Climate Change: facing the biggest impact on humanity ever

Nick Main, Chair Westpac External Stakeholder Panel
Climate Change: facing the biggest impact on humanity ever

There is no doubt that we now face the most complex crisis, which will have the biggest impact on humanity ever.

I attended the recent 2017 Australia-New Zealand Climate Change and Business Conference. It’s been a while since I’ve been to one, as the political climate seemed unsupportive of commitment to the level of change required, or of even discussing the issues.

It started with a revision of the science and the latest data sets on temperature and sea level rise. It’s always worth reminding even those who are familiar with the science that there is a lot of inertia in the system. Carbon dioxide emitted now will be around for millennia. And it’s also worth reminding ourselves why 2 degrees warming is seen as a suitable target. We’ve already warmed 1 degree and with that climate inertia 2 degrees will be a challenge.

But the main Conference focus was not so much on the problem, but what we do about it. New Zealand has signed up to global commitments – the Kyoto agreement and lately the Paris accord – but we have not been successful in making significant changes to our emissions.

New Zealand met its Kyoto obligations through the purchase of valueless hot air credits from collapsed eastern European economies. We have no coherent plan about how to meet our commitments under the Paris accord (30% reductions by 2030).

We talk about buying international credits without any real understanding of how this might operate (if at all) and we do not seem to be discussing how the rest of the target might be achieved.

Relying on buying international credits is likely to be a significantly bad idea. The next global commitment will likely be more significant – probably a 50% reduction by 2050 and maybe net zero by then.

If the world is to get temperature increases under control, at some time we will have to get to a net zero world. Buying credits just means New Zealand is not innovating fast enough and is paying others to innovate.

While New Zealand’s emissions have been trending upwards, in some other countries emissions have been steadily reducing. Day two of the conference was led by an address from the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change in the UK.

This committee is empowered by the Climate Change Act 2008 which requires the government to meet long term emission reduction targets, provides for a series of five-year carbon budgets and gives the powers to introduce measures to achieve the budgeted reductions. It is helped by cross-party support for the need to reduce emissions, something currently lacking in New Zealand.

As an individual or as a business what can you do? The issue can sometimes just feel too far in the future (it isn’t) or just impossible (it had better not be) for personal action to change much.

Here is a thought. Without the right legislative framework, progress, if any, will be patchy. So any and every time you meet a politician, central or local government ask them what they are doing to support a change in legislation.

Ask if they know about New Zealand commitments under the Paris agreement and what our plan is to meet the obligations. Do not let them escape down the rabbit holes of international trading or of different sectors driving the economy and ‘it’s just too hard for New Zealand’.

So, agitate for change in legislation. Signals of a commitment to long term emissions reductions will be very important in helping business and citizens respond.

Nick Main, who amongst other roles, is Chair Westpac External Stakeholder Panel