Hard on the heels of the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill, Nelson City Council and Environment Canterbury have taken the pioneering steps of declaring New Zealand’s first states of climate emergency.

2009 Climate protest, Canberra.

2009 Climate protest, Canberra.

Like the Bill a week earlier, these are milestone events intended to propel climate responses to much higher levels, and, hopefully, spur others to follow suit.

In the bigger picture, these strategies should reset our priorities to match the seriousness of the climate crisis, and help us to sustain vibrant societies during the times of great change stretching out ahead.

Declaration of climate emergencies as at 13 05 19. (the timing of declarations in Quebec not available)

Declaration of climate emergencies as at 13 05 19. (the timing of declarations in Quebec not available)

Although these declarations are the first in New Zealand, they are far from new globally, with escalating adoptions elsewhere, ranging from the 2016 trailblazer, Victoria’s Darebin City Council, to the entire UK this month.

Nelson’s declaration was founded on a remarkable weight of submissions to the Annual Plan, plus the aspirational Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration of 2017. It also recognises irrefutable science around the climate crisis, as well as resounding calls for action from such well-informed movements as Extinction Rebellion and School Strike 4 Climate.

While the decision was a decisive 10/3 majority, that concealed serious challenges to the proposal. Various councillors sought extra consultation, more time for deliberation, and increased operational detail. Ultimately, though, there was no escaping the mood that this was a critical proposal whose time had come.

Additionally, councillors and submitters highlighted the importance of following through with correspondingly ambitious action, and so served notice on elected members that tangible action will be critical to proving this declaration is more than mere political theatre.

So, what does the declaration mean?

Above all, it signals to every one of us that, to maintain an appealing way of life into the future, we will be making significant climate-friendly changes on many fronts.

While largely aspirational, it commits Council to giving climate issues strategic priority. We might not welcome the climate crisis itself, but we should definitely welcome such intensified efforts to safeguard our long-term wellbeing.

Let’s be crystal clear, though: Nelson’s declaration is not creating the need for tough measures - that need is here, like it or not, from a climate crisis already in train. What the declaration is doing is improving our chances of sustaining thriving communities into the future, and that makes exceptionally good sense.

There’s no universal definition of “climate emergency”, and council is clear this declaration is not made under the Civil Defence and Emergency Act. However, the impacts of climate change still tick all the boxes under that Act’s definition of “emergency”.

Nelson’s own declaration is more about paving the way for ambitious action than defining the action itself, whereas declarations elsewhere have often been more definitive (such as targetting carbon zero by 2030). This places a heavy burden on the council team, who must quickly crystallise the underlying concepts into visionary actions that are, in turn, both robust and far reaching.

While there might be no single definition, several features characterise such declarations:

o Ambitious carbon zero targets, (frequently by 2030, echoing calls from the UN’s 2018 climate summit in Poland). Nelson has yet to set targets, but has almost completed important emissions profiling as a key foundation for that.

o Telling the climate crisis as it is. Most governing bodies, including Nelson City Council, historically downplayed the crisis, and overplayed their own climate responses. This declaration holds real promise of breaking that mould.

o Making climate change a priority in all council decisions. Nelson’s declaration is limited to strategic matters, but these should soon flow into more detailed actions.

o Engaging and informing the community. The Nelson declaration sends strong signals on this.

o Collaboration to maximise effective responses. This, too, is strongly signalled.

o Setting tight timeframes for planning and implementing. This is a major challenge now facing council, and, ultimately, facing us all. Council is now heading out on the tightrope between urgent, large-scale action on one side, and manageable rates of change on the other. We each have a strong interest, and an important role, in helping council keep its balance out there!

And day to day differences?

Scotland has already given us a glimpse. Barely a week after their 28th April declaration, their government controversially scrapped plans to cut airport departure taxes. The cuts were predicted to increase flights, and so also, unacceptably, increase emissions.

This reveals just how much it’s about a new way of thinking, and how a responsible approach to the climate will influence detailed decisions in our lives.

The range of potential effects is enormous, from the long-term planning of towns and transport, to how we buy our food. But the key effect will be a change in mindset, from “our lifestyle determines our emissions” to “our emissions determine our lifestyle”. That change need not be as scary as it might seem, but what has been scary is rushing headlong into the crisis without a good plan. This climate emergency declaration holds the potential to change that.

This article was first published by Stuff and the Nelson Mail on 22nd May 2019.


Comment 11 05 2019: This post has been slightly refined for clarification (e.g. that the step changes in emissions budgets are set so as to achieve the 2050 targets).

