Climate change: Home front action is crucial

12:16 pm on 26 November 2015

It is apparent there has been a sea change in attitudes to climate change in the past couple of years, especially amongst business leaders.

Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor.

Gary Taylor Photo: Supplied

At the Environmental Defence Society's recent Climate Change and Business Conference in Auckland, there was compelling consensus from a number of sectors, including insurance, finance, transport and even agriculture, of the need for action.

Air New Zealand hosted a business breakfast last month for more than 400 business people at which it outlined its commitment to seriously addressing its carbon footprint. Business New Zealand has just completed a major piece of work looking at transition pathways to a low carbon future. Think tanks are looking in depth at what the future looks like.

(In this series, being run to coincide with the Paris climate change talks, we will publish opinion pieces from Greenpeace, Sanford, the Motor Industry Association, 350 Aotearoa, Mainfreight, Federated Farmers and the Environmental Defence Society. Air New Zealand, Fonterra, Holcim and Genesis Energy were invited to contribute, but declined.)

At the same time, Trade Minister Tim Groser has been influential in finding a possible way forward in the international negotiations in Paris. He has been criticised for the target New Zealand has tabled there but in my view needs good raps for helping design a framework agreement that might actually work and get China and the USA on board.

New Zealand's target is, of course, important but underwhelming. More significant are our domestic policy settings. A target which can't be achieved is just spin; a target that is too easy won't stimulate the change in investment and behaviour required.

The review of our Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is therefore critical, and there was widespread agreement at the conference that it needs beefing up. Having a price on carbon that bites is an essential ingredient of domestic policy.

So, too, is the range of so-called complementary measures: policies which stand alongside the carbon price and work with it to stimulate change. This is where Transport and Energy Minister Simon Bridges clearly has work to do. More can be done to stimulate electric vehicle use and, at some stage, he'll have to reflect on whether encouraging oil and gas exploration is sensible.

The really big idea that came out of the Auckland conference was the need for a climate forum. This has legs. The concept has led to positive discussions among stakeholders and support from the government. A framework in which all of the great work being done by sectors could be brought together into a coherent and simple interface with ministers is resonating strongly.

The forum would provide advice on the ETS recalibration and on fresh, new complementary policies. It would look longer term at New Zealand's pathway towards zero emissions, which we need to get to in the second half of the century. There is a great deal of expertise in civil society and business which could inform that exercise and have the added advantage of de-risking climate change policy for political leaders.

Paris is important and unless something unexpected happens will lead to a new global agreement. But to make the global effort work, every country will need to focus sharply on transitioning its economy to a low or no carbon one over time. Early action is likely to be cheapest, so there's no rational reason to delay.

Setting up a climate forum to work alongside the government to develop an agreed pathway to that future state is a big step forward.

* Gary Taylor is the chief executive of not-for-profit environmental organisation Environmental Defence Society.

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