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The race against climate change

Photo Tom Frazier

In the same week that more than 130 countries will commit to the Paris climate agreement, scientists have revealed that our planet is warming even faster than they’ve been predicting. After three warmer than usual months it already looks likely that 2016 will be the hottest year in 137 years of record keeping. And it’s not going to be a one-off occurrence. Fifteen of the hottest 16 years ever measured are in the 21st century.

As if we need any more evidence of the impacts of climate change, we’re now learning that most of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been affected by warming seas which have also been influenced by this summer’s El Nino weather pattern. Right here at home, a new report says climate change will almost certainly accelerate this century unless drastic action is taken to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases. Changes would include a sea level rise of at least 30cm and possibly as much as one metre this century, while the severity of both floods and droughts will increase.

The global line up

With temperature records being smashed on a monthly basis and dire warnings of the impacts of climate change here and around the world, what should we be doing? Signing a global agreement is a start but what we really need is urgent and meaningful action. The Paris climate agreement says switching our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy is vital.

The starter’s gun has fired and some countries are already sprinting while others, like New Zealand, are reluctantly still doing stretches on the warm up track outside the main stadium.

The frontrunners include China which already has the biggest solar market in the world and plans to triple its solar generation by 2020. India also has ambitious renewable energy goals and is working on a plan to switch all its cars to electric vehicles by 2030. Last year, close to two thirds of all new electricity generation in the US came from renewable sources and in the UK solar output increased by a massive by 86%.

At the back of the field

We’re fortunate in New Zealand that 80% of our electricity comes from clean sources like hydro, wind, geothermal and solar. However, that’s no reason for complacency. When you look at our all our overall energy requirements, which include industrial heating and transport, the renewables total plummets to under 40%. Obviously we’re still burning up a lot of carbon and our transition to clean energy has got a long way to go.

Plans to close our last coal-fired power plant appeared to be a move in the right direction when they were announced last year. However, since then there have been back room dealings among some of the power companies to keep Huntly going and keep NZ in the dark ages. Another sign of this tunnel vision thinking was the decision by Unison Energy in the sunny Hawke’s Bay to charge customers hooking up a solar system on their homes with an extra fee so as not to put a dent in company profits. Not all power companies agree on this approach, but the ones that do seem hell bent on squeezing their customers for every last dollar before new technologies, like solar and batteries, go mainstream.

Cheating is not the answer

New Zealand’s net greenhouse gas emissions increased 42% from 1990 to 2013. That’s not a figure to be proud of. Last year the Climate Change Performance Index rated New Zealand as ‘poor', putting us in 40th place out of 58 countries.

As we’ve been increasing our greenhouse gas emissions the government has been buying up carbon credits under the Emissions Trading Scheme in an attempt to balance the ledger. A questionable practice in the first place, it now seems those credits probably aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. A new report out this week from the Morgan Foundation says the government has been cheating by buying credits from schemes that are fraudulent. All those cheap, dodgy credits have dropped the price of carbon so low that we’ve stopped planting trees to soak up the carbon in the first place. It seems the system has helped some people make large amounts of money at a much larger cost to the environment.

Time to start running

Surely this is our rock bottom moment and things will start improving from here. New Zealand may be among the countries signing the Paris climate agreement but, based on our government’s track record on climate action, it will be up to all of us to make a difference. Let's be the generation that embraces clean technology and frees our nation from the tyranny and expense of fossil fuels. Turning this time of crisis into a moment of opportunity for innovation, and job creation, and an incentive for our communities that will serve as a model for the world. Let's be the generation that makes future generations proud of what we did and once again lead the race to stop climate change.