As Roger Blakeley described in his post Declarations of Climate Change Emergency , Wellington City Council has joined an increasing number of local authorities around the country declaring climate change emergencies.
Here’s a suggested to-do list for the City Council on the climate emergency:
Tell the truth in a well-planned, participatory conversation with Wellington residents that takes a just transition approach.
Invest in projects that sharply reduces emissions.
Don’t invest in projects that increase emissions or fails to reduce them.
Don’t build white elephants, or allow them to be built.
Note: Wellington City Council has declared a climate and ecological emergency - a welcome move when New Zealand is a country where we have the highest rate of extinction of freshwater species on the planet and where the ecosystems that our lives depend on are under serious threat. The ecological emergency deserves many posts of its own - including those acknowledging that Wellington City Council is doing some good work in this area. But here, I’m going to focus on the climate emergency aspect.
Before I get to that to-do list and its underlying principles, let’s see what the Council has committed to.
Wellington City Council’s commitments to climate action
One criticism of climate emergency declarations is that, without associated actions, they are meaningless. In Wellington City’s case, the declaration includes a list of commitments, as follows:
Providing strong and effective leadership based on the best scientific knowledge in partnership with iwi and with ongoing collaboration and consultation with the scientific community, business, citizen groups, central government, government agencies, and communities on climate change.
Adopting and implementing Te Atakura First to Zero which aims to ensure that Wellington is a net zero emission city by 2050 with a commitment to making the most significant cuts in the first 10 years.
Significantly reducing fossil fuel use by 2030 as well as finding solutions to reduce or capture more methane.
Establishing a working group to implement the plan and agree to work with relevant agencies, local government authorities and central government to achieve the above aims;
Ensuring that the Council adopts and promotes a just transition for vulnerable and low paid Wellingtonians by ensuring the burden of change is equitably shared.
Developing an accountability framework to measure the impact of our actions to achieve net zero emissions and to halt the decline of our ecosystems, especially over the next decade.
All six points are important - I was especially pleased to see the just transition approach taken. Phrases such as “making the most significant cuts in the first 10 years” and “especially over the next decade” stand out to me, because they confirm that the Council is committed to taking urgent action to reduce emissions.
So our city must prepare for an uncertain and frightening future. What should the city do - and not do - in response? Here are two proposed principles: one relating to communications, the other to investments and activities. I was going to add more, but this is long enough already!
Principle 1: Tell the Truth
This is one of the fundamental demands of Extinction Rebellion, one of the groups, together with School Strike for Climate, which has pushed for climate change emergency declarations. Councillors and Council officers are well aware that parts of Wellington, including much if not all of the Rongotai isthmus and the Wellington Central Business District, are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise - if you doubt that, try the WCC’s own sea level rise tool.
But the conversation about the consequences of that vulnerability tends to happen in whispers and asides, rather than out loud and in public.
That’s understandable - with some valiant and notable exceptions, few sitting politicians want to be the bearer of bad news, especially in election year. But the bad news is on our doorstep, and the impressive crew of new council candidates in the region aren’t shy about saying so. For reasons of both ethics and practical politics, it’s time to tell the truth about what the city faces, and open up the debate about what to do in response.
That is a difficult conversation for any city to have with its people. It will need those with expertise in community conversations - such as The Workshop right here in Wellington - to be involved. It will need a commitment to participatory democracy (which is another of Extinction Rebellion’s key calls). It will need a recognition that, in a Te Tiriti-based country, methods of participatory democracy that originate overseas cannot and should not be imported holus-bolus for local use.
A good first step is that the City’s Climate Emergency Declaration recognises that climate change is with us already:
We also recognise that the breakdown of the climate is already damaging fragile ecosystems with significant economic, social and environmental consequences including more severe storms, sea level rise, loss of biodiversity and negative impacts on human health.
Principle 2: Stop investing in things that increase emissions and make the city more vulnerable. Instead, invest in things that sharply reduce emissions
Transport forms the biggest component of Wellington City’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014/15, the most recent years I have figures for, road transport contributed approximately 35% of those emissions, and aviation approximately 25%.
So transport is a key place where emissions reductions can and must be made. But is the city heading down the path of investing in reducing emissions - or investing in increasing them?
When it comes to land transport, the answer depends substantially on how the Let’s Get Wellington Moving programme is implemented. Right now, it is not projected to lead to the scale of emissions reductions we need: as Cllrs Roger Blakeley and Sue Kedgley noted when the LGWM package was discussed by the Regional Council, the three-decade plan would only reduce emissions in the Wellington CBD by 18 percent.
