At the United Nations, the Secretary-General warns world leaders ‘our planet is burning’, but here in NZ unambitious business leaders fail to set 1.5C climate targets

Opinion: Climate dissonance was on stark display this week. In Auckland we had a polite conversation that noted the modest progress we’ve made over the past 16 years on this existential issue, shared knowledge about how to do more, and expressed some cautious optimism about the way ahead.

Meanwhile in New York City, now only one flight away, world leaders agonised over nations’ lamentable climate responses to date, which are unleashing grave and cascading dangers for humanity.

The Auckland gathering was the latest climate conference convened by the Environmental Defence Society, this time in conjunction with the Sustainable Business Council, a subsidiary of Business NZ.

When EDS began the conference series in Auckland in 2005, climate science was still disputed by a fair few in society and the delegates were trailblazers from the few organisations rising to the challenge, Gary Taylor, the chair of EDS, reminded this week’s participants. Now, he added, the room was overflowing with more than 500 dedicated and ambitious people from a broad cross-section of business, plus some from elsewhere in society.

The Government has helped a lot over the past five years, Climate Minister James Shaw detailed in his speech. Structures created, such as the independent Climate Change Commission, statutory carbon budgets for the country, and the Emissions Reduction Plan, are enabling society in general and business in particular to ramp up their plans.

As for the global context, a few speakers made passing references to catastrophic floods in Pakistan and historic heatwaves in Europe. But there was little systematic, cogent, enlightening input from the rest of the world into our parochial conversation at home.

One exception was Caroline Lambert, a member of the EU’s diplomatic delegation to New Zealand. But as a panelist, she had only a brief time to deliver three forceful messages: the EU is “doubling down on decarbonisation” because of Russia’s war on Ukraine; now more than ever the EU is seeking climate partners among friendly nations; and “trade is at the centre of our climate response.”

The nadir of domestic input into the conference came from Scott Simpson, National’s climate and environment spokesman. He was standing in for party leader Christopher Luxon, who felt he had more pressing business to do in Wellington. He was reinstating Sam Uffindell to the party caucus, after an inquiry into the MP’s youthful bullying had found no evidence of subsequent unacceptable behaviour.

Simpson, explaining he was channeling Luxon’s speech notes, regaled the audience with National’s climate achievements when it was last in power. Such as keeping the Emissions Trading Scheme and committing the nation to the Paris Agreement.

Clearly, though, Simpson had no idea how well informed his audience was. They knew National had rendered the Emissions Trading Scheme useless during its nine years in office, resulting in perverse climate outcomes such as rising emissions and falling tree planting. And that National had done nothing to start building the domestic legislative and regulatory structure we needed to stand even the faintest chance of meeting our Paris pledge.

No worries, Simpson told the audience, time and innovation are on our side. We can “bend the emissions curve” this decade. And anyway, net zero by 2050 is still 28 years away.

The stunned silence in the conference room was broken by some groans of derision and despair.

These are people who live and breathe the reality of our immense challenge. They know we must achieve at least a 45 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 – just 7¼ years away – and they know making real cuts in carbon is the only credible way we can achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Rampant tree planting at home and purchase of offsets abroad would be perverse. They would stunt the development of a climate-compatible, clean-tech, modern New Zealand economy.

At least ACT’s climate spokesman, Simon Court, was honest with the delegates. He said his party is adamant that a price on carbon is all we need to reduce our emissions. But that so contradicted any effective climate responses anywhere in world, he rendered his party irrelevant.

Simpson, though, came to the defence of our current multi-faceted legislation. “We’re 100 percent committed to the Zero Carbon Act and the goals in it.”

To which Court replied: “In the first 100 days we’d ditch the Zero Carbon Act. We’d expect our supporter partner to support that” – presuming, of course, National and ACT formed a coalition government after next year’s election.

‘Our planet is burning’

Up in New York City, “our planet is burning,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told world leaders at the UN’s General Assembly. He called on them to end their “suicidal war against nature.”

“The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time,” he added. “It must be the first priority of every government and multilateral organisation. And yet climate action is being put on the back burner – despite overwhelming public support around the world.” This is the link to his full text and this one to a video of his speech.

While his speech was the most forceful contribution to the intense, all-of-society programme of climate debate and action at the UN this week, business leaders were also strongly evident.

For example, a leading role was played by the Race to Net Zero. It mobilises a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 1,049 cities, 67 regions, 5,235 businesses, 441 of the biggest investors, and 1,039 institutions of higher education from 120 countries. Collectively, they generate nearly 25 percent of global CO2 emissions and more than 50 percent of GDP.

Here in New Zealand, we have a Climate Leaders Coalition, which is a subset of the Sustainable Business Council. It has some 100 current signatories in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. They account for about 60 percent of New Zealand’s GHG emissions, 38 percent of GDP.

Earlier this year, it lifted its ambitions from its previous statements in 2017 and 2019. It now requires existing and future signatories to adopt within 12 months emission reduction targets aligned with the climate science of 1.5C, and ensure those targets and plans are verified and published.

That might sound impressive, but few coalition signatories appear to be climate leaders by international standards. For example, Fonterra, its farmer-shareholders and other milk suppliers, have yet to set any goals for reducing their methane emissions. Even though they are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand, generating more than 20 percent of the national total.

Climate leaders?

Word from within the co-op suggests such a methane target is coming “soon”. Yet, this week, the co-op’s 1,875-word press release on its year-end results mentioned emissions twice and carbon once. It made no reference to climate.

The absolute global gold standard for corporate climate engagement is the Science-Based Targets Initiative. This very demanding methodology locks companies into decarbonisation targets and strategies that match the imperatives of climate science.

Fonterra used to be a member but only for reducing its carbon dioxide emissions, which account for only 9 percent of its total emissions. But when SBTI subsequently required companies to comply on all their emissions across the entire value chains right down to those generated by consumers using their products, Fonterra was disqualified.

Only 12 NZ companies have applied for and currently comply with SBTI’s qualifications for 1.5C climate targets: Contact Energy, F&P Healthcare, Genesis Energy, Meridian Energy, NZ Post, Samson Corp, Spark, Synlait Milk, think-step, Timberlink, Toitu Envirocare, and WoolWorks.

Of those only four are “starred”, that is they are members of SBTI’s Business Ambition for 1.5 campaign, which is part of the Race to Zero. They are Meridian, Think-step, Synlait Milk and Toitu.

Of those, only two reach the highest SBTI standard – a commitment to net zero, with a pledge to produce within 24 months credible plans for doing so. They are Meridian and Think-step.

Potentially our Climate Leaders Coalition could live up to its name. But to do so it must be far more engaged across the economy; and, most importantly of all, with politicians of all parties.

It must help drive the political agenda on climate (with the best interests of all of society in mind) and to keep politicians’ feet to the fire. The Confederation of British Industry is one of many excellent example overseas.

Above all, the Climate Leaders Collation must deliver an utterly crucial message to National and ACT: if they fail to deliver all that New Zealand needs on climate, they will have no support from business.

That would be an excellent step towards New Zealand becoming the climate leader we claim to be.

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