The climate debate hit peak absurdity on Tuesday, although it is perhaps still too early to say anything quite so bold.
But whatever else happens, that absurdity bar sure has been set high. Tuesday was the day people complained that climate action will “snuff out” the backyard barbecue.
It was absurd because it’s not true. The first big report of the Climate Change Commission (CCC), released on Sunday, proposes a 25-year phase-out period for LPG connected to buildings, starting in 2025, but it says nothing about barbecue gas.
It was also absurd because, so what if it was true? Like, climate action’s all very well but not if it interferes with the barbie?
The story originated from RNZ, of all places. And because RNZ has a content-sharing deal with many other media, it was widely published (including in the Herald).
That story was absurd for another reason. This is important and we need real public debate. That’s hard to do when the default position is: let’s just find something to whinge about.
Moving on. I talked to CCC chair Rod Carr this week. Well, he talked to me. You don’t hardly get a word in with Carr. He could be the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met, even though he must spend half his time thinking about global calamity.
Still, there he was in the hotel lobby, grinning away, looking like the light was shining from him.
Carr is an economics boffin, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank and former vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury. And he’s pretty much blind. And even after all that, you get the sense this is the moment he has been working towards all his life.
A bubbly man with a steel-trap mind, a man who’s very good at what he does.
Proof of that: the most shocking thing about the CCC report is that it isn’t very shocking. Maybe that’s why the barbecue thing got invented. Carr said he expects “the well-paid advocates for their sectors” will put up a fight, but there’s been little sign of it.
The proposals seem, somehow, obvious. They’re big and will be life changing. But they are not destructive. A mere 1 per cent per year hit on GDP, a mountain of new economic opportunities, viable pathways to low emissions for farming, transport, energy and other sectors. And lurking between the lines on those 188 pages, the hope that we’ll do it using good democratic processes.
It’s a draft for now, open for public feedback, after which it will go to the Government. By the end of the year the country is supposed to have a budgeted plan for getting to carbon zero by 2050.
Specifically, the commission has proposed three five-year budgets in order to achieve substantial emissions cuts by 2035.
ZERO CARBON doesn’t mean zero emissions. It’s a net figure: carbon emissions minus carbon captured, which is mainly done by planting trees.
The report warns that we can’t plant our way out of this crisis: the problem is far too big for forestry to solve on its own. But it also makes clear we don’t have to stop all emissions.
Translation? If you want to keep driving your petrol-fuelled car, you’ll probably be able to.
The CCC proposes a ban on importing petrol-driven cars, perhaps by 2030. Carr reckons that by 2035, that will mean 40 per cent of vehicles are electric.
Many people will keep hold of their petrol vehicles, because they can’t afford another car, or for longer trips or old time’s sake. But we may drive them less.
“I hope people understand,” said Carr. “We’re not saying we’re going to crush all the cars.”
He grinned. Big beard, flashing eyes, innocent boyish haircut. He looks like a lumberjack stuffed into a suit.
Industry will drive a lot of the change itself. General Motors says its entire model range will be EVs by2035. It plans to have 30 on sale by 2025. Carr thinks we will also see many brands, from China and elsewhere, that we haven’t even heard of yet.
The commission says its targets can be met using existing technologies, so none of its proposals are hypothetical. But that won’t stop technology evolving anyway.
“This is why it’s so important to have America back on board,” he said. “When they do things, they do them at scale.”
Last weekend Climate Change Minister James Shaw wondered aloud what would happen to Z Energy when it realised its property portfolio has become more valuable than its petrol. He commended the company for buying the electricity retailer Flick: their business isn’t petrol anymore, he suggested, it’s vehicle energy.
IF YOU think of climate action as a race, New Zealand has spent the last few decades running in the wrong direction.
In 2000 we had 2.68 million vehicles; by 2019 we’d let that grow to 4.4 million. A 64 per cent increase, although the population grew by only 27 per cent.
In 2007 we had 5.2 million dairy cows; just seven years later, we had added another 1.5 million.
We knew the climate emissions dangers perfectly well, but we did it anyway. Could we have been any more irresponsible?
“Short of building coal-fired power stations,” said Carr, “we really let it go.”
And that’s not the only problem. “We think we’re better than Australia,” he said, “but when they get really serious about solar farms in the desert, they have the capacity to get to carbon zero before us. Western Australia is 40 per cent solar now.”
We’ve got all this renewable hydro and they burn coal, so we feel a bit smug. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be harder for us.
Still, it’s doable. As the commission’s report shows, it’s very doable, provided we stop thinking transition is too hard so we should wait till later before we start. Provided transport agencies and councils and farmer groups and energy companies and citizens everywhere, and the Government most of all, get with the programme.
Carr pulled out a notebook, filled with numbers and jottings, his fingers busy finding the pages, his mouth working itself into a smile.
“Ah yes,” he said, playing up the Gollum thing, just a touch. “Petajoules, petajoules, I do love my little numbers.”
He showed me the numbers in their rows: the petajoules that will be saved as we power down on oil, coal and gas; the gigawatts that will be generated as we build more wind and solar capacity.
“They can’t be compared, though,” he stressed. “My boffins keep telling me, petajoules and gigawatts, not the same thing.”
He whipped the notebook away again. A petajoule is a “quadrillion” joules, yes, it’s a real word, and joules are a basic unit of energy. We’ll cut our fossil fuel petajoules almost in half by 2035 and more than half again by 2050. Wind and solar will both grow exponentially, especially wind.
WHY IS Rod Carr excited? Because he can see, in all this, gifts for the grandchildren.
The commission recommends we slow down with the plantation pines and plant more permanent native forests instead, especially on marginal land. It’s a good use of the land; farmers won’t be asked to convert good agricultural land into pine forests; the native planting and maintenance create a lot of jobs.
“We’re proposing a new industry worth $500 million to $1 billion per year for the next 30-50 years. That’s a gift for our grandchildren.”
Another gift: vastly better public transport in the bigger cities and big cycling networks too.
What’s the hardest thing he has to do?
“Build and maintain a consensus.”
Does he think the parties of the centre-right will be on board?
“The centre-right will say they hate regulations. But they have to understand, that means we have to put all agriculture into the ETS and get rid of free allocations.”
That would be brutal on farmers and the price of petrol would go through the roof.
James Shaw, for his part, told me he wanted “consensus to the maximum degree possible within the scientific boundaries”. That meant he’s not keen on going too slowly just to get everyone to agree.
Carr wants ministers to be accountable for each proposal, and a proper debate in Parliament: this can’t be just a matter for Cabinet to agree behind closed doors.
And he wants public debate that reflects the views of everyone who’s affected. “The sector groups have no trouble being heard, but what about all the people who will get jobs in new industries? What about everyone who’ll be alive in the second half of the century but is too young to be heard now?”
He got so excited about this he started thumping the table. Happy thumps, I would say, but he didn’t stop. I can’t tell you what else he said, because with all those thumps the rest of the interview recording is utterly indecipherable.
And then it was over. He walked off into the bright sunshine, a little skip in his step. Let the debate commence.
Read the report. Submit on the report.
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