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New Zealand’s Climate Change Challenge

Climate change is the focus of this, my 25th annual speech, to Nelson Rotary.

This issue has dominated political news in the last year with student protests internationally and locally, our Nelson Council declaring a Climate Change Emergency, the passage last year with National’s support of the Climate Change Response Act and with the awful Australian fires over the summer break.

My message is a moderate one. Climate change is a real problem but I am not in the apocalypse camp. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased global temperatures by 0.7◦C over the past century and sea levels by 19 cm. These numbers are not particularly scary.  The bigger concern is what will occur in future on which there is some uncertainty. The focus of my speech is that New Zealand needs to deliver on its Paris commitment of a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030, and that this is going to be a big ask.

It’s long been a tradition that I first cover off a perspective of local Nelson issues. I announced in November I would be re-standing at the election now scheduled for September 19. I love my job as your MP and would be privileged to give it my all for a further three years.

I enjoy the role of helping constituents and making Government work better for people. The most satisfying part is helping advance projects big and small, that make Nelson a better place to live.

Every term of Parliament my goal is to help get a major Nelson project done. These have included in the past – Kahurangi National Park, local marine reserves, Garin College, Whakatu Drive, the Early Settlers Memorial, Saxton Stadium, the Suter Art Gallery, School of Music and the Nelson Airport Terminal.

This term my key goal was getting the Waimea Community Dam built.  I got the necessary legislation through Parliament in 2018, funding was finalised early last year and construction is now underway. It is the largest dam built in New Zealand in more than 20 years. It will be great to see it through to completion in 2022.

My top priority for the next term of Parliament is getting a new hospital underway for Nelson. It is unfinished business from having re-written the laws as Building Minister in 2016 requiring buildings to be earthquake strengthened and for hospitals to be prioritised. It is the most seismically sub-standard hospital in New Zealand. The problems are not just its earthquake risk. It has insufficient beds for our growing and aging population. Nor is the facility up to the standard for patients, doctors and nurses. This new Nelson Hospital will likely cost half a billion and will be the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in our region. My goal is a new facility that will meet Nelson’s health needs for the next 50 years.

My second priority is transport with the region’s problems with congestion and safety getting worse. Labour has repeatedly increased our fuel taxes and road user charges while reducing roading investment in our region. They overturned National’s $135m commitment to the Southern Link.

They cancelled the programmed $6 million quiet seal upgrade at Atawhai and Stoke. Today’s $8 billion announcement just rubs salt in the wound with nothing for Nelson.

There is an urgent need for major investment in Nelson’s roads to keep up with the growth in population, exports and visitors.  The Southern Link has noisy critics, but like the Waimea Community Dam, common sense will prevail. The alternatives are not credible.  The solution will be in clever designing of this new stretch of highway between Annesbrook and the port so as to minimise the impacts on the adjacent Victory community. Richmond too needs significant roading investment. We need to be planning for a four lane highway between Three Brothers Corner and Atawhai.

Nelson also needs to complete the Great Taste Cycleway. The national network of tracks is one of the lasting legacies of the Key Government. I want to see it through with our Cycle Trails Trust, the completion of the regional circuit from Kohatu to Woodstock and round the golf course to Tahunanui Beach. 

My third priority is education. Nelson has everything to lose and nothing to gain from the nationalisation of NMIT. I worry about the loss of courses and jobs. I’ll be giving voters a clear choice to retain local control of our polytechnic. I will also be campaigning on reducing class sizes and retaining parental choice of schools. I want to help deliver a new Berryfields School in Richmond West.

I am also re-standing because of what I can contribute nationally. Parliament needs a balance of youth and experience. The shortage of experience is telling in the current administration where they made foolish commitments they can’t deliver, like light rail for Auckland by next year, KiwiBuild’s 10,000 homes a year, or planting a billion trees.  Parliament needs members who have been around, knows what works, and what doesn’t. 

Parliament is also light on people from a technical background in an era where science is being challenged and questioned. I want New Zealand’s decisions on contentious issues like immunisation, 1080, fluoridation, euthanasia and climate change to be under-pinned by good science.

