We need to invest in clean technologies and circular economies to build a sustainable, diversified economy. And that will also lessen our dependence on carbon-emitting industries, say leading Auckland academics 

Opinion: As world leaders meet to discuss climate change solutions and mitigation, the rate of ecosystem degradation is advancing at pace. Well-documented changes in temperature and patterns of rainfall are jeopardising vulnerable food systems and water security. Coastal erosion, rising sea levels and pollution are creating uninhabitable land leading to climate induced migration, identity loss and sovereignty issues. This requires building resilience and adaptive strategies to climate change realities for communities across the Pacific. This has led to more strident calls from politicians, religious and community leaders across the Pacific, for recognition and reparations for loss and damages to societies and economies.

In recognition of its well-established relationships across the Pacific, Aotearoa New Zealand has rightfully joined the call to aid the recovery and resilience of poorer nations that will bear the brunt of climate change. While its pledge of $20 million is important, particularly for its symbolism, it does not address the causes of climate change already wreaking havoc in poor and Indigenous communities across the globe. This is where New Zealand can and should be leading.

New Zealand’s electricity is already powered mainly through renewable energy. But it can do more to ensure a clean, renewable energy future, including energy efficiency and solar and wind power through investments and incentives. Our automobile-based transportation system, an economic system reliant on emissions-producing industries, and waste policies and practices need a profound makeover. New Zealand can lead with action, vision and with bold goals, demonstrating what climate leadership looks like.

A place to start is with the “cow in the room”. Building a sustainable, diversified economy will lessen New Zealand’s dependence on carbon-emitting industries, such as agriculture and international tourism. Accomplishing this requires investment in and incentivising clean technologies and circular economies that support communities and put kaitiakitanga into practice.

This is the aim of New Zealand’s CleanTech Mission, a new national initiative that aims to boost the country’s global success in ‘clean tech’ – technological innovations that are sustainable and benefit the climate, in which the University of Auckland’s UniServices is a partner. We have initiatives underway such as Mint Innovation’s state-of-the-art clean technology for recovery of precious metals from electronic waste. Similarly, Computer Recycling sorts and shreds hard-to-recycle electronic waste, such as flat panel screens, laptops, televisions, and mobile phones, recovering gold, silver, copper, platinum, and palladium. Biotelliga is developing safe and sustainable solutions to managing agricultural crop pests and diseases; Usedfully is co-designing the first textile product stewardship scheme in New Zealand to use waste textile through technology and research; Para Kore Marae provides te ao Māori worldview-based support and mentorship for marae, kōhanga reo, kura and community organisations; and Zero Waste Network connects, educates, enables and inspires community enterprises to emulate sustainable natural cycles.

A truly circular economy requires holistic and robust solutions and technologies without unintended consequences or allowing greenwashing claims. This requires strict regulatory enforcement, monitoring new standards, and pressure from communities, non-governmental organisations and academia.

Equally important is the recognition that we live in a symbiotic, reciprocal relationship with the natural environment and that we cannot continue to grow at a pace that nature cannot accommodate. We have already breached planetary boundaries for nitrogen flows and biodiversity loss, and the trends are alarming for other variables such as climate change. However, with concerted global action, we can make a difference. Stratospheric ozone depletion demonstrates how we can. The 1987 Montreal Protocol is an international treaty that eliminated the use of ozone-depleting chemical substances, resulting in the Antarctic ozone hole gradually shrinking. Economic growth and the expansion of human populations come with many human and social costs and diminish planetary health – effects we are working to better understand and mitigate through research.

New Zealand can help shift the global narrative by reforming its political, economic and legal structures to model a healthy, sustainable way of life. We can create our future using a holistic systems-based approach that recognises interconnectedness and the long-term effects of today’s actions. For example, we can build a reliable, accessible, user-friendly public transportation system, implement a national zero-waste strategy, incentivise sustainable food production, and start judging businesses on their contribution to the nation’s sustainable future rather than merely focusing on short-term profitability. Even simple shifts can have big impacts, such as incentivising telecommuting, rethinking urban design to reduce driving, making the mass transportation more user-friendly by creating more abundant or larger scale park-and-rides, and slashing rider fees.

Where there is political and societal will, there are many ways. Taking the lead internationally in making ethical changes, alongside reparation payments to help poorer nations to mediate the impact of climate change, will amplify New Zealand’s message. While helping our neighbours in the Pacific is laudable, doing so through funding alone may send the wrong message. It risks giving up on tackling the source of the problem, kicking the can down the road and saddling our children and grandchildren with a more woeful future.

Maria Armoudian, Saeid Baroutian, Jacqueline Beggs, Niki Harre, Rod McNaughton, David Noone, JR Rowland, and Rachel Wolfgramm are co-directors of University of Auckland’s Nga Are Whetū Centre for Climate, Biodiversity and Society. Izzy Renton, Master’s student at University of Auckland, contributed to this article.

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