21 Apr 2021

'Time for action' - Helen Clark urges climate change response

From Checkpoint, 5:45 pm on 21 April 2021

In five years' time, Helen Clark wants to see Huntly power station no longer burning coal, a ban on fossil-fuel-powered cars into New Zealand, and agriculture paying for its emissions.

Clark has edited Climate Aotearoa – a new book that offers a New Zealand perspective on the warming planet, with contributions from scientists, engineers, researchers, and disability and social advocates.

As well as laying out a suite of things everyone can do to mitigate climate change, it criticises what it calls the "tediously slow", "consistently unambitious" and "woefully inadequate" actions of governments - including New Zealand's.

While climate change and Covid-19 are both emergencies, national responses have been vastly different, as climate change is more insidious, Clark said.

"One has been sudden onset. We all got hit on the back of the head basically, in the early months of last year. Policymakers had to react, and where they didn't react – like Brazil, for example, or Trump's America – there was catastrophe.

"Then compare it with a climate crisis which is more like a slow train-wreck. The scientists are saying: 'It's coming, it's coming, if you don't do something about it…'

"I would liken it to being the lobster in a pot and the pot starts to heat, and by the time it's realised it's being cooked, it's too late to change. Its fate is sealed. That's in essence the message: you've got time to act, the window is closing. And if you don't, you're going to get over those tipping points from which there's no return."

A lobster in a boiling pot.

A lobster in a boiling pot. Photo: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

Clark said it was encouraging to see attitudes changing on climate change among younger generations.

"Greta [Thunberg] has really fired up the young, and generations just above her too. The issues are in our entrenched ways of doing things. We love our car. And let's face it, the car was a great invention, it gave people mobility, freedom of movement and so on.

"But we use it in a way now which is not necessary. We need to take our inspiration from the great cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen and others where they bike, there's provision for it.

"There's so many things we can do but we need policymakers to get the settings right for that. No point telling someone to get the bus to work or cycle if cycling means you're on a motorway, and the bus isn't there. So the policymakers have to really support us to make the choices we need to make."

With the Labour-NZ First-Green coalition of 2017, Clark said it was not easy for the government to make bold policies on climate change.

"So the time was taken to try to build some consensus. They got the Zero Carbon Act through Parliament and James Shaw played an incredibly constructive and helpful leadership role on this. They got almost everyone has same page, but that was around a long-term target.

"Where it starts to fracture is on what needs to be done now. They also took the time to set up the Climate Commission, and the Climate Commission only at end of January this year produced the draft report.

"So we haven't been acting at speed of lightning. What I would suggest is, go after some low-hanging fruit ... you have to look at energy, you have to look at transport, agriculture, and you have to look at waste.

"I think on waste we're actually doing quite well – incentivising the public more to reuse, reduce, recycle. Zero to landfill, that's got to be the aim. I think we can get Kiwis there on that.

"On energy, Huntly cannot continue to burn coal. There has to be a decision to convert Huntly to hydrogen or biofuel or something, but it can't continue to burn coal. That's a strategic decision and it has to be done quite quickly. The technology is there.

"I'd give them frankly three to five years. I've been at briefings – the Asian Development Bank meeting and briefings on where this has happened, where they've changed the technology. It can be done.

"We just need a sense of urgency. Getting out of coal is one of the most urgent things that world needs to do. Then we'll be well on course for the strategy of totally renewable electricity generation.

"We need to go the electric vehicle – that's the next thing: set a very firm date on which they will no longer be any light vehicle, which is fossil-fuel-powered, imported into New Zealand.

"A realistic date might be five years. But then what you've got to do is you've got to make sure the infrastructure is in place. It's all very well to have an electric car [but] their range isn't great. So people need to know that there's going to be a charging point.

"We know where the service stations are. There need to be as many charging points at as many service stations as we have for petrol now," Clark said.

She said transitions like this needed to be done in a way that would not further hurt marginalised and lower-income groups.

"Norway has incentives. I'm not saying New Zealand should have incentives, I say we should look at the full range of options that there are to make the transition. Over time of course you'll get a second-hand market in electric vehicles.

"The figures show that since 1990 we've doubled the numbers of cars on the road. We're not short of old cars, which will tick on for quite a while yet, and hopefully in that time, the electric vehicle technology will improve, the bulk of production will go up, and the price will come down."

Another "low hanging fruit" action to take on climate change was to bring agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme, Clark said.

"Remember Myrtle the tractor? I've been through all these issues as PM.

"We started with a carbon tax that was labelled as something else with a rude word, Myrtle was driven up the steps or Parliament, we went to an emissions trading scheme … we did have a plan to bring them in, then the government changed and that didn't happen. Agriculture has to come into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

"The time is for action. Also, think about level of ambition. I understand the draft Climate Commission report talked about New Zealand reducing its global greenhouse gas emissions by 23.5 percent by 2030… The UN is saying globally it needs to be 45 percent. The United Kingdom has committed to 59 percent in the same time frame, and the EU to almost 50.

"So I think ambition is an issue here.

"The Climate Commission was formed to help drive policy. I think they need to lift ambition ... there's a lot of good advice in it, but the ambition needs to be lifted."

'I'd love to see every school with a walking school bus policy'

Climate Aotearoa includes a chapter on personal responsibility. Clark told Checkpoint one major thing people could do personally to help cut emissions was less car use.

"Could I walk around the corner? Is biking an option? Of course it's not an option for every person, either because of age, infirmity, disability, lack of access to public transport.

"But if you have a choice, take it. I'd love to see every school in our cities and towns with a walking school bus policy, so we don't have the roads clogged with mums and dads dropping kids off at school.

"There's so many energy saving things you can do around the house on energy efficiency ... and then I would say be an ethical consumer. Look at how the product you have is made. Look at the packaging. We're getting the message on waste, but we can be ethical consumers."