Simon Wilson: 7 big takeouts from that scary IPCC climate change report
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. Methane, belched by cows, is critical to an urgent response to the climate crisis. Photo / Mark Mitchell OPINION So much to do, so little time. We can still prevent catastrophic global warming, the IPCC warned us last week, but we have to act now. Emissions must start coming down this decade. Here are seven big takeouts from that report. When the Government's scheme for tunnelled light rail from the city centre to Mangere (CC2M) was announced, I wrote that it wasn't the best choice but it was good and now the decision was made, let's get on with it. That idea is dead now. It's a mass transit programme that will not be finished this decade and will suck up almost all the money that could be spent on other, faster projects. And as the briefing paper to Cabinet reveals, the tunnels will increase carbon emissions by 466,400 tonnes between now and 2030, because of all the concrete that must be poured. The net emissions benefit of taking cars off the road won't even kick in until after 2050. Bluntly: It's too late to dig those tunnels. We've procrastinated for decades and now we need more urgent solutions. It's the same with all long-term trajectories for change. Building construction, for example, is moving to more eco-friendly materials and methods, but far too slowly. Auckland Transport's plan to create priority bus and cycle lanes by removing some car parks from the main roads is exactly what we need, but it's a 10-year plan. It should be done inside two years. The IPCC warns that it's already too late to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels. But it also says if we act decisively now, we'll be able to pull that "overshoot" back. If we don't, warming will rise beyond 2.5 degrees. Perhaps well beyond. Not that aiming to pull back the overshoot is a good solution. It won't bring extinct species back. Nor will it return the methane from melted permafrost to the ground or undo the damage of devastating fires and floods. Why is it even relevant what New Zealand does, when China and India are becoming the major emitters and the US has done most of the damage? Think of it like this. If five million New Zealanders are irrelevant, it would follow that the four million residents of Los Angeles or of every mid-sized city in China are also irrelevant. Does anyone think that? Everyone in the world lives in a small unit that's part of ever-larger units: house, street, suburb, city, country, region ... Our region, by the way, the Asia-Pacific, has the fastest-growing emissions in the world. What we all do adds up to what the world does. Nearly half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, mainly from ruminant animals belching methane. Methane is especially dangerous, because in its first 20 years in the atmosphere it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Methane causes about 25 per cent of global warming. But it doesn't build up much. What's there dissipates quickly and is constantly replaced. This provides a great opportunity. If the world can stop replacing methane as it dissipates, the impact on global warming will be quick and significant. In New Zealand, though, many farmers are stuck: their debt levels prevent them from reducing herds or diversifying. That requires systemic change, quickly. But that's not happening. Instead, New Zealand lobbied the IPCC to remove a recommendation of "plant-based diets" from its report. That was shameful and also stupid. We will always be an agricultural country, but our premium export markets won't always be eating as much meat or dairy products. Will farming change fast enough to keep up? Cows are our coal. We have no moral right to protest against Australia's continued coal mining if we don't address our problem with cows. New Zealanders drive more than almost anyone else on Earth. We like to think we're different, that we need cars in ways others don't. But that's nonsense. We're still in the resist-change-at-all-costs phase, that's all. Nationally, transport accounts for 20 per cent of emissions; in Auckland, it's 40 per cent. For urban New Zealanders, cars are our cows. We have no moral right to protest against farm emissions if we don't address our dependence on cars. Individual action usually requires a framework to be meaningful. You can't do much to save energy in the office, but your company can, by leasing a building with passive heating. And it's easy for your company to do that if the council and Government regulate to make those buildings common. But lots of companies don't bother and, despite years of lobbying, we don't have those regulations. The power to effect significant change lies with those who create the framework for our lives: those who control land use, investments and subsidies, the choice of goods and services we buy and sell. Land use deciding what can be built where and how the property market is managed is fundamental. To put it plainly, if it's easy and affordable for us all to live in warm, dry homes in compact, well-connected communities, our dependence on fossil fuels will fall. And the single best thing all political and economic leaders can do is to run their choices through a filter. For every policy or project with climate implications, they should ask one simple question: Will it reduce emissions this decade? If the answer is no, forget it. Curiously, the Ministry for the Environment already has a Climate Implications of Policy Assessment (CIPA) team, which consults to Government agencies. It does not appear to apply urgency as a criterion. Perhaps we should treat climate news like sport, with a regular selection of features, snippets, scores, highlights and great photos. One aim would be to help normalise the idea that people all over the world are making progress. It's a movement and, although the crisis is real, there is also much good news to report. Old business groups like chambers of commerce and the Employers and Manufacturers Association often elbow their way into the media, arguing against change. And we often find it easy to equate "business" with retailers who want to keep the car parks right outside their shops. But there are many other business voices we could report, including the Sustainable Business Network, Pure Advantage, the Green Building Council, the Aotearoa Circle and the Climate Leaders Coalition. This country is full of companies that are green or want to be green. Or, in some cases, want to get good at greenwashing. We can report on them too. And most of all, we could try not to frame policies and projects as if the only things that matter are the costs and the complaints they generate. The IPCC told us we don't need to wait for new wonder-tech but we do have to use the technology we have. And we can do that easily, it said: the cost of clean energy technology like solar and wind has fallen by 85 per cent. Surveys everywhere consistently show people want to make effective change, but there's a lot of confusion over how. So instead of instinctively saying, "Here's why that won't work," let's turn it around. The starting point is not whether to save car parks, it's the need to cut emissions. How are we going to do it? Perhaps by applying the Plastic Bags Rule for Change. We knew they were bad, but we didn't stop using them and retailers didn't stop handing them out. So the Government banned them. And suddenly things were just fine. That was in 2019. What else, right now, as soon as is humanly possible, can we treat like that? Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. An influential group of emergency clinicians is urging politicians to act on the crisis.