We have long since reached the time for action of climate change. Call it a climate crisis, declare a climate emergency if you like, announce a net zero 2050 target, even set a 2035 target for each sector – the government has done all those things, but none of that really matters in the long run.
The only thing that matters is whether or not the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is going up or down, and by how much. In most developed countries, total emissions have decreased significantly since 1990 (USA -7%, Australia -22%, UK -49%, Germany -43%, Sweden -81%).
However, New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions have gone up by 26% since 1990. Worse, NZ’s net CO2 increase is a whopping 178%! Sadly, factoring in all the developing countries around the world, global carbon emissions are now at their highest level and atmospheric CO2 is also at its highest level in human history, with the latest report stating “urgent transformation only option”.
Step 1 towards turning it around is for every developed country and every city to commit to reducing emissions. Step 2 is to figure out how fast and by roughly what amount. The NZ government did this for us, by stating the goal is “net zero emissions” by 2050.
Step 3 is to set interim targets, so we can measure progress between now (when we have the highest emissions in Tauranga’s / BOP’s / NZ’s / the world’s history) and net zero emissions in 28 years’ time. Finally, step 4 is to actually make the changes we need to try to meet those targets.
We need 2030 and 2040 targets because we can’t just wait until the 2040s and then suddenly slash emissions. Not only would that make it virtually impossible to meet the end goal, but we’d blow our ‘carbon budget‘. That’s the amount of carbon the world has left to burn before likely triggering far more serious impacts – see the “carbon clock“.
A key question that every business and every city has to consider when setting their carbon targets is their level of ambition. We have to figure out how serious we are about reducing carbon emissions in Tauranga and whether we want to do our ‘fair share’. As others have put it: should we be bold or be realistic?
We say the answer is “both”: be bold and be realistic. And funnily enough, being realistic means we have to be ‘bold’. Setting a 2030 target (step 3) requires us to calculate the remaining carbon budget and divvy it up between now and 2050.
Unless we steadily reduce emissions over these next 28 years, we’ll have to make unrealistically big cuts in later years to get to net zero 2050. So being realistic means we have to make big cuts now, in the 2020s. Otherwise, if other cities also delay action, there will be no chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
So we all know what to do, which means government and councils are on board… right? Well, in this woke era of modern politics, you have to be well outside the mainstream to actually say out loud that you don’t support climate action. However, that just makes it harder to see who is truly committed to reducing emissions and who is just spouting greenwash.
On the surface, all NZ political parties except for ACT are committed to the Zero Carbon Act purpose to “limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. That means cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030. What’s more, both National and Labour governments signed up to the Paris Agreement, with NZ pledging to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030.
Digging a bit below the surface, things start to look very different. NZ’s pledge to cut emissions in half is vastly overstated, as the government used shonky accounting. It actually equates to a planned cut of only 22% and is still rated as highly insufficient.
What’s more, the government’s own Emission Reductions Plan (ERP) is not aligned to even that goal. The ERP only requires cuts of just over 20% for carbon dioxide, 10% for methane, and about 6% for nitrous oxide, which means about 2/3 of the total Paris pledge will be funded by taxpayers paying an estimated $30 billion for foreign carbon credits.
Is this really the best way to reduce NZ’s emissions? And where does that leave us here in the Bay of Plenty? Our view is:
a) No, this is not the best approach.
b) It leaves us in the same position we have always been – we just need to cut carbon emissions as fast as possible. That means being realistic and setting a bold target, backed by science.
From a Tauranga perspective, we have to accept that the NZ government plans to pay foreigners $30 billion instead of investing that money into more low carbon outcomes within this country. It’s a shame we can’t get some of that money to sort out our public transport system in the Bay, but that’s the current reality.
It also doesn’t matter much to Tauranga if farmers are right about the government’s agricultural emissions plan resulting in ‘leakage’ (i.e. less efficient overseas farmers producing the food that NZ farmers stop producing), or whether greenies are right that the government should stop subsidising farmers and charge them the full market price of carbon emissions like most of us pay.
