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It’s not too late to avert an impending crisis

If we don't act now, our survival on this planet is in the balance. Pat Baskett offers some ways people can do their bit to fight climate change.

Yet another report has come in signalling the perilous future that awaits humankind because of what we’ve done to the planet. This one is from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Its title is daunting – Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene – and so are its warnings. The potential domino effects of feedback loops from changes we’ve already made and can no longer control may bring us to a threshold that could prevent the stabilisation of the temperature that the Paris conference hopes to achieve. 

We’ve seen the terrible signs this year – temperatures so hot in some places they would kill the yeast in your bread dough, severe drought in Australia, the largest wild fires ever seen in California, and here, unseasonal summer rainstorms.  

How bad will things get and what can we do when we’ve changed the light bulbs, minimised our car use, become vegetarian and reduced our dairy intake, our food waste is negligible and we recycle whatever is recyclable? 

Reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, the goal of the government’s Zero Carbon bill, is non-negotiable. But whether that will that be soon enough and how we get there are the questions.

These require a profound overhauling of basic assumptions about how we live and they warrant a hard look at suggestions published earlier this year by the Productivity Commission.

Boiled down, they say, we have to drive hard on two goals:

“Convert the transport fleet to electricity quickly, followed by industrial heat; plant trees at a rate not seen since the early 1990s, and keep on doing so for years to come.”

Stabilising rather than reducing methane ... is a cowardly failure to face incontrovertible facts.

These two points (there are 10 altogether) have profound implications. We’re proud of our 80 percent renewable electricity but it’s not enough. Keep fossil fuels in the system, they say, as a security of supply until we get to 100 percent renewable. But we have to stop burning the stuff now. How much better to speed up solar and wind with subsidies and introduce measures to stop wastage. 

As for transport we could begin by rationing petrol and diesel to fuel vital services only and by facilitating and subsidising the import of electric vehicles. The bureaucracy would be a headache but its beneficial effects would be worth it.

Ride-sharing and carpooling would become common practice. It would bring about the expansion and electrification of rail and of public transport. Restricting fuel for heavy machinery would also cause a re-think of where we build houses, forcing a reduction in the amount of earthworks and a more intensified urban form.

Planting trees implies a deep reconsideration of land use – with implications for the basis of our economy. The Commission suggests we are “hung up” on reducing methane emissions from cows and sheep. So we should be. But stabilising rather than reducing methane as they suggest is a cowardly failure to face incontrovertible facts. A pulse of methane is 120 times stronger than the equivalent CO2 but shorter lived – a mere 12 years.

That short life is meaningless if we are consistently producing it – at the moment it’s reckoned at 43 percent of our gross emissions, with a plan to cut this to 55 percent by 2050. 

Granted they acknowledge that nitrous oxide, from cows’ urine and the residue of nitrogenous fertiliser, is the worse culprit and that our focus should be on reducing the 11 percent we now produce. But as long as industrialised dairying continues there will be some nitrous oxide and we don’t want any. It’s 310 times stronger than CO2, remains in the atmosphere for 114 years and as it breaks down it destroys the ozone layer.

The pain and disruption of the short term will be less than the kind of future we risk through not changing how we live.

So we have to get sheep and beef cattle off marginal land and restore it to native forest – for which, under the ETS, we would accumulate carbon credits.

It would be brave to suggest in the same breath that we not only change our personal eating habits but that we change the way we as a country earn our living. But that’s what the Commission should have done. Globally, animal farming uses more than 80 percent of the available arable land, from which people get less than 20 percent of the calories they need. I think the Commission should have made a high priority of establishing an assistance fund and a resource base to enable farmers to swiftly transition to growing food crops for people. 

The pain and disruption of the short term will be less than the kind of future we risk through not changing how we live.

We don’t need a Productivity Commission to tell us what we need to change in our personal lives. Consumer goods arrive in container boatloads, fuelled by the dirtiest dregs of the oil refining industry. Unlike car emissions, these are largely out of sight and therefore out of mind. Buying locally-made whenever possible, or doing without, is a meaningful decision.

So is eating seasonal food. It’s no hardship to do without capsicums from the Netherlands or nectarines from California out of season. But it will take a groundswell of informed, aware consumers to back up and influence the structural changes that will necessarily regulate these harmful habits.

We will need to move back to a state of self-reliance similar to that of the 1950s when everything we ate was produced locally, as were most of the clothes we wore and the whiteware in our homes. We won’t travel much and if we do we will consider serious offset options.

Throughout this transition period we will need to be aware – as the Commission mindfully points out in recommendation 9 – not to “make poor people subsidise emissions-reducing technologies wealthier people can afford.”

This latest study urges “collective human action” which will entail “stewardship of the entire earth system – biosphere, climate, and societies – and could include decarbonisation of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere sinks, behavioural changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements and transformed social values.”

If we act with extreme urgency there is a chance we will prevent the worst. It’s not the end of the world that looms but the end of comfort, abundance, security – possibly, if we don’t start now, the advent of a post-human world.

Pat Baskett is a founder member of ourclimatedeclaration.org.nz

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