The politicians gathering in Paris for COP21 have never before been under public pressure to act like this. Could this be the climate conference that actually sees results?

Here's the situation: in 2000 it was estimated that during the next fifty years, mankind's total greenhouse gases emissions has to be less than 1700 gigatonnes, or we could kiss the two degrees threshold (considered the safe upper limit for temperature increase) goodbye.

Just a dozen years after that, we'd already burned through one third of this carbon budget.

Worse, annual emissions continue to increase. At this rate, that 1700 gigatonne allowance will be used up by 2028 - just 13 years away.

Here's what needs to happen: the breathtaking rise in emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution makes for a steep curve on a graph, but it's nothing compared to the rate at which we must cut emissions to make the target of zero emissions by 2050.
Embarking on an aggressive emissions reduction plan as soon as possible, thereby enabling humanity to use its remaining carbon budget over a longer period of time, would ease the journey (and cost) to achieving a zero-carbon future. Slow action requires far more expensive and rapid, last-minute transition to de-carbonisation.

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There are two great ironies around the annual US$1tn spent by governments subsidising the global fossil fuel exploration and production industry. The first is that in order to keep carbon emissions to a level where we stay below the globally accepted 'safe temperature increase' of 2C, then 80% of the already discovered fossil fuel assets will have to stay in the ground. Spending money to find more fossil fuels we cannot burn, therefore, would appear to be a giant waste of money. Indeed, our own government here in New Zealand spends $50m a year on exactly that.

The second great irony is that US$1tn happens to be the exact same amount of money that best estimates say is needed for the investment in clean energy to mitigate climate change and stay below the 2C threshold.

On the face of it, it's a no-brainer, right? Transfer the cash from fossil fuels to clean technology and supercharge our way to a zero-carbon future. Job done.

The reality here in New Zealand - weak emissions targets, a gutless Emissions Trading Scheme, frightening rhetoric about the damage action on the climate will inflict on our economy and, in some cases, flat out denial of climate change - are evidence of a powerful political and business lobby arguing for business as usual.

"If all countries followed New Zealand's lead, we would be in for very significant climate change impacts and catastrophic damage to the New Zealand and global economy."

This scenario has played out in all but a few countries across the globe, brought about the paralysis of most of the world's governments, and brought the planet to the brink of no return. This time, however, the people are speaking louder than ever. Nothing makes a politician change their view faster than when a majority of voters don't subscribe to it.

Which pathway the world takes may well be decided at the Paris Climate Change Talks - COP21 - which starts today. In fact, a general consensus among climate scientists has pointed to these talks as being critical in terms of timing; if we don't act now, and act decisively, it will be too late. Temperatures will continue to rise, crops fail, seas will atrophy, and the beautiful world as we know it will be lost. The planet will continue, as it always has, but the damage we cause will not be repairable, not in our lifetimes, nor our children's, nor in the lifetimes of generations to come.

Ten days ago Dr Jan Wright, parliamentary commissioner for the environment, released the report Preparing New Zealand for Rising Seas: Certainty and Uncertainty and, in an unprecedented move, warned the finance minister Bill English about the huge costs facing the country - between $3b and $20b. No worries, said English. It's all purely "speculative."

Meanwhile, Dr Stephen Flood, postdoctoral fellow, Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University Wellington, said: "The Commissioner's recommendations are considered and based on a thorough analysis of relevant science and policy."

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The constant refrain from the New Zealand government that we are so small our emissions are insignificant is, in fact, good news for the planet because it means we can't do much damage.

Here's Prof. James Renwick of Victoria University, arguably New Zealand's foremost authority on the subject. "If all countries followed New Zealand's lead, we would be in for very significant climate change impacts and catastrophic damage to the New Zealand and global economy."

It also seems the government's stance on climate change is increasingly at odds with not only the environmental activists, but also that most conservative of groups: business people. There was an unequivocal message from New Zealand businesses to the government to get its act into gear with the release of the report Business Survey on Climate Change released this month.

The survey was conducted across members of two BusinessNZ divisions - the Sustainable Business Council (SBC) and the Major Companies' Group (MCG), which respondents to the survey representing 36% of New Zealand's private sector GDP.

A full two-thirds of respondents already have emission reduction targets in place, with strong representation from energy, transport, telecommunication and retail sectors.
52% of respondents said climate was a material issue that warranted a business response, and 61% have introduced initiatives to reduce emissions.

The survey found that New Zealand businesses want to see government leadership in Paris, clarity of direction, ambition and a unified commitment at a global and national level. Back home, they want cross-party agreement on an approach to climate change. It's a far cry from English's ponderings on whether or not climate change is actually occurring.

