The bigwigs got down to it this month in Auckland. Climate change? The mood was clear: it's time to get this thing done. At not one but two major conferences, both focused on how we get from now to a better future, the climate crisis was treated as the most dangerous threat we've faced in our lifetimes. Covid included. Finally, it's top of mind.
Hundreds of people turned up to each event: business leaders, government and council officials, lobbyists, engineers, lawyers, planners, academics, scientists, community organisations.
Very few politicians. Their absence was shameful, especially as it was clear at both conferences that few elected representatives, in Parliament and town halls, are in the vanguard. There wasn't much media there either, I'm sorry to say.
But among the dozens of speakers, many drove stakes into the ground and declared: this is it, we have to act now, right now, there is so much to do. And they told the audience what their organisation was already doing.
It was inspiring. It was also depressing, because behind the words, was there really enough action? And it was scary. Every proclamation of good intent and good work now highlights how little we have done to date.
Joanna Silver, head of sustainable finance at Westpac, posed the challenge more clearly than anyone. "It's really simple maths," she said. "What we have to do is cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050."
This is our obligation under the Paris Accord and we do not have a national plan to achieve it.
But – yes, there is good news – by the end of next year we could have one. The Government is required by law to produce an emissions reduction plan by then that shows how we will meet those targets. That law, the Zero Carbon Act, was adopted last year with the support of every MP except one.
Silver had another stark reminder. Despite all the fine words about progress, she said, there's this: "We haven't actually cut any emissions yet."
In fact, as Russel Norman from Greenpeace said, we're on track for a 16 per cent rise by 2030.
Is the glass half full or half empty? We don't know yet. There was much evidence at those conferences of the glass filling up. But also, quite a lot to suggest it's emptying.
The first conference, organised by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) was called Climate Change and Business. The second was hosted by Infrastructure NZ, with the title ReBuilding Nations. Here's some of what went down.
HERE'S THE problem, said Laura Clarke, British High Commissioner, at the EDS conference. "New Zealand has a Scandinavian attitude to quality of life and an American attitude to tax." That's blunt speaking for a diplomat. But the times call for bluntness.
Alec Tang, Auckland Council's acting chief sustainability officer, chimed in with this: "We're addressing all this as usual. We ask ourselves, how do we keep doing what we're already doing, but with less impact? That has to change."
Joanna Silver at ReBuilding Nations was more explicit. Our economy is dependent on fossil fuels, she said. "To change that will not be pretty. We need to get off the path of a dependent system, and for that we need to disrupt."
Bryn Gandy, the systems, strategy and investment guy at the Ministry of Transport, said things have already changed for his organisation. "The big questions now are: who's it for, what's the impact, how will it drive change? These are very different from the questions we used to ask even five years ago."
It's not easy knowing what to do. Perhaps the best way to start is just to start.
"Transition?" asked Dean Kimpton, an engineer who used to work for the Auckland Council and a member of the Resource Management Act (RMA) review panel, led by retired judge Tony Randerson. "We've debated transition for 10 years. The transition plan now is just to get on with it."
In Christchurch, the city council did that with their petrol-driven vehicles. They couldn't afford to replace them with electric vehicles, so they teamed up with other agencies and bought a fleet of EVs to share. And outside normal working hours, the cars can be hired by community groups and others. It's called the Commuter Club.
In Auckland, they have not been as determined or as inventive. Plans to convert the council fleet to EVs are stalled; even with electric buses, they're making very slow progress.
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub said the important thing was to "have the courage to try new stuff". Whenever he speaks to an audience about the climate threat, he said, he asks them one thing: "Put pressure on our politicians to have the courage".
Bryce Davies at insurer IAG said corporations were better at understanding their emissions than climate risk. In other words, they know it's a thing and they know they're implicated, but they don't grasp the larger picture and the role they could and should play in it.
"My challenge for the businesses in the room: what leadership will you show?"
Just to sharpen the mind around the insurance issue, here's James Hughes from the engineering consultancy Tonkin + Taylor: "A 30cm sea-level rise, expected later this century, will shift a one-in-100-year event to annual."
How much longer will at-risk coastal properties be able to get insurance? And how many of us are "at risk"? Most New Zealanders live near the coast.
The strategic response is called "managed retreat". Kimpton says the Randerson committee looked every which way at that issue and could not fit it into their framework for RMA reform. So they've proposed a separate law.
But they have not tried to answer the two key questions: who's going to pay and who's going to get paid?
If you're looking for a massive issue to confound the orderly planning of a climate strategy, managed retreat is it. Stand by for anguish.
MEANWHILE, IN business, the leading voice belongs to the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA). Strangely, it's an outlier, a lone voice at the ReBuilding Nations conference that seemed sceptical about the need for committed action.
The EMA's head of advocacy and strategy, Alan McDonald, said he'd been travelling the country meeting small and medium business owners and almost none of them was talking about climate change or emissions reductions. It wasn't an issue and, he implied, they resent it when anyone suggests it should be.
