Why the mega-retailer is key to the future of Auckland.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff missed the final vote declaring a climate emergency in the city this month. He told the meeting he was strongly in support but had to leave to attend to other mayoral business. That business? The announcement that the world's second-biggest retailer, Costco, was going to set up shop in Auckland.
When I say "set up shop", what I really mean is "build the biggest retail warehouse this country has ever seen". All 14,000 square metres of it: the size of two rugby fields.
Were the two events – the climate emergency declaration and the Costco deal – by any chance related? The timing might have been coincidental but each has far-reaching implications for the other.
Costco will locate its megastore in the expanded Westgate, a vast area at the end of the Northwestern Motorway. Over the next 30 years, according to the council's Auckland Plan 2050, the population there will grow by 80,000.
Westgate and the suburbs around it could become our worst example of car-dominant, sterile urban life. The antithesis of a society trying to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reduce the harm they will do.
Or will they provide the model of a new, sustainable, low-energy, community-oriented way of living and shopping?
Whether the council succeeds or fails in making the "climate emergency" more than empty rhetoric will not hinge on the central city and the isthmus suburbs. Success will depend on what happens in Westgate and the other fast-growing "metropolitan centres" like it, including Albany, Botany, Papakura, Sylvia Park and Manukau.
And the key to which way it goes is Costco.
The council has not yet followed its emergency declaration with practical steps. In fact, the council has made many climate change declarations. They're in the Auckland Plan and expressed through its membership of both the NZ Climate Leaders Coalition and C40 Cities, a global group that sprang from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
There's a Regional Climate Plan to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate. There's a Resilience Plan, although it mentions climate change only six times, in passing. In November last year councillors voted unanimously for a carbon neutral target, consistent with a 1.5°C maximum global temperature rise. That means zero carbon emissions by 2050. Following that, officials drew up an Emissions Reduction Plan, although it has not been presented to elected councillors.
The aspirations are fine, but none of it, as Councillor Penny Hulse observed this month, constitutes an "action plan". How is the council going to get the city to that zero carbon target?
Meanwhile, the Auckland Unitary Plan (AUP) remains in place. The council agencies have not overhauled their policies and practices. The Resource Management Act (RMA) still sets out the framework for development decisions. All of them, left as they are, will prevent us from reducing emissions to a level consistent with 1.5°C warming.
That's because they set out legal processes. The council can't block developers from exercising their legal rights under the RMA and the AUP. Instead, the Government and the council will need to change the rules, itself a lengthy legal process, if they want to beef up the carbon zero goal.
Still, they can try to influence and to lead by example. Stop doing things like the recent transfer of a car park in Remuera from Auckland Transport to Panuku, the council development agency. The deal requires Panuku to increase the number of parks.
This is going to take a while, and we don't have a while. Emergency means emergency, doesn't it? Stop what you're doing and pay attention. No more business as usual. Activate the special powers.
Ccan Costco become one of the council's special powers?
Costco makes a big deal about fighting climate change. Staff get subsidised bus passes and vanpools. Freight, food, rubbish, energy and pollution are all targeted and the supply chains are pulled into the programme. Rubber from tyres is 99 per cent recycled, even the grease from chicken rotisseries is turned into biofuel.
But Costco's approach is less than it might seem. It hasn't embraced a carbon neutral future, committing only to keeping the growth of its carbon footprint smaller than the growth of the company.
The challenges for big-box retailers do not end with LED lights and single-use plastic bags. Their big issues are: how their customers get to the shop and how the goods get freighted there.
It's hard with big-box shopping. You've got stuff to get home. Light rail to Westgate will be good for employees, but the shopping model encourages customers to drive. It really feels like you need a car.
If that's true, what do we do? Give up? Or make a better plan?
The arrival of Costco is a golden opportunity for Auckland. A retailer that boasts about doing the right thing? Excellent. The council can work with it to establish a climate emergency plan that's so good it sets the template for everyone else. Will that happen?
Costco has its land but it hasn't applied for building or resource consents yet. There is no climate emergency plan. All that is to come.
Mayor Goff hasn't yet spotted the potential. He told the Weekend Herald, "When [Costco] seeks consent, the same processes which apply to all other businesses will apply."
Just going to sit back and watch it happen? Really?
"Reducing carbon footprint will become a part of future discussions with all industry, community organisations and individuals." But is that enough?
What should a template for a big retail project in climate-emergency Auckland look like? The company, other companies like the Westgate developers, council and Government will all need to be part of it. Here's just some of what it might plan to do:
• A zero carbon building, generating more energy than it needs.
• A zero-waste target to be achieved soon.
• Convert the entire supply chain – local and overseas – to the same goals.
• Convert freight haulage from road to rail.
• Big landscaping project with tree planting, water conservation and educational facilities for local schools.
