We can ignore warnings at our own peril
New York, September 23, 2019
Recently in New Zealand, our journalists, like many around the world, took part in the Covering Climate Now Campaign.
During this Campaign, one story detailed a dramatic hypothetical account of our country in the year 2050.
It played out the scenario of the world missing our 1.5° C goal.
There was civil unrest, mass drought, mass diseases, and exhausted resources.
The following day, the opposite scenario was printed. A story in which we reached our climate ambitions.
Different but thriving
We had a different but thriving economy. An oil and gas industry that had transitioned into renewables.
Our farmers had innovated and were selling food to the world at a premium.
The world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide had put their differences aside and taken action together.
And ultimately and importantly, our Pacific neighbours were able to stay in their homes.
You may well argue that, based on our current trajectory, now is not the time for optimism.
But if we only talk about the loss of glacier mass or sea level rises we run the risk of a society that believes all is lost and that it is simply too late.
It is not.
No one has the luxury of copping out. Not those who deny Climate Change, nor those who believe it’s too far gone.
Time for a Plan
Now is the time for optimism and for hope and crucially a plan.
Today, I would like to suggest three related areas where collaboration, both between countries and between governments and the private sector, could deliver huge cuts in climate pollution whilst creating increased opportunity for all.
Firstly, Climate Change is the perfect trade opportunity.
Every country on Earth is facing the same set of challenges. How do we dramatically cut emissions from energy, transport, manufacturing, waste, agriculture?
But although we have those challenges in common, our national circumstances are completely different from each other. And some of us are better at some of those things than others.
New Zealand is pretty good at hydro, geothermal and wind generation, as well as producing low-emissions food. Other countries are better at making electric cars and mass rapid transit systems.
Let us trade.
But for too long, our trade deals have run counter to the environmental outcomes we want to achieve.
Let us start by putting Climate Change at the heart of our trade relationships. You’ll be hearing a bit more from New Zealand on this point.
Collaboration on Emission Pricing
A related area crying out for collaboration is emissions pricing.
We all know that putting a price on emissions is a critical part of the solution to reducing them, whether that’s via a carbon tax as some countries have or via an emissions trading scheme like we have.
But it is very hard for any of us to convince our domestic industries to submit to emissions pricing on their industry when their competitors in other countries don’t also face a similar price.
And so, we are trapped in a classic prisoners’ dilemma, each country not wanting to go too fast or too far before anyone else.
Surely if we are all committed to living up to the Paris Agreement, we can find ways to cooperate on putting a price on emissions whilst still competing on the quality and price of our goods and services.
Finally, and again closely related to the trade opportunities, are private sector partnerships.
I am particularly proud that in New Zealand our private sector Climate Leaders’ Coalition collectively represents over 60% of our total emissions profile.
Committed business leaders
Having a network of business leaders committed to science based targets in line with the Paris Agreement creates incredible leverage and the opportunity to apply international best practice to dramatically reduce their emissions.
For example, New Zealand has one steel mill and one aluminium smelter, both small by international standards. We know that new hydrogen-based technologies are coming on to the market in other parts of the world to make both steel and aluminium with near zero-emissions.
How do we partner with other steel and aluminium producing nations and companies to roll those technologies out worldwide as fast as possible – whilst still honouring the original research and development and competitive needs of the companies that invented them?
Ultimately, if we treat the transition to a low-carbon economy as an investment, as an opportunity, then we can and should expect a return on that investment, above and beyond just merely staving off a crisis.
If we treat it only as a sunk cost and a colossal risk to be avoided, we will never galvanise the kind of action we need.
Climate scientists warn us of feedback loops which accelerate the warming process.
For example, increased temperatures lead to the melting of the permafrost, which releases methane, which increases temperatures, which melts more permafrost, and so on.
Basically, the worse it gets – the worse it gets.
Today, let us talk about feedback loops for ambition.
What processes can we kindle that will accelerate ambitious climate action, with those successes then generating even greater ambition?
So that the better it gets – the better it gets?
Now that would give us cause for optimism and for hope.
Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister of New Zealand. The above was her Keynote Address to UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit Private Sector Forum in New York on September 23, 2019.