The Hawke's Bay Regional Council is to join a growing list of other councils around the country declaring a "climate emergency".

They are not alone. Even the Pope has just announced a climate emergency at global scale. At one level this is to be applauded. It shows our leaders are finally listening to the growing voice of protest from the generations that will have to live through the terrible legacy of over 200 years of burning fossil fuels. They are rightly calling us out.

My concern though is that a declaration of emergency is just words on paper. What we need is action. While we are lucky enough to be in a region where the HBRC is doing what it can, its hands are effectively tied. Most of the current effort is on adapting to climate change, not preventing it. Let me explain.

At present, local authorities are not even allowed to tackle the causes of climate change under the Resource Management Act. It is outside their legal powers to do so.

Advertisement

Policies and rules must be directed at the effects of climate change, not the causes. Resource consents to emit greenhouse gases can't be refused out of concern for climate change impacts.

This is a major gap in our legal framework. The idea was that the emissions trading scheme (or ETS) would take care of things, so councils should stay out of it. Well, it hasn't worked.

So instead of just declaring emergencies, councils across the country should be getting behind Environment Minister David Parker's proposal to bring climate change "mitigation" within local authorities' resource management job description. In fact, they should be demanding this.

Rather than being left to plan for the chaos ahead, councils could then try to stop climate change getting worse in the first place. Our regional council's just stated intent to lobby for this law change is in my view more important than declaring an emergency. Hawke's Bay could then commit to be the first "zero carbon" region in the country. To direct every policy, every strategy, every ratepayer's dollar to that single and overriding priority.

To move from the language of emergency, to a determined and comprehensive response. The aim in the council's strategic plan to be carbon neutral by 2040 would again not just be words on paper.

So how would this work? Well, we could have a fresh look at how we plan for growth in our towns and cities. For a start, at how new houses are built, and with what. At how we power those houses, and how we get to work from them. At where we go to work. At the new infrastructure we build for transport, energy generation and industry. At how we farm, to reduce methane emissions in particular. At how we use water, for what and where.

At the right mix of agriculture and horticulture. These are all "points of impact" in causing human induced climate change. They must all therefore be points of direct "ground level" response.

Putting climate change first and foremost would not mean that we lose sight of the other issues and priorities facing councils around the country. In Hawke's Bay for example, policy directly aimed at tackling climate change would undoubtedly have benefits for water quality, protection of our versatile soils, and restoring biodiversity.

Through reforestation of marginal, steep and erodible land, we not only soak up CO2, but can halt or even reverse the massive effect which sediment from historic land clearance has had on our marine environment and fisheries.

To succeed in confronting climate change however, we also cannot lose sight of the third word in "low carbon economy". This is where and why I think policy leaders have so far stalled, or landed in the "too hard basket".

They fail to see and explain that there is a new economy ahead. Not no economy, but a different one. Again, there is a huge opportunity for councils here, in this case to literally pave the way for the transition required.

We should be designing our towns, cities and roads for the future which global innovators like Tesla and Google are working towards, a world with electric and driverless cars which recharge from the road surface, not building new roads and carparks that assume petrol or diesel single ownership three car families all driving to work on their own.

In the meantime, the trouble with the ETS is that it's basically just a tax which makes doing things that are bad for climate change more expensive. This has its place, but what we really need are commonsense policies that make it easier for people to do things that are good for climate change.

Our councils can play a major role here with how they design, plan and manage our urban and rural environments, and I say let's pilot the way in Hawke's Bay. We would all feel a lot more secure through that type of response than simply hitting the panic button. We would actually have a plan to resolve the emergency otherwise declared upon us.

Martin Williams is a barrister specialising in local government and resource management law, based in Napier.