Kicking the carbon habit

Last updated 12:26 04/06/2008

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As New Zealand hosts World Environment Day, it's clear we're not doing enough to reduce CO2 emissions.

What will it take to give us the shock we need? Power cuts on a cold winter's night? Petrol at $3 a litre? A lack of fresh food on supermarket shelves? Water restrictions?

New Zealand may have been chosen to host this year's World Environment Day today, but we are a long, long way from Prime Minister Helen Clark's vision last year of a "truly sustainable nation".

At a time when environmental disasters are causing chaos around the world and demand is putting valuable resources under pressure, the steady climb in the price of petrol, diesel, gas and electricity is scaring many.

But how many of us have stopped to think that there's another, more positive way to look at those rising figures? Maybe it's an early - even friendly - warning to ease back on what we consume.

Standing at the bus stop the other morning, about 100 cars passed me in the space of 10 minutes. Only a dozen were carrying any passengers. Stuck in heavy late Friday afternoon Auckland traffic a few days earlier, I could literally hear the country's total greenhouse gas clock ticking over as hundreds of near-stationary vehicles belched out fumes.

A recent survey by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development found nearly a quarter of New Zealanders believed they would significantly reduce their vehicle use once prices hit the $2 a litre mark for unleaded-91 petrol. Interestingly, the council's research also found that about one in five people said even if petrol was at $5 a litre they would not alter their fuel consumption.

Sadly, it's easy to imagine that if it comes to the crunch, a hardcore group of Kiwis would rather give up fresh fruit and vegetables than leave their cars at home, turn off their heated towel rails or wheel the gas-fired barbie into the back of the garage. At the same time, others are doing their bit to conserve energy, to recycle and compost waste. The Earth Hour event in Christchurch and around the world in late March was a great example of what individuals and communities can do to make a difference.

Earth Hour was a joint project of The Press and WWF New Zealand, with key support from the Christchurch City Council and Environment Canterbury, along with businesses and community groups. Christchurch residents were asked to reduce the city's average power use by 5 percent, switching off lights and unplugging appliances between 8pm and 9pm on a Saturday night. The actual saving went way beyond the target, with a 12.8 percent cut recorded. This was the equivalent of conserving 36.6 megawatt hours of electricity - the amount of power used weekly in 213 Christchurch homes - which saved an estimated equivalent of 8.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

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For World Environment Day this year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has chosen climate change and carbon dioxide as its focus, and Wellington as its host city. The theme, Kick the C02 Habit, or Towards a Low Carbon Economy, is being proclaimed by UNEP executive director Achim Steiner as an attempt to "catalyse grassroots action on the challenge of this generation's climate change".

With the exception of a small group of scientists, commentators and members of the public, people accept that climate change exists. But of the majority who believe it is happening, there are two schools of thought - those who think it is a result of human action and those who see it as part of a long-term, natural climatic cycle.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is in no doubt the world is "in the grip of a dangerous carbon habit".

"Often we need a crisis to wake us to reality. With the climate crisis upon us, businesses and governments are realising that, far from costing the Earth, addressing global warming can actually save money and invigorate economies. While the estimated costs of climate change are incalculable, the price tag for fighting it may be less than any of us may have thought."

The efforts we can make to bring about change are highlighted in this publication – from downsizing our vehicles or choosing a cleaner car, to sourcing locally-grown food and rethinking the way we heat our homes.

Environment Minister Trevor Mallard says New Zealand's concerted effort to show leadership in environmental issues over the past few years played a part in it being asked to host the day.

UNEP had consulted with the New Zealand Government over the theme as it was interested in countries "heading towards a low carbon economy".

"Carbon at the moment is quite an international issue. It is a challenge for all of us - householders, businesses, industries, for agriculture especially - and will require adjustments to the way we live," says Mallard.

He says the Government has overseen a raft of programmes aimed at sustainability - the emissions trading scheme and national energy, transport and waste strategies.

"These are all happening and all impacting into this area, so there's a lot of work going on."

