Young spark track to zero carbon

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By Gord Stewart

If you want something of great consequence accomplished, put a small group of young idealists on to it. And don’t pay them. That, in essence, is how the Zero Carbon Act – passed by Parliament in November 2019 – got its start. And it’s why the Climate Change Commission now exists.  

Generation Zero was launched in the dark days of the National Government by a few young Kiwis. They wanted to speak up for those who will inherit the future, use their voice to demand action on climate change.

Generation Zero at parliament

They did research, talked to stakeholders, considered overseas successes, gained partners and supporters, and developed a Zero Carbon Act blueprint. They wanted a law that would establish a clear path to a zero-carbon economy.

The Green Party championed it, of course, and we came into the light with a Labour Government understanding the need for action. The Act was passed and the Commission formed.

The Climate Change Commission is an independent agency. It was created to provide impartial advice to Government and to challenge and hold it to account on climate action. Public consultation on its first package of advice is now complete. Their report to Government is due the end of May.

Already the Commission has taken a stand, saying the Government’s emission reduction targets are insufficient. It says the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) alone won’t get us to where we need to be, noting that regulation, charges, subsidies and (incentive) pricing can all play a part in driving change.  

Strong and decisive action is necessary. This is particularly true in agriculture and transport, our biggest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Transport. The Commission aims to cut transport emissions in half by 2035 and eliminate almost all emissions by 2050. They are putting faith in a significant uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) and enthusiastic adoption of public and active transportation. Serious infrastructure improvements and irresistible incentives will be necessary on both fronts.

An efficient public transportation network will be crucial to compete with the private vehicle. Free travel or low fares will help everyone make the switch, but particularly those on low incomes who might otherwise be in an old petrol-powered vehicle. (Public transport must also better serve those with disabilities.) Safe and convenient walking and cycling paths will spur the move to active transportation.

More EVs, yes, so a feebate scheme is in order. But an EV-in-every-driveway is not the model we want; more people in fewer cars is what we are after. Exclusion zones, congestion charging and other proven techniques will help get people out of their cars; car-pooling and car-sharing schemes will lead to more efficient use when it is the desired option.  

There is also a clear need for improved intra-regional land-based public transport to reduce reliance on domestic air travel.

In all of this we mustn’t forget the crucial role of urban design. The 15-minute-city model, for example, has every resident with access to essential urban services within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

Agriculture. In contrast to transport, the Commission puts little onus on agriculture to do its fair share. It calls for a mere 10 percent reduction in methane emissions below 2017 levels by 2030. This in spite of agriculture being our largest GHG emitter (about half our total).

To be fair, the Commission inherited some obstacles to real change. For one, agriculture is not included in the ETS. (The Environmental Defence Society says, “Agriculture needs to join the ETS sooner rather than later. We can’t afford to continue to shield this sector.”)

Another is the long-lived gas/short-lived gas distinction. Lord Deben, chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, says our international reputation on climate change is at risk with our move to treat methane from cows differently than other greenhouse gases.

The Commission says we need transformational change across all sectors, but calls for little action by agriculture in its first three budgets out to 2035. It only asks that it pursue low emissions practices on farm, adopt low emissions breeding of sheep, and consider adopting new low-methane technologies when available.

Given the deleterious effects of livestock farming on land, water and climate, animal protein is becoming a luxury we cannot afford. Diets based on plant-protein are arguably better for personal health and the environment.

Transformative changes include reducing (then eliminating) the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and a rapid shift to regenerative farming practices. Climate change solutions in agriculture abound. Will politics allow? 

Proven Model. ‘Think we can’t do it? Here’s how!’ was the approach taken by the Dutch Urgenda Foundation once it successfully sued its own government for insufficient action to prevent dangerous climate change. (Urgenda is short for ‘urgent agenda’.)

With the Government struggling to meet its new obligations, Urgenda worked with other Dutch organisations to develop its ‘54 Climate Solutions Plan’ – 54 actions for 17 million tonnes CO2 reduction.

Solution 1: 100,000 rental houses energy neutral. Solution 2: Fewer cows, more profit. Solution 49: Green and healthy living. Each solution includes a rationale, benefits accruing, prescribed actions, and resulting CO2 reductions. All are affordable and broadly supported by the Dutch population.

Why not take the same tack here? It might not be 54 actions. Perhaps 47 or 63. Whatever. Let’s do it!       

  • Gord Stewart is a sustainability consultant with a background in environmental management and economics

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