Will the world learn from the latest financial crisis? Climate scientists and environmental groups certainly hope so. David Williams reports

Across the Tasman, when bushfires were raging, some politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, batted away questions about links with climate change, saying it wasn’t the time to talk about that. Slate.com dubbed it the great Australian cop-out.

It was an important comeback. As was pointed out by many, including fire chiefs, it was the perfect time to talk about it because the two are intertwined. The risks of no discussion, and political inaction, were huge for a country that was literally on fire.

There are similar reservations in some quarters during the Covid-19 crisis.

Some scientists worry that talk of climate change now will be taken the wrong way – that people will think the current economic turmoil is a template for dealing with climate change, giving (false) ammunition to arguments we’d all have to live in caves to turn around global warming.

One of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, American Michael Mann, swats that line away.

“I would argue that this is EXACTLY the time to talk about climate change, because climate disruption is what we call a ‘threat multiple’,” the distinguished professor from Penn State University says via email from Australia, where he’s on sabbatical.

“It takes existing problems and makes them worse. Our infrastructure is already taxed by extreme weather disasters and other climate-related threats. So when something like Covid-19 comes along, it easily pushes us over the edge, beyond our current adaptive capacity.”

Virus is different, but not

It’s worth acknowledging how Covid-19 is different.

Climate change didn’t cause the virus, or the worldwide deaths and hospitalisations, and the resulting disruption to business, travel, and lifestyles, including the impending loss of what looks like millions of jobs. (However, the World Health Organization warns: “Changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change.”)

“The biggest risk,” says Andy Reisinger, a climate scientist and former government negotiator at United Nations meetings, “would be that people think this is what mitigation action looks like, and therefore decide on that basis that reducing emissions is a really, really bad idea because it’s going to hammer our economy. That would be fundamentally the wrong way of thinking about it.”

Reducing emissions should involve doing things differently, he says, rather than just hunkering down and doing less.

Even staunch climate advocates like Russel Norman, the former Green Party co-leader now in charge of Greenpeace’s New Zealand arm, see the wisdom in governments spending billions to preserve jobs. “The Government’s package is good and I welcome it,” he says of the $12.1 billion of business relief announced by Finance Minister Grant Robertson on Tuesday.

In some ways, though, Covid-19 is similar to other crises: tumbling stockmarkets, widespread economic turmoil, billions of dollars materialising for bailouts.

Remember the global financial crisis of 2008-9? Pressure had been building on governments to take serious climate action. And then, at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, had a yeah-nah moment, signing a relatively weak and tepid agreement.

Governments were tackling the GFC with the kind of gusto environmental groups and scientists had been calling on them to use against climate change.

Research by the Global Carbon Project showed there was a 1.4 percent decrease in global emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in 2009. But the following year emissions jumped 5.9 percent, as countries bounced back and stimulus packages kicked in.

Norman says: “We saw after the GFC that certainly some of the stimulus went to the polluting sectors and, of course, most of it went to prop up the banks, but very little of it drove the transformation we need.”

For the record, this country’s total emissions declined 3.1 percent between 2008 and 2009, because of higher hydro-lake inflows and a decline in road transport emissions. There was a 0.2 percent rise in 2010.

“The pandemic has to be the focus right now, I don’t dispute that.” – James Renwick

This is where lessons can be learned from the GFC.

Reisinger, who is deputy director of the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and vice-chair of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group, asks: “To what extent can a crisis be used as an opportunity to initiate or accelerate a structural change, or to what extent is it just something we just wait to blow over and then step on the gas pedal twice as hard to make up for lost economic production in the past?”

James Renwick, a climate scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, says he and his colleagues aren’t belittling Covid-19. “The pandemic has to be the focus right now, I don’t dispute that, and it’s terrible and I’m not trying to say that it’s not a terrifically important issue and people are dying.”

But, he says, once the country’s on top of it, just sighing with relief and going back to the previous way life would be a “recipe for disaster”. The level of effort, urgency and seriousness being directed towards Covid-19 should, after the pandemic is dealt with, be directed to climate change.

“Climate change should be the number one issue for every government in the world and they should be pulling out all the stops.”

As Norman, of Greenpeace NZ, puts it, governments have to walk and chew gum at the same time. “We also need to be dealing with these long-term crises of climate change and biodiversity.”

The climate movement is gaining momentum, but will governments listen? Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Temperatures are on track to rise to dangerous levels. Just last week, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said 2020 will be “pivotal” in addressing the climate emergency.

An IPCC report released in 2018 said keeping global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is vital, but temperatures were actually on track to increase to 3 degrees. “Limiting global warming to 1.5C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the report said.

Renwick: “It wasn’t saying we could just tweak things around the edges and all drive electric vehicles, it was saying we need to really make big changes to the way we live our lives and the way we run our economies.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments agreed to limit warming to between 1.5C and 2C. To keep below 1.5C, by 2030 what’s called “global net human-caused emissions” of carbon dioxide would have to fall by about 45 percent compared to 2010 levels. By 2050, the world would have to be at “net zero” emissions.

The consequences of not doing this are wide-ranging, catastrophic and irreversible – more droughts and heat waves, stronger and more intense storms, melting ice sheets and glaciers and a disastrous rise in sea levels.

“We have to start reducing global emissions this year if we’re going to have any hope of stopping at 1.5C of warming,” Renwick says.