I don’t claim any specific scientific expertise on climate change with my own PhD being in geotechnical engineering on landslides.

I was privileged to be part of the New Zealand Government’s delegation to the Earth Summit in 1992 during my first term of Parliament when New Zealand signed the founding UN Convention on Climate Change. I get why young people are frustrated and protesting over climate change. That UN Conference committed in 1992 to global emissions being stabilised. The reality is that far from emissions being stabilised, they have globally grown from 30 billion to 50 billion tonnes a year or increased 60%.

There are three important lessons for me from that Earth Summit. Beware of rhetoric getting ahead of the reality. Reducing emissions is difficult. Lofty global goals are pointless unless matched by country specific targets and actions.

 I have maintained a keen interest in the subject since and continue to read as many science papers on the topic as I can.  I have also participated in over a dozen subsequent global conferences on the issue in my various roles as Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Conservation.

Stuff news in an analysis in December noted that I have since 2003 made more comments on climate change than any other MP and this excluded my first four terms.

Actions are more important than words. The focus of this speech is on the future but it is worth noting the major steps National took in Government on climate change and the results achieved.

1: National got 500,000 New Zealand homes insulated between the state houses we directly insulated, those we subsidised through the WarmUp NZ programme and those rental properties we required to get insulated.  Household energy efficiency improved dramatically.

2: We also made great progress in increasing New Zealand’s renewable energy supplies by 500 megawatts and increasing our proportion of renewable electricity from 65% to 85%. The previous Clark government had seen renewables drop from 71% to 65%.

3: It was a huge step forward for climate change policy in New Zealand in July 2010 when we put a price on carbon emissions by implementing the ETS. It is internationally recognised that pricing emissions is the most important step to reducing them, yet very few countries have got there.

New Zealand bounced between the option of a carbon tax and ETS mechanism for 15 years through Labour and National Governments without progress. 2010 was a difficult economic time and we softened the impact by halving the obligation and then progressively ramped it up in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The ETS puts a financial incentive of every hour of every day on the electricity, transport and industrial sectors to lower emissions.

It is this pricing mechanism that has seen New Zealand’s emissions track better than Australia over the past decade.

4: One of New Zealand’s most difficult and unique challenges is our high proportion of agricultural emissions to which there is no current technological solution. The Global Research Alliance we founded in 2011 on reducing these emissions is making real progress.  

5: The National Policy Statement of Freshwater in 2012 put real limits on intensification of farming that has slowed and in some areas stopped, new dairy conversions.

6: National introduced subsidies for electric cars in 2012 and electric trucks in 2016 by exempting them from road user charges. These incentives helped electric vehicle numbers grow from a few hundred to over 5,000 and we helped install 140 charging stations around the country.

7:  National also electrified Auckland’s rail service and upgraded its trains. Public transport usage grew 60% in Auckland from 53 million to 85 million journeys a year during our nine years.   

8: A no brainer for reducing emissions is to capture and use the methane from landfills. Nelson’s tip in York Valley is one of a dozen our Government helped fund landfill gas capture that saw these emissions reduce by 20%.

9: Another significant area of work was helping secure the Kigali Agreement on the very powerful greenhouse gases used in the refrigeration industry. New rules were put in place to phase these down 85% by 2036.

10: The last but very significant achievement was helping to secure the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change. Talks had stalled for over a decade in trying to get both developed and developing countries to agree on emissions reductions. The Paris Agreement broke that impasse and the focus now needs to be on ensuring it is achieved. 

I set out these ten steps forward under National on climate change because a new Government will always want to pretend its predecessor did nothing and that it is doing much more.

Just days prior to Christmas and after Parliament rose the Government slipped out the report on New Zealand’s emissions as required every two years under that 1992 framework convention on climate change I mentioned earlier. 

We now have the final official figures for 2017. For clarity, I will consistently use gross emission numbers that exclude forestry but the trends are essentially the same.

The report shows emissions fell by 25,000 tonnes under National between 2008 and 2017.  This is a small decrease relative to the base of 80 million tonnes. Emissions have historically grown in line with population and economic growth. It is significant that during the Key/English years the population grew by 15% and the economy 25% but emissions fractionally declined.

