Winds of Climate Change

Story by Hamish Howard

Faculty of Science, 2018


In the wake of the Paris Climate Accord many nations finally look set to take rational action on climate change. Aotearoa New Zealand, however, has yet to set a course towards meeting its international commitments and risks falling short. At Victoria University of Wellington, a climate change expert has blamed a lack of leadership by central government over the last decade for stymying local action.

A Rallying Cry

Dr Ralph Chapman, Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Programme in Environmental Studies at Victoria, has been working on climate change policy for over thirty years. Highlighting the opportunity for individuals, communities, and local governments to benefit from taking action on climate change is central to his work.

His text ‘Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Change’ was published in 2015 and is a rallying cry for New Zealand citizens and policy makers to act on climate change. While stressing the urgency of mitigation, the text discusses social, political, economic and technological challenges but also states the need for optimism and provides reason for hope. This establishes a clear picture of the challenge faced, both internationally and domestically, and gives context to Dr Chapman’s argument for New Zealand to act immediately on climate change and aggressively pursue a “green” economy.

Dr Chapman offers the following reasons in support of immediate and significant action: strengthening New Zealand’s ability to influence other nations into taking action; the economic benefits of trade and tourism, in respect to New Zealand’s international reputation; the short-term co-benefits, such as reduced traffic congestion from increased walking, cycling and public transport; reducing economic and social risks of having to act more precipitously in future; and the small but direct environmental benefit in reducing the impact of climate change.

Dr Chapman comments, “the climate change problem has worsened further since I wrote ‘Time of Useful Consciousness’ in 2014, and the need for an urgent, comprehensive response is even more pressing”.

Playing Politics

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and her Labour-led government, elected in 2017, have committed the country to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

The policy represents a marked change from the previous National-led government, whose target of a 50 percent reduction against 1990 emission levels by 2050 was slammed as “too conservative” by, then, New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright.

The amended target sits alongside two additional targets. A 5 percent reduction on 1990 emission levels by 2020 was set under the UNFCCC process after it was announced that New Zealand would not agree to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Then in 2015 under the Paris Agreement, another target of a 30 percent reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2030 was set (equating to an 11 percent reduction on 1990 levels).

A policy framework which would put New Zealand on track to meet any of these targets (none of which is legally binding) has never existed. “Achieving ‘well below 2 degrees’ [temperature increase by 2100] will require immense effort, according to credible observers such as the International Energy Agency,” says Dr Chapman.

Climate Change Capital

The Wellington City Council has already stated clear intentions of “leading by example” and “developing Wellington as an eco-city”. Wellington is uniquely situated to capitalise on the opportunities that will arise from taking action on climate change. Dr Chapman believes that as a progressive, compact city with a receptive population who are increasingly using active or public transport, Wellington is well positioned to act.

In a 2017 survey, carried out by Pure Advantage, 24 percent of Wellington respondents believed New Zealand’s targets under the Paris Agreement were “not ambitious enough”—more than any other New Zealand city. With potential for greater assistance from central government, Wellington City Council may now be in a position to implement significant changes that reflect its ambitions.

If the new government is going to walk their talk, Dr Chapman believes that there are several key measures they must implement with urgency:

- Setting a minimum price on carbon of at least NZ$50/t, rising over time, under New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

- Tightening up the ETS so that the price continues to be credible

- Establishing a credible timetable to bring agricultural emissions into the ETS soon

- Providing more support for wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources

- Implementing a ‘feebate’, where a fee on petrol vehicles is rebated for electric vehicles

- Implementing a National Policy Statement on urban development to discourage sprawl and incentivise compact urban development

- Re-establishing a credible funding stream for retrofitting insulation for warm, dry homes

- Ramping up energy efficiency policies across the economy.

Although there are many more actions that can and should be taken, Dr Chapman believes that these measures would make the difference if they are implemented in the government’s first term.

  • <p>"This is my generation's nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on" - Jacinda Ardern, 2017</p>
  • <p>"The Government has always said it wants to be a fast follower, not a leader" - then Prime Minister John Key in 2016.</p>

Victoria University of Wellington

Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand