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.
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.
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.