuring and reducing them in its main business in 2009, adding in its subsidiary Noel Leeming and other operations in 2015. It uses the measurement, reduction and certification methodologies of EnviroMark, an NZ based, international leader in the field.

The Warehouse is also one of 51 NZ companies that belong to the Carbon Disclosure Project, an international not-for-profit initiative to encourage measurement and reporting of carbon emissions. In 2018, The Warehouse ranked third equal among NZ firms for carbon disclosure.

To achieve carbon neutrality, The Warehouse is buying Gold Standard international carbon credits to offset emissions generated by the business. One such project invests in improved cookstoves for Bangladeshi families, relieving the hazardous indoor pollution caused by inefficient traditional stoves.

Here, The Warehouse is planning to regenerate 2,700 ha of land back to carbon-sequestering native forests by partnering with Trees That Count, a programme of the conservation charity Project Crimson Trust.

While carbon neutrality is an important first step, the ultimate climate and resource challenge for all companies, not just consumer goods retailers like The Warehouse, is to become true “circular economy businesses” in the decades ahead.

A circular economy business is one that ensures everything it makes and sells is completely recyclable so there is no pollution or loss of natural resources. For more on this very demanding discipline, please read this column.

SkyCity Entertainment recently announced it too was aiming to be carbon neutral. It is putting an internal price on carbon (currently $25 a tonne) on all its activities to help incentivise change. It has committed to reducing them by 38 percent by 2030 and 73 percent by 2050 (from 2015 levels). It has also committed that 67 percent of its suppliers by spend, covering purchased goods and services and capital goods, will set targets for emissions reductions by 2023.

If the offsets were in a New Zealand native bush regeneration project … then the international visitors would feel they were helping us become a climate responsible nation.

Many of SkyCity’s casino, hotel and conference customers travel some distance to its venues. Thus, it could be a leader in carbon neutral tourism if it chose to be. The cost of offsets for air travel, for example, are remarkably affordable. The share of emissions per passenger for flights from London to Auckland return are 6 tonnes for economy class, 9 tonnes for premium economy, and 16 tonnes for business class. At the current price of $25 per tonne, those offsets would cost $150, $225 and $563 respectively, a bargain compared with the UK’s current departure tax of $333 per passenger for long-haul flights.

The figures for Shanghai-Auckland return are 3 tonnes for economy class, 5 tonnes for premium economy, and 8 tonnes for business class. At the current price of $25 per tonne, those offsets would cost $75, $125 and $200 respectively. If the offsets were in a New Zealand native bush regeneration project (such as Hinewai in the Banks Peninsula) then the international visitors would feel they were helping us become a climate responsible nation.

Many more examples of large and small Kiwi companies’ commitments to tackling climate change are on the Climate Leaders Coalition website.

The second area EECA identifies for emissions cuts is in energy used by industry for heat and processing. Again, efficiency is a big first step but the biggest progress will come from replacing coal, gas and fuel oil with renewable energy. In the dairy industry, for example, Synlait and Fonterra have pilot projects for electric powered boilers.

And the third is in transport. For example, EECA’s Low Emission Vehicle Contestable Fund has awarded so far five rounds of support for pilot projects on electric vehicles and other low emission technologies. Case studies on them are here.

EECA also gives advice to members of the public on actions they can take as individuals.

Doing so can be intriguing, satisfying and beneficial, as my family and I’ve found over the past 12 years during which we’ve virtually eliminated carbon emissions from our 75-year-old house, and two cars. For details, please read this column I wrote 18 months ago.

So, for me one of the great mysteries about climate change is the reluctance of many people to act when the benefits of doing so are so great. Hopefully, business exemplars will encourage many more companies and people to get involved.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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