Carbon No Zero?
Among the activists and thinkers who are concerned about the increasing heat and instability of the climate there has been a long-running debate about what exactly motivates people to take action. Some say that a realistic form of hope backed with practical action works best, and that fear and despair are very disempowering, while others say that a good scare never did anyone any harm, and will get people off their butts. Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg told the world’s wealthy elite assembled at Davos in January 2019: “Adults keep saying: we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopehttp://Greta Thunberg told the world’s wealthy elite assembled at Davos in January 2019ful; I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis.”
Thunberg suffered a deep depression before she decided that taking action was the way out of despair, and she is now doing a great job of inspiring others to get active. Sadly many young people don’t make that transition, and some have killed themselves already, believing that there is no future for them that is worth living in a world with a rising temperature, rising sea levels, and a chaotic climate.
When I was Thunberg’s age (in 1968) the so-called Cold War was red hot and the threat of nuclear annihilation was hanging over us all. The war in Vietnam was escalating, causing terrible loss of life as well as human and environmental damage. Students were striking all around the world, protesting against war, nuclear weapons, racism and mass education systems which treated them like cogs in the computers which were just then being developed for civilian use. With two classmates I bunked school and cycled 5 kilometres into town to join a large (4000 strong) lunch-time protest against the proposed installation of an Omega navigation system to be used by US Navy nuclear submarines. Thousands of students and others protested on this issue in all the main centres, and were successful in keeping the system out of New Zealand.
Still – I wasn’t very hopeful then, and I’m not super hopeful now. I look at these figures:
415.1a 350.1b 800,000.2a 250,000.2b 33%.3 2%.4
1a Parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the global atmosphere reached in 2019.
1b PPM/CO2 that it is safe to have in the atmosphere without triggering global heating and other climate crisis events (surpassed thirty-one years ago, in 1988).
2a Years since the average global temperature was as hot as it is today.
2b Years (more or less) that the species Homo sapiens has existed in its current physical and cultural forms.
3 Percentage of the world’s energy still derived from burning coal.
4 Percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions generated (each) by the internet and aviation (both are expected to rise)
and I ask myself – shouldn’t people have been panicking a long time ago?
Or should they have been acting out of love, doing whatever they can do that needs to be done towards making the world a better place for all beings to live in, believing that it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark? As it happens we’re singing a very positive song about believing in my choir at present – Helen Yeoman’s Wishing Well. It’s about believing in love. That I can believe in, because (as the song says) it’s real. But zero carbon emissions by New Zealand in 2050 – is that real? Should I believe in it with the fervour the Prime Minister and Climate Change minister seemed to when they announced the long-delayed arrival of the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment bill on 8 May 2019, calling it ‘landmark action’? Or should I stick to unicorns or other impossible things to believe in, which I can at least visualise?
I am doing my best to see how it can and would be real by a careful reading of the Bill, line by line, as I was considering making a submission on it – but so far I’m finding virgin births more credible. (They do happen – it’s called parthenogenesis and it really is a thing.) Greenpeace NZ Executive Director and former Green Party Co-Leader Russel Norman did not trouble to disguise his extreme scepticism about (disbelief in) the Bill when asked to comment on it by RadioNZ and Magic Talk . Answering Ryan Bridges’ question about how he would mark the bill out of ten he said “… if we’re talking about climate action – a zero. It doesn’t achieve anything”, while to Checkpoint’s Lisa Owen he said that the bill had “a bit of bark, but literally no bite.”
What Norman means by action, or bite, is policy aimed at preventing or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “With agricultural emissions, for example”, he told Ryan Bridges “…the government has ruled out every policy that could achieve those emissions reductions. So we can’t have a nitrogen tax, or ban synthetic nitrogen fertilisers – the government won’t do that; [or] cap and reduce the dairy herd – they won’t do that; [or] lower stocking rates – they won’t do that; and under the ETS you and I and every other taxpayer in the country pays for the emissions from the agriculture sector – not the agriculture sector – there’s a billion dollar subsidy to them. So until there’s actual policy to reduce emissions I don’t see that they are going to go down.”
