Climate Change

Trading coronavirus for the climate crisis

Analysis: In responding to the Covid-19 crisis, the Government appears to have completely forgotten about the climate crisis

In announcing the 2020 Budget, which creates a $50 billion Covid-19 recovery and relief fund and pumps billions into health, infrastructure and wage subsidy extensions, Jacinda Ardern said, "There are few things that I think I will ever consider as being outside the bounds of possibility any more."

One of those few things appears to be meaningful action on climate change.

After weeks of teasing a transformational Budget that would help New Zealand "rebuild better", the Government has instead pulled the curtain on a damp squib for the climate.

In so doing, it risks trading a successful response to the Covid-19 crisis for a too-little-too-late response to the looming climate crisis.

The climate is hardly mentioned in the Budget - the word itself is used just four times in the entire document and not at all in Ardern's speech to Parliament.

The biggest investment is $1.2 billion for rail, a third of which is earmarked for replacing the Interislander ferries. Alongside this, $56 million has been appropriated to improve insulation in 9,000 Kiwi homes - leaving 591,000 still under-insulated. Around $100 million will go to forestry and the Emissions Trading Scheme and another $34 million to New Zealand's participation in international research to reduce agricultural emissions. Lastly, $30 million will be invested in replacing coal boilers in schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

Compare that to $5.3 billion for roads in the Government's January infrastructure spend, or its $400 million tourism industry bailout and $1 billion Air New Zealand bailout, neither with any sustainability strings attached.

All this comes as the world is tasked with halving emissions by 2030 in order to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"We're running out of time," Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Newsroom last month. He said at the time that Covid-19-related stimulus was the climate's "Last Chance Saloon".

Now, the saloon door may have just swung shut.

What a crisis looks like

Over the past two months, the world has received a lesson in what crises look like. 292,000 people have died. Mass graves have been dug around the world. Ice rinks are being used to store corpses. In the streets of New York City, bodies are rotting in the back of U-Haul trucks.

Without serious work to reduce emissions, we'll learn another, more permanent lesson.

There is a real chance that, with a vaccine or treatment, the Covid-19 crisis can be brought to heel. Not so with climate change.

A 2018 report on the impacts of greater than 1.5 degrees of warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found "emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases such as CO2 and nitrous oxide (N2O) have a very persistent impact on [warming], lasting from over a century (in the case of N2O) to hundreds of thousands of years (for CO2)".

The world is currently 1 degree warmer than at pre-industrial levels. The best we are hoping for at the moment is limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

Under this scenario, ecosystems will come to the brink of collapse - and some won't make it. Six percent of insects, eight percent of plants and four percent of vertebrates will lose more than half of their habitats.

Extreme weather events - like the 2013 typhoon that killed 6,300 people in southeast Asia, the second-strongest typhoon ever to make landfall - will become more common.

Coral die-off is a near certainty, with 70 to 90 percent perishing.

Coasts will flood.

Oceans will become more acidic. Globally, marine fisheries will see 1.5 million tonnes of fish go to waste.

Arctic summers where all of the sea ice melts will occur once per century.

Crop yields throughout the world will falter.

Diseases will spread more easily, and new diseases are more likely to emerge, as humans encroach on nature and permafrost melts.

If, instead, the temperature rise doubles, the situation will be significantly worse.

The number of insects, plants and animals exposed to habitat loss will double.

Less than 1 percent of coral, if any, will survive.

Coastal flooding will be far worse at 2 degrees of warning.

Marine fisheries would lose double the stock as at 1.5 degrees.

Sea ice-free arctic summers will be ten times more common.

Far greater swathes of crops will fail.

Not only will vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever spread more easily, they will also spread farther. 

This is the crisis facing New Zealand and the world. Are we facing up to it?

This chart, from the IPCC paper, shows how risks increase as temperatures rise.

What transformation would look like

In the weeks leading up to the Budget, climate activists and academics - and the Climate Change Commission - pushed for serious investment in climate solutions. Many offered possible policies, allowing us a glimpse at what a truly transformational Budget would look like.

To begin with, it would still contain the environmental highlight of Budget 2020: $1.1 billion for conservation jobs, including pest control, uprooting wilding pines, planting native trees and cleaning up waterways.

Then it would tackle emissions with vigour. The $56 million investment in the Labour-Greens Warmer Kiwi Homes project would be boosted to take care of the hundreds of thousands of houses that will still be under-insulated after Budget 2020's commitment.

"Oil Change International research has shown that energy efficiency projects like home insulation deliver more jobs for every government dollar spent, internationally, even than investment in renewable energies, which in turn gives more jobs per dollar of government spend than investment in fossil fuels," Oil Change International senior campaigner David Tong told Newsroom.

Thousands of New Zealanders could be put to work mounting solar panels on state houses, schools, hospitals and other public buildings, allowing the country to fully decarbonise its electricity generation. Research and production of batteries to store excess energy for dry years when hydroelectricity plants produce less could employ hundreds more.

The country's biggest polluter, agriculture, could be targeted for serious sustainable funding, through regenerative agriculture investment.

