COMMENT:

Even Sir David Attenborough did his thing. "If we don't take climate action," he told assembled world leaders in Poland this week, "the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."

We all know this. And we know it's not about plastic bags and rubbish recycling, important as those things are. We know the way we live will have to change very much more substantially than we currently contemplate.

But are we ready to do that?

Advertisement

Even as Attenborough was speaking, they were rioting in Paris over fuel prices. No riots here, but don't let that fool anyone: the price of petrol has been a hot political topic this year. It's damaged the Government and been one of the few issues to give real succour to the opposition.

Why? The climate change truth is that we need to drive much less. The economic truth is that market signals are effective in changing behaviour: when prices rise we buy less. But the political truth trumps them both: governments can't raise fuel prices without losing votes.

For the same reason, councils can't raise parking fees. The market can be a useless instrument sometimes.

Those rioters in Paris have a point. Raising the cost of driving in order to address the causes of climate change is regressive: the poorer you are, the larger your share of the pain. As with most attempts to solve the problems of the world, it's ordinary people of all kinds who have to pay for the solving.

Climate change is driven in part by the relentless growth of consumer aspirations all over the world, and we can all do something about that. But it's driven even more by oligarchic greed, and the governments that empower those oligarchs, and we can do little about that.

Sir David Attenborough believes civilisations will collapse if we don't take action on climate change. Photo / AP
Sir David Attenborough believes civilisations will collapse if we don't take action on climate change. Photo / AP

Worst of all, climate change threatens us with global catastrophe because of American disdain. Not just disdain, that's putting it too mildly. The US government actively sabotages what chances we have to save our civilisations and the natural world, to borrow Attenborough's phrase, and it seems we are powerless to do anything about it.

Yes, we know Attenborough is right. But it doesn't follow we're prepared to suffer when others continue to compound the problem and escape the consequences.

At the climate conference in Paris in 2015, the world agreed to "pursue efforts to" limit global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. And we've been reminded repeatedly what that requires: zero carbon emissions by 2050. At the latest.

Can we do it? The problem is not that we can't. It's that we're not going to. The terrible thing we have learned, since Paris 2015, is that even though 196 countries accepted the imperative to change, it hasn't happened.

And yet there is always hope. There has to be, doesn't there? You have to start in the only place you can start, which is your own place, and you build from there.

In Auckland, just recently, hope has been on the up.

The council marked progress on its Auckland Climate Action Plan this week. Environment and Community Committee chairwoman Penny Hulse described the plan as a kind of dial.

Every policy that came before council, she said, had to be assessed for whether it moved the indicator on the dial one way or the other.

"If it goes this way, fine," she said, using her hand like a windscreen wiper. "But if it goes that way, we don't do it."

There's good and bad in that. The good is that it marks a council commitment not to make anything worse. The bad is that things are getting worse any way. The status quo won't save us.

To use Hulse's metaphor, we can't have the indicator sitting in the middle of the dial.

Meanwhile, it's remarkable how little fuss there's been over the council's decision last week to get non-essential vehicles out of the central city.

The policy, known as Open Streets, has been discussed mainly in terms of traffic congestion, but it's about far more than that: quality of city life, the health of citizens and, importantly, climate change.

It feels like an idea whose time has come. It also feels like an idea that's being treated the right way. At Panuku, the council's development arm, they call it Do, Learn, Do.

Make a start on something, preferably in a low-key and low-cost way, and get lots of input from everyone on how it works and how it doesn't work, and then roll out the bigger, better version. Repeat, and keep repeating.

Do, Learn, Do, applied to the Open Streets policy in the central city, means we'll see trials start next year. That's great.

Those trials will have transport targets, but they can't be just about the mechanics of street closures. This is about something much bigger. It's the reinvention of the role of streets.

A bright spark on social media suggested last week that advocates of the new policy didn't understand a core issue: streets were invented for cars.

Sure puts the Romans in a new light: fancy building the Appian Way 2350 years ago on the off-chance someone would invent a motorcar and want to drive it across Italy.

City streets used to be great public spaces – they were where people socialised. In central Auckland, they can have that enhanced public realm function again, as parks, and as places for community activities and commerce, with dedicated spaces for pedestrians separated from cycling and scooting. We could even park cars on some of them.

We've got a chance to create a city centre that's highly functional and that people love to be in. Reducing carbon emissions not with pain, but by making a better city.

Also this week, the Treasury in Wellington produced its Living Standards Dashboard: a way to measure the wellbeing of the country across 12 broad areas – housing, environment, health, social connectedness and the like. The dashboard is a tool to help the Government produce a budget in 2019 based on "The Four Capitals" (financial, human, social, and natural and physical).

One commentator has called this "the most fundamental change in the country's economic management since the Rogernomics reforms of the 1980s". I think it's even bigger than that.

This is nothing less than the invention of a new way to measure the health, wealth and progress of a nation. If it works, it will be taken up widely overseas and it will be retained by future New Zealand governments too – whatever their stripe.

The Four Capitals will redefine the way we talk and think about success and failure as a country, as a people, as – to go back to Attenborough – a civilisation. We'll be able to measure value in all the ways that matter, not least in environmental ways.

Right now, we conduct one siloed argument about petrol prices and another about street access. A third about air pollution, a fourth about cycle lanes, a fifth about obesity and so on. If that dashboard and those Four Capitals take hold, we'll have a language and a set of measures that allow us to join them up.

Integrated planning, and Do, Learn, Do. A better debate, with better outcomes. And no Parisian rioting.