The words climate emergency do not appear in the Climate Change Commission’s 188-page draft advice which it is now consulting on. Despite the Prime Minister, free of New Zealand First’s scepticism, adding New Zealand in December to the list of countries that have declared an official climate emergency. Perhaps the Commission is channeling climate change warrior Greta Thunberg who criticised the declaration because the tough talk at the time lacked powerful actions.
Three and a half years earlier, Jacinda Ardern first called climate change her generation’s nuclear-free moment. With a degree in communications, Ardern certainly knows the power of words. But in the intervening period the climate change atom bombs have continued to be detonated.
It is not our choice of language that is holding us back from dealing with climate change, it’s our failure to implement the actions we need to take.
Whether something is to come of this contradiction will come down to her government’s response to the commission’s final report.
This will need to include some tough and expensive consequences for citizens, businesses and governments. The commission estimates a cost of $34 billion for the actions the country must take by 2035. Politicians never like imposing big changes and associated significant costs like this. They sometimes use language as a proxy for action when the consequences of acting might leave us speechless.
Yet New Zealand’s climate adaptation direction of travel has been clear for some time as the commission emphasises in its consultation presentations. This is also clear to those of us who have been attending the sessions, which have been extended by demand until March 28. The response generally varies between those who think the commission lacks ambition to those who think it lacks adequate authentication.
The Productivity Commission’s 2018 low-emissions economy report had already prioritised three key shifts: transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity, substantial afforestation and changes to agricultural production. It also focused considerably on the role of cities and urban technology in mitigating climate change. The Climate Change Commission takes a different tack concentrating more narrowly on the functional urban elements of building, industry, transport and waste. In doing so, it misses the opportunity of providing a broader city lens and identifying a broader range of emission reduction opportunities.
Cities are a major contributor to climate emissions, with transport typically the biggest single area. In Auckland it makes up 40 percent of total emissions. Technology is an increasing part of the building, energy, transport and waste climate response in smarter cities. The World Economic Forum highlighted the role big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing, virtual reality technology and also sensors are playing in cities’ climate change responses in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States. The commission does not mention any of these elements.
It lacks confidence in the role technology will play in reducing climate emissions, emphasising the promise and the uncertainty, except in areas such as energy and waste. While this may be true with agricultural emissions, in transport and other urban technology innovations the practice is more developed.
A United Nations affiliated expert group, the Paris Process on Mobility and Change has put twenty transport quick wins together. Some of these are implied by the Commission’s guidance: increasing e-bike sharing schemes and incentivising greater electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Other technology initiatives are missing, such as supporting mobility-as-a-service technology applications (such as Helsinki’s Whim) which create one place to access all the different city transport options, and improving city freight efficiency by championing shared block-chain systems – such as shipping companies are doing.
Paradoxically the report later comments that the cost of adapting to climate change is often overstated because international evidence shows technologies often improve faster than expected.
The earlier Productivity Commission report offered other important insights. It said strong, early action is justified, and that climate change success will “critically depend on political leadership and fortitude”. The Paris Process quick wins were proposed in 2015. Fewer than half have been significantly advanced in New Zealand.
The words climate emergency also did not appear the 620-page Productivity Commission report – either as a description of what is happening or a strategy for action. The Government’s response since has been to say it is doing everything it can. That is not true, as the Climate Commission reveals. It has been doing all it thinks it can get away with – fearing that too quick a change to petrol prices or agricultural operating costs will lose political support.
Its key strategy until now has been to extend both the time-frame for action and the meaning of words. While we wait for the real emergency.
If Ardern is hoping the Climate Change Commission’s report is the deterrent she has been waiting for, she will need it to address its own contradictions first.