A legislative milestone.

The introduction of the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill to New Zealand’s parliament is of colossal importance, not only in the evolution of our own climate legislation, but also in blazing a trail for the world at large in regulating for the more ambitious 1.5°C Paris Agreement target.

Reaching this milestone with cross-party support is fundamental and, while clearly a major achievement of the Labour/Green/NZ First coalition, also casts a positive light on the National Party opposition.

Taking a lead from its UK precedent, a crucial objective of the legislation was defusing its potential to become a political time-bomb every election. The resultant document has skillfully blended the necessary compromises in a way that leaves it robust while still giving something for everyone.

The Labour and Green Parties clearly hold centre stage as champions of legislation whose time has come like no other, but there is concession enough, to the agricultural sector especially, to appease both National and New Zealand First.

Even ACT has found a point of difference, albeit by opposing the Bill in total, and so also distancing itself from perhaps the greatest reality check of the 21st century.


The proposal preserves key elements of the original Zero Carbon Bill, and none of the adjustments or concessions seem major game changers for climate, even though agricultural has got off too lightly. The main features of the new Bill are:

o Reduce all greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, except lesser targets for gases of biological origin;

o Reduce national emissions budgets in 5-yearly steps with settings to achieve the 2050 target;

o Obligations on government to develop and implement timely climate policies.

o Establishing a Climate Change Commission of experts to advise government.

Given that agricultural emissions are officially some 48% of our national total, the biggest concession is to require the reduction of the biogenic methane component (about 75%) by only 24%-47% below 2017 levels by 2050. This is not ambitious enough when methane offers our biggest and quickest means to drop our emissions.

Source MfE

Source MfE

Although this lets the agricultural sector too much off the hook, there are some mitigating factors. These include the relatively low emissions intensity of NZ agriculture compared to other countries; and joint research by Victoria and Oxford Universities showing the “GWP100“ metric used by the IPCC significantly over-estimates the impact of biogenic greenhouse gases once their role in the “short carbon cycle” is factored in.

However, the use of a 2017 baseline for biogenic methane (as against previous dates of 1990 or 2005) gives real concern, as the same VUW/Oxford research shows methane from changes in stock levels cause huge changes in warming effect.

Given that gross agricultural emissions increased by almost 20% from 1990 to 2015 (see graph), including major emissions from the intensive application of nitrogenous fertilisers (which do not have concessions and must reach zero by 2050), the 2017 reference is an additional reason the agricultural target is too soft.

Changes in area of forestry source: MfE “Environment Aotearoa 2019”.

Changes in area of forestry source: MfE “Environment Aotearoa 2019”.

Even so, Newshub reports National’s leader, Simon Bridges, as claiming that even the proposed methane reductions are too tough. While he might be playing to the farming sector, the reality is the world seriously needs large and speedy emissions reductions, and rapidly cutting ruminant numbers (especially those requiring intensive use of fertilisers) is one of our key strategies for that.

Factor in harvesting the “wall of wood” from our entrepreneurial ETS forests of the 1990s, and we also face major inroads into the CO2 absorption in our emissions profile (black in the diagram below). In that context, “tough” may well become “tougher” for all of us, and that may also apply to Bridges’ own approach to the agricultural sector.

Reductions in forestry and agricultural targets puts the focus on energy. Source MfE  Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Reductions in forestry and agricultural targets puts the focus on energy. Source MfE Greenhouse Gas Inventory

The flip side of “softer on agriculture”.

The inescapable outcome of lowering the bar for agriculture, compounded by the negative effect of the “wall of wood”, is the spotlight turning quickly onto energy as the major way for New Zealand to meet its emissions targets. This, in turn, means a steep trajectory to get right off fossil fuels – mostly in transport (around half of energy’s emissions, and the fastest growing), but also in manufacturing, heating buildings, and electricity generation.

NZ Energy emissions showing the scale and growth of transport. Source MfE  Greenhouse Gas Inventory

NZ Energy emissions showing the scale and growth of transport. Source MfE Greenhouse Gas Inventory

The Interim Climate Change Committee report on renewable electricity generation is imminent, and is expected to chart a plausible pathway to an all-but-100% renewable electricity grid by 2035. This will be a critical step in transitioning off fossil fuels – with other steps including the ability to actually access and sustain sufficient electric vehicles (when the entire world will be trying to do the same), and getting the energy infrastructure in place for the transport (the system might be evolving now with EV charging stations, but is still just a glow on the horizon for the hydrogen vehicles likely to prove critical to our heavy road transport sector).

