Pete Hodgson: Climate change is coming, ready or not

Today the Kyoto Protocol comes into force and a new era in tackling climate change quietly gets under way. New Zealand is one of 141 nations to have ratified the protocol so far. All developed nations have ratified, except the United States, Australia and Monaco.

These days the scientific consensus is almost total - climate change is coming ready or not. The sceptics are receding, just like the Arctic ice-sheet. But there is still uncertainty about the precise degree of climate change and its particular effect on different parts of the world.

We know what the changes will be in general - higher temperatures, more floods, more storm surges, more hurricanes, more droughts, rising sea levels. But how much more?

The first of these changes, higher temperatures, illustrates the point. Over the past 100 years world temperatures rose by 0.6deg. Almost all the record years for high temperatures have been in the past decade or so. But the forecast for the next 100 years is a rise of 1.4 to 5.8deg.

So things are getting hotter, but precisely by how much is unclear. At 1.4deg, it is about a twofold increase; at 5.8deg, it is nearly tenfold.

Climate change is a global problem and can, therefore, be tackled only if many nations club together.

No one country can, by itself, make a useful difference. The Kyoto Protocol is the instrument by which such an international response can be mounted.

For a century or more New Zealanders have joined international efforts to combat threats - wars, drift netting, ozone depletion, terrorism. So it is with climate change. We seek to do our bit.

New Zealanders also sense that climate change directly challenges our own environment and way of life. Storms seem to be more common as the effects of climate change start to bite. In general, people are inclined to the view that the weather is unusual or different.

Our economy is more dependent on a reliable, equable climate than any other Western nation because agriculture is such a large part of it.

For New Zealanders, avoiding the worst effects of climate change is, therefore, a significant economic advantage. We have a strong economic self-interest in blunting its extremes.

The Kyoto Protocol will drive significant technology shifts in the years ahead. Progressively, New Zealand businesses will act to avoid the prices on greenhouse gases. Or they will capitalise on them by developing products or technologies that increase efficiency, or avoid greenhouse-gas production altogether, then sell those technologies into a newly receptive world market.

New Zealanders have a proven capacity to innovate, to invent our own solutions and to rapidly adopt technologies developed by others. The Government has a programme of incentives to assist those technology shifts, and about $150 million worth of carbon credits are available in the economy today.

Other businesses and individuals are looking to earn units through the establishment of permanent forests. These not only soak up carbon dioxide but also improve soil and water conservation and biodiversity.

The protocol is designed to hasten the transfer of modern technologies to the developing world, too. There is a unique opportunity for our business because only ratifying countries' firms can benefit from such transfer. Australian businesses are, therefore, looking our way to partner in such projects.

A new wave of technology is also enabling individuals to continue to drive motor vehicles and to maintain comfortable homes at the same time as reducing emissions. These technologies include hybrid cars, super-efficient diesels and, later, ethanol-blended petrol and biodiesels. A parallel range of technologies, such as solar hot-water systems and more energy efficient appliances, are available to help us to maintain comfortable homes at the same time as cutting emissions.

So opportunities abound.

The damage from climate change has already made its mark, be it tornadoes in Florida, typhoons in the Philippines or Japan, the many thousands of deaths from France's heatwave or the flooding of Bangladesh.

Last year's storms and floods caused significant damage to many parts of New Zealand. Climate forecasts tell us we can expect more severe and frequent weather events.

Adaptation is about ensuring stopbanks and storm drains are adequate to deal with any increased incidence in flooding such as that in the Manawatu and Bay of Plenty last year. We must ensure also that our electricity infrastructure can better stand up to high winds after towers carrying power to the main link between the South and North Islands were blown down in January last year.

Many farmers are also starting to prepare for increased rainfall in some areas, such as the West Coast, and less rain and higher temperatures in other areas, such as Canterbury and Hawkes Bay.

That, too, will require innovation. But we have always been at the forefront of innovation. There is every reason to be confident that businesses and individuals alike will rise to the challenge of doing their bit to tackle climate change as part of the global effort.

In doing so we will be able to create a more efficient economy, better able to look after the environment and to protect our unique way of life for generations to come.

* Pete Hodgson is the Minister of the Environment

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