Since reading the Bill I agree with Norman’s analysis. It won’t achieve its ostensible goal, which is zero carbon emissions by 2050, and nor will it get there at any other time. All the Bill does is set up a Climate Change Commission which will be able to advise, report, request and plead (OK, I made that last one up) on climate adaptation and mitigation matters, without having any powers to insist, enforce, or demand that change happens and emissions go down according to the targets also set in the Bill. So far so bureaucratic what – but where’s the how? The policies that Norman talks about?
Missing in action; missing actions. So I abandoned the idea of making a regular submission which engages with the content of this lacklustre Bill, and decided to propose a Climate Crisis Immediate Response Bill instead, plus two democratic innovations to make it happen and be properly applied. Furthermore, while I was reading the parts of Bill which contain the details on the processes for setting up a permanent Commission, how it will operate, and what it is charged with doing, while knowing that government-appointed commissioners don’t come cheap, and nor do the staff they need to service them, the places they need to do their work, and their (carbon-emitting) travel, etc., etc., I started to wonder – How much will all this cost???
I found the answer three weeks later, when the ‘Wellbeing’ Budget 2019 was delivered. Under ‘Policy and Institutional Change’ in Part 5 of the Budget – ‘Transforming the Economy’ – I found (on p. 94) “Productive and Sustainable Land Use: Climate Change Commission and Government Response $42.7 million operating $0.4 million capital This initiative supports New Zealand’s transition to more sustainable land use and a low emissions and climate-resilient economy. This will be done by providing funding to establish key institutions and regulations and ensuring the Government has the resources to deliver on its obligations and commitments.”
Even if we add this amount to the rest of the climate change items in the 2019 Budget, which come to a total of $76.7 million (I do NOT count rebuilding the facilities at Scott Base as part of climate change expenditure, which is where the 2019 Budget puts this $18.5 million item) it only comes to $119.8 million. Compare that to the $1.185 billion committed to “Regional economic development and growth’ and one gets a sense of where this Budget’s priorities lie i.e. firmly within the old economic growth paradigm, which is the root cause of the climate problem, not its solution.
On June 10 it was announced that Hawkes Bay would receive $68 million from the Provincial Growth Fund, of which nearly half ($30.6.million) would go to four ‘water security schemes’. At least half of this $30 million will go towards hardware – the concrete, steel and other engineering technologies required to store, filter and pipe water.1 I have yet to see any mention of support for non-technological, non-hardware means of on-farm water capture, storage and filtering via biological methods, even though the science and practice of these techniques is well-advanced, reliable, cheaper by orders of magnitude and (unlike engineered water storage schemes) an effective way of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and water loss as well as adapting to a changing climate. Plus such farms are much more beautiful to look at and be in, and much more efficient ecologically and economically. (It’s called ‘regenerative agriculture’ – read about it here – A regenerative era in Australian agriculture is emerging. and pay particular attention to the link to the recent study commissioned by the Australian Federal Department of Environment which found that the average profit levels of regenerative graziers were consistently higher than comparable farms and that they reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing (emphasis added).
But will such farm and farmer wellbeing practices keep GDP growing? I hear you ask. Maybe – and maybe not – which is probably why they are not in a growth-oriented Budget. Such a pity, when a restored and expanded natural wetland adds so much to everyone’s wellbeing (not just that of human beings), while a system of dams and pipes only improves the wellbeing of the contractor’s wallet. If I were sixteen again I’d be protesting against this Budget and that Bill, as well as doing what (I now see in retrospect) I have always done before, after and around the protests – emergency gardening.
I thought this was bad enough, but at least it was honest – there was no pretence that it was anything other than business as usual. Then came the news that the latest feasibility study into re-opening the Wairoa-Gisborne section of the Napier-Gisborne rail line (being done by BERL at a cost of $600,000, with the money coming from a provincial growth fund) would include ‘wellbeing factors’ in the assessment, in addition to the usual cost-benefit monetary analysis (several of which have already been done, and have all ruled out re-opening the line). The Gisborne Herald reported the details on June 16. Without knowing the details it is hard to know if and how this may be a case of ‘wellbeing washing’ (which is turning out to be the social equivalent of greenwashing). If it does the opposite of what the standard cost-benefit analysis does – which is to discount the future, making the assumption that a bird in the hand for you today is worth two in the bush for your grandchild ten or twenty years from now – then it would be a revolutionary thing, and could be helpful. If it fudges this issue, it will convince neither the sceptics like me, nor the people who will be asked to find more money for whatever ‘wellbeing expenditure’ is recommended.