That’s because 91% of Tauranga’s emissions come from carbon dioxide, with 38% of emissions coming from land transport (25% of total emissions from cars and utes alone). And if there’s one thing the government, farmers, big businesses, and the “vast majority of New Zealanders“ all agree on, it’s this: we need to cut CO2 emissions, especially from transport. Our goal is to cut those CO2 emissions as much as possible by 2030.
Which brings us back to the Tauranga Climate Action Plan. It really has one main job to do: to map out how we can all contribute to cutting emissions as quickly as possible – ideally in half by 2030. Right now, Tauranga City Council doesn’t support that goal.
Instead, Council’s draft Climate Plan has this goal: “Tauranga’s greenhouse gas emissions are reduced per capita, and we are working towards reducing emissions in line with New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emission targets”.
‘Stakeholders’ have consistently argued against that approach, but have consistently been ignored. Our main reasons include:
- It leaves a lot of wriggle room. No sensible business would use such vague wording if the target was important to them. “Working towards reducing emissions” is what we should have been doing in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2020s we don’t have time for that – we just need to get on with actually reducing emissions.
- Only having a per capita target is not in line with NZ’s emissions targets – so TCC’s goal is internally inconsistent. The NZ government and other major NZ councils don’t use per capita targets, and the IPCC discourages that approach, as only having a per capita target rather than reducing total emissions will almost certainly result in sub-optimal outcomes.
A good example: TCC modelling shows transport emissions may only reduce by between 10%-20% per capita by 2035, but that equates to a 3%-14% increase in total transport emissions.
- TCC doesn’t even plan to set a 2030 target in ‘phase 2’ of the Climate Action Plan next year, which makes it highly unlikely Tauranga will meet NZ’s emissions targets.
- Unlike every other major city in NZ, Tauranga is planning to do less than the heavily criticised NZ government ERP target. All those other councils have targets that do more and align with the IPCC, Paris Agreement, and targets of the USA, EU, UK, Australia and many other countries.
- It treats Tauranga’s residents as fools. Rather than ask people what level of ambition they want (which is what happened in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Rotorua, Whakatane etc.), the TCC commissioners made a pre-determined decision, but will still “consult” on the plan anyway in early 2023.
That consultation will give everyone a chance to comment on some minor issues, but it won’t address the core issue and ask if you want Tauranga to do its ‘fair share’. It means you’ll be ignored if you ask Council to apply science-based targets … and you’ll also be ignored if you tell them you don’t want that … because that key aspect of the plan has already been pre-determined.
As a result of all that, it means we’ll likely end up with the worst of both worlds: a rushed plan that commits TCC to spend $millions of ratepayers money on consultants and staff time and sub-optimal outcomes, with all the people involved telling us that the plan is deeply flawed. Yet they have to do it anyway because the Commissioners have told them they need to sign off the final plan by the end of the financial year!
So, at the end of this article, here’s the punchline for TCC:
If you know that what you’re doing is so deeply flawed that you have to openly admit it, why are you still doing this?
When will Tauranga City Council do what it needs to do, what every other major NZ council has done, and what all the experts are saying we need to do: bite the bullet and create a fit-for-purpose Climate Plan?
A fit-for-purpose Tauranga Climate Action Plan would:
- Aim to reduce total carbon emissions across the city by a set amount – not just per capita emissions (which allows more emissions as we grow)
- Reduce gross (actual) carbon emissions – not mostly rely on offsets to allow us to emit more CO2 (sequestration from trees should be a ‘bonus’, in case we fall short of our targets)
- Set a 2030 target to ensure immediate action – not just 2050
- Adopt an overarching science-based target (see Race to Zero)
- Aim to do our ‘fair share‘ as a city towards cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, and ask the people who live here what they think that should mean
All other major NZ city councils have done that, so why can’t Tauranga City Council?
If you think they should, share your thoughts by writing to or talking to the City Council Commissioners.