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New Zealand’s response to climate change is: “Yeah but…”
Yeah but, we are too small to make a difference. Yeah but, it won’t really affect us. Yeah but, what about the economy? Yeah but, there are more important things right now. Yeah but… This has been our country’s response to climate change.  

New Zealand now needs to reduce our emissions by more than 7% per year to stay in line with our 2030 Paris Agreement commitments. Our current policies have our emissions at an almost stand still with little sign of reduction. All four major parties actually agree on the Paris Agreement, yet we have barely moved on it. And 2030 is only six years away. 

Whoever is representing New Zealand on the global stage at November’s COP28 will be in an awkward position explaining our lack of progress. I guess they’ll start with: “Yeah but…”

In the face of this year’s election Labour has pulled back from strong messaging on climate while National is kicking the whole problem down the road. The greatest challenge humanity has ever faced appears yet again to be at the bottom of the New Zealand political priority list. 

What our voting public and therefore our politicians are saying is:

Yeah but, New Zealand is too small to make a difference. We as a country like to think we punch above our weight. In pretty much every statistic we ever refer to we use a ‘per capita’ version. An old advertising mate joked once that New Zealand has more statistics on a per capita basis than any other nation on a per capita basis. However, when it comes to climate change we conveniently leave the per capita element out. We are 0.06% of the global population, yet we emit 0.17% of global emissions. On the OECD list we are the 6th highest on a per capita basis. As Dr Rodd Carr said: “If we say we are too small to make a difference, that is an insult to our efforts in both world wars.” 

Yeah but, it will cost us so much. Given we are an export-led economy, won’t more costs disadvantage our exporters? Pretty much every major supermarket chain worldwide is now calling on their suppliers to lower their carbon footprint as they are called to decarbonise. If we don’t respond we will likely lose markets which will ultimately cost us far more than implementing climate-positive initiatives. Or thinking more optimistically, if we do respond we gain a competitive advantage and in many cases a premium. This year Lake Hawea Station supplied climate-positive wool to All Birds to create the world’s first carbon zero shoe. 

Yeah but, we are doing stuff already. Well ok a few small things maybe, like the payment to NZ Steel, but obviously not enough because our emissions are staying the same. 

Yeah but, we have other more important issues right now. The cost of living, crime, keeping our nurses, improving our roads and transport, paying our teachers and plenty of others. They are all major issues for New Zealand right now and the ones our politicians will lob at each other in their efforts to win the election. The floods across Hawkes Bay, Tairawhiti and Auckland this summer are no longer 1 in 100 year events. Floods, droughts and fires will become as frequent as ram raids and changing mortgage rates. The impact of climate change on our lives for centuries to come will ultimately be much greater. 

Yeah but, others are worse than us. Such as the dairy farmers in India that produce milk solids with a higher carbon footprint than ours. This is like saying it is ok for us to keep shoplifting because others are robbing banks. Neither are good. 

Yeah but, we already are a clean energy producer. Yep, when it comes to climate change we got a lucky bounce with lots of rivers that are good for hydro. If we relied on coal for power we would really be topping the per capita stats. But that is no reason to do nothing about all the other emissions we are responsible for. That would be like saying to the United States: “oh you have lots of nuclear power which doesn’t emit, so you don’t have to cut your other emissions”.

©Alistair Guthrie/Pure Advantage

As a society we have become accustomed to responding to today’s tragedy – a crime, a blocked road, a drop in milk prices. Are we really going to have to wait until the effects of climate change impact us daily? If we do wait till that point, it is too late. As Sir Tipene Reagan has said: ”New Zealand never misses an opportunity, to miss an opportunity”. 

This is our biggest opportunity ever, so why miss it?

Rather going into the next COP UN Conference in front of 196 countries and the world’s media with a bunch of embarrassing excuses, wouldn’t it be better for our reputation, our earnings and our country’s climate stability if we started our presentation not with a “Yeah but…”  but with a “We are…”

This article was also published on NZ Herald’s The Country.

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