Dear planet, how long have we got?

Pat Baskett considers what it feels like for young people to face turning their lives around to save the planet from environmental collapse

If I were 14 instead of 74 I would be pretty depressed after last week. Another 220sq km of good food-producing land in Taranaki is to be potentially wrecked so that we can continue to drive, fly and live the way we always have.

My 14-year-old’s eyes would have been caught by the title of the conference, the Just Transition Summit, at which these new permits for oil and gas exploration were announced. She understands that we need to go through a transition period but her impatience for this to start is obvious. New permits – on land as opposed to the ban on new ocean permits – seem like a step backwards.

She also understands the positioning of the word “just” because she understands that climate change is linked to the rise of inequality and economic injustice. She is suspicious of large corporations and has read that in some parts of the world – Germany, for example – communities have taken charge of their electricity supply by installing photovoltaics on their roofs. In Denmark, where wind provides about 40 percent of electricity, three quarters of the turbines are owned cooperatively. 

If we decentralised electricity and increased other forms of renewables than hydro, she wonders, would we be able to reach 100 percent renewable by the time she is old enough to afford an electric vehicle?

She had hoped the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill would express the urgency she and her friends have been trying to impress upon their parents (and grandparents). Then she had a tantrum when she read the summary. What do they mean, carbon neutral by 2050, she stormed.

Ten years, the most likely time we have to turn our lives around, seems a mere blink to me. For teens, it stretches ahead like an open road leading they know not quite where.

I sympathised. By 2050 a whole generation of 14-year-olds will be 45. By then an increase of two degrees is likely to make summers even here unbearable. We have to do it by 2030, she screamed!

She and her peers have done their homework. They know we in New Zealand are way behind. In the UK, where parliament declared a climate emergency on May 1, emissions have fallen 38 percent since 1990. Ours have risen by 20 percent - despite our 80 percent renewable electricity.

This abysmal fact reflects another – that while many individuals, businesses and local councils are doing their best, they are unsupported at the national level.

The Sustainable Business Network has grown to 588 members. Its core aim is the establishment of a circular economy, reducing the ecological impact of their operations and their greenhouse gas emissions. In a truly circular economy, resources are never abandoned as waste.

Auckland could be $8.8 billion better off by 2030 if the city made the transition to a circular economy, the Network claims.

The Climate Leaders Coalition, another organisation established to inspire and connect businesses whose aim is to reduce their emissions, was launched in July 2018. Its membership includes the CEOs of 85 enterprises. Its goal is “to help New Zealand transition to a low emissions economy and, in doing so, create a positive future….”

Local government leaders have a similar organisation which invites mayors to sign the Mayoral Declaration on Climate Change. So far, 59 mayors have signed with 19 yet to decide. The document commits councils to promoting walking, cycling and public transport, to improving energy efficiency and supporting renewable electricity and electric cars.

Will the Zero Carbon bill ultimately deliver policies to unify the country and urgently follow these leads? How long will it take? The more important question is, how long have we got?

Ok, agriculture is a problem. But so is transport. In Auckland we have recently received two stern warnings: traffic congestion is going to get worse and with it the quality of the air we breathe.

Auckland Council research released in December shows how appallingly polluted the air is in some parts of the city. Black carbon, particulate matter from diesel fumes, has been recorded at levels two to three times' higher than in comparable cities in Europe and North America. Nitrogen oxide concentrations in Quay Street are close to, or exceeding, World Health Organisation recommended levels.

Will the Zero Carbon bill ultimately deliver policies to unify the country and urgently follow these leads? How long will it take? The more important question is, how long have we got?

We could learn from London’s example. To cut emissions and clean up the air they’ve increased the cost of driving into the CBD by legislating an ultra-low emission zone, or ULEZ, which came into force on April 8. The new legislation sits on top of the existing congestion charge for entering the CBD. It affects owners of diesel cars and vans whose engines are not certified to the latest Euro 6 standard, as well as most petrol cars more than 14 years old.

Motorists of such vehicles will have to pay both charges, meaning it will cost almost $50 to drive into central London between 7am to 6pm. The charge will be enforced by using number plate recognition and a data base which includes every vehicle’s emission standards.

If this can work with London’s millions of vehicles, why not in our cities? The preliminary requirement, of course, would be to set meaningful vehicle emission standards, for air pollution and fuel efficiency. The benefits would be several.

Restrictions on vehicle access to congested areas would clean up the air, lower our GHG emissions and force us to reconfigure how we move around.

Or, knowing that we need to use our fuel supply wisely, and aware of the very few years we have in which to ensure climate stability, we could adopt the war-time strategy of rationing it while we work on renewables.

So to methane. We know that what we do in the next 10 years is crucial. We also know that methane is 84 times more powerful than CO2 in the first two decades after its release. The reduction suggested by the latest report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, is only 10 percent by 2030.

Sure, farmers need support. But are they blinded by the ethos of industrialised agriculture which promises financial rewards for huge herd numbers, nitrogenous fertilisers and bought-in feeds? There are farmers who have reduced herds by 20 percent, need little or no fertilisers, feed no more than the grass in the paddocks and have overall increased profits and lower emissions.

The collateral benefits of government encouragement and support for these actions would be cleaner rivers and healthier cows.

Ten years, the most likely time we have to turn our lives around, seems a mere blink to me. For teens, it stretches ahead like an open road leading they know not quite where.

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