From talk to action – key take-aways from the Climate Change and Business conference

By Fiona Stephenson

The 12th Climate and Business Conference took place in Auckland on 8-9 October 2019, drawing delegates from business, central and local government, and academia. 

The overriding message was that climate change will have a bigger impact, and sooner, than many businesses are preparing for. Businesses are calling for clearer guidance from Government to help them prepare for a low carbon future.

Here are our key take-aways:

The science is alarming.

Most climate models have underestimated the scale and speed of climate change. The impacts are already being felt, and the predictions are for widespread disruption.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now 410 parts per million, which is the highest in the past three million years. Sea levels have already risen 20cm since 1900.  And the 100-year storm will become an annual event with a 40cm sea level rise.

Yet based on current trends, New Zealand is not on track to play our part to keep temperature rise to 1.5˚C let alone a 2˚C increase, which we have signed up to in the Paris Agreement. We’re actually tracking towards at least 3˚C.

Decisions made in the next 10 years will have consequences for centuries to come, yet leaders are having to make decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty around the speed and scale of impacts.

Businesses preparing for climate change will fare better.

Companies that reduce emissions and build in climate resilience will see greater opportunities.

Businesses are used to responding quickly, and innovation is a function of constraints. Climate change is the ultimate set of constraints. There has already been significant disruption in business in the last 20 years and climate change will bring more.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the transition to a low carbon economy is an investment opportunity. We will have a different, but thriving economy.

We will have greater certainty on climate policy by Christmas.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw said the ‘Zero Carbon Bill’ would be passed by Parliament in early December. It is uncertain whether National will support the second reading of the Bill, mainly due to concern over the methane target (24% to 47% reduction). They are also likely to vote against inclusion of agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Agriculture is central to New Zealand’s response to climate change, since almost half of our emissions come from agriculture. It is one of the hardest areas to tackle, since practical solutions to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide are limited, other than reducing stock numbers. However, best practice dairy farms are already much less emissions-intensive than the average farm, showing that incremental improvements are already possible.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said decision makers around the world are watching our response, and looking to New Zealand for practical solutions to the agricultural issue.

The social licence to emit is expiring.

Public pressure is growing for government and businesses to do more to adapt to climate change. There are climate demonstrations the world over, and changing consumer and investor behaviour to favour lower-carbon products and services. People are calling for change, and unless businesses respond they could lose their market share.

Greening finance could be the tipping point

Financial institutions could make one of the biggest differences. Shifting investment from emissions-intensive industries to clean tech is critical. A 600% increase in clean tech investment is needed. This is a global challenge. The NZ finance sector is developing a roadmap to make this a reality. It needs to happen fast and with the full support of the sector.

SMEs need to play their part.

Smaller businesses dominate the New Zealand economy, so getting them on board will make a difference. Climate change can appear complex, so practical action plans will be important.

Nelson-based juice business Chia Sisters shared how it is tackling climate, through four simple actions: measuring emissions; reducing them; offsetting the remainder; and building carbon into every business decision. Its sales have grown significantly as it has made these changes.

Businesses need to communicate in a way that will inspire action and behaviour change.

Simply telling people about climate change isn’t enough – we need to shift the focus to action. It can help businesses to focus on issues that are material to their organisation (the things that make the biggest difference), and that are most relevant to their audience. Underlying this is the need for transparency and authenticity, as well as simplicity in messaging.

We should pay heed to traditional knowledge.

There is a role for Mātauranga Maori in crafting our response to climate change and understanding how to live within natural limits. Indigenous peoples have adapted over centuries to changes in their environment. In the Solomon Islands, where sea levels have already risen significantly, the role of traditional knowledge has been fundamental in encouraging community buy-in.

We need a just transition to a low carbon economy.

The transition to a greener economy must be fair to workers in the sunset industries. It must also be used to develop a fairer economy. Good practice is developing overseas, with collaboration at its heart. We’re beginning to see it used here, for example in Taranaki. Much more will be needed over the next few decades. Early successes will give comfort to those most affected by the transition.

Presentations are available on the Climate and Business Conference website.