Taking action

Part of the organising group for the People's Climate March 2015. Photo / Supplied
Part of the organising group for the People's Climate March 2015. Photo / Supplied

Last Saturday people gathered in every city in New Zealand for the People's Climate March - the strongest activist action on climate change yet seen in this country.

The march was part of a global network of marches, and was organised here by a large conglomerate of over 30 organisations - from environmental charities like WWF, to social agencies like Unicef, through to the Anglican Church and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. It's another example of a growing body of support for action on the issue.

Yet another comes from the health professionals of New Zealand. Sixteen of New Zealand's most prestigious health professional organisations have called for urgent action on climate change and health, a critical health issue.

These groups represent tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, midwives, public health workers, and medical students, as well as all the medical and health sciences staff and students at the universities of Auckland and Otago.

The 16 groups are calling on the Government, the health sector and all levels of society to make an urgent transition to a low-emissions New Zealand in ways that boost health and create a fairer society.

Commentary,

Dame Anne Salmond
Professor, the University of Auckland

As the tragedy in Paris shows, those who are willing to impose their own ideologies on others set off tsunamis of hatred and violence. They destroy the lives of innocent people.

In the same way, those who conspire to hide, discredit or ignore scientific findings about climate change are responsible for rising seas, drowning islands, heat-waves, terrifying storms and dying rivers.

Again, the lives of innocent people are devastated.

It is cynical and selfish for New Zealand to try and avoid playing our part in protecting the future of humanity and the planet.

I urge our Prime Minister to go to Paris and join other world leaders in working for peace, and in setting ambitious targets for tackling climate change.


Sir Geoffrey Palmer
QC, former Prime Minister of New Zealand

Climate change is a wickedly difficult problem.

It raises big public policy issues that demand action.

The longer we put off the steps necessary to mitigate climate change the more difficult the adjustments will be.

The key issue revolves around reaching an international agreement to transform the economies of the world by reducing carbon emissions to achieve sustainability.

Time is running out - the tipping point is not much more than twenty years away.
Right now greenhouse gas emissions are out of control.

Since 1992, when the United Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated and agreed at Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world have been attempting to reach agreement on how to combat climate change.

There have been 20 meetings over the years but very little has been achieved.

The Paris meeting is getting close to the "Last Chance Saloon."

If the next twenty years yield so little as the past twenty years, catastrophic climate change will be beyond cure.

Paris must produce a legally binding agreement that obliges nations to get on a path to reduce their carbon emissions to avoid global warming beyond 2 degrees celsius.
But we already know Paris will fail in that aim.

We know it because the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions countries have offered going into Paris will not be enough.

To reach the goal will take further negotiations after Paris.

The good news is that there exists a pathway that will allow the battle to be won.

But determined action will be required to make deep cuts in emissions quickly.

New Zealand has made a low-ball offer for Paris. It will allow a large increase in our greenhouse gas emissions above 1990 levels.

No pathway has been announced by the Government as to how it will meet its own announced target of reducing its emissions by 50 per cent by 2050.

If every country acted as New Zealand has, the increase in temperature will exceed 3 or perhaps 4 degrees, resulting in catastrophic consequences.

The New Zealand Government needs an open, progressive and flexible negotiating stance.

For too long New Zealand has been going backwards on the issue. Our domestic law is a mess. Our international stance makes us a laggard.


Len Brown
Mayor of Auckland

In Paris, I will be joining with mayors from more than 200 other cities to share our experiences and look for new solutions to climate change.

I expect that these discussions will help us to further advance Auckland's action. We want to be on the cutting edge of solutions, innovation and far-reaching benefits of acting on climate change now.

Action at both national and local levels will bring a better quality of life for Aucklanders while improving New Zealand's position as an international leader.

Cities are key players in the response to climate change, globally and in New Zealand.

The Global Commission on Economy and Climate Change estimates that putting the effort into cities, with better public transport, green buildings, and better waste management, could save US$22tn by 2050 and avoid the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of India every year.

The time for doubt is over. We know that we are contributing dangerous levels of carbon to our atmosphere.

We know the consequences of inaction. For Auckland, climate change will lead to more severe storms, flooding and sea level rise, not to mention wider economic and social challenges.

We are all too aware of the challenges of shoring up infrastructure and managing insurance costs, as well as the impacts on biodiversity, productivity, and communities.
Auckland has an ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Auckland by 40 per cent by 2040.

Better transport options, clean air, green spaces and energy efficient buildings all help reduce emissions while making for a better quality of life for the people who live here today.

Auckland's public transport patronage is growing at unprecedented levels.
Electrification of the trains has removed one per cent of Auckland's GHG emissions.
New paths allow Aucklanders to ride and walk more conveniently and safely while reducing their carbon footprint.

New infrastructure is being built to be climate-ready.