It is useful to compare this record historically and internationally. New Zealand’s emissions grew by 13% under the nine years of the Bolger/Shipley Government and by another 10% under the nine years of the Clark Government. The Clark Government talked of climate change being this generation’s nuclear free moment and New Zealand being carbon neutral. These hard numbers show the Key Government made more progress.

The international comparison is also interesting. Australian emissions increased by 17 million tonnes or 4.2% and globally emissions over the same period grew by six billion tonnes or 14%. We should acknowledge that the European Union did better by achieving significant emission reductions over these same years, albeit their economies during these years struggled.  

The most interesting question from December’s report is how the Ardern Government is tracking. A gap is opening up between its rhetoric and the results.

New Zealand’s emissions are forecast to rise by 47,000 tonnes during this Parliamentary term. This contrasts with the fall of 24,000 tonnes in the last parliament.

It is a forecast but we do know coal and fuel use has increased. The Government has no new policy on climate change coming into effect this calendar year so this increase in emissions is probable.

The report also shows the much talked about ban on oil and gas exploration having negligible effect on New Zealand emissions.  It confirms official’s advice that all it will change is more burning more imported fossil fuels rather than reducing emissions.  

This Government in December 2017 projected emissions in 2020 would reduce to 79.9 million tonnes. This report now projects the 2020 emissions will be 80.9 million tonnes, or a million tonnes higher. In short, they said in 2017 emissions would go down this Parliamentary term but they are now admitting they will go up.

National made progress in halting the rise in emissions and uncoupling economic growth from emissions growth. The next step is to achieve sustained reductions.

I recall when National signed the Paris Agreement committing New Zealand to a 30% emissions reduction by 2030 that Green Party Co-Leader James Shaw slammed it as totally inadequate and that New Zealand was “free loading.”

He stated then “if every country did as poorly as our Government proposes, we would set in train a cascade of inevitable events that would change the face of planet and which many scientists believe it is doubtful humans would ever survive.” 

It was only a little shy of accusing National of climate genocide. He argued then that the New Zealand target should be 30% higher ie a 60% reduction rather than 30% by 2030.

New Zealand has been at liberty to up its Paris target. Climate change Minister James Shaw could have done so at Bonn in 2017, Poland in 2018 or Madrid in 2019. He has not. Mr Shaw no longer refers to New Zealand’s minus 30 by 2030 target as “free loading” but now claims New Zealand is leading the world. Neither is correct.

National’s policy is and remains that New Zealand should neither lead nor lag on climate change. 

It would be unwise to lead when we are just 0.2% of global emissions. We would put extreme pressure on our economy if we get too far ahead of our major trading partners.

We should not lag. We are a country that believes in doing our fair share on global issues whether it be defence and security, humanitarian aid, refugees, or climate change.

I also am a true conservative when it comes to respect for contract. I believe whether it be individuals, business or governments, that trust matters and nations need to honour what they sign up to. For instance, it is a tribute to Britain that it honoured its 1898 commitment in returning Hong Kong to China 99 years later in 1997.  It is a black mark against America under Trump that it has dishonoured the US/Iran treaty on nuclear technologies agreed under Obama.

New Zealand as a small country depends even more on international law and being true to what we sign up for. There was great controversy when National signed up in 1998 to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. The Greens slammed it as inadequate. Many businesses and the ACT party proclaimed achieving it would wreck our economy. Kyoto applied to the five years from 2008 to 2012 and New Zealand under National met its full obligations. Many countries did not including respected nations like Canada.

My first key point from this speech is that the most important climate change goal for New Zealand is meeting its Paris commitment in 2030. We need to drop the excessive rhetoric that it is free loading or world leading. It is doing our share. We also need to be realistic that achieving this reduction is going to be a tough ask and require significant change by households, businesses and both central and local government. 

It is a more important target than that for 2050 or beyond. It is far enough out that real change is possible. It is not so far out that today’s politicians will never be accountable.

