At­mos­phere of hope

French revo­lu­tion needed at Paris cli­mate talks

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Here’s the sit­u­a­tion: in 2000 it was es­ti­mated that dur­ing the next fifty years, mankind’s to­tal green­house gases emis­sions has to be less than 1700 gi­ga­tonnes, or we could kiss the two de­grees thresh­old (con­sid­ered the safe up­per limit for tem­per­a­ture in­crease) good­bye.

Just a dozen years af­ter that, we’d al­ready burned through one third of this car­bon bud­get.

Worse, an­nual emis­sions con­tinue to in­crease. At this rate, that 1700 gi­ga­tonne al­lowance will be used up by 2028 – just 13 years away.

Here’s what needs to hap­pen: the breath­tak­ing rise in emis­sions since the be­gin­ning of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion makes for a steep curve on a graph, but it’s noth­ing com­pared to the rate at which we must cut emis­sions to make the tar­get of zero emis­sions by 2050.

Em­bark­ing on an ag­gres­sive emis­sions re­duc­tion plan as soon as pos­si­ble, thereby en­abling hu­man­ity to use its re­main­ing car­bon bud­get over a longer pe­riod of time, would ease the jour­ney (and cost) to achiev­ing a zero-car­bon fu­ture. Slow ac­tion re­quires far more ex­pen­sive and rapid, last­minute tran­si­tion to de-car­bon­i­sa­tion.

There are two great ironies around the an­nual US$1tn spent by gov­ern­ments sub­si­dis­ing the global fos­sil fuel ex­plo­ration and pro­duc­tion in­dus­try. The first is that in or­der to keep car­bon emis­sions to a level where we stay be­low the glob­ally ac­cepted ‘safe tem­per­a­ture in­crease’ of 2C, then 80% of the al­ready dis­cov­ered fos­sil fuel as­sets will have to stay in the ground. Spend­ing money to find more fos­sil fu­els we can­not burn, there­fore, would ap­pear to be a gi­ant waste of money. In­deed, our own gov­ern­ment here in New Zealand spends $50m a year on ex­actly that.

The sec­ond great irony is that US$1tn hap­pens to be the ex­act same amount of money that best es­ti­mates say is needed for the in­vest­ment in clean en­ergy to mit­i­gate cli­mate change and stay be­low the 2C thresh­old.

On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer, right? Trans­fer the cash from fos­sil fu­els to clean tech­nol­ogy and su­per­charge our way to a zero-car­bon fu­ture. Job done.

The re­al­ity here in New Zealand – weak emis­sions tar­gets, a gut­less Emis­sions Trad­ing Scheme, fright­en­ing rhetoric about the dam­age ac­tion on the cli­mate will in­flict on our econ­omy and, in some cases, flat out de­nial of cli­mate change – are ev­i­dence of a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness lobby ar­gu­ing for busi­ness as usual.

This sce­nario has played out in all but a few coun­tries across the globe, brought about the paral­y­sis of most of the world’s gov­ern­ments, and brought the planet to the brink. This time, how­ever, the peo­ple are speak­ing louder than ever. Noth­ing makes a politi­cian change their view faster than when a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers don’t sub­scribe to it.

Which path­way the world takes may well be de­cided at the Paris Cli­mate Change Talks – COP21 – which starts to­day. In fact, a gen­eral con­sen­sus among cli­mate sci­en­tists has pointed to th­ese talks as be­ing crit­i­cal in terms of tim­ing; if we don’t act now, and act de­ci­sively, it will be too late. Tem­per­a­tures will con­tinue to rise, crops fail, seas will at­ro­phy, and the beau­ti­ful world as we know it will be lost. The planet will con­tinue, as it al­ways has, but the dam­age we cause will not be re­pairable, not in our life­times, nor our chil­dren’s, nor in the life­times of gen­er­a­tions to come.

Ten days ago Dr Jan Wright, par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sioner for the en­vi­ron­ment, re­leased the re­port Preparing New Zealand for Ris­ing Seas: Cer­tainty and Un­cer­tainty and, in an un­prece­dented move, warned the fi­nance min­is­ter Bill English about the huge costs fac­ing the coun­try – be­tween

“On the face of it, it’s a no-brainer, right? Trans­fer the cash from fos­sil fu­els to clean tech­nol­ogy and su­per­charge our way to a zero-car­bon fu­ture. Job done.”

$3b and $20b. No wor­ries, said English. It’s all purely “spec­u­la­tive.”

Mean­while, Dr Stephen Flood of the Cli­mate Change Re­search In­sti­tute, Vic­to­ria Univer­sity Welling­ton, said: “The Com­mis­sioner’s rec­om­men­da­tions are con­sid­ered and based on a thor­ough anal­y­sis of rel­e­vant science and pol­icy.”

The con­stant re­frain from the New Zealand gov­ern­ment that we are so small our emis­sions are in­signif­i­cant is, in fact, good news for the planet be­cause it means we can’t do much dam­age.

Here’s Prof. James Ren­wick of Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, ar­guably New Zealand’s fore­most author­ity on the sub­ject. “If all coun­tries fol­lowed New Zealand’s lead, we would be in for very sig­nif­i­cant cli­mate change im­pacts and cat­a­strophic dam­age to the New Zealand and global econ­omy.”

It also seems the gov­ern­ment’s stance on cli­mate change is in­creas­ingly at odds with not only the en­vi­ron­men­tal activists, but also that most con­ser­va­tive of groups: busi­ness peo­ple. There was an un­equiv­o­cal mes­sage from New Zealand busi­nesses to the gov­ern­ment to get its act into gear with the release of the re­port Busi­ness Sur­vey on Cli­mate Change re­leased this month.

The sur­vey was con­ducted across mem­bers of two Busi­nessNZ di­vi­sions – the Sus­tain­able Busi­ness Coun­cil (SBC) and the Ma­jor Com­pa­nies’ Group (MCG), which re­spon­dents to the sur­vey rep­re­sent­ing 36% of New Zealand’s pri­vate sec­tor GDP.

A full two-thirds of re­spon­dents al­ready have emis­sion re­duc­tion tar­gets in place, with strong rep­re­sen­ta­tion from en­ergy, trans­port, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion and re­tail sec­tors.

52% of re­spon­dents said cli­mate was a ma­te­rial is­sue that war­ranted a busi­ness re­sponse, and 61% have in­tro­duced ini­tia­tives to re­duce emis­sions.

The sur­vey found that New Zealand busi­nesses want to see gov­ern­ment lead­er­ship in Paris, clar­ity of di­rec­tion, am­bi­tion and a uni­fied com­mit­ment at a global and na­tional level. Back home, they want cross-party agree­ment on an ap­proach to cli­mate change. It’s a far cry from English’s pon­der­ings on whether or not cli­mate change is ac­tu­ally oc­cur­ring.

Could Paris be the place where history is made?

Photo: AP

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama struck a blow for the cli­mate when he

re­jected the XL Key­stone Pipe­line re­cently, which would have trans­ported oil from the Cana­dian tar sands to the US.

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