Major expansion in public transport will also play a key role, especially in conjunction with intensifying urban densities. This necessary change is being helped by us progressively seeing public transport as a desirable way to travel, rather than a poor alternative to driving. We still have a way to go, however, to catch up with the vision of Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota: “A developed country is not a place where the poor drive cars, it’s where the rich use public transport.”

Economic impacts.

The Government’s summary of the Bill notes that all the economic modelling shows positive effects from the proposed measures (although a temporary decline might accompany the first, strong emissions reductions). That is in line with findings in many other parts of the world, and notably in northern Europe, but is no doubt dependent on certain assumptions that need to be upheld.

The summary goes on to emphasise that the Bill can help “build our global advantage”, a desirable and plausible outcome of pioneering legislation in a world desperately in need of change. However, it is regrettable the focus is just on competitive advantage, without making more of the enormous global benefits of acting as a role model and sharing information.

Hayden Montgomery, of the Global Research Alliance, recognises this. In speaking at the recent Agricultural Climate Change conference, he noted New Zealand is almost unique as a small, developed country with a strongly agricultural economy. Montgomery then highlighted the pivotal role of this country in leading the way in climate responses, especially in ways the many small, but less well developed, agricultural economies can follow.


Two key operational strategies are the Climate Change Commission (CCC) and the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

In specifying that the CCC will comprise a carefully-selected range of independent experts, the authors of the Bill have wisely resisted pressure to base it, instead, on stakeholders. This largely defuses issues of conflicts of interest, while still providing channels for stakeholders to be heard.

The CCC is predictably cast as an advisory body, which will irritate proponents of it having decision-making powers, but governments are expected not to depart from its advice except under special circumstances.

The ETS will be based on a series of 5-year emissions budgets, much as the original Zero Carbon Bill, and which will be set 15 years ahead (and subject to only minimal subsequent adjustment). This will not only give industry and the financial sector much-needed certainty for the path ahead, but will also go a long way towards defusing swings in response to political changes.

Actual emissions budgets will be set by Ministers on advice from the Climate Change Commission, and once the first three budgets are in place, governments will essentially be setting budgets in a 10-15 year future window, with only slight adjustments of the earlier budgets already in place.

The Bill proposes limited abilities to “bank” (carry forward budget surplus) and “borrow” (up to 1% from the next budget), subject to strict criteria.

Even though this approach has merit, it is to be hoped that encouragement will be given to not carry forward a surplus. This would then help accelerate overall reductions, to the extent that a given emissions “allowance” is relinquished rather than used in a subsequent period.

Legislation for individuals as well as big players.

It is too easy to see emissions trading schemes and panels of experts as relating to processes far removed from individual daily life. However, this legislation is a roadmap for critical processes that will shape our lives for decades ahead. The more we understand and engage with it the easier it will be for us and the better the legislation will work.

We’ve waited a very long time for climate legislation that held promise of being up to the job. This is a very good shot at it, and for my money a lot better than we might have been facing. While I feel we should press for our big agricultural sector to shoulder more of its share, I give this proposed legislation a good 8/10. Let’s give our parliamentarians the support and encouragement needed to fine tune it, get it in place, and make it work.


If you read my recent blog “50 Shades of Waste” you may recall my “unlikely new hero”, Johnny Baxter (who drove a Volvo truck an incredible 10% more efficiently than the best of the rest in the world). Well in following Johnny’s story I’ve also wound up as an unlikely follower of Dave McCoid, editor of New Zealand Trucking Magazine.

Dave doesn’t mince his words, but he doesn’t get stuck on ideology either. I probably spend more time than him trying to grasp climate change from every angle, but I wish I had Dave’s flair for expressing the issues. And he addresses the big environmental stuff much more often than you’d expect.

So while my writing tends to be a seasoning of right brain on a staple course of left, Dave’s comes out as pure right brain - though it’s not hard to read between his lively lines and realise there's much more scholarship in the background than his flamboyant style lets on.

I’m going let Dave’s writing speak for itself - it would be dumb not to. So here are a few tasty morsels from his latest serving: the weekly editorial that came in today (Friday 13th no less – as good a date as he’ll find to hit us between the eyes with something momentous). 

And as you read it, remember these are from the editorial of a trucking magazine, My guess is it shows up big time the mags of us planners, accountants, architects, lawyers …

I take my hat off to you, Dave - your voice deserves to be heard far and wide. Kia kaha. We need you. (Check in at NZ Trucking Magazine if you want a weekly stir-up from Dave!)

"Any volunteers? I thought not.