"We would love to see investment in moving from an emissions-intense, high-yield, low-value model of agriculture to a model of agriculture that regenerates nature, lowers emissions and provides better results for farmers' back pockets," Tong said.

The Government could work harder to electrify private transport, New Zealand's second-biggest polluter. Alternately, it could adopt literally any meaningful transport emissions policy, given it currently has none.

It's not every year or even every decade that the Government breaks out a chequebook for $50 billion. If New Zealand doesn't act now, we may not have another chance.

"It is a shame, from a climate perspective. The gap between their rhetoric and their policies is just getting bigger," Dave Frame, the director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, said of the Government's climate policy.

"They've committed to saying that we're going to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, but they're leaving virtually all the policy action, the real action on that, to future governments. They're writing checks that they're expecting future governments to cash, and I expect that future governments - including future Labour-Green ones - will not feel bound by those obligations."

Frame says that the Government doesn't appear to have its priorities straight in the Budget.

"I don't want to just be negative. It is good to see that rail investment, because that gives you options that mean that switching away from private cars can be done at low cost. That's a welcome signal. But at the same time, how much to bail out tourism? I would like to see something other than flying people in giant fossil fuel-powered jets as a way forward," he said.

Tong said it may be a "once-in-a-hundred-years Budget compared to the last hundred years, but unless this $15 billion dollars put aside for shovel-ready projects is invested in a way that really moves us towards low-carbon infrastructure, it will be setting us up for a future where there's just crisis."

Greenpeace NZ executive director Russel Norman said: "If you think that under current Government policies, according to their own projections, we're headed for a 20 percent increase in net emissions from 2005 to 2030, then it requires a changed policy. And there's almost nothing about climate in the Budget."

And Kevin Hague, chief executive of Forest & Bird, told Newsroom: "We really can't tell from what's been announced here today whether Government is going to take advantage of this opportunity." 

"The analogy I use is the oil tanker. Ordinarily, it's really hard to change the direction of an oil tanker and the New Zealand economy is like that. Under normal circumstances, it's very difficult to make it do something different. But right now we have this extraordinary opportunity, with the idea of a tanker just wallowing in the sea, not underway. It's going to take some time to get it going again in any direction, but we can choose what direction it goes in. The restorative direction is as easy or hard as the business-as-usual direction, so why on earth wouldn't we take the better option?"

The path forward

Speaking after the Budget was revealed on Thursday, Shaw defended the Government's approach. He said the recovery would come in three stages: creating a buffer for businesses (the wage subsidy), soaking up unemployment through short-term jobs programmes (the Budget) and then rebuilding the economy (investment yet to come).

"One of the things I think a lot of people have missed about the structure of the economic recovery is there are three phases, right?" Shaw said.

"The first phase is on fighting the virus and cushioning the blow. So that's things like the wage subsidy, the health measures that got us through the last seven weeks or so. The second phase is on jobs and that's the phase that we're in at the moment, because we know we are going to see a short-term spike in unemployment, and that's why we're investing directly in jobs. The third phase is the bits that [Finance Minister] Grant [Robertson] was hinting at: We have decisions to make."

" .... you've got to remember, this Budget was put together in roughly eight weeks' time. And so some of those programmes, you can't just flick a switch."

That last sector, Shaw said, is where emissions reductions could come. There remains $20 billion in the Covid-19 relief fund that has yet to be allocated, as well as billions in unallocated infrastructure funding - this is what Shaw is pinning his hopes on.

"We have a number of significant challenges facing this country, a lot of which has to do with our historical underspend in infrastructure. Things like our three waters infrastructure, transport underspend, hospitals, schools, all of that kind of thing," he said.

"As it happens, because we have underspent over the course of the last thirty years in all of those areas, that is the period of time that we have become aware of the science of climate change. So there's an opportunity now, if we're going to be upgrading all of that infrastructure, to do so in a way that reduces our emissions over time and makes us more resilient to the effects of climate chance."

Shaw insisted there was little role for emissions-reducing jobs in the current stage, despite the abundant examples above.

"There are things that do reduce emissions in this. The stuff that we're putting into infrastructure, into housing insulation and so on. But also you've got to remember, this Budget was put together in roughly eight weeks' time. And so some of those programmes, you can't just flick a switch," he said.

Hague said Shaw's approach was flawed. If New Zealand doesn't lock in sustainable investment during stages one and two, then it becomes that much more difficult to turn the oil tanker around during stage three.

"What I think is wrong - even dangerous - about the thinking that James has laid out for you is that decisions made now create path dependency. If you make the wrong decisions, choose the wrong directions in the very first phase, well actually at the second phase it becomes proportionally harder to make different decisions," he said.

"Right at the very first stage, they should be taking every opportunity they possibly can to not do things that are destructive and do as many things as possible that actually are consistent with the direction that we want to move in."

Despite a worldwide economic shutdown for a month, global emissions are only expected to fall 5.5 percent this year. They need to fall 7.3 percent every year through 2030 if we want to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. This just underscores the scale of the problem ahead of us - and the desperate need to seize any opportunity that arises.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis and we're blowing the once-in-a-century opportunity it provides. It might also be our last chance to do so, before a centuries-long crisis takes hold.

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