Many New Zealand councils have made a climate emergency declaration as they recognise the need to urgently implement solutions to climate change over the next 10 years. So far Christchurch, Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, Auckland, Kāpiti Coast, Wellington and Dunedin councils have made this commitment.

A commitment to climate change mitigation plans is a big shift from many councils’ primary focus on climate change adaptation up until now. Adapting to climate change will still be important, and reflects councils’ roles in land use controls and infrastructure provision. It is much more obvious how councils need to be involved in adaptation actions, for example, through natural hazards planning and management of infrastructure affected by sea-level rise, intense storm events and/or extended periods of drought.

Councils which make a climate emergency declaration will need to broaden the scope of their climate change work to give equal attention to reducing carbon emissions raises questions about what councils can usefully do in the mitigation space — recognising that most things are individual lifestyle decisions, and acknowledging the systemic changes which can be made more effectively by central government (including emissions pricing and incentivising purchase of electric cars).

Examples of climate change adaptation by councils

Many councils already take actions related to their own carbon footprint. These include purchasing electric or hybrid vehicle fleets, energy-efficient buildings, swimming pools and infrastructure (such as LED streetlights), capturing methane at landfills, planting trees and managing forests.

Two areas where councils already aim to influence personal decisions is through encouraging waste minimisation and composting, as well as providing public and active transport alternatives to car use.

Councils can share examples of mitigation actions

Councils are already influencing ‘mainstream conversations’ through their decision to make a climate emergency declaration. They can build on this by sharing stories about what they and others are doing to reduce emissions. This sense of collective action will motivate us to contribute through our own decisions. Bringing climate change into everyday awareness, rather than being something that only activists and avid environmentalists care about, is a concept discussed by Greg Roughnan in his excellent RNZ article. It reminds me of how recycling ‘suddenly’ shifted from being an ‘out there’ concept to an ordinary part of daily life in the late nineties.

This is important, because it is so easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue, and the difficulty in achieving significant change when so much of it relates to individual decisions on what we eat, how and where we travel, and whether or not we choose to invest in solar panels and electric cars, choose to off-set our emissions if we fly, or even whether we choose to donate to larger-scale programmes.

And, let’s face it, it can feel like there’s no point in making any changes yourself as you watch planes continue to fly overhead, hear about the large scale coal mining set to continue in Australia following this year’s election, and understand how difficult it is to reduce methane emissions from cows.

Reasons to hope there will be solutions to climate change

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of climate change, when you have no say over other people’s actions. I was feeling like this myself a month ago — and the antidote was to read ‘2040 — A Handbook for the Regeneration’ by Damon Gameau (2019) which is packed with practical information about what can be done to make 2040 a destination to look forward to, rather than to fear. It also outlines many reasons to hope, due to things that are already happening.

The ‘2040’ introduction is by Paul Hawken, who previously wrote ‘Natural Capitalism’ and who I first came across when he wrote about making the mindset shift in his business to lease carpets (as a service) rather than seeing carpet as something that needed to be owned. In 2017 he published Drawdown which is about the 100 most viable things to do to reverse global warming.

In the ‘2040’ introduction Paul Hawken says “the most viable path to reversing global warming is to address current human needs. Human beings need, and respond to, solutions that improve their security, income, health and habitats.”

This sets the tone of the book, which is not about making people feel guilty for driving, flying or taking showers lasting more than five minutes. It sets out a whole range of options for making changes in your life that will make a positive difference both for yourself and the planet.

It is also littered with ‘reasons to hope’ which include:

  • the commitments by France, the UK, Canada and China to shut down their coal power plants
  • China’s investment of $350 billion in solar energy projects
  • India’s commitment to only sell electric vehicles by 2030
  • Brazil’s reforestation of 12 million hectares of its rainforest
  • the scientist trialling establishment of seaweed in Indonesian waters to absorb carbon in the sea (providing habitat and reversing acidification) as well as Shanghai inventors figuring out how to make kelp into fabric
  • the fertility rate falling from five to two births per woman in Bangladesh as a result of providing education and choices for girls
  • the drastically falling price of solar power — and the difference this is making to the economic, social and physical wellbeing of people in remote villages who now have reliable power.

One of the heroes of the book is seaweed, for its role in absorbing carbon in oceans and restoring fish ecosystems, as well as being able to be harvested for food, fertiliser, fabric, biofuel and a 100% biodegradable plastic substitute.

Councils can communicate local and international solutions to climate change

There are also reasons to hope closer to home, including this RNZ podcast about a guy in the Wairarapa who is learning to farm crickets. The multiple economic, health and environmental benefits of his project are inspiring.

One way to implement a climate emergency declaration is for councils to talk about all the inventions, the solutions and the new ways of eating, travelling and investing that will become available over the next 10 years.

Other ways councils can reduce carbon emissions

Another way to implement a climate emergency declaration is to facilitate economic development projects in their districts and regions, bringing parties together for large scale projects and helping to access Government funding for projects which enable people to transition away from emission-intensive approaches to how they currently live and make a living.

Councils will also step up their existing roles in enabling alternative transport options and waste minimisation. Avoiding food waste is one of the top solutions mentioned in the 2040 book, and that calculation didn’t even factor in the avoidance of methane emissions from food in landfills.

Councils’ regulatory role might expand to include requirements for solar panels on new houses and other buildings. For example, in France commercial buildings must have either a roof garden or solar panels.

We can all support global solutions to climate change

The most surprising thing I learnt from ‘2040’ is that the number one solution to reversing global warming is the empowerment of women and girls.

Paul Hawken says, “… about 98 million girls are kept out of school after a certain level and put to work to earn money to put their brothers through school. Or for early marriage. For whatever reason, that girl becomes a woman on somebody else’s terms. Culture, village, family, religion — who knows? A combination. Her average reproduction rate is five-plus children. If she is allowed to go to school and matriculate to what we call high school, she has an average of two-plus children.”

Dr Amanda Cahill, CEO of the Next Economy, notes the “high reproductive rates in the absence of education is not confined to poorer nations but also occurs in wealthier nations.”

The conclusion is that educating the 98 million girls who currently miss out would result in 1.1 billion fewer people on the planet. This is not about coercion. “It’s just empowering girls to be who they want to be, and you have these incredible benefits.”

If you’re interested in contributing to this solution, here are links to some of the organisations working in this area:

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