Simon Wilson: National, Labour and their magical thinking about climate change
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. National Party leader Christopher Luxon (left) with infrastructure spokesman Chris Bishop, announcing their new renewable energy policy. Photo / Michael Craig OPINION: Electrify New Zealand, announced National Party leader Christopher Luxon last week. Thats the slogan, the key to eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions. To do it, National wants to double generation from renewable energy sources, and to do that it wants to build a lot more wind farms and solar capacity. At the announcement, infrastructure spokesman Chris Bishop added, We have 5.2 million people in a country the size of Britain. Theres no shortage of places to put wind farms. Thats true, and Luxon is quite right to want to do this. But how will they do it? The heart of the policy is a promise to fast-track the consenting process. National will remove the obstacles that are holding back investment and growth, and jeopardising our goal of achieving our climate change targets. If you want to build a wind farm, Luxon suggested, youll get the go-ahead within a year. I asked him what was holding up consenting now. Or to put it another way, what parts of the current process would he be removing? None of them, he said. Environmental issues, council planning, iwi concerns, safety issues: Theyd all remain. It will just take less time. But how? There are limits to peoples tolerance for large projects they believe will ruin their local environments. Luxon is right that we need more efficient processes for managing that, and they need a much clearer focus on good climate-related outcomes. But they also need to be democratic. A promise he couldnt explain: Sounds like magical thinking to me. The Green Party pointed out that growing wind and solar capacity is already part of the countrys Emissions Reduction Plan. But, it added, how do we take Nationals goal seriously if it also wants more oil and gas exploration? The NZ Green Building Council (NZGBC), whose members include many big construction firms, argued that energy generation is the wrong issue to highlight. Energy efficiency is the first fuel. This was sorely missed in [Nationals] announcement, said Andrew Eagles, chief executive of NZGBC. He gave the example of retrofitting buildings, especially homes, with insulation and heat pumps. Thirty per cent of Kiwi homes are damp or mouldy, according to Statistics NZ, he said. In Ireland, with the same population as New Zealand, the programme to retrofit homes is five times larger than ours. In Britain, energy companies help lead the retrofitting process because they are required by law to reduce energy use. A similar deep retrofit programme in New Zealand, said Eagles, will free up energy for EVs, reduce costs of living, reduce the need for Huntly power station and improve health. Thats the thing about good climate action: It can produce social and economic benefits too. Currently, more than 30,000 children enter our health system each year as a result of poor-quality housing. Public health researcher Philippa Howden-Chapman has found that each dollar spent on insulation delivers $5 saving in health costs. But the real killer in Luxons announcement came when he declared: We can get a third of the way to net zero by 2050, and still drive our cars when and where we want ... thats the size of the prize. This is spectacularly ignorant. Not for climate reasons, but because more driving will make every other problem on our roads worse. That includes safety, public health and, especially, congestion. As transport planners everywhere know well, building more roads encourages more driving. The only way to manage congestion is to manage the number of cars on those roads. Aucklands own best evidence for this is the harbour bridge, which can handle the vastly increased population of the North Shore because buses carry close to 40 per cent of peak-time commuters. If Auckland abandoned its commitment to better public transport, in favour of everyone driving an EV when and where we want, all traffic would grind to a halt. But thats what Luxon is promising. No one is suggesting we should ban cars or force everyone on to a bus or a bicycle. Its about how we organise our cities so we dont want or need to drive as much. Planning consultant Peter McKinlay gave one example last week when he wrote about small local schools in the Netherlands. The industrial scale model of schooling developed in Auckland, he suggested, is almost certainly the single major contributor to peak-hour congestion. Actually, it starts at 3pm and it turns the motorways and a great many suburban roads into a clogged nightmare. We could fix that. But Luxon has chosen to wind up the rhetoric instead, declaring: The anti-car ideology can cease. Ideology, in this sense, means a set of values that someone clings to even when they have lost their value and/or are not grounded in facts. By that measure, the only ideology in play here is the notion that we need to drive cars when and where we want. Which points to the larger purpose of Luxons announcement. His core message is: You dont have to worry about climate change. Well all buy EVs and the problem will disappear. Not yet, of course, because we need to build all that extra generation capacity first. And dont expect help buying that expensive new car, either, because National doesnt support the feebate scheme that favours EVs and penalises big gas guzzlers. Dont go hoping it will be any kind of EV, either. I asked Luxon and his team if they were going to support the fastest-selling EVs in the country e-bikes and it got a good laugh. But none of these problems is true just for National. Last week Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced five options for a fast-tracked new crossing over the Waitemata. His awareness of climate imperatives and congestion management seemed just as miserable as Luxons. All five options involve more roads to encourage more driving. Theres no evidence anyone has thought about the congestion those cars will cause when they arrive in the central city. Two of the options involve building a bridge for public transport, cycling and walking, along with a road tunnel. If they built the bridge as quickly as possible, put the tunnel plan to one side and spent the money extending light rail through the Shore, they would provide the city with massively better transport infrastructure. But thats not the plan. They want that tunnel. This will be so expensive, and take so long, it also qualifies as magical thinking. Neither Labours harbour-crossing options nor Nationals energy plan offers anything to meet the desperate plea to all of us from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), repeated last month, to focus on reducing emissions straight away. And as McKinlay pointed out, Labours plan means asking the whole of New Zealand to pay for Aucklanders desire to keep driving when and where we want. Why on Earth should they? Labour has also announced it will keep the fuel-price subsidy and cancel the bottle-recycling programme, and its been revealed it will not let the Emissions Trading Scheme push up carbon prices to cut emissions. All of these policies carry the same message: Theres no need to worry about the climate crisis because we can fix it without anyone having to change anything about how they live. Dont worry, be happy. Keep calm and carry on. Its the same core message National is promoting, for the same core reason: Its election year. Its delusional. Its morally bankrupt. Im very pleased there will be at least three parties contesting this election that insist we do better - the Greens, Te Pati Maori and TOP. Because if the major parties get their way, they will condemn us to remain as we are: Stuck in traffic, waiting for the next disastrous flood. Instead of magical thinking about more cars, more driving and more tunnels to accommodate them, why dont we make a citywide plan to fix the school traffic mayhem? Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. National unveils its health policy, Labour releases pledge card as Greens, Act push cases.