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Government, Business, Me, You: We all need to act to reduce carbon emissions - Starting Now!

I attended this year's EDS Australia-New Zealand Climate Change and Business Conference, with Inge Bremer, as VKK delegates (at our own expense).

The overall message at the conference was: that the times of debating the existence of Climate Change and its effects are clearly over. The risks and opportunities are recognized and starting to be tackled. Yet, speed is of essence for planning, adaptation, transformation, risk mitigation.

The Conference started on a positive note: last December's surprising Paris Agreement COP21 was signed by 196 countries and has already been validated through ratification by 58 countries (incl. New Zealand). This speed was seen as extremely unusual, reflecting the now understood urgency to keep global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is now critical that all aspects of society get involved in developing plans to reduce global emissions: governments, businesses and populations, with emphasis on the actions of the world’s largest emitters, China, the United States and the European Union.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett said the Government recognised the need for policy certainty and a comprehensive plan to reduce New Zealand’s emissions in line with the country’s Paris Agreement pledge (to cut emissions by 11 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030), and said progress was being made on a cross-party consensus on climate change policy. The Ministry for the Environment’s director of climate change, Kay Harrison, said the current review of the Emissions Trading Scheme is a chance to fix mistakes in the original design to the scheme and prepare it for the Paris Agreement, which comes into force in 2021. She stressed the need to take it slowly and get it right, and said officials will be seeking more input from businesses and other organisations.

A discussion on the operation of the ETS focussed largely on the future supply of carbon credits, as New Zealand and other countries are relying on the ability to purchase credits internationally to meet their Paris Agreement pledges. There was also a good deal of discussion on how New Zealand should deal with biological emissions from agriculture, which make up nearly half New Zealand’s total emissions profile. Examples from the real world saw businesses outlining how they are cutting emissions with positive economic results: Ikea has installed 700,000 solar panels on the roofs of its buildings, NZ Bus is converting its fleet of diesel buses to electricity, Fonterra is using heat recovery to avoid using more coal, and Countdown is using natural refrigeration to cut emissions and LED lights to slash energy consumption (and cutting 40 per cent off its energy bill). The first day ended with three challenges:

  • From environmental group WWF to business to challenge the government to do more – along with a pat on the back from WWF to business for the progress it’s made on the issue.

  • To governments from the European Union’s Ambassador-Designate to New Zealand, to do what it takes to “internalise the largest externality in history” – climate change.

  • To businesses from Westpac New Zealand, to get started on carbon foot-printing, to start talking to customers and suppliers about the low-carbon economy, and to start thinking about the opportunities.

The second day focused on how New Zealand should transition to a low-carbon economy and where we are going to find the money to fund New Zealand’s transition to the low-carbon economy and to deal with the now-unavoidable impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels. General consensus was that some sort of structured plan is needed. As Professor David Frame said, simply shouting “run, fat boy, run” to an economy that’s carrying too many emissions isn’t going to help it loose weight. Karen Silk, Westpac New Zealand’s general manager commercial, corporate and institutional, said that one of the problems facing start-up companies with a good idea for dealing with climate change and its impacts is the time it takes to get others to understand what they’re talking about so that they can secure the funding they need. Emma Herd, chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change which represents companies with more than $1 trillion under investment, said that companies need to talk openly about the carbon risks they are exposed to and to report on it. Enviro-Mark Solutions chief executive Dr Ann Smith, who has been helping businesses voluntarily measure and offset their emissions for 10 years, said that carbon needs to be at a price that’s high enough to make it worthwhile for companies to actually reduce emissions. “If anyone is offsetting their full carbon footprint it suggests to me that the credits are just too darn cheap,” she said. By pricing carbon into budgets now, she says, companies can make the business case for switching to low-carbon technology. CDP Australia and New Zealand director James Day said New Zealand companies should be aware that many of the international companies they are dealing with – including Nestles, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Coca-Cola and Unilever – are working actively to exclude carbon from their products and supply chains. And that means that New Zealand companies need to be thinking seriously about how they are going to decarbonise, said EY climate and sustainability manager Tracey Ryan. “Ticking boxes on sustainability is no longer enough,” she said. In a discussion on adapting to the impacts of climate change which are now unavoidable, Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton warned that that billions of dollars worth of assets in New Zealand could become uninsurable, causing flow-on effects through the economy. “Two hundred billion dollars worth of home loans are securitised by insurance,” he said. “If some of those properties can’t insure they’re not going to get 30-year mortgages, and that will affect the property market.” But the news wasn’t all bad. Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environment Foundation and chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, described how his city had managed to reduce emissions. Simon Fraser University Center for Dialogue fellow Gordon Price – a former local body politician from Vancouver – challenged New Zealand to “double up” and take action to turn catastrophe into an opportunity to create better, happier cities. His motto: "If you have identified a hole, stop digging!" Times of debating the existence of Climate Change and its effects are clearly over: the risks and opportunities are recognized and started to be tackled. Yet, speed is of essence for planning, adaptation, transformation, risk mitigation... The conference was well attended by scientists, politicians, businesses, NGOs, journalists as well as some Council people (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Nelson, Ashburton and some others). Pity no FNDC councillors or staff use such a valuable opportunity in preparation for the challenges ahead for town planning and regional plans.

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