The youth and newborn babies in today’s first world societies will live an amazing life…they’ll be among the most privileged generation ever to have lived…. By the end of their lives however, they may well be seen as those who sacrificed on a scale normally reserved for war generations. The concept of getting on a plane for a mere holiday in Bali, to see Mickey Mouse, or the Eiffel Tower, may be as foreign by the end of their time as the thought of a weekend trip to Mars is for us now.


It’s likely as they age they’ll look back on sprawling, extravagant houses … with the same disdain we view medieval sanitation. We look back on the Vandals and Huns…will they see us as the Gluttons?


 What a significant extension of the planet’s life actually means is today’s youth at death will barely comprehend liberties and the waste of the world into which they were born. It’s that simple. They have less than a generation now to achieve that. Beyond that it’s a case of hoping the creationists get to say ‘I told you so. But then we’ll have to explain why we wrecked it, and who’s going to volunteer for that one? "

50 Shades of Waste

“Some of the greatest opportunities to reduce cost, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the least visible.”

“What does ‘efficient’ mean?" asked one of my grandsons the other day. We’d been discussing how best to carry garden cuttings to the compost heap. Like any self-respecting kid doing chores, he pounced on the idea of efficiency the moment he realised it meant doing the same job in less time and with less effort (i.e. with less waste).

But intuitively we think of “waste” less in terms of lost time or effort and more as seemingly useless bits left over from doing something (scrap paper, wallboard offcuts, broken TV etc.), so let’s start there.

Eden Project's "WEEE Man": one lifetime's electrical waste. Photo: Lindsay Wood

Eden Project's "WEEE Man": one lifetime's electrical waste. Photo: Lindsay Wood

The “WEEE Man” sculpture at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, helps put it in perspective. It represents the estimated 3.3 tonnes of one lifetime’s “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment”-  incredibly, the equivalent weight to discarding a smartphone every day for 90 years.

And of course, a lot of waste isn’t “waste” at all, but stuff we haven’t yet found the right use for. (I once designed a factory for colour coating sheet metal. With a bit of encouragement, the operators worked out how to recover the waste toxic solvents they’d been discharging into the air for years, and then how to use them to run their furnace and heat the whole process line. Environmental wins are so frequently also financial wins.)


With slashing trash increasingly in the spotlight, I was taken with the innovative trend reported at the June 2018 Green Building Summit in Auckland. In a "National-Park-philosophy-meets-the-construction-industry” situation, some building sites now have “no rubbish skip” policies.

This means that building team members must remove their waste themselves – and are reportedly more careful as a result. (I like the innovative – and counter-intuitive – thinking behind the “no bin” idea. And it doesn’t seem that long since recycling skips themselves felt like a breakthrough!) Given that some 12% of residential construction waste is cardboard packaging, clearly there’s lots of room for improvement.

We’ve also had recent wake-up calls on “recycling”, much of which looks increasingly like waste in drag. With China less welcoming of the rest of the world’s plastic scraps (and who blames them?) we’re suddenly in need of other options. These must include the Circular Economies (there are several) that are increasingly in the news, and whose approach centres on integrating the biosphere and technosphere, as well as rejigging the old “reduce/reuse/recycle” mantra to “reduce/reuse/repair”. 

The Cradle to Cradle certification logo (depicting circular economy loops that integrate the biosphere and technosphere).

The Cradle to Cradle certification logo (depicting circular economy loops that integrate the biosphere and technosphere).

And as some form of circular economy is an essential cornerstone of a truly sustainable society, we must embrace the zero-waste approach that underlies such systems.

The idea is captured well in the name and logo of the global “Cradle to Cradle” movement, an education and certification scheme aiming not only at ensuring every product has a completely ethical supply chain and a new use at the end of its life, but also to identify that use before the product is even made.


Then there’s the astonishing statistic in Project Drawdown’s list of strategies to tackle climate change: the third most powerful strategy in the world is cutting food waste. Check it out! .


       Invisible waste

But, as noted at the start, waste is about much more than stuff, and some of the greatest opportunities to reduce cost, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are some of the least visible.

On a scale far grander than my compost heap, efficiency is also what the Productivity Commission is about. Early June saw the closing of its consultation on draft strategies for New Zealand to move to a low-emissions economy to help address climate change.

You’d be excused for thinking the almost-1000-pages of documentation might be inherently inefficient, but they traverse a vast array of issues critical to the future of life as we know it, so somehow seem worth it.

