COMMENT:

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cautioned world leaders not to bother bringing patsy speeches to the Climate Change Summit in New York in September. Instead, he urged them to bring action plans, the bolder the better.

He was laying a line, not so much a line in sand soon to be washed away by rising, stormier seas, as a line in time. Act now, he was saying, tomorrow will be too late.

And 16-year-old Swedish climate activist sensation Greta Thunberg chimed in at the same summit with an impassioned call to action. "How dare you pretend," she told delegates, voice trembling, "that this [climate emergency] can be solved with just 'business as usual' and some technical solutions."

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As they mounted a pincer attack on climate procrastination, Guterres and Thunberg were arguing that radical change would be the only way to avoid catastrophic heating of the planet.

How did the New Zealand presence at the summit respond?

As if holding back on what her compromise-driven coalition government in New Zealand could do, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reinforced previous promises but nothing beyond a middle-of-the-road policy response.

In policy terms, New Zealand needs to ramp up its climate action.

Climate change — or global heating and its consequences to get to the nub — is a multi-headed monster that will pretty much defeat all but the most radical of responses. There are two broad approaches — mitigation (radically reduced carbon emissions) and adaptation (get ready with haste for what's coming).

Here are some thoughts on getting bold with mitigation:

• Get cracking earlier on achieving net-zero carbon emissions. Thirty years (2050) is too late. Just ask the Pacific coral atoll states and the thousands of New Zealand households that lie within half a metre of high tide. Aim for substantial emission reductions by 2030.

• Quick, set up a committee. Trouble is, the required climate legislation is taking most of this term of Parliament to get over the line, let alone progress research and policy to curb New Zealand's carbon emissions, which are among the world's highest per capita. The proposed Climate Change Commission is many months away from putting up a robust plan. Hurry up, Parliament, and make sure you properly resource the new commission.

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• Rethink renewable energy. Through the 2020s, phase out fossil-fuel power generation. Boost uptake of solar panels and photovoltaic arrays through government subsidies and require mandatory use of such panels through a revised building code for new houses and buildings (if double-glazing is a must, why not panels for electricity and solar water heating?). The sight of new housing subdivisions where roofs do nothing to capture solar power is appalling. For goodness sake, we're in the midst of an electronic industrial revolution, so use it!

Protesters march on Queen St in Auckland's CBD to gain awareness around climate change action. Photo / Peter Meecham
Protesters march on Queen St in Auckland's CBD to gain awareness around climate change action. Photo / Peter Meecham

A few thoughts on bolder adaptation:

• Get the measure. We cannot properly plan for sea-level rise (Niwa is forecasting at least 20cm by 2040, and accelerating towards 2100), unless we have an accurate fine-grain measure of coastal elevations, especially in low-lying areas. Across the country, over the past 15 years, councils have flown aerial surveys with laser technology called LiDAR, but only if they saw fit and could afford to pay for the service. Gaps remain, and the technology, using drones, has evolved and become more affordable. Central government should commission and pay for a complete national LiDAR survey of coastal elevations so there is consistency and no areas miss out.

• Centralise coastal management. Our enormously long coast is the frontline of climate risk but management is fragmented. New Zealand has 78 councils, 63 of which (80 per cent) have an ocean coastline. Each piece of the coast has its own district and regional plan, and there are dozens of plans.

Some councils have coastal management plans, most don't. There is likely to be pushback from councils seeking patch protection, but for the sake of equity and effectiveness, a centralised management arrangement is the way to go. It works in the UK.

• Overhaul the Resource Management Act. It has failed to anticipate the reality of climate disorder and is patently no longer fit for purpose in a warming world. A political football lacking relevant goalposts, the RMA should be bolstered by a whole new section devoted to directed climate actions (out with the waffle — eg, the "give consideration to"-type statements).

The United Nations is a bureaucracy with its own sometimes waffly way of expressing itself, but its message for all humanity when it comes to climate change is clear enough: the world has to stay within 1.5C of atmospheric warming to avoid catastrophic consequences on land and in the sea.

Such a threshold needs explaining, however. The 1.5C figure is measured from the mid-1700s, roughly when the Industrial Revolution began, and the alarming thing is, we are less than half a degree off reaching that level of warming.

The world's average annual temperature compared to 1750 is 1.1C warmer, and the warming trend continues. There is precious little freeboard remaining.

Radical reform is the only safe pathway, and through the 2020s we might have to get used to short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. In other words, accept a climate of radical change or succumb to a climate of fear.

Neville Peat is a Dunedin writer and former councillor with the Otago Regional and Dunedin City councils.