• Speed up the arrival of rapid transit.
• A network of suburban electric feeder buses servicing the rapid transit.
• Staff incentives to leave the car at home; customer incentives to do the same.
• Electric shuttles for shoppers to move around the Westgate precinct.
The message should be: Don't drive, unless you have to, because it's so easy and convenient not to. And if you do drive, park once.
The council and Costco don't need to wait for the RMA to change. They could just make a plan and then make it happen. Special powers, you see. The ability make everybody reach higher than they knew they could, by working together. Will it happen?
Auckland Council is going to subject all its proposals to a climate-change impact assessment. That's good. It will also develop an action plan for itself and for the whole city. That's essential.
Some things, you might think, will be easy. Converting all council vehicles to electric, for example. But while council is fond of saying its target for converting the bus fleet is 2025, that's only the date when it will stop buying diesel buses. It's not nearly fast enough.
There are many harder questions for it to answer. Here are six of them.
1. What will we do about air travel?
What's the biggest industry in Auckland? Tourism. What's our second-biggest listed company? Auckland International Airport.
And, apart from not having children, what is the biggest single way to reduce your greenhouse gas footprint? Stop flying.
But it's not going to happen, is it? People will still travel abroad, tourists will keep coming here. If they don't, the entire hospitality industry will collapse, taking the rest of the economy down with it. No international sporting engagements. No family visits, either way, for everyone with family overseas.
It's almost impossible to conceive of New Zealand without air travel. So other things become essential.
First, mandatory carbon offsetting for all tickets. What are we waiting for? It's not a lot: according to the Air New Zealand calculator, the offset cost for a return trip to London is $66.52 per passenger.
Next, cut back: attend that conference by video, do the "research trip" online. Choose airlines with energy-efficient aeroplanes. The airlines can help by advertising their credentials.
And why not extend the offsetting? Help every business dependent on airline travellers create its own zero carbon plan.
In Sweden, they have the word flygskam. It means flight shaming. But Sweden is not an island thousands of miles from everywhere. If Auckland Council is serious about the climate emergency, mitigating emissions from air travel has to be front and centre in its new action plan.
2. How will we promote public health?
Dengue fever is a flu-like illness that causes muscle and joint pain, bleeding, shock, a rash and a high fever. It can kill. West Nile Virus, another flu-like illness, can lead to encephalitis and meningitis. It can also kill, and there is no vaccine or treatment.
We're going to be invaded by mosquitoes, and it's likely many of them will carry disease. This will be entirely new for Auckland.
There will be more pollen in the air, so more people will experience respiratory distress.
By late this century there will be 60-90 more extra-hot days – that's days when the temperature climbs above 25°C. Suburbs in the south and north will be worst affected.
Heat is harder to cope with if you don't have aircon at home or access to green spaces when you go out. Heat makes it harder for people to manage heart disease, diabetes and distress.
People will die, perhaps up to 100 a year. Mostly they will be the elderly and the very young, people from ethnic communities, the poor.
Climate change is a poverty issue. It doesn't get much talked about.
3. What about the coastline?
The urban and industrial areas most at risk from sea level rises are Mission Bay and Kohimarama, Narrow Neck, Browns Bay, Whangaparāoa, Ōrewa, industrial Onehunga, Otāhuhu, Māngere, the airport and, most of all, downtown Auckland. Many rural areas will also suffer.
What's the council going to do about it? Build seawalls? Or stop new developments and gradually move people away from the coast?
Both, presumably. This will be a fiercely contested and probably neverending public debate, so the council's action plan will need very good civic engagement mechanisms.
The signs aren't good. In Kapiti, near Wellington, landowners have prevented the local council even from mentioning sea-level flood risk on their property titles. Because if you don't talk about it, you'll stop it happening.
4. What about public support?
You propose the removal of a kerbside car park in this city and some people are driven mad with grief. Even people who would say they are "fully on board" with fighting climate change.
Think about Quay St, where roadworks have provoked a storm of protest from eastern suburbs commuters. The work is being done to rebuild the crumbling seawall and lay new infrastructure pipes. They're repairing and future-proofing the road, but it seems nobody knew that.
No one likes roadworks, but the triple whammy of failing infrastructure, a growing population and climate change mean there's no escape. With stormwater flooding already a major problem throughout the city, Watercare and AT between them will be digging up roads for decades.
Change is necessary. So is public support for it. Council and its agencies must get very much better at building public understanding for their works programmes.
5. How will we make really big changes in transport?
Auckland Council offered a Green Bond last year, the first in the country. It raised $200 million to help fund electric trains and buses and more such bonds are planned.
John Mauro, the council's chief sustainability officer: "A more compact Auckland with greater reliance on electric-powered public transport will play a critical role in reducing carbon emissions from transport and traffic."