Perhaps that's true: the message hasn't got through. But climate change poses an enormous threat to SMEs, both directly to individual businesses and in what it will do to the economy. If the EMA had a smidge of responsibility about this, it would stop telling industry forums no one is worried and start educating its members on exactly why they should be worried and what they need to do.
But why listen so much to the EMA? It doesn't speak for the whole business sector. One of the splendid developments of the past couple of decades has been the rise of business groups that do get it. Pure Advantage, the Sustainable Business Network, the Green Building Council and others work hard to reframe the debate.
Joanna Silver at Westpac said she talked to customers every day about how climate risk was business risk. "Nobody," she told the same conference, "is talking about shelving their climate change concerns till we get other problems fixed."
Business has to step up for this, said Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr. "Your plan is only as good as the evidence it's based on, which must be informed by frontline actors who have their feet in the mud and their hands on the tools."
Many companies are responding, or say they are. David Benattar, a Warehouse executive, has introduced a carbon-neutrality programme for his company. He told the EDS conference that meetings to discuss it get "the largest staff turnout ever".
"I can't take a walk without being accosted by staff who want to propose a new idea or question why we're still doing something bad," he said.
But is it real or is it greenwash?
There's a Climate Leaders Panel in this country, comprising the leaders of companies that produce 60 per cent of business emissions. Big business. It's chaired by Mike Bennetts, widely regarded as one of the most progressive big business voices we have.
Bennetts is the CEO at Z Energy. He sells petrol for a living and his company's profits, and his job, depend on him selling a lot of it. But he has also committed the company to finding ways to move away from fossil fuels.
So here's a question: Is it outrageous that fuel companies, airlines and other big emitters take the lead in business discussions about climate change? Or are they exactly the companies that should do that?
Bennetts' own company works hard to develop cleaner ways to fuel vehicles. But there's no green bullet. For example, Z Energy makes a biofuel that's 5 per cent tallow extract and 95 per cent diesel. The net emissions reduction is 4 per cent, while the ongoing use of diesel is locked in. Is that useful?
Joanna Silver: "We're nearing the stage of full-blown crisis, so the time for action by every business is now."
AUCKLAND COUNCIL has declared a climate emergency and it has a strategy to address it, but it's all words at the moment because the budgets aren't set. That process, for a new 10-year plan, is now underway in closed-session workshops.
When the new 10-year budget is released for public consultation early next year, we'll know just how committed the council is to putting our money where its mouth is.
Already, the council requires all proposals and reports to include a "climate impact statement". Good? Sadly, it's quite frequently avoided with a handy workaround. Just this month, for example, an officials' report on housing for the elderly claimed: "This report does not generate decisions with climate impacts."
But that can't be true. Even if, as in this case, the recommendation is to do nothing different, all housing decisions have climate-change impacts.
In some other parts of the country, the news is plainly worse. In the Wellington region, an expert report by Ernst & Young and Beca has warned that by 2026 the region will not have enough water to cope with a drought. Despite that, most of the region's mayors are opposed to introducing smart meters, which are an essential tool for managing water use.
Why? Because they won't spend the money. It's Laura Clarke's "American attitude to tax." In Tauranga, the same thing: councillors are refusing to ask ratepayers to pay for much-needed infrastructure.
Also in Wellington, the transport agency Waka Kotahi has reported that the city council made such a bad job of introducing the Island Bay cycleway, it has lost its "social licence" to do more.
What hope will these councils have of creating the necessary big plans to deal with managed retreat, the risks of drought and floods, the need to reduce emissions and all the other demands of climate action?
British urban development consultant Greg Clark had some good advice for them at the ReBuilding Nations conference. "Focus on net-zero not just as a climate issue," he said, "but as an economic strategy geared to improving your society's quality of life."
All is not lost among the councils. One of the best climate-related projects internationally in recent times is the Thriving Cities Initiative, which is based on the concept of "doughnut economics", developed by British economist Kate Raworth.
Doughnut economics proposes that we adopt a new model that shows us how to live well without overusing resources (I interviewed Raworth recently, after she had Zoomed into an election meeting here, and will report on that soon).
Thriving Cities is a collaboration between C40 Cities, Raworth's own Doughnut Economics Action Laboratory and other groups. They call the approach a City Portrait. Pilot programmes were set up last year in Amsterdam, Portland and Philadelphia, and the work has stepped up as part of those cities' Covid recovery plans.
I asked Raworth how she chooses who to work with. "You go where the energy is," she said. "You work with the people who get it."
In New Zealand, that's Dunedin. The Dunedin City Council voted 9-4 in September to adopt the City Portrait as its planning framework.
"It's perfect for us," says mayor Aaron Hawkins.
Nearby, the Southland economic development agency Great South thinks the same. It's using the model to plan its own post-Covid recovery. It's still early days to see how it pans out, for Dunedin and Southland.
