Atmosphere of hope
French revolution needed at Paris climate talks
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?
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.