How’s Your Climate Change Plan Coming Along?

December 4, 2015
Iain MacLeod

Walking down Orchard Road this morning with beads of sweat hooking up and trickling down my face, I was wondering if countries like Singapore will even be habitable if the current Climate Change talks are not successful in Paris.

No one I ever consult with in this part of the world tells me that they are leaving because they believe their grandchildren will be living in an oven; likely unable to spend much time outdoors given the heat and humidity. They want to go to New Zealand for education and for work life balance and I wonder when they will start adding ‘to escape the impacts of climate change’ to that list? They should.

I guess the talking in Paris all seems so remote on an individual level doesn’t it? Who among us has really stopped to think about whether our towns, cities or even our countries will remain habitable in 50, 100 or 150 years? I don’t. I tend to just think as far as we are impacted in NZ growing seasons will change, where things can be grown will change and we might be able to go to the beach and swim in winter.

The science suggests you and I are in the middle of causing a mass extinction with our actions and the inevitable but rapid climate change being accelerated by human activity might see us being swept away with it. I am not hopeful that as individuals we will act wisely – there is scant evidence we ever do. I can tell you when you walk down the road in Singapore you hope like hell we are individually willing to swallow the tough economic medicine and quite possibly lower living standards that will be required by those of living in rich countries in order to save humanity.

Today Singapore – a country with no real natural resources – only enjoys the material wealth it does through imported energy that allows ubiquitous air-conditioning and the ultimate in urban existences. I genuinely believe Singapore would still be a tropical island covered in a few small fishing villages if it wasn’t for fossil fuel driven air-conditioning systems. It is simply too hot. No one would work here. Ditto the rest of the tropical regions which are only going to get hotter, probably wetter and less habitable (unless you are a slime mould, in which case it will be like an endless holiday).

If temperatures globally were to increase by even 2 degrees as seems highly probable then I suspect we will see more than just Pacific Islanders being forced off drowning islands, we will also have to deal with ‘heat refugees’. In countries like Malaysia (next on my tour) people might be able to migrate to higher mountainous areas, not just to avoid potentially rising sea levels but to find cooler temperatures. Singaporeans will have nowhere to go. All the material wealth in the world won’t be worth a zot.

Next week I am due in Hong Kong where the weather is more benign but the air filthy as China does it’s utmost to destroy what I breathe. This week’s smog in Beijing is not exclusive to that city, much of southern China and India is the same. I am revolted by the thought of what I will have to breathe while in Hong Kong and I cannot for the life of me work out why anyone would live there. The money and lifestyle can’t be that good that you are fearful of what you breathe. I am not looking forward to heading back up there.

What irks me more than anything is that while Asia and much of the developing world crap in their own nests the impacts are being spread through our planet given it is largely a closed system of atmosphere and water. Whatever rubbish people chuck in the oceans can end up on my beach. Whatever they pump into the air I get to breathe. There is no escaping it.

Turning the focus onto New Zealand we are surrounded by a lot of ocean so the temperature changes for us will be more gradual and our air is pretty clean to begin with.

However, change is coming, and while our economy might be quite small in the scheme of things and much of our energy already comes from renewables (hydro and geothermal) we are on a per capita basis among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases (well, it isn’t us, it’s more the several million belching and farting cows we raise). I asked myself the other day if as individuals we are really going to be willing to make changes to our lives and change fossil fuel dependent economies through the action of the self. I fly several hundred thousand kilometres on planes each year. I own a car. My wife owns a car. My two sons own and run cars. We have a swimming pool heated using natural gas. We use a clothes dryer in winter (and hang clothes out in summer and fine winter days). We have gas heating of our house through winter. I expect we are as a family emitting more than our fair share.

So what could I do to reduce it without crimping my lifestyle? I could walk to work and leave the diesel car at home – it’s only about 5km so would give me the 10,000 steps a day I like to walk! Every ten minutes or so a very large filthy greenhouse gas spewing bus travels from the end of my street into the city and would drop me by the office so if I didn’t feel like walking because it was wet I could jump on the bus. It is spewing fumes whether I am sitting on it or not, so why not leave the car at home? We are not big red meat eaters (growing meat takes huge amounts of energy and water) but we could limit red meat to perhaps once a week from the two times we eat it now. Fewer steaks requires fewer burping and farting cattle on our land. So actually there are some pretty easy wins in there.

Auckland is moving to intensify residential building – my street for example is being re-zoned so we can double the number of houses on the land or build up to four stories. I am a real fan of this moderate intensification. I am convinced that if we can bring more people into a smaller area of our cities it not only saves money in terms of commuting costs and exhaust emissions (and not wasting time sitting in traffic),it makes regular public transport systems more viable and cuts the costs of servicing those people (storm water, sewerage, waste water and so on. Aucklanders demand better, faster and cheaper public transport but want someone else to pay for it while not losing their back garden to low rise apartment blocks. Building design and construction techniques can significantly change the energy equation of housing – no new technology required for that. Just local building laws and regulations forcing it. I’d like to see a reasonably hefty fuel tax slapped on petrol and diesel and that money reinvested into subsidising electric vehicle sales as a start.

NZ has no shortage of hydro-electricity and most places have enough solar capacity to make this ‘free’ supplement a viable option given the dramatic 80% fall in the cost of solar panels in recent years. In the end I don’t think we can wait for the world’s leadership to force change upon us. We need to force change upon ourselves and our local, if not central Government, leadership. Equally we all need to be prepared to compromise as individuals because this urgently required move away from fossil fuels is not going to be quick nor easy. Unfortunately turkeys don‘t usually vote for an early Christmas so I am not holding my breath on the political front.

So good luck Singapore and good luck Hong Kong – your cities are I imagine going to become largely uninhabitable within the next few decades if as individuals you don’t very quickly force change upon yourselves or your regional neighbours. In the meantime New Zealand represents something of a lifeboat for those looking to escape the environmental degradation – we might all be on the same planet but at least our air remains fresh and our environment relatively unsullied. That buys us time, but the end game will be the same here on spaceship Earth and we have our part to play in trying to minimise the damage as well.

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