Government needs to inspire NZers, says expert.

New Zealand's approach so far to climate change has been labelled "complacent" by a leading energy researcher.

Anna Berka, a research fellow at the University of Auckland's Energy Centre, says there has been a tendency by Kiwis to think New Zealand is too small to contribute to significant global change and can't afford to try.

"People regard the process as too expensive, that we should wait for other countries to develop the technology," she says. "This self-defeating narrative is repeated and reinforced by established industry players who dominate policy and media discourse."

She says our legacy and international standing in hydroelectric and geothermal power has, ironically, made us "complacent about putting in place" measures to help with climate change (New Zealand is the fourth largest generator of geothermal in the world, the energy accounting for about 16 per cent of our electricity needs)."


Although there has been targeted investment support from regional and national government for geothermal and electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure Berka says we must, and can, do much more.

"It costs us now and pays off in the future; so we put it on the back burner because we perceive there to be more pressing problems," she says.

Berka says many of the world's great policy reforms have come about in response to momentous events such as the oil shocks of the 1970s and the Second World War: "These were so severe they united political parties in cross-party consensus.

"We are at that point now with climate change," she says. "We are right on the precipice and it puzzles me why New Zealanders think we can't put in place a supportive policy environment; we only have to look back 30 years to know that when the government wants to it can make great change and quickly."

Her views are echoed by the findings of a new survey which shows few New Zealanders believe enough will be done to bring about climate change. The survey, commissioned by insurer IAG and conducted in June, revealed that only 10 per cent of Kiwis believe the country will take appropriate climate change action – even though 84 per cent think humanity is capable of doing so.

Anna Berka. Picture / Supplied
Anna Berka. Picture / Supplied

Berka has been comparing New Zealand's record with four European countries - Spain, Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom - which have had some success in orchestrating a state-led transition to renewable energy in the last 40 years.

She says Germany and Denmark in particular, have been consistently framing climate change as a civic opportunity and believes their example holds important lessons for New Zealand.

And while she recognises the work the government is doing for climate change - it is soon to begin drafting the Zero Carbon Bill which will set a new emissions reduction target by 2050 - Berka says "the government needs to touch the lives of the average Kiwi.


"To truly shore up public support for climate change policies that will outlive this government, the opportunities need to be accessible to start-ups, organisations and businesses across the country.

"There are many local groups and organisations trying to set up energy projects but they are finding it hard because there is no bridge to the wholesale market," she says. "We aren't offering New Zealanders simple ways to invest in the technologies we need for our mutual benefit."

However she believes vast opportunities exist - renewable agri-industrial heat, biofuels, virtual power plants with battery storage and mixed use afforestation programmes among them.

She says the government must serve as a knowledge broker and matchmaker, using grants and public loans to bring existing expertise out of the woodwork, put in place incentives to invest and regulations and public procurement programmes to guarantee demand.

But, she says, the recent announcement of a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in Taranaki risked alienating industry and the public.

"Without linking it to a broader programme that convinces New Zealanders they can and will benefit from the government's climate change objectives you set a dangerous precedent," she says.

"Delivering winning climate change policies is a careful balancing act that requires a willing-to-learn government with ears on the ground; this involves working with all stakeholders and independent research institutes.

"While market players ultimately do the heavy lifting, the role of government is to nudge, prod and finance for a period of years before market dynamics can take over and drive down costs," she says. "Climate change is a huge co-ordination problem for governments who, for the first time in history find themselves in a position where they have to manage how fast and in which direction we innovate," she says.

# Berka together with colleagues is organising the 1st New Zealand Forum for Local and Community Energy to be held in August in Wellington. The public event, funded by the University of Auckland Public Policy Institute and to be run in collaboration with Victoria University of Wellington's School of Maori Studies, will discuss ways people, local authorities and Maori and community organisations can achieve deeper engagement in energy efficiency, renewable heat and power generation and making electricity consumption more flexible.