Climate change presents an existential threat - and a challenge that's going to require transformative action by governments and polluting industries across the globe. What actions can we, as individuals take? In the third of a series of extracts from his contribution to the upcoming book Climate Aotearoa: What's happening and what we can do about it, edited by former prime minister Helen Clark, Herald science reporter Jamie Morton looks at sustainable travel.
In 2018, prominent New Zealand scientist Professor Shaun Hendy began a one-man campaign that aimed to make us think about how we get from one place to the next.
Hendy was inspired by a talk by Professor Quentin Atkinson, a fellow Auckland University researcher and an expert in how cultures change and evolve, who explained why we believe things even when there is no evidence, or the evidence is against us.
"He made the point [that] we often put faith in people who make sacrifices that demonstrate the strength of their conviction," Hendy said.
"People who walk the talk can be more convincing than those who just talk."
So he started walking the walk — by giving up flying for a year.
That meant travelling to Wellington by train and heading back to Auckland by overnight bus, and swapping flights to international conferences and meetings for Zoom calls.
By the end of the year, he calculated he'd saved an equivalent 18 tonnes of carbon emissions.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was estimated that aviation contributed to about 3.5 per cent of human-driven emissions.
It's also been projected that, as at 2020, the impact would have grown 70 per cent from 2005 levels.
That doesn't change the fact that Kiwis love to — and quite often need to — hop on a plane.
In 2017, for instance, New Zealand residents departed on 2.83 million trips overseas, up 271,800 on the year before.
When our largest export industry — tourism — recovers from the Covid-19 crisis, it will return to its reliance on international travel.
The $39 billion it reaped in 2018, after all, wouldn't have been possible had not 3.82 million visitors arrived on our shores.
That's not to say that aviation is the only part of the transport sector struggling to rein in its CO2 pollution.
New Zealand's gross emissions jumped 2.2 per cent between 2016 and 2017 — and one of the biggest increases was the 6 per cent bump (an equivalent of 863 tonnes of CO2) chalked up by road transport over that period.
In all, transport makes up 20 per cent of the country's total emissions, and two-thirds of that comes from the cars, SUVs and utes we drive.
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After repeated recommendations to adopt a "feebate" scheme to clean up our ageing vehicle fleet, the Government has moved to bring in a Clean Car Standard, requiring importers to reduce the average emissions of the vehicles they are bringing into the country.
But it won't apply to the rest of our existing fleet, which is one of the oldest in the developed world.
Why is age a factor?
It's estimated that the average car drives some 12,000 km a year.
Before 2008, that average car emitted around 215g of CO2 per kilometre (gCO2/km).
With more modern and efficient vehicles on our roads, that's dropped to 180 gCO2/km — but there's still a long way to go.
Atkinson himself argues that tackling New Zealand's transport emissions, and those from everywhere else, shouldn't be thought of as a sacrifice.
"This framing blinds us to the fact that, almost invariably, for everything we are asked to give up, there exist equally good, perhaps better alternatives that we likely haven't even considered," he said.
"We confuse new opportunities for sacrifice."
What are those new opportunities?
Just as with cutting down on red meat consumption, the obvious one is for our health.
There's plenty of research to show that trading a car trip for walking or cycling leads to longer, healthier lives, and happier, more social ones, too.
In our largest city, nearly four in 10 Aucklanders now cycle regularly, while more than two-thirds frequently walk.
With more people taking up active transport, and better infrastructure helping people feel more confident on a bike, numbers are growing year on year.
So, too, are the numbers of Kiwis buying electric vehicles.
There are now more than 22,000 EVs on our roads, most of them in our major cities — though this is well short of the target of 64,000 EVs the previous National-led government set for 2021.
That's partly because the upfront cost of a brand-new EV can be high: the cheapest option, an MG ZS EV, sits at around $50,000, but older models of Nissan's popular Leaf can still be found second-hand for around $10,000.
And the benefits are many.
EVs are far cheaper to run than petrol or diesel vehicles, and New Zealand's high renewable-energy levels mean their carbon-cutting benefits are much greater than in other countries, producing about 80 per cent fewer emissions than a traditional car with an internal combustion engine.
Still, EVs have a perception problem to overcome, with Kiwi men apparently worried that owning one might dent their "macho" image.
A 2018 poll of Kiwi EV owners found the powerful thrum of an internal combustion engine was apparently more manly than the calm quiet of an electric engine — something more likely to appeal to women, apparently.
As far as Joe Camuso of citizen-science project Flip the Fleet is concerned, the pros of EVs trump any negative stereotypes about them.
"Put a man or a woman behind the wheel for a test drive, and they are sold in a minute. It's a fast, quiet and comfortable ride," he said.
"Later, you can fill in that they are also good for your purse and the planet."
• This extract series continues tomorrow, as part of the Herald's Covering Climate Now coverage, with a look at population growth.
• Text extracted from Climate Aotearoa: What's happening and what we can do about it, a new book from a range of leading New Zealand climate scientists and commentators, edited by Helen Clark. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. RRP$36.99. Available in stores from Monday, April 19