Just a lot of hot air? – Phillip Donnell

Phillip Donnell is the Director of New Creation New Zealand, which seeks to assist churches in their pursuit of creation care.

green tree stem in grey dirt crackFor some time now it has been generally accepted that the humanly-induced increase of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, nitrous oxide and methane, in the earth’s atmosphere has been environmentally damaging. These gases deplete the protective ozone layer, absorb sunlight, and lead to global warming. Some people, of course, still deny that this is happening, or that we are exacerbating it, but according to the American scientist James Powell, of the 25,000 pieces of peer-reviewed literature about global warming written between 1991 and 2014, only 0.1% deny that global warming is a reality and humans are contributing to it.

The consequences are becoming increasingly apparent: hotter temperatures (globally, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have been since the year 2000. The warmest year was 2016.); higher sea levels; changed precipitation patterns; altered agricultural regimes; more extreme weather events; less snow and ice; loss of biodiversity; species extinction; and growing uncertainty.

New Zealand’s official Greenhouse Gas Inventory appears each May. In 2016 it showed our emissions at their highest level since 1990, with a CO2 equivalent of 14 tonnes per person, twice that of China, eight times that of India, and fifth highest in the world. Our reduction target under the Paris agreement is 11.2% below 1990 levels by the year 2030. At present we are more than 20% above the 1990 level. Half our emissions are from agriculture, and a further 40% come from the energy sector (including transport).

On 1 June 2016, the NIWA station at Baring Head, Wellington, recorded a CO2 level in the atmosphere of 400ppm for the first time ever – a bit later than the rest of the world. This is 40% above the level that would have been reached naturally. According to 350.org, the safe level for a healthy planet is 350 ppm. Measurements in Hawaii have now exceeded 410 ppm, and continue to rise. Beyond 450 ppm, scientists agree that the result will be universally catastrophic.

It is therefore little wonder that many were concerned enough to make this an issue at our last election. At the vanguard was Generation Zero, a growing movement of young New Zealanders working to cut carbon pollution through smarter transport, liveable cities and independence from fossil fuels. They proposed a Zero Carbon Act as a legal framework to drive change. Their website answer to the question “Why” reads as follows:

Because there is a maximum amount of greenhouse gases we can emit to ensure a safe future for human life, and that limit is fast approaching. We can’t afford to aim for any less… As a well-off country with huge renewable energy potential and lots of land for tree planting, New Zealand can and should aim to achieve zero carbon by 2050.

According to Generation Zero, such an Act would create an end goal, a pathway, a toolkit, and a monitoring framework. While the Act wouldn’t force the Government to take on any specific policies, it would require them to develop a clear plan to meet the targets. It would maintain flexibility for the government of the day to choose its preferred policy mix.

The new Labour-NZ First-Greens government has since signalled that it will introduce a Zero Carbon Bill in late-2018 to provide a vision for how we transition to a sustainable and climate resilient future. The Bill will see New Zealand put a bold new emissions reduction target into law, and establish an independent Climate Change Commission to keep us on track to meet our goals. Information on the Bill’s proposals has now been released. Consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill opened in late May, and it is due to become law in April, 2019.

Over recent years, so much heard from national and local politicians on this issue has been evasive, indecisive, equivocating, vacillating and amounting to little more than hot air. We should therefore applaud Generation Zero and the coalition government for seeking to take decisive action in response to a pressing problem.

In 2013, Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington state, said: “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.” Ultimately, the responsibility to improve the situation devolves to every individual. We can all play our part – for our own sake and for the wellbeing of our descendants.

  • Rev Phillip Donnell is the director of New Creation New Zealand, which seeks to assist churches in their pursuit of creation care, including seminars on the environmental situation both nationally and globally. Read more about the seminars and other resources they offer to support churches to respond to the issue of caring for creation.