My second message is one of strong support for the new Climate Change Commission. I was impressed by the UK Commission and invited its architect and Chair, John Gummer, out to New Zealand in 2017 to be our guest at National’s Bluegreen forum. He subsequently met with other parties and helped seed the idea across the political spectrum. I commend James Shaw for picking up the idea and legislating for it. It is a constructive step forward and I worked hard last year to ensure National voted for the legislation establishing the Commission.    

The benefit of the Commission is that it will help frame the debate with proper scientific and economic analysis on how we reduce emissions and respond to climate change. A key responsibility is setting budgets for emissions reductions. We should not pretend the Commission’s establishment solves the problem. It sets up a committee and process. The hard decisions are still ahead of us.

My third message is to stay true to the science. I did not support the “Zero Carbon” name of the new law. It is a Green Party political slogan that reflects the lack of a science qualification amongst any of its MPs.   Carbon is not the problem. If there was “zero carbon” on this planet there would be no life. There is a world of difference between carbon and carbon dioxide, just as there is between hydrogen and hydrogen dioxide or water. The problem is greenhouse gases. Some of them like nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride have no carbon in them at all.

And nor do we want “zero” greenhouse gases as it would bring on a new ice age. Exaggeration and over simplification of the science undermines the public support needed to make change. We don’t need “Zero Carbon.” We do need reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

It is also important that we do not lose sight of other risks to the future beyond climate change. There are double the number of nuclear weapons states from the 1980s when politics was dominated by the fear of nuclear war. This risk has not gone away.

The coronavirus in China reminds us of the risk of a pandemic now or in the future.

The earthquakes and eruptions that have killed New Zealanders in the last decade are puny to what we know are possible. If Taupo were to erupt again the consequences would be catastrophic not just for New Zealand but the world. A mega thrust earthquake would make the Christchurch earthquake seem small.

The importance given to managing each of these should be based on rational risk assessments and not politics. Scientists who work in a particular field will view their area as the priority. Governments need to take a wider view. It’s about prudently managing each of these risks as best we can.

The last topics I want to cover is about how we get emissions down.  Let me deal first with forestry. I am sceptical of how big a role it can play in solving the climate change problem. 

Newly planted forests do absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere but when they are harvested a good proportion returns. It is true that by increasing the area in forests we can defer the need to reduce emissions but eventually we have to get emissions down. The fundamental problem with using forestry to reduce emissions is limited land. As Mark Twain said, “they are not making much of it these days.”

I am not opposed to afforestation as there are areas of New Zealand where it is the better land use. My worry is that the arbitrary billion tree target and generous Government grants will see areas planted out in trees where it is not the best land use. The key point is that expanding forestry can make a short term hole in our 80 million tonnes of annual emissions. But at some point we still need to cut emissions. If the trees are planted in the wrong place, removing them in future will make the climate change problem worse. 

The area I believe where New Zealand has the greatest opportunity for emissions reduction is electric vehicles.

An electric vehicle does nothing for climate change if the electricity is generated from a coal fired power station. New Zealand is uniquely placed because we have one of the highest proportions of renewable electricity and the potential for much more. We are also limited in our opportunities for public transport with a much lower population density than most countries.

I purchased one of New Zealand’s first full electric cars a decade ago, a Mitsubishi Miev. The cost was double the petrol equivalent. It was a nerdy choice, not an economic one, but like with all new technologies, the premium for electric vehicles has come down.

I am a total convert to electric car technology. I expected it to have teething problems but the car has not missed a beat for 10 years. There has been no noticeable decline in its range of 120km. I love its quiet and fast acceleration. I am also impressed by the developing technologies for electric buses and trucks.

The debate is about getting greater up take of electric vehicles. National’s Road User Charge exemption is worth $13,000 over the life of a vehicle. The Government proposes abolishing it in favour of a feebate system where it hits larger vehicle owners with a new tax to subsidise smaller more efficient vehicles like electrics. My surprise is that the rebate of about $4,000 is worth less to the electric car owner than the RUC exemption.

The problem with the Government’s feebate is that it hits many larger vehicles owners hard. Yes, there are people who own large gas guzzling SUVs for little good reason, but lots of New Zealanders need such vehicles like farmers, tradespeople and those with large families.

