Climate change, elitism, equity and why campaigners opposed Auckland's regional fuel tax
Efeso Collins raised eyebrows in 2018 when he opposed Auckland's regional fuel tax, designed to not only fund low and zero-carbon public transport but slash emissions. After all, the Manukau ward councillor is a strong believer in taking action to address climate change. But his opposition was rooted in arguments that have long divided climate action debates, about equity. For people living in central Auckland, on high incomes, in walking or biking distance of their jobs, close to fast and frequent public transport, the fuel tax impact was minimal, and for many had the desired impact of a reduction in driving. But for many in Collins' ward, on lower incomes with large families and poor public and active transport choices, many Maori and Pasifika, there was little choice but to continue driving. The tax made up a much larger share of their income, essentially subsidising projects miles away like the City Rail Link in the central city. Hence it had a disproportionate effect on lower income families, becoming a regressive tax. "It was just so out of touch with the reality of many Aucklanders," Collins told the Herald. Other examples of policy that experts believe failed to factor in equity include the Government announcing an end to fossil fuel exploration, without having a clear path to replace those industries crucial to rural economies like Taranaki, or subsidies for brand new electric vehicle purchases (although others argue it will help create a second-hand market). University of Auckland senior lecturer and climate and health researcher Dr Rhys Jones said climate change risked being a "threat multiplier", exacerbating existing inequities, unless they were factored into policy. "Those with higher levels of poverty, socioeconomic inequality are going to be less able to adapt easily and will come out worse off." Maori - as with indigenous people worldwide - faced other disproportionate impacts, with a greater dependence on the natural environment for everything from food to the economy to cultural and spiritual wellbeing - all under threat from climate change. Many Maori communities were also built in low-lying coastal areas, meaning historical marae and urupa were at risk from rising sea levels and erosion. All of this meant it was vital those most affected were involved in the decision-making processes. "I think [the decision-makers] really need to look outside the typical frameworks, ensure they are seeking out different voices, ensuring the processes resemble a Treaty partnership, but so far I don't see any of that happening and it looks like more of an afterthought." The same arguments about who pays for mitigating climate change - reducing greenhouse gas emissions - and who can afford to, and adapting to the impacts, were occurring on a world stage. For example many of our Pacific island neighbours have contributed the least to climate change through emissions, but stand to face the worst impacts. Victoria University climate expert Dr Adrian Macey said disputes over responsibility for climate change go back to the first international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1990. Rooted in that was an understanding developed countries had contributed greenhouse gas emissions over history - think the dirty coal-fuelled industrial revolution - and hence should make the greatest reductions. Developing countries argued to catch up economically, they should be allowed to continue emitting, for a time. But while it was an equitable approach, there were inherent flaws, Macey said. "The reality is we all need to get to zero emissions. Rather than the right to pollute, it needs to be framed as the right to energy." Hence why the latest Paris Agreement has all countries on board, with equity addressed in other measures such as green technology sharing, funding for adaptation costs for countries predicted to be impacted the most - such as our Pacific neighbours, and the target of limiting warming to 1.5C instead of 2C. However it was far from perfect, and debates around equity continued to divide the international community, something Kera Sherwood-O'Regan has intimate knowledge of, with even being heard part of the problem. She was there in 2019 as scores of adult reporters crowded around Danish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, while a group of indigenous leaders were shoved to the side by security. At that moment, at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 25 climate-change summit in Madrid, the hypocrisy and privilege of it all hit home for Sherwood-O'Regan, of Kai Tahu. Sherwood-O'Regan met with Thunberg during the conference, and praised her for being a "fantastic ally", giving her platform to indigenous youth and raising indigenous issues during interviews. "But it was difficult seeing people so interested in her, meanwhile indigenous people, many of whom are already living with the impacts of climate change, struggle so hard to be given a platform." She said it was similar back in Aotearoa, with many mainstream climate movements led by privileged Pakeha, for whom climate change would have a negligible impact compared to already disadvantaged communities including Maori, Pasifika, and people with disabilities. "Climate change has been framed as this elitist, privileged discussion that comes up with solutions in silos. "It means we risk ending up with really poor policies that don't address the broader issues and only suit a small group of elitist people. "With transport, instead of just focusing on cars, we need to look at how and why people need transport. "Forcing everyone onto buses ignores the difficulties already faced by disabled communities. "For climate justice to happen it needs to be at the heart of the climate movement, not tacked on as an afterthought." Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the Government's priority was to "make the transition to a net-zero carbon economy in a way that gives people good job opportunities and certainty about how they will provide for their families". "To make that happen we are working in partnership with iwi, communities, and sectors in regions that we know will be impacted, including Taranaki and Southland. "As we get closer to meeting our climate targets this work will expand to ensure that we achieve an equitable, productive and sustainable in every part of Aotearoa." One of the recommendations in the Climate Change Commission's draft advice was New Zealand develop an Equitable Transition Plan. "This is something we will look at once the Commission publishes its final advice and we begin work on our Emissions Reduction Plan." This story is part of the Herald's contribution to Covering Climate Now, an international campaign by more than 400 media organisations, which this week highlights our responses to climate change ahead of a US-led world leaders summit on April 22. To read more of our coverage go to nzherald.co.nz/nz/environment If I return to visit my dying mother I will be arrested on the spot.