The World Meteorological Organization’s latest state of the global climate report, released last week, confirmed the average global temperature rise had passed 1.1C, and seems almost certain to pass 1.5C, perhaps as early as 2030. The report notes the last five years were the warmest on record.

“The global temperature increase is alarming,” says Dame Meg Taylor, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, a region that is already dealing with the catastrophic impacts of climate change and disasters.

Transition time

Last weekend, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, took to LinkedIn to call on governments not to lose sight of a transition to clean energy – away from fossil fuels like oil and coal to things like solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries.

A 2018 analysis by Transpower, the national electricity grid operator, agrees. It suggested solar panels be installed on some 1.5 million houses, paired with a huge rise in residential and commercial batteries, to cope with a doubling of the country’s power demand by 2050.

“We know that we need to invest heavily in solar,” Norman, of Greenpeace, says.

He knows a thing or two about nationwide environmental programmes.

When he was co-leader, the Green Party agreed a $323 million, four-year home insulation scheme with the ruling National Party-led coalition. (The programme ended up stretching over nine years. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority says it delivered 312,000 insulation retrofits and 39,578 heating retrofits, costing $465.5 million.)

“Something like those kinds of programmes that are scaleable and have real, significant benefits are definitely a good model,” Norman says.

Climate scientist Renwick says the intensity of economic activity and energy use has increased hugely over the last 30 to 50 years. “If that could be turned around that would go a long way to helping us fix this problem.”

New Zealand has a great headstart on other countries. In 2017, only 18 percent of total electricity supply came from fossil fuel thermal plants (coal, oil, and gas). The rest came from renewable sources, mainly from hydro generation.

But gross greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 23 percent since 1990 – with two big sources being methane (enteric fermentation) from dairy cattle, and increased fuel use for road transport. When you include land use change and forestry, net emissions have increased by 65 percent, because of increased harvesting of forests.

Making improvements has been difficult, considering about half the country’s gross emissions come from agriculture, and 41 percent from energy.

Is there an opportunity for the farming sector to recover differently after Covid-19, rather than recover back to where we were? Not according to Reisinger, of the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. Given most of the country’s products are exported we’re at the whims of overseas demand.

“I don’t see an immediate opportunity to use this as a starting point for a more fundamental transformation in the agricultural sector,” he says. “That is just a more strategic, longer-term thing.”

Covid-19 action vs climate action

The Government’s oft-repeated line is it’s acting early and decisively to contain coronavirus, including last night’s move to close the border to non-citizens and residents. The same can’t be argued for its action on climate change.

As much as Scott Morrison and other Australian politicians were berated during the bushfires, so far, this country’s ruling coalition hasn’t lived up to its rhetoric – considering Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called climate change “my generation’s nuclear free moment”.

“It’s a pretty mixed picture when it comes to transport and really no progress when it comes to agriculture,” Greenpeace’s Norman says of the country’s two biggest challenges. He does applaud, however, the Government’s oil and gas exploration ban, and stopping default super funds investing in fossil fuels.

Norman will be looking for more from May’s Budget. “The stimulus package provides a huge opportunity to invest in sustainable transport,” he says. “There’s immediate challenges around transmission of the virus on public transport but in the long-run we need public transport investments.”

The Government should also implement proposed freshwater reforms which, he says, will limit synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and have the side benefit of reducing climate emissions. “That’s the most immediate and quite significant, actually, option that the government has right in front of it today.”

(Lobby group Federated Farmers says the Government needs to defer a wide range of policy and regulatory measures, including those for freshwater management, as they will “harm the economy at the worst possible time”.)

As Gina Williams argued in an opinion piece yesterday, big jolts, like Covid-19, wake us up and force us to act today. “How about we all use this pause from auto-pilot to contemplate how we can redesign our society to combat climate change?”

The world’s been on an endless treadmill of consuming more, striving to earn more, spending more, and producing more. Victoria University of Wellington’s Renwick muses about a circular economy – something even he finds hard to visualise – in which everything is recycled and economic activity stops growing.

“It is the kind of thing we need to get to if we’re going to stop increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.”

That doesn’t mean going back to the dark ages. “Actually what I’m talking about is going to back to the sort of levels of consumption we had in the 1980s – which I don’t recall as being too primitive.

“If we did that even that would lower global emissions hugely. We’re not talking about turning out all the lights, we’re talking about being a little more sensible around our choices with energy use and consumption and so on.”

Renwick says it will take similar sums – in the billions – being used to contain the coronavirus outbreak to fight climate change.

“Investment in green technology, cutting subsidies for fossil fuel industries, the oil sector and so on. We’ve got to invest in the future at this sort of level so we can move the whole economy to a zero emissions economy and I would say a lower intensity economy – less energy use per person and less waste. Less consumption of stuff.”

Sure, high-tech connectivity, smart phones, and the ease of international travel are great – Renwick likes it as much as the next person – if it weren’t for the unfortunate side effect of warming the climate. That’s really starting to bite, in a world already dogged with huge bushfires, melting ice sheets, record temperatures and crippling droughts.

“We really have to get on top of that,” Renwick says. “Or Covid-19 will seem minor in comparison, actually, if we let climate change continue too much longer.”

Read more of Newsroom’s Covid-19 coverage here

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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