We are already moving in the right direction. Now is the time to accelerate.


Matt Watson
Ocean guru, ITM Fishing Show

New Zealand is an island nation. We have one of the largest coastlines in the world, and the ninth largest exclusive economic zone.

All Kiwis have a connection to the ocean whether they know it or not; its value to our nation, and importance to our future, is far wider reaching than export earnings from fish. Having a healthy, abundant ocean is critical in maintaining our wellbeing, our culture, and the Kiwi lifestyle we cherish so much.

So, if the delicate balance of the oceans' ecosytem continues to tip toward collapse, future generations may never experience a living, abundant ocean and the simple pleasure of catching a fish to take home and eat. In Paris I'd like to see our government set aside the politics and horse-trading and solely focus on the future, so we can get some sort of agreement to turn around climate change, because if the ocean is screwed, we're screwed.


Natalie Jones
New Zealand Youth Delegation to Paris COP

The UN climate talks in Paris could represent a step forward for the planet, but a big step backwards for NZ.

Despite the shock of the recent terror attacks, a universal agreement is still likely to be reached.

The major players are heavily invested in seeing the talks succeed. There's been considerable progress.

Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline, China and the US have committed to a shared climate vision, and just this week the OECD finalised a historic deal to cut funding for coal-fired power plants.

Key issues are whether the Paris agreement will be sufficiently ambitious to limit climate change to safe levels, and what role, if any, New Zealand will play.

New Zealand is well placed to show leadership and secure the economic opportunities of a global transition away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, we're set to do the opposite.

New Zealand's reduction target for Paris is so lacking in ambition that we could satisfy these obligations through creative accounting alone. We needn't reduce emissions at all.
Alarmingly, New Zealand is on track to emit more greenhouse gas per capita than the US by 2025.

We could be utilising our expertise in renewable energy to lead multi-billion dollar projects offshore, and embracing the innovative potential of clean tech and electric vehicles.

Yet instead of using Paris as a platform to enhance our reputation and future-proof our economic interests, New Zealand's strategy involves doing as little as possible. It's irresponsible, and a wasted opportunity.

The longer we wait to implement real action, the harder it will be, and the more it will cost. The world is moving on, and New Zealand risks being left behind.


Simon Millar
CEO, Pure Advantage NZ

As if we needed another reminder that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. With Paris deep in our thoughts terrorism may be the most topical global issue - yet climate change is the ultimate security threat and one that calls for greater resolve for international cooperation.

Our Government's future communications around a low-carbon future should clearly outline the cost of inaction, champion the economic advantages and environmental benefits of green growth, and plot a course towards achieving established, science-based emissions reduction goals.

A massive, worldwide green economy is gathering speed and New Zealand has an opportunity to be at the forefront. Just as we were bold in gaining our seat at the UN Security Council we must again be bold and committed at COP21.

For New Zealand, there are material upside opportunities available from taking a leading position on building a smart green economy that has our values at its core. However, the message must be clear that environmental sustainability and economic growth are not mutually exclusive.

When New Zealanders fully understand the fact that environmental sustainability can and does catalyse economic growth, we will be better positioned to pursue opportunities to create wealth and skilled jobs while simultaneously conserving our natural resources and improving our environmental performance.

By the numbers

190

- The number of governments convening in Paris today to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change.

2C - The temperature increase deemed to be acceptable by the world's governments.

5C - The projected temperature increase based on current emission levels of greenhouse gases. It is generally accepted that a 5C rise in temperature would be catastrophic.

20 - The number of years global negotiations on climate change have been going.

5% - The emissions cuts to be made by 2012, compared with 1990 levels, agreed in 1997 under the Kyoto Protocol. It was never ratified by the US Congress, and with the world's largest emitter outside of the Protocol, it faltered. None of the countries in the Protocol that blew their emissions targets have ever been sanctioned.

196 - The number of countries in agreement on emissions reductions at the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009. Unfortunately it didn't translate into a legally binding treaty.

40% - The emissions cut pledge from the EU for Paris, compared with 1990 levels.

26-28% - The emissions cut pledge from the US, compared with 2005 levels.

2030 - The year China has said its emissions will peak.

2.7C - The countries of the world responsible for two thirds of emissions have come up with their targets (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). Together, these emissions cuts, if achieved, will mean a global temperature increase of 2.7C.

42% - According to the recently published state of the environment report, New Zealand saw a 42 per cent increase in net greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2013.

11% - The New Zealand government is bringing to Paris an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution target of reducing emissions by 11 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. This has been criticised as insufficient by independent environmental monitors Climate Action Tracker.

80% - The amount of already discovered reserves of oil, gas and coal that will have to remain in the ground to stay within safe limits for the climate.


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