Week in Review

Oram: The sixth wave is coming

Other than the fact they are our two biggest producers of greenhouse gases, it seems cars and cows have little in common. However, both will benefit from the next wave of the industrial revolution, writes Rod Oram.

The creativity, enterprise and well-being of a society is far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s true in all we do; and even more so in our response to the climate crisis. Our transformation to a low emissions nation will make us more sustainable and wealthier environmentally, socially, culturally and economically.

While we have abundant climate opportunities, the synergies between them are far more important. Progress in one sector builds confidence and change in others. It’s a virtuous circle, as learning and ambition flow back and forth between sectors, triggering further rounds of initiatives.

For us the synergies are particularly powerful because our emissions are split 50/50 between urban and rural sources. There seems little in common between cars and cows beyond being our two largest generators of greenhouse gases. However, both will benefit from the latest wave of industrialisation. They can become ultra-low emitters in the way the products are made and used.

This sixth wave of the industrial revolution features the likes of: radical resource productivity; whole systems design; biomimicry (the borrowing of technologies from nature); industrial ecology; green chemistry; renewable energy; and green nanotechnology.

Source: UNESCO global study commissioned from the engineering profession.

This revolution is just what humans and the planet need for survival. After our five waves of extractive industrialisation, during which we did massive damage to ecosystems and climate over the past 250 years, this is the start of our first restorative wave.

This is also the first wave that plays to our strengths in New Zealand. We have the greatest wealth of natural resources per capita, bar fossil fuel producers; we are more dependent on those resources for earning our living than any other developed country; and biology, the science at the heart of this revolution, is the one we develop and commercialise best.

Our rural sectors are taking their first tentative steps in this revolution, as I described in this recent column; and likewise are our urban sectors, as this column reported.

This column describes some of the synergies between the two. Among the most important are the new business disciplines driving the transformation to a clean economy. These include measuring and minimising natural resources consumed and pollution generated, particularly greenhouse gases; developing circular economy systems to ensure natural resources and human-made materials are completely recycled and reused; and using financial disciplines such as green finance and responsible investment to incentivise progress.

The Natural Capital Coalition, with more than 300 members, is one example of this work internationally. Here in New Zealand, some leading businesses and government agencies have established The Aotearoa Circle to do likewise. Notably, they are a far richer, deeper mix of urban and rural organisations than in similar bodies overseas. However, they are still beginners with a very long journey ahead.

To get the laggards going on the transformation to a low emissions economy, the Government will have to deploy a powerful range of incentives, penalties and mandates.

“The shift from the old economy to a new, low-emissions economy will be profound and widespread, transforming land use, the energy system, production methods and technology, regulatory frameworks and institutions, and business and political culture,” our Productivity Commission said two years ago in its issues paper on our transformation to a low emissions economy.

Its final report last year included valuable insights and recommendations on all sectors of the economy. It made the case that the transformation to low emissions would make the economy more sophisticated, valuable and sustainable. But to achieve that, it added, we need to massively reorient our science, research and development, and innovation systems to those opportunities. Moreover, companies have to become more agile and responsive.

Overcoming vested interests is another considerable challenge. Businesses dominant in their sectors prosper from their established practices, technologies and market power. Only a few enlightened ones pioneer changes that might cost them in the short term but benefit them and society longer term.

To get the laggards going on the transformation to a low emissions economy, the Government will have to deploy a powerful range of incentives, penalties and mandates. The most important is a true and effective price on carbon through the Emissions Trading Scheme. While it’s invested heavily in ETS improvements to come, its work elsewhere is still rudimentary.

One of the most effective ways to fast-forward this progress is to emphasise the synergies between sectors. For example:

- precision environmental monitoring on farms will help develop the science, technology and systems for more effective urban environmental management, particularly of water, land and predators;

- developing renewable electricity as an economic source of energy for urban industry will also quicken its adoption in rural sectors, particularly dairy processing, and displace fossil fuels in urban and rural sectors, while contributing to the growth of the electricity sector;

- estimates of the growth in electricity use by 2050 vary from the Productivity Commission’s 45-65 percent to Transpower’s 100 percent (with unknowns including the rate of take up of electric vehicles and of electric heat in industry) but across that range there will be plenty of investment in a 21st century electricity system featuring entirely renewable energy, much more small-scale and local generation and electricity storage, and an intelligent, two-way grid and local lines networks to integrate the new technologies;

- we can improve the environmental quality and attractiveness of our homes and low-rise buildings by using more engineered timber in them, creating new business for forest owners and timber processors, while ensuring that some of the carbon sequestered in plantation trees remains locked up post-harvest in the buildings; and

- many of our best climate opportunities offer co-benefits across many sectors -  in rural areas, for example, planting trees on erosion-prone land improves land management, soil conservation and water quality, while in urban areas, better diets, energy efficient homes, more “active transport” such as walking and cycling, and cleaner air and water all make people healthier.

To realise these and myriad other climate opportunities, however, we need significant improvements in the way we tackle these enormous, multi-faceted and inter-dependent issues.

We need, for example, to care far more for our biosphere – the air, land, water and species that are our life-support system; to understand “change is not an event but a complex learning and unlearning process for all concerned,” as Geoff Scott, an Australian sustainability scientist wrote in his submission to the Productivity Commission; and to greatly improve our political culture, systems, policy making and governance so we can work together on complex issues that far transcend election cycles and selfish interests.

Every nation in the world has these towering challenges in responding to the global climate catastrophe. But we have some advantages many don’t, such as the natural abundance of our land and seas, our location in the South Pacific, the character and diversity of our people, and our close connections as a small country with a highly rated, functioning democracy.

Best of all, we can lean over the fence and ask our neighbour: “Do you need a hand?”

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