Are we ready to take ac­tion?

Rotorua Daily Post - - Business - Si­mon Wil­son

EVEN Sir David At­ten­bor­ough did his thing. “If we don’t take cli­mate ac­tion,” he told as­sem­bled world lead­ers in Poland this week, “the col­lapse of our civil­i­sa­tions and the ex­tinc­tion of much of the nat­u­ral world is on the hori­zon.”

We all know this. And we know it’s not about plas­tic bags and rub­bish re­cy­cling, im­por­tant as those things are. We know the way we live will have to change very much more sub­stan­tially than we cur­rently con­tem­plate.”

But are we ready to do that? Even as At­ten­bor­ough was speak­ing, they were ri­ot­ing in Paris over fuel prices. No ri­ots here, but don’t let that fool any­one: the price of petrol has been a hot po­lit­i­cal topic this year. It’s dam­aged the Gov­ern­ment and been one of the few is­sues to give real suc­cour to the Op­po­si­tion.

Why? The cli­mate change truth is that we need to drive much less. The eco­nomic truth is that mar­ket sig­nals are ef­fec­tive in chang­ing be­hav­iour: when prices rise we buy less. But the po­lit­i­cal truth trumps them both: gov­ern­ments can’t raise fuel prices without los­ing votes.

For the same rea­son, coun­cils can’t raise park­ing fees. The mar­ket can be a use­less in­stru­ment some­times.

Those ri­ot­ers in Paris have a point. Rais­ing the cost of driv­ing in or­der to ad­dress the causes of cli­mate change is re­gres­sive: the poorer you are, the larger your share of the pain. As with most at­tempts to solve the prob­lems of the world, it’s or­di­nary peo­ple of all kinds who have to pay for the solv­ing.

Cli­mate change is driven in part by the re­lent­less growth of con­sumer as­pi­ra­tions all over the world, and we can all do some­thing about that. But it’s driven even more by oli­garchic greed, and the gov­ern­ments that em­power those oli­garchs, and we can do lit­tle about that.

Worst of all, cli­mate change threat­ens us with global catas­tro­phe be­cause of Amer­i­can dis­dain. Not just dis­dain, that’s put­ting it too mildly. The US gov­ern­ment ac­tively sab­o­tages what chances we have to save our civil­i­sa­tions and the nat­u­ral world, to bor­row At­ten­bor­ough’s phrase, and it seems we are pow­er­less to do any­thing about it.

Yes, we know At­ten­bor­ough is right. But it doesn’t fol­low we’re pre­pared to suf­fer when oth­ers con­tinue to com­pound the prob­lem and es­cape the con­se­quences.

At the cli­mate con­fer­ence in Paris in 2015, the world agreed to “pur­sue ef­forts to” limit global warm­ing to 1.5C above prein­dus­trial lev­els. And we’ve been re­minded re­peat­edly what that re­quires: zero car­bon emis­sions by 2050. At the lat­est.

Can we do it? The prob­lem is not that we can’t. It’s that we’re not go­ing to. The ter­ri­ble thing we have learned, since Paris 2015, is that even though 196 coun­tries ac­cepted the im­per­a­tive to change, it hasn’t hap­pened.

And yet there is al­ways hope. There has to be, doesn’t there? You have to start in the only place you can start, which is your own place, and you build from there.

In Auck­land, just re­cently, hope has been on the up.

The coun­cil marked progress on its Auck­land Cli­mate Ac­tion Plan this week. En­vi­ron­ment and Com­mu­nity Com­mit­tee chair­woman Penny Hulse de­scribed the plan as a kind of dial.

Every pol­icy that came be­fore coun­cil, she said, had to be as­sessed for whether it moved the in­di­ca­tor on the dial one way or the other.

“If it goes this way, fine,” she said, us­ing her hand like a wind­screen wiper. “But if it goes that way, we don’t do it.”

There’s good and bad in that. The good is that it marks a coun­cil com­mit­ment not to make any­thing worse. The bad is that things are get­ting worse any way. The sta­tus quo won’t save us.

