Technology and the Kiwi innovative spirit will save us from climate change. So why do we need to declare climate emergencies? This is the message that Nicola Martin of the Waikato Times promotes in a recent opinion piece (“New Zealand science and tech, not climate emergencies, the biggest hope for global impact on climate change”, Stuff, 15 June 2019).
While I am a big fan of technological innovation and believe it has tremendous potential in helping society prevent the worst of climate change, it won’t solve this problem. Society already has the technology to limit greenhouse gas emissions. What is lacking is political will.
Solar panels and wind turbines to generate emissions-free electricity, electric and hybrid electric cars to reduce emissions from transportation, regenerated native forests to sequester atmospheric CO2; these are not new technologies. They have all been around for decades now. Why haven’t they proliferated? It is because there is little economic incentive to adopt them. We’ve all been living “business as usual”, while climate scientists have been pleading for action. We have the technologies needed to limit emissions, yet global emissions continue to rise.
So, what good will a new cattle feed that lowers methane emissions be if no one spends the extra money to buy it? These innovations won’t come cheap. Innovators have to make a living too. There have to be economic incentives, either through new taxes, government subsidies or through market forces. New Zealand has opted to use market forces, through an emissions trading scheme, but with the price of carbon less than $25 per tonne, there is little incentive for businesses to limit emissions. Emissions credits add only 3 cents to the price of a litre of petrol. What incentive is there to limit fuel consumption by purchasing an electric or hybrid electric vehicle?
As a society, we need to act to limit our emissions quickly or condemn our children and grandchildren to a more difficult and unpredictable world, this much is clear. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until some new, lower emissions technology becomes cheaper than what we are using today. We need to start re-tooling our economy now, so that small boutique industries today, such as hybrid electric farm equipment, become large scale industries tomorrow. The fastest way to achieve this is through “economies of scale” – the more widgets people buy, the bigger the industry making those widgets and the lower the price. This is the process that has been bringing down the price of battery storage and solar panels.
This is where declaring a climate emergency is important. Only through recognising an actual emergency will our local and national governments get away from “business as usual”. For example, when the next tender comes up to contract the council’s rubbish collection, the cheapest option will undoubtedly be with petrol vehicles. Acknowledging a climate emergency, however, frees the council to explore other, perhaps more expensive but more “climate friendly” options.
Right now, electric rubbish trucks are as rare as hen’s teeth. After a few councils contract for them, there will be more. Suppliers will get the message and there will be more companies building them. New Zealand companies specialising in re-tooling heavy trucks to electric power may even find an export market, as the rest of the world follows our lead. That is, “our lead” only if we are among the early ones making the change.
So, my hat’s off to the applied research focussed on limiting emissions. It will only help us, however, if we have the political will to spend the extra to adopt it. Councils declaring climate emergencies are leading this charge. They have said that they will show the rest of us how we can limit our emissions and prepare for an uncertain future.
Scientists and innovators will have their part in bringing us new tools and techniques, but in the end, it will be our political leaders who will guide us out of this mess. That is, if we and generations to come, are so fortunate.
The Blog posts are a collection of opinion articles written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim.