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Rod Oram: Don’t give up on climate change yet

Despite the dire warnings in the United Nations' latest report on climate change, Rod Oram sees signs of hope in initiatives here and in the UK - as long as we can avoid falling into the "we're screwed, so why bother?" trap.

While bad news on climate change reverberated around the world this week, some good signs emerged here in New Zealand about our efforts to respond effectively.

The UN’s latest climate change report was its most stark and urgent by far in its decades of analysis to date. It warned that humankind had only a dozen years at most to make drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if we want to keep global warming to 1.5C.

“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Program.

Even 1.5C would still trigger great changes in climate and life on the planet. But those would be less drastic and more manageable than those caused by a 2C rise. So far, temperatures have risen 1C  since pre-industrial times. The report is here, and this is just one of the news items summarising it.

To keep to 1.5C we have to cut global emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050; or to keep to 2C, by 20 percent by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

Either target might seem an impossible challenge. But the UK’s success in cutting emissions over the past decade, coupled with other government, corporate and civil society responses around the world, should give us some hope.

The UK story was told in Auckland this week at the 11th Australia/New Zealand climate change and business conference organised by the Environmental Defence Society. The number of attendees, and the presentations from political and corporate leaders, showed real momentum on climate action is building here too. Presentations will be available on the EDS website from mid next week.

A decade ago, the UK Parliament passed a climate Act supported by all parties, with only three dissenting votes. It established the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body responsible to parliament for setting five-year, declining, carbon budgets and measuring the effectiveness of government policy in achieving them.

Since then, the UK has cut its overall emissions by 43 percent from 1990 even though its economy has grown by 70 per cent from that base year. The two biggest sector cuts were 65 percent in electricity and 70 percent in waste, Chris Stark, the Committee’s CEO, told the conference.

Such was the robustness of the carbon budgeting system, and the flexibility in meeting the goals, it could cope with unforeseen developments. “Where our analysis has been proved wrong, it’s been wrong in the right way,” he said.

For example, the cost of renewable sources of electricity had plunged far faster than the Committee forecast - solar costs are down by 80-90 percent, batteries by 80 percent, and wind by 60-70 percent.

The growth of offshore wind-generated electricity “is the UK’s best story,” Stark added. But there are still enormous challenges to reduce emissions, for example, from transport and homes (most of which are heated by gas), and from farming – on which the UK is looking in particular to New Zealand for leadership.

We too are heading for an equally constructive and robust all-party political system for tackling climate change, judging by comments to the conference from Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Scott Simpson, the National Party’s Environment spokesman.

National Party leader Simon Bridges’ commitment to a dialogue with the Government on a Zero Carbon Bill, which he made at Fieldays in June, “wouldn’t have happened even a year ago,” Simpson said. “Across Parliament, there’s broad directional agreement.”

Given the progress in the negotiations with National, Shaw said he hoped to announce the shape of the Bill by Christmas, with the introduction of the fully-developed text to Parliament next year.

Meanwhile, corporate New Zealand has had an equally swift change in mindset. So far CEOs of 60 major companies, which account for nearly 50 percent of New Zealand’s emissions, have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition. Under this initiative of the Sustainable Business Council, part of Business New Zealand, the companies pledge to measure and reduce their emissions.

Corporate boards need to be just as engaged on climate change issues as they are on the likes of health and safety, said Simon Watt, a Bell Gully partner and one of the leaders on climate law in NZ.

Similarly, climate change is absolutely a fiduciary responsibility for boards, said Sarah Barker, a special counsel at Minter Ellison Australia. Employees have a big role to play too in helping companies transition to the low emissions economy, added Rachel Mackintosh, a vice president of the Council of Trade Unions.

Overall, though, NZ companies are strongly under-represented in various international frameworks such as CDP, formerly called the Carbon Disclosure Project. This year some 7,000 companies, 500 cities and other emitters generating in total some 20 percent of global emissions, will report to CDP their emissions and plans to reduce them.

However, there are some NZ leaders. Auckland Airport, for example, was last year the first company in Asia Pacific to sign up to the Science Based Targets Initiative. Its goal is a 45 percent reduction in emissions per square metre of buildings by 2025 from 2012 levels. This very demanding discipline is, for example, helping to drive the design and operations of new buildings.

This global programme which began in mid-2015, helps companies to make cuts in emissions consistent with a 2C temperature rise, which will be tightened next year from next to 1.5C. The organisations behind it are CDP, the UN Global Compact, World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute. Here in NZ, Enviro-Mark Solutions (a business of Landcare Research, a Crown Research Institute), WWF and the SBC are working with companies on the targets.

Enviro-Mark has a long and impressive record of helping companies here and abroad to measure and reduce their carbon emissions; and if they want to get to carbon neutral, off-setting the rest of their emissions through its carboNZero programme. This include the likes of investing in native bush regeneration projects.

One of Enviro-Mark’s UK clients for the past decade, Anglian Water Services, gave an eye-opening presentation to the EDS conference on its success in reducing Capital Carbon, as it called the emissions related to building its infrastructure.

This water and waste-treatment utility supplies a large chunk of eastern England, 28 percent of which is below current sea levels. Its territory is very flat, so it uses a lot of energy to pump water and sewage, and its population is growing, as David Riley, its Head of Carbon and Energy, explained.

Capital Carbon, mainly from the use of steel and concrete, accounts for 30 percent of its emissions. Yet, by radically redesigning new plants and operations it cut Capital Carbon by 55 percent between 2010 and 2015. For example, it went from 95 percent open trenches for replacing sewers in 2010 to 70 percent no-dig techniques this year. It is working on a 70 percent emissions reduction by 2030, and on carbon neutral operations by 2050.

Among other Kiwis working abroad, the conference heard, from Qiuale Wong, who is based in London with Common Objective, a programme working on sustainable practices in the global fashion industry. Of the 100bn or so garments produced every year, some 80 per cent end up in landfill.

And Jo Tyndall, a senior NZ diplomat, is playing a vital role with the Paris Agreement, which is the world’s best hope for some 190 nations making substantial reductions in emissions over the coming two decades. She co-chairs with Sarah Baashan of Saudi Arabia the UN working party writing the Paris rulebook.

Progress on the three key sets of rules – on transparency, on accounting for emissions and their reductions, and on finance mechanisms to help developing countries invest in clean energy – were described to the conference by Kay Harrison, who is NZ’s lead negotiator on carbon markets in international talks.

While these were just a few of the vast array of deep actions required to forestall catastrophic climate change, maybe they will help us avoid the greatest danger of all – fatalism.

As Elizabeth Kolbert, the American who writes with immense insight and power about climate change, described it on Twitter this week: “Of all the positive feedbacks in the climate system, this one may be the most dangerous: We're screwed, so why bother?”

Disclosure: I was a presenter at the conference.

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