To use Hulse’s metaphor, we can’t have the in­di­ca­tor sit­ting in the mid­dle of the dial.

Mean­while, it’s re­mark­able how lit­tle fuss there’s been over the coun­cil’s de­ci­sion last week to get non-es­sen­tial ve­hi­cles out of the cen­tral city.

The pol­icy, known as Open Streets, has been dis­cussed mainly in terms of traf­fic con­ges­tion, but it’s about far more than that: qual­ity of city life, the health of cit­i­zens and, im­por­tantly, cli­mate change.

It feels like an idea whose time has come. It also feels like an idea that’s be­ing treated the right way. At Panuku, the coun­cil’s de­vel­op­ment arm, they call it Do, Learn, Do.

Make a start on some­thing, prefer­ably in a low-key and low­cost way, and get lots of in­put from ev­ery­one on how it works and how it doesn’t work, and then roll out the big­ger, bet­ter ver­sion. Re­peat, and keep re­peat­ing.

Do, Learn, Do, ap­plied to the Open Streets pol­icy in the cen­tral city means we’ll see tri­als start next year. That’s great.

Those tri­als will have trans­port tar­gets, but they can’t be just about the me­chan­ics of street clo­sures. This is about some­thing much big­ger. It’s the rein­ven­tion of the role of streets.

A bright spark on so­cial me­dia sug­gested last week that ad­vo­cates of the new pol­icy didn’t un­der­stand a core is­sue: streets were in­vented for cars.

Sure puts the Ro­mans in a new light: fancy build­ing the Ap­pian Way 2350 years ago on the of­fchance some­one would in­vent a mo­tor­car and want to drive it across Italy.

City streets used to be great pub­lic spa­ces — they were where peo­ple so­cialised. In cen­tral Auck­land, they can have that en­hanced pub­lic realm func­tion again, as parks, and as places for com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties and com­merce, with ded­i­cated spa­ces for pedes­tri­ans sep­a­rated from cy­cling and scoot­ing. We could even park cars on some of them.

We’ve got a chance to cre­ate a city cen­tre that’s highly func­tional and that peo­ple love to be in. Re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions not with pain, but by mak­ing a bet­ter city.

Also this week, the Trea­sury in Welling­ton pro­duced its Liv­ing Stan­dards Dash­board: a way to mea­sure the well­be­ing of the coun­try across 12 broad ar­eas — hous­ing, en­vi­ron­ment, health, so­cial con­nect­ed­ness and the like. The dash­board is a tool to help the Gov­ern­ment pro­duce a bud­get in 2019 based on “The Four Cap­i­tals” (fi­nan­cial, hu­man, so­cial, and nat­u­ral and phys­i­cal).

One com­men­ta­tor has called this “the most fun­da­men­tal change in the coun­try’s eco­nomic man­age­ment since the Roger­nomics re­forms of the 1980s”. I think it’s even big­ger than that.

This is noth­ing less than the in­ven­tion of a new way to mea­sure the health, wealth and progress of a na­tion. If it works, it will be taken up widely over­seas and it will be re­tained by fu­ture New Zealand gov­ern­ments too — what­ever their stripe.

The Four Cap­i­tals will re­de­fine the way we talk and think about suc­cess and fail­ure as a coun­try, as a peo­ple, as — to go back to At­ten­bor­ough — a civil­i­sa­tion. We’ll be able to mea­sure value in all the ways that mat­ter, not least in en­vi­ron­men­tal ways.

Right now, we con­duct one siloed ar­gu­ment about petrol prices and an­other about street ac­cess. A third about air pol­lu­tion, a fourth about cy­cle lanes, a fifth about obe­sity and so on. If that dash­board and those Four Cap­i­tals take hold, we’ll have a lan­guage and a set of mea­sures that al­low us to join them up.

Sir David At­ten­bor­ough did his bit to­wards cli­mate change, talk­ing to world lead­ers.

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