If Wellington City is serious about its commitment to front-load emissions reductions in the next 10 years, the city needs to adopt the emissions-reducing elements of the plan and take them further, while not proceeding with the elements of the plan that would increase emissions. Happily, that approach will also lead to a better, more liveable city!
DO: invest in the modes that will make a step change in transport, by reducing car use and reducing emissions.
That means we need to get on with the emissions-reducing elements of the LGWM package:
Better facilities for walking and cycling - which needs to include careful allocation of road space to make sure walking, cycling and micromobility (e-scooters and similar technology) work safely and well together. Footpaths need to be for people moving at walking speed - such as pedestrians and people using mobility scooters, while bicycles, e-bikes and e-scooters need dedicated road space where they can work harmoniously together.
Better and more reliable public transport, with improved priorities and integrated ticketing.
Well-chosen, well-implemented rapid transit, with a fixed route or routes that allow for a compact, walkable, transit-based urban form.
Lower speed limits, not just in the central city but in suburbs that want those limits.
Fewer on-street car parks. Why do we allow people to store their private property - large, mostly empty metal boxes - on public space (the roadside) for long periods?
DON’T: invest in new road capacity for private vehicles.
The New Zealand car, van and truck fleet is still overwhelmingly made up of fossil-fuel powered vehicles. The real uptake of electric vehicles has been in e-bikes and latterly e-scooters, not electric cars. There’s little sign of that changing over the next 10 years. Plus, even electric cars are still large metal boxes that take up a lot of public space and are mostly empty.
What's more, building more road capacity induces more cars onto the roads - and undercuts moves to get people out of cars and onto or into low-carbon transport modes.
In a climate emergency, building new road capacity is a bad idea. Enough already. Leave the existing roads for people and vehicles that genuinely do need to use them, and shift other journeys away from cars wherever possible.
DON’T: extend Wellington Airport runway
The proposed airport runway extension is an especially bad idea. It would:
Require massive investment that would be better spent on preparing for the effects of climate change.
Be an expensive white elephant if it fails, and increase emissions - by attracting more long-haul flights to Wellington - if it “succeeds”
Destroy valuable habitats and worsen the ecological emergency
Increase Wellington’s dependence on an airport location and approaches that are already in the vulnerable zone.
Rather than extending the airport runway, we need to rethink what part aviation (and that other highly carbon-intensive tourism mode, cruise ships) should play in Wellington’s economy. Around a quarter of Wellington’s emissions are estimated to be caused by aviation - and fossil-free long-haul air travel is not even on the distant horizon. Aviation and shipping emissions need to be cut, too, and pretending otherwise is only making the problem worse.
DON’T: allow or invest in new housing developments near sea level
The NZ Coastal Policy Statement 2010 calls for a precautionary approach to the use and management of coastal resources near sea level - especially Policy 3, point 2: “In particular, adopt a precautionary approach to use and management of coastal resources potentially vulnerable to effects from climate change...”
So the City needs to take into account the most recent high-level science-based estimates of sea level rise, in addition to the latest official guidance. The Ministry for the Environment’s own guidance calls for Councils to apply a scenario of 1.4 metres of sea level rise over the next 100 years to coastal subdivisions, greenfields developments and major new infrastructure. But even since this guidance was published in 2017, the news about glacial and icecap melt just keeps getting worse. A precautionary approach means preparing for the risk of considerably more sea level rise - and even if Councils aren’t prepared to make such assessments, insurance companies have shown they have no such qualms.
So the Council should stop investing in or permitting new developments at or near sea level. If they go ahead, such developments will before long either need to be protected, for instance by extremely expensive seawalls, or retreated from, given the sea level rise that’s already locked in.
Allowing new developments near sea level now risks emptying ratepayers’ purses to pay for the protection of these developments before much longer. Not allowing such developments raises important questions around equity, Treaty rights and natural justice that need to be worked through as part of the wider “Tell the Truth” conversation. But continuing to allow them would make those conversations even more difficult.
Conclusion: Wellington’s To-Do List
Tell the truth in a well-planned, participatory conversation with the city. Do the stuff that sharply reduces emissions. Don’t do the stuff that increases emissions or fails to reduce them. And don’t built white elephants, or allow them to be built.
That’s a tough to-do list. But it’s a challenge Wellington is better suited that many cities to take up.
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