But two things the Commission should not want to waste are time and opportunity (we’ve already squandered alarming quantities of both in readying ourselves to tackle climate change).  Astonishingly, though, I found the Commission scoring poorly on both counts, and aspects of its own process seem to be wasting opportunities in themselves. They, too, seem to have fallen into the exponential time-trap.

Spectacular rise in difficulty from delayed response to exponential growth. Source: Resilienz

Spectacular rise in difficulty from delayed response to exponential growth. Source: Resilienz

The Commission’s core thrust is a revamped Emissions Trading Scheme (like adding emissions costs to the price of things), with a trajectory of increasing emissions (carbon) prices making our wallets drive us harder and harder to change our ways.

However, necessary as an ETS may be, the documents themselves suggest little urgency, at times use dubious information (like assuming the uptake of public transport will actually slow down), and have gaps big enough to drive a rubbish truck through (e.g. silence on the vast educational implications of redirecting our entire business, transport, energy, construction and land use sectors).

The irony of a Productivity Commission reporting on climate change and not being mindful of urgency is highlighted by 2018 being exactly 40 years since Antarctic scientist J H Mercer first alerted us to global warming, and 30 years since NASA scientist Jim Hanson confronted the US Congress with stark warnings.

Thankfully, the Commission’s documents are only draft. They must thoroughly address these shortcomings in their final report.

There are also disturbing parallels with my hometown council at Nelson City. Their approach to actually implementing climate change action has historically been glacial. Now the council is increasing its efforts, but their negligible sense of urgency, and parsimonious drip-feeding of funding, suggest they still don’t recognize climate change as the most daunting challenge ever to face our city (or humanity). Nelson is far from alone in this, and in a world resounding with calls to accelerate investment in climate responses, we seem addicted to wasting critical time and opportunity.

Then there’s the sneaky waste stream right under our finger tips. Every keystroke in a Google search, every item of data stored on the cloud, every Netflix movie ends up sucking more energy through a huge IT network or data storage centre somewhere, and creating corresponding emissions.

According to Fred Pearce, writing in the April 2018 issue of Yale Environment 360, these massive data facilities are expanding so quickly their greenhouse gases emissions are now a surpassing those of air travel. And they continue to expand dramatically.

How “clean” their energy sources are varies hugely, and we often don’t know where our particular storage is happening.

    “Then there's the mother of all crazy waste"

And, of course, we mustn’t overlook the mother of all crazy waste - commuter car travel.

Amount of car fuel used to move a person. The red areas are "productive use"  Source: “Accessibility in Cities: Transport and Urban Form”, London School of Economics)

Amount of car fuel used to move a person. The red areas are "productive use"

Source: “Accessibility in Cities: Transport and Urban Form”, London School of Economics)

The inherent inefficiency of combustion engines should make any Productivity Commissioner weep (see the red "productive use" parts of the  illustration).

But it's even worse: our cars typically run with a around 75% of the seating unoccupied, and so commuters end up wasting vast quantities of time,  fuel and angst in huge traffic jams of their own near-empty cars.

If an airline or carrier proposed new trucks or aircraft were to keep operating a mere 25% capacity, its shareholders would crucify the directors!

But that's in essence what we do every time we build a new highway "to ease congestion". With the added irony that such highways almost invariably end up attracting more traffic than ever. (Counter-intuitive, isn't it! Try Googling "induced demand" or "generated traffic".)

So when we complain about congestion and lost time or the price of fuel, and when we know we should be dramatically cutting our carbon footprints, the term “Homo sapiens” (“wise man” in Latin) increasingly seems like an oxymoron!


“An opportunity not to be wasted”

But just to give “Homo sapiens”  a glimmer of hope, and to show it's not all doom and gloom, I'll close by introducing my unlikely new hero Temuka truck driver Johnny Baxter.

Baxter on receipt of his NZ award.  Source: NZ Trucking Magazine

Baxter on receipt of his NZ award.

Source: NZ Trucking Magazine

Late last year Baxter won the on-road category of the International Volvo Truck Fuelwatch championship. This great achievement was all the more remarkable because he was over 10% more fuel-efficient than the next best drivers in the world.

Pause for a moment. Let it sink in. Baxter used 10% less fuel than the next best in the world!

How much might the rest of us ordinary drivers – truckies and the rest – learn from him about not wasting fuel and money? Or about saving a world dying from fossil fuel emissions? It’s MASSIVE.

I’ve urged the Productivity Commission to promote Baxter to national hero status and engage him at a huge salary to pass on his magic to us other drivers the country over. Or, better, the world over.

Now that’s an opportunity not to be wasted.