Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett has greeted the Royal Society's report on New Zealand's response as a "useful resource as we transition to a low-emissions economy".
"I hope it sparks more innovation and discussions on how we achieve this," she said. "I want to hear from all sectors on how we move forward." It is hard to see why Ms Bennett wanted this job in the Cabinet since she is not using it to demonstrate a capacity for leadership. Fresh from New York, where she was signing New Zealand's commitments to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, she appears to have no ideas of her own, or from the Cabinet, on what to do next.
She is inviting suggestions, though not in the way that sounds serious. Nothing this Government has ever said on the subject of climate change suggests it takes the subject very seriously. If the previous Government was too ready to put New Zealand in the vanguard of a global response, this one is too slow to face the challenge. It came to power saying New Zealand would no longer be a leader but a "fast follower" of other countries on this issue. We are certainly not fast, it is not even clear that we are following.
The Royal Society of New Zealand's report on actions the country should start taking is not another shrill warning of catastrophe. The society is the pre-eminent voice of science. Last week it issued an initial report setting out the familiar risks of more frequent floods, droughts, storm damage and increased pressure on waterways and ecosystems if atmospheric "greenhouse" gases continue to build up. Yesterday the society issued its proposals for shifting to a low-carbon economy.
It notes that our transport is still 99 per cent fuelled by carbon products. Emissions could be reduced considerably, it suggests, by moving more freight from roads to ships or railways. Even diesel-powered trains, it says, produce less than a third of the emissions from trucks for each tonne of freight hauled. It believes it is possible for 90 per cent of our electricity generation to be coming from renewable sources - geothermal, biomass and solar power instead of the coal, oil and gas that supplements hydro power when necessary.
Buildings and appliances can be made more energy efficient, more forests could be planted, electric cars given more encouragement. To a degree, most of these are happening. Electricity companies have reduced investment in fossil-fuelled generators and wind farms have appeared on the landscape. New commercial buildings are energy conscious. Hybrid cars with electric batteries supplementing petrol are on the streets. The NZ Transport Agency is building urban cycleways as well as motorways and councils have given priority lanes to public transport.
But the public has been given no sense of a coherent plan behind any of this, let alone a programme of national emissions reductions. The cap and trading system is a mystery, the investment in attempts to reduce methane from farm stock has yet to show progress. Climate change might not be the most politically pressing subject on the Cabinet's table but a respectable government ought to be dealing with it. This one is waiting for others to lead.
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