Time to Talk about Tauranga’s Climate Plan

We don’t want to scare the horses, but did you know we have about 4 years left of our carbon budget if we are to play our part to meet NZ’s goal to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees?

Let’s approach this through a decision tree:

  1. Do you observe the global climate is changing?
    The number of people answering “no” has dropped off a lot in recent years – we suggest you check the world news pages if you’re still unsure.
  2. Do you believe the changing climate is largely caused by people’s actions?
    There are still some who don’t believe that, including at least one recent Tauranga City Councillor, but most New Zealanders accept the mainstream scientific view that climate change is mostly anthropogenic.
  3. Is climate change a big problem?
    Another former Tauranga City Councillor doesn’t think so, but 82% of New Zealanders are concerned or very concerned about climate change – so they obviously say yes. People living in western USA, Canada, Europe, India, Pakistan, Australia and many other places will be increasingly concerned after recent draughts, fires, floods and so forth.
  4. What can we do to help bring the climate under control?
    We’re sure you’ve heard a lot about this by now. e.g. limiting the amount of petrol and diesel we burn, building with less concrete, consuming less ‘stuff’, reducing agricultural emissions, and so forth. Our view is that there is plenty of information ‘out there’, so lack of knowledge isn’t the biggest problem.

The point where many of us get a bit stuck is that we know that, individually and as a nation, New Zealanders won’t make much difference. NZ accounts for just under 0.2% of global emissions, so the temptation is to say “leave it to the big guys”.

Which is, of course, the temptation for everyone else in the world. Unless you’re Elon Musk or Bill Gates, or a company like Amazon or Toyota, you can always point at someone else who emits more CO2, or has more money to take the lead on this issue.

The good news is that New Zealanders are very high carbon emitters. Now why is that good news? Well, it means that, per capita, we can cut our emissions by more than those living in most other countries.

In fact, we could cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half and still live like a typical European, and cut them by more than 90% and still have a higher carbon lifestyle than the average African – without even allowing for all the new low-carbon technologies.

What’s more, most New Zealanders are in the wealthiest 10% of humans, so while some people face genuine financial challenges, our society has the wealth to invest in reducing our emissions. Our GDP might grow less than otherwise by 2050 if we choose that path, but there will be far better environmental and social outcomes.

That is why we support a ‘fair share’ approach. It means people in developing countries with very low ‘carbon footprints’ (and often stuck in severe poverty) get to slightly increase their carbon use. While NZ makes significant cuts in our emissions.

If that appears unfair, think about this: The richest 10% of the world’s population emit about 50% of total carbon emissions and have already used up about 1/3 of the remaining global ‘carbon budget’ since 1990. While the bottom 50% emit only about 10% of total emissions and have used 4% of the carbon budget that remained in 1990. That seems really unfair.

This ‘fair share’ approach also means that everyone has a role to play, but it doesn’t point the finger at people who, often through no fault of their own, are stuck in a situation where they have little choice. Perhaps they have to drive a car… think someone with mobility issues who lives in a rural area with no bus service and biking to the supermarket isn’t a viable option for them. Or perhaps they are in a financial situation that means their choices are far more limited than for someone who goes and buys an electric vehicle.

However, we can all do something to cut our emissions. While most of us cannot afford to buy a Tesla, we could catch a bus sometimes, or ride a bike occasionally, or car-pool every second day, or grow our own food, or install a solar hot water system, or share our mower with the neighbour, or buy low-carbon cement when concreting the drive, or do something that will reduce emissions.

Which takes us to the key question: how much should we collectively aim to do, and by when?

Luckily for us, people have crunched the numbers on this. Putting it simply, if we ignore the methane from our nation’s animals, NZ has to roughly halve our emissions by 2030. Our government says it will do just that, as part of NZ’s Paris Agreement commitment. Although it plans to achieve it by paying foreigners to “offset” our emissions by planting trees, or by not chopping down trees – an approach that is dubious at best.

What’s more, it has taken us decades of talk and climate conferences, lobbying from fossil fuel companies and lobbying from greenies, to get to this point. The government finally released an Emissions Reduction Plan in May 2022, but we haven’t actually stopped increasing carbon emissions, let alone started to cut them in half by 2030. Meanwhile, the UK has cut emissions by 44% since 1990, whereas NZ increased emissions by 57% during those same three decades. Clearly, the time to act is now.

To put this into perspective, NZ only has about 4 years of ‘carbon budget’ left to ‘do our fair share’ in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. That’s the amount of carbon that our country can emit before we use up our ‘fair share’ of the total global carbon budget. Even if we cut emissions in half by 2030, we’ll still blow that budget!

That means NZ’s official aim of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is a pipedream. Therefore, we need to reluctantly acknowledge that our best goal is an 83% chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees (which is the same as a 50-50 chance of < 1.7 degrees).

Which means Tauranga has about 8 years of carbon left in our city’s carbon budget… for the next few hundred years!

That’s a daunting prospect. It means we can either keep doing the same things for the next 8 years and it’ll all be used up by 2030, or we can make some very big changes… and hope other NZ cities and all the other developed countries also slash their emissions by a similar amount. Of course, if we don’t do our share, then it’s even more likely that other cities and other countries won’t play their part – we’re all in this together.

Procrastination is our biggest enemy. It took 27 years after the initial international agreement to cut carbon emissions before the NZ government passed the ‘Zero Carbon’ Act in 2019, and then another 3 years before it released its Emissions Reduction Plan.

Luckily, most councils have acted faster than central government and set stronger targets, including Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Palmerston North, Rotorua and Whakatane. In fact, after Hamilton signed off its Climate Change Strategy earlier this year, Tauranga was virtually ‘last man standing’ without a Climate Plan.

Tauranga City Council is working on that plan now, and the crucial decision will be our citywide targets to reduce CO2 emissions. The key target is for 2030.

Best practice is to set a ‘science based target’, which means it aligns with IPCC analysis and C40 targets to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2030. Auckland, Christchurch, and others have followed that approach. Wellington, Dunedin, Whakatane and some others have aimed higher, with Dunedin and Whakatane both adopting a net zero emissions target for 2030.

On the other hand, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Rotorua have aimed slightly lower, with a target of “minimum 30% reduction” in CO2 emissions by 2030. In almost all cases, agricultural emissions will reduce by much less – although that isn’t relevant for Tauranga and Hamilton.

In light of all that, the key question for Tauranga people, when TCC consults on Tauranga’s proposed Climate Action Plan early next year, is what our 2030 target should be? Should we be like Auckland and take a detailed, science-based approach and aim to cut emissions in half by 2030? Or should we be like Wellington or Dunedin and cut by more than that, knowing those in urban areas have to do more? Or should we copy Hamilton and Palmerston North and only aim to cut emissions by 30% by 2030?

That’s ultimately a decision for our Commissioners, informed by public feedback. But remember one thing: We have a very small carbon budget left, so if we blow most of it this decade by cutting emissions by less than 50% by 2030, it means we’ll have an even smaller carbon budget for the 2030s … or we’ll all face the consequences.

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