Mallard says many Kiwis are making changes to the way they live, including using public transport or biking to work. But some are obviously more resistant to change.

Mallard himself rides a bike 25km from the Hutt Valley to Parliament when he can, and says he arrives in the city in the same length of time as cars. He has also observed that four cars out of five have a driver and no passengers.

Mallard thinks becoming truly sustainable may be an almost impossible task.

"In a funny way you can have a carbon neutral strategy and work towards that but you know you're never going to be finished. You'll look at what else you can do."

National Party environment spokesman Dr Nick Smith counts himself a supporter of World Environment Day. He is pleased New Zealand is hosting it this year but believes the country has to take stock of where it actually is.

"I'm proud whenever New Zealand is doing anything on the environmental front but we need to be a bit modest of our progress on climate change."

Of the 43 countries who accepted obligations when the Kyoto Protocol was being developed, New Zealand was 38th worst in terms of the percentage increase in emissions. Smith says New Zealand's emissions are up 13 percent since 1999 compared with Australia (up 8 percent), the United States (up 4 percent) and Japan (up 2 percent).

"That's not something of which we can be proud. The percentage increase approach is a fair comparison in that it is what the Kyoto Protocol is based on," says Smith.

"We should certainly be feeling a bit red-faced about growth, particularly in the electricity and transport sectors, where our emissions are growing like there is no tomorrow.

"The problem with the current Government's approach is they keep trying to fly to the moon when they can't even get airborne. We have had policy failure over the original carbon tax, the animal emissions levy (‘fart tax'), and the emissions trading system is in awful trouble.

"We keep trying to do things bigger than anywhere else in the world. But if New Zealand wants to be a world leader in climate change, we need a good pragmatic approach to planting trees, promoting solar water heater installation, improving public transport.

"Sometimes there's a touch of Kiwi arrogance that we know it all the best. We should be proud we are hosting it, but still be as keen to learn from others as they are from us," Smith says.

Christchurch's Sustento Institute is among those claiming any differences New Zealand makes to climate change will be largely insignificant. Director Raf Manji thinks a shift can come only through massive international efforts.

"We are totally insignificant in the scheme of things, so what can we achieve? Be thought of as really good and at the same time take a huge economic blow while others do nothing or deal with more important issues such as energy security, technology and better insulated homes?

"Climate change will be solved at the global level, which will need to involve the main players, namely the United States, China and Russia."

Manji says damage to the ozone layer was not fixed by people using their fridges less. It was solved by ozone producers getting together and working out how to reduce ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

"We are wasting valuable resources on an unsolvable problem: unsolvable because agriculture and energy get to opt out. So it's been made a political issue, which of course is exactly what it is.

"Let's forget about trying to kick the CO2 habit. It will happen anyway, as people will change their behaviour based on higher prices, something we are currently seeing."

One of the major events of World Environment Day will be run in Christchurch by the Hillary Institute. The institute's first annual symposium will cover climate change and feature two hugely significant experts - Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who won a Nobel Peace Prize last year, and the institute's Hillary Senior Fellow, Matt Petersen, president and chief executive of Global Green USA.

Hillary Institute principal Mark Prain says the symposium is about bringing sectors together and finding solutions. But the sensitivities around finding those solutions have forced organisers to promise participants they will adopt Chatham House rules and exclude the media for a "carefully moderated engagement'' after Pachauri and others talk - a measure of the self-interest in the issue held by many.

In the end our ability to make a difference at the individual, community and national levels comes down to commitment. The Government is naturally keen for our efforts to be recognised and held up as an example internationally, and says our progress is why New Zealand has been chosen to host the day this year. On the other hand, the National Party is warning of the risk of a collective national arrogance on climate change initiatives, saying we need to be modest and accept there are areas in which we are not doing well.

Much-vaunted "clean, green New Zealand" needs to rise about the self-interest of business and different communities in taking steps to reduce carbon emissions. We have made a start, but there is much room for improvement.

Paul Gorman is a senior writer in science and the environment at The Press.

- Fairfax Media

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