I am supportive of incentives for expanding our electric car fleet but the focus needs to be on providing a carrot rather than a stick.

One of the biggest opportunities for emission reductions is the stationery energy sector. This is a huge sector with significant greenhouse gas emissions.

I was delighted when Fonterra announced the conversion of their Brightwater dairy factory from coal to wood waste.  

I was also pleased the Government announced last year plans to phase out the use of coal boilers in our hospitals and schools. Nelson Hospital uses hundreds of tonnes of coal each year.  National reduced these emissions in 2012 when we piped landfill gas to it. Our Hospital redevelopment plan needs to include a complete phase out of coal.

This is a small start. There is a big piece of work for the Climate Change Commission on how we shift this big sector over to renewables.

We need to be upfront that any significant shift to electric vehicles and to renewables in factories, will require a huge increase in renewable energy.

Let’s say we all wanted all cars to be electric in 30 years, ie 2050. The car fleet has doubled in the last 30 years but let’s be conservative and assume growth of only 50% for the next 30 years. To power these vehicles would require an extra six Clyde Dams or building the equivalent of one every five years. Or to give a local example, it would require 60 more Cobb Dams or building one every six months for the next 30 years. This is to power just the light vehicle fleet. If you want to add electric trucks and replace all fossil fuels used in stationary energy you would need to double these numbers.

I was astonished that the Government declined the Waitaha hydro scheme on the West Coast last year. We do not have a hope of meeting our climate change goals unless we aggressively grow our hydro, geothermal, wind and solar energy.

This brings me to the difficult issue of agricultural emissions.

There are three aspects of these emissions that require a different approach. The first is that the main agricultural emission, methane, is a short term gas with a half life of about a decade. This contrasts with carbon dioxide that will be present for thousands of years. We need to be more cautious with CO2 because it lasts so much longer in the atmosphere.

The second is that the only way farms can reduce methane emissions from livestock currently is to reduce stock numbers. We can power cars differently, we can heat differently, but farmers currently have few choices.

The third difficulty is that our agricultural production is largely exported and our emissions less than other countries.  This is significant because we risk cutting our own production only for it to be substituted by other less efficient producers, resulting in higher global emissions.

I do not support adding these emissions to the Emission Trading Scheme. It is just a new cost imposition on New Zealand’s most important industry. My frustration with the current government over agricultural emissions is their refusal to reform our biotechnology laws.

The Green Party whipped up a frenzy of opposition to gene technologies in the early 2000s. Their fears have not proved to be correct.

It is wrong that research on new rye grasses that would substantially reduce farm emissions could not be done in New Zealand and instead is being done in the US. It is unfair on farmers of the Greens to make them responsible for their emissions but then block access to the technologies that would enable them to reduce emissions.  A top priority for addressing farm emissions should be reform of our biotechnology laws.  

I want to conclude on one last issue about climate change and that is population. For this issue and many others affecting the environment, we need to accept the world can support only a finite number of people.

The more people want to enjoy a good standard of living, luxurious global travel, open spaces for recreation and an interesting and enjoyable diet, the fewer people the world can sustain.

It took 200,000 years for the world’s population to grow to one billion, but only 200 years to grow to seven billion. We are currently at 7.7 billion with questions over whether it will reach 10 billion or double to 16 billion this century.

If we are to address environmental issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, water quality etc; if we are to enable people to have better and healthier lives, the issue of global population growth also needs to be tackled.

I want to conclude on a positive note. I do not fear for my children or their children’s future. Climate change is a difficult problem but I have confidence it will be resolved. We are making progress.

I have spoken of some areas of difference between my view and that of the Government. This is not an area of big policy differences in New Zealand. There are now no parties in Parliament seriously questioning the climate change science. The Government and National are now agreed on New Zealand’s minus 30 by 2030 target. The Government and National are agreed on the Climate Change Commission role. The Government and National are agreed that the ETS is the primary tool for reducing emissions.

There will be a lot of hot air through this election year on climate change, but if you peel back the rhetoric, there is much common ground. Thankfully New Zealand politics is better placed than most countries to ensure we continue to make progress.

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