Auckland Council is a member of C40 Cities but has not signed up for the City Portrait.
NEXT YEAR, the big one. Play it right, and in 2021 the Government will create both the framework for profound change and the social licence that allows it to proceed. Play it wrong, and the chance of a generation will go begging.
I'm quoting the PM, by the way. Jacinda Ardern beamed in to the ReBuilding Nations conference to tell the assembled delegates the country is now facing "a once-in-a-generation opportunity".
Here's why. Labour's Co-operation Agreement with the Green Party commits the Government to measures to "decarbonise the economy" in line with our undertakings in the Paris Accord. That's a way of reminding them of the contents of the Zero Carbon Act, passed into law in 2019, and of the functions of the Climate Change Commission it created.
In effect, this act commits us to halving our 2017 net carbon emissions by 2030 and eliminating them completely by 2050. It also sets target for biogenic methane emissions: 10 per cent lower by 2030, and between 24 and 47 per cent down by 2050.
The commission cannot instruct the Government, or Parliament, how to do this. Nor can it set the price of carbon. It does not have levers it can use independently of politicians, the way the Reserve Bank has.
But on February 1 next year, as required by the act, the commission will release a draft "carbon budget". This will propose measures for the Government to adopt, in order to reach the targets – especially the 2030 targets.
Public consultation will follow, along with a formal response from the Government, also as required by the act. Then, the Government must commit itself, putting an emissions reduction action plan into law by the end of the year.
Commuter transport and freight logistics, energy generation and use, construction of all kinds, water and waste management, land use, city life and agriculture: all will be implicated.
2021 will be the year. We will be asked to debate climate change in order to decide how we want to live, and the Government is supposed to adopt a series of real-world practical steps – involving everyone – to realise that vision within the 2030 targets.
Making vastly complicated issues easy to understand will be hard. Keeping the debate constructive and identifying the best effective measures will be hard. Creating a public consensus on tradeoffs and opportunities may be the hardest of all.
But we know it can be done. We have a Government capable of generating enormous public support for difficult measures, as the Covid response proved. And we're there for it. We've learned that too.
Hope, or despair? Half full or running down to empty?
David Parker, Minister for the Environment, told the EDS conference, "The Prime Minister has told me she wants step change on the environment."
Kate Raworth said this: "Please, show us how you can do it. I really look forward to hearing your solutions."
Rod Carr, the commission chair, said it would be critical to "get the messaging right". Which, presumably, means a much better name than "carbon budget debate". And it will be helpful if the PM can resist her natural urge to rule out difficult proposals before their value is well understood.
All those voters who rallied to Ardern and the Labour banner in the election last month: isn't this what they want? A Government that grasps that the time is right to do this thing? We have nine years.
Red flags: how to judge an organisation's commitment to climate action
"Businesses that don't take this seriously are using people as a human shield." - Kate Raworth, British economist
The warning signs that tell you when a business, council or organisation is not taking climate change seriously:
• If they say: We've got a plan for 2040, or even 2035. That's not fast enough. The focus is on right now, so we can halve emissions by 2030.
• If they say: We're compliant. That means they're doing no more than they have to by law. Westpac exec Joanna Silver:"Managing climate risk is not about compliance. It's got to be central to your mid-to-long-term strategy."
• If they're proud to have a "sustainability officer". It's a token response. Climate change strategy should be a) the responsibility of a dedicated top executive, b) with a team working for them, c) with a company-wide commitment to call on. Otherwise, however heroic their work, it's a cheap manager making the organisation look good.
• If they aren't focused on reducing their own emissions. Fonterra is making milk bottles from plants, which is nice, but how committed is it to reducing methane emissions?
What individuals and organisations can do
"The power to adapt is in our hands." - Andrew Tait, chief scientist, NIWA Climate Change Commissioner
Rod Carr has some advice for organisations and individuals confronting the climate crisis.
• Look at everything you do through a climate change lens and make your decisions accordingly.
• Bring it forward. "Do sooner what you're going to have to do later anyway."
• For organisations: Partner up. "If central and local governments work together, with iwi, businesses and NGOs, they can leverage their contribution by compounding it. Make the partnership real: listen, learn, self-correct and above all act. And lock it in: don't be bold and then resile from your own plans."
• For individuals: Talk about it, be an advocate, put pressure on others to take action and "be proud of the action".
• Remember, every time you buy something, you're voting for the world to have more of that thing. Is it a purchase that helps or harms the planet?
• Put pressure on your employers.
• Measure things. "Use a dashboard to measure progress on many fronts, and think about what you measure." That goes directly to the question of how to balance economic, social wellbeing and environmental goals.
• Vote well. "In a democracy we get the leaders we choose."
Why I'm Afraid: The series
Part 1: In the century of crisis we are not coping
Part 2: Confronting the climate crisis
Part 3: After America's Age of the Ridiculous, what now?
Part 4: Doughnut economics and a reason to hope