Who’s out in front on climate action in this country? After the activist and lobby groups, and the Green Party, how about business?
Last week at the Viaduct Events Centre, the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) and Sustainable Business Council (SBC) jointly hosted their Climate Change and Business Conference. It’s an annual event, but this year it felt urgent.
The impact of Cyclone Gabrielle and the election campaign contributed to that. But so did something else: in most corporate sectors of the economy now, there are specialist staff, defined objectives and executive leadership focused on reducing emissions.
In the business world, climate action has become mainstream.
You wouldn’t know this listening to most politicians, or the traditional business groups like Business NZ, the Employers and Manufacturers Association and the Auckland Business Chamber. But the range of participants in that conference tells a story in itself.
There were executives and specialists from power companies, air travel, road transport, oil companies, financial and legal services, banks, iwi, economic agencies, regulatory and advisory bodies, property developers, the dairy sector, tech companies, environmental lobbyists, government agencies, funding bodies and change agents like the Green Building Council and the Sustainable Business Network.
Sure, some of the business “commitment” is greenwashing. But that’s being confronted. There’s a fast-growing world of new rules and regulations now, along with legal experts to administer them (see below).
And sure, for some companies the motive might be little more than chasing a market opportunity. But does that matter? If a bank sees a way to make money with green financing, that’s good, because it will do more of it.
Here are some takeaways from the conference.
1. Greenwishing and greenhushing are now a thing
Greenwashing is where companies pretend to be committed to lowering emissions without making much, or any, effort to do so.
Greenwishing is where their intentions to change are highlighted, but they aren’t backed by action now. Example: car companies that set a carbon-neutral goal for 2040 while ramping up production of petrol-driven SUVs.
Conversely, “greenhushing” is where a company declines to claim it is lowering emissions, for fear of being called out for getting it wrong.
This happens when it finds the regulations too hard to follow. This can mean that instead of trying, they abandon the attempt altogether.
The UN has addressed these issues in a new report called Integrity Matters, which provides advice on how to transition to zero-carbon practice. Alongside that, legal frameworks are emerging internationally to control claims about lower emissions and other green goals.
This will put an end to some of the claims we hear quite often. “Sustainable”, for example, is almost meaningless. And it’s expected that companies – and countries like New Zealand – won’t be able to buy carbon credits overseas and count them towards their “net zero” goals.
But despite the ducking and diving of some, many conference speakers were confident about the progress they see.
Chapman Tripp partner Nicola Swan said there is “exponential growth in target setting”. Swan, who specialises in dispute resolution and climate risk, added that there has been an “87 per cent growth in demand for validation services”. That’s companies wanting to do it right.
The BNZ’s sustainable finance director, Jacqui Macalister, said, “We’ve now arrived at the horizon of climate change litigation.” You could get sued if you do it wrong.
The chair of their session, RNZ’s Eloise Gibson, was sceptical. How, she asked, was it credible for petrol companies to commit to effective climate action when their business model is to “sell as much petrol for as long as possible until the alternatives are here?”
Z Energy’s general counsel Debra Blackett replied: “The future includes declining fuel volumes and we want to get ahead of that.”
Teressa Betty from consultancy Toitū Envirocare advised businesses to “measure, manage, reduce and certify”.
The BNZ’s Macalister said her advice to clients is threefold. “Do the work, which means have a plan. Tell the truth. And be humble.”
2. ‘Climate change is not another bucket’
The keynote speaker at the conference, environmental scientist Katharine Hayhoe from the Nature Conservancy, Zoomed in from the US.
She suggested that politics is a row of buckets everyone is trying to fill. Poverty, the cost of living, healthcare, crime, transport ... and what about the climate?
“Climate change is not another bucket,” she said. “It’s a hole in every bucket. You can’t fill any of them unless you patch the climate-change hole.”
3. The funding rules are rigorous
In May, the Government announced $140 million in funding for NZ Steel to convert its Glenbrook plant from coal to electric battery power. It’s the biggest single emissions reduction measure in the country and will account for more than 5 per cent of our commitments 2026-2030.
National and Act have opposed the project, arguing NZ Steel is owned by the wildly successful Australian corporate BlueScope, which can afford to do the conversion without any help from the taxpayer.
The money for this project comes from the Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry (GIDI) fund, administered by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA). GIDI itself is at risk if there’s a change of government.
Nicki Sutherland of EECA told the conference about the approvals process for GIDI funds. “It’s very rigorous,” she said. “You have to prove you couldn’t do the project on your own and there are strict payback criteria.”
She said they’d been given access to “enormous amounts of data, which allowed us to judge how effective the funding will be. NZ Steel might have done this eventually, but they would have gone much slower because the numbers weren’t there.”
She added that lots of project applications are scaled back or rejected because they don’t need the funding or won’t make a big enough impact.
National’s Simon Watts told the conference his party believed it could achieve the same results by sitting down for honest conversations with companies.
4. ‘There’s not a lot of bold’
For all the proclamations of progress, Fenwick wasn’t all that impressed. She runs the digital startup Futureful, which helps people find jobs in climate action and other environmental work, and in the last session of the conference she said there was lots of managerial leadership but “not a lot of bold”.
“We should be saying, ‘God, that is bloody bold and brilliant,’ not, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard that before.’ Because we are not acting fast enough.
“It’s a climate crisis, not climate change,” she said. “And people think limited warming to 1.5 degrees will be good. But 1.5 is a disaster. It’s just the lesser of all the disasters. Millions will still die.”
5. ‘Stand up to those that are in the way’
Sitting next to her, Climate Change Commission chairman Rod Carr said the transition everyone was talking about was “an enormous opportunity for New Zealand. Not for some countries, but it is for us.”
In agriculture, he said, “If we do not figure out how to make milk and meat protein with low emissions, the countries that can afford to buy elsewhere will do so. By the middle of this century: let’s say in 20 years from now.”
Already in Britain, he said, 30 per cent of people aged under 30 eat meat rarely, if at all.
His plea to conference delegates: “Stand up to those that are in the way.”
And he looked ahead, with more optimism than Fenwick. “I invite you all to hold in your head a vision of New Zealand 2050. It’s cleaner, greener and kinder. It’s a place where people will say, ‘They were late to the party but by the middle of the 2020s, we got our act together.’ I think the best possible contribution we can give the world is to figure out how to make the most of our own environment.”
The little country that could.
But is it true? Can we make a difference?
This is what Carr says. “New Zealand has 0.06 per cent of the world’s population. We are little. We emit 0.17 per cent of all global emissions. That’s three times our share of the population.
“Historically, we have been attributed 0.13 per cent of all the carbon dioxide that has been emitted. If we took all of our agricultural emissions out of our emissions profile, and left all of China’s manufacturing emissions in their profile, our emissions would still be twice theirs, per capita.
“We are among the richest nations in the world and we have access to technologies that, should we choose to, we can reduce our emissions. If we don’t do that, it’s a choice we make. We can afford it.
“And arguing that because we are little we won’t make a difference means that every New Zealander who ever fought in any war wasted their effort.
“We need to do the right thing. We need to role model for a hundred small countries like us that being little does not get you out of jail free. But being little and taking action reassures others that they too can take meaningful action. And those hundred little counties are a third of global emissions.”
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.