When Federated Farmers head Katie Milne says the cities must pull their weight on climate change, she's right, and she means traffic. It contributes 40 per cent of Auckland's emissions.
But while public transport use is climbing – 100 million trips a year last month – the increase year-by-year averages around only 5 per cent.
And though the number of bus and train rides goes up, the number of cars on the roads has stayed about the same. AT is managing congestion with a growing population, not easing it. It's not yet managing transport for a climate change future.
What if we decide to double public transport use inside five years? And then do it again inside the next five? What would it take?
6. What other big changes are coming?
Auckland has the two biggest coal users in the country: Bluescope Steel Mill at Glenbrook, and Fonterra, headquartered in the Wynyard Quarter. Fonterra plans to phase out coal, over several decades.
Cows and coal. If Fonterra had trucks driving all over the place, it would be at the forefront of transport problems too. Oh, wait.
Auckland Council could be leaning on Fonterra to smarten up. Both belong to the NZ Climate Leaders Coalition (CLC), whose members are required to reduce emissions consistent with a maximum 2°C of warming globally.
Meanwhile, the Ministry for the Environment warns of an increased risk of drought for some Auckland agriculture, and with bigger winds, that will create another risk: wildfire. And both pasture farming and horticulture face increased risk from invasive pests.
Transpower now predicts "the cost of energy from gas-fired power stations will be double the price of energy from utility solar within a decade". Costco should benefit from that.
Mayor Goff's million trees? We'll need to do it all again: more reforestation and plantation farming and, as Penny Hulse says, a lot more shade trees for streets and parks too.
Iwi will be a big part of it. Ngāti Whātua spokesperson Ngarimu Blair: "We really need to invest a lot more in the new economy, into the digital, into green businesses, or change our current primary industries so they better align with kaitiakitanga or guardianship."
True. Ngāti Whātua has more than a billion dollars invested in Auckland property, which makes it uniquely well-placed to take the lead in retrofitting buildings to reduce emissions and encourage tenants to use carbon-neutral transport. The council should do the same, leading the way with its own buildings and staff.
New tech industries, new emissions reductions goals for every industry and company here already. Freight – not all of it but a lot of it – will move to rail. Prepare for more cargo bikes in newly pedestrianised urban centres.
Electric cars will slowly replace petrol-powered vehicles, but they will not solve any of the other problems of city traffic. They're great for climate change, but not for congestion, health or general city life.
None of it is enough. Big changes take time in Auckland. You're moving fast with a big project if you can get it done in 10 years. The light rail projects are going to take longer. There won't be another harbour crossing built inside the next 20 years.
But we don't have that time. We need disruptive change and we don't know how to do it. We don't talk about tourism and air travel and farmers don't want us to talk about methane. We have no plan to reduce traffic.
Even the transport plans that do exist are regarded as dangerously radical by a vocal chunk of the population, which relentlessly attacks every transport initiative related to climate change. It's gobsmackingly stupid and often it's led by the National Party.
And in 20 years from now it will be 2040. When, on current progress, the world will be on fire.
Let's be really clear about this. Officially we have a "climate emergency" but all the plans we have to date fall far short of the goals we'll need to achieve by 2030, 2040 and 2050.
They won't meet the zero carbon target, so we can do our bit to hold the world's temperature to a 1.5°C increase. They won't equip us to deal with the consequences of rising temperatures here. And they certainly won't help us ease the pain of transition or take advantage of economic opportunity.
We're treating climate change like a disaster we know will happen, but we're going to leave it to someone else to deal with later on.
Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate-change protester, says we should panic. Panic is good, she says: when your house is on fire, panic keeps you alive.
But nobody wants to panic. There's no political will for it because there's no perceivable public demand for it. Our leaders are not going to lead on this, however much some of them, on both sides, might want to do more. They're going to follow. The public has to lead.
And Costco? It makes no sense to declare a climate emergency and have Costco, unless we make some really big changes – to how we shop, how we work, how we live. Are we going to do that?
The climate emergency in Auckland
• Over 600 cities and countries, including Britain, have declared a climate emergency.
• Global temperature up 0.8°C in last 100 years; Auckland up 1.6°C.
• Greenhouse gases (GHGs) at highest levels worldwide in 800,000 years.
• 19.6% increase in GHGs in NZ since 1990.
• Cost of storms in NZ last 5 years: $800 million.
• 1 metre sea-level rise for Auckland by 2100.
• The region will be warmer and wetter, but also parts will have drought.
• 90 more extra-hot days in north and south of city by 2090.
• Main weather-related risk: flooding, from coastal inundation and stormwater overflow.
• New threats to human health and agriculture: insect pests.
• Biodiversity at risk: seabirds, shellfish, trees like taraire and rimu.
• Industry with biggest carbon footprint: tourism.
• People most at risk in Auckland: the poor.