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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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The McCourt Report

It’s time for a comprehensive, people-focussed response to climate change in New Zealand. That response will require a whole lot of action: a real price on carbon and methane, the subsidisation of renewable energy, more energy efficient housing and a transformation of our transport sector. The latter is a mammoth task, but tackling it in pieces will help get it done. When you consider that transport is the largest source of carbon emissions at Vic, it’s clear there is something close to home we can do. Getting students out of their cars and on to lower-carbon emitting trains and buses seems like an obvious way to begin to get our collective footprint down.

In fact, tackling carbon emissions is one of the main motivations your student exec had for running a strong Fairer Fares campaign this year. Getting the incentives right to make the low-carbon choice is critical.

At the moment, friends of mine from Porirua and the Hutt take their cars to Uni. Even with paying for parking, it’s cheaper than taking the train or a series of buses. My friends know that their petrol-driven vehicles spew out CO2 like there’s no tomorrow, but explain they would be crazy to take more expensive public transport than their warm, dry, easy and (relatively) cheap car to class. I can see where they’re coming from. Why would you pay more to get soaking wet on the walk to the train station? The answer is: you wouldn’t. And thousands of students don’t. They take their cars.

The solution? We could wait for price of petrol to reach new heights, forcing students from their sedans and station wagons; or we could change the incentives today so that people like my mates take the train instead of their cars and do their bit for Mother Earth. One option waits for the market to push people, regardless of need, towards the right choice. The latter encourages good behaviour, rewarding early action.

You have to understand that at my core, I believe that every person, no matter their wealth or background, should be given the opportunity to contribute and reach their potential. That includes making carbon-efficient choices that will reduce the scale of climate change for all of us. It’s about lifting people up so they can do their bit. We should pursue climate solutions that tackle the problem in a collective way, encouraging people—not shaming them—to act.

Collective approaches that value people offer our biggest hope to mainstream environmentalism and to shatter the hipster/Green hegemony over environmental action that puts so many would-be contributors off through chastisement and holier-than-thouism. While this group has carried the environmental torch well, often exclusive language and esoteric pedantry can leave people out in the cold.

We must focus on people, including them in the journey and ensuring they come out better off after the gold rush has gone. The blue-green vision of a market-led climate response is not such an approach. It is instead both sluggish and elitist, replacing people with profit and leaving the invisible hand to wave in climate calamity, while the poor pay the price at the pump and in their pay packets.

A comprehensive response to this global issue will instead require state-led action: a rapid and necessary upheaval of our entire economy. We should not be afraid to regulate, redistribute, subsidise, and yes—nationalise, when it is necessary. I seriously question the belief that Big Oil and the highly profitable resource industry will lead the way towards a low-carbon, energy-efficient future by themselves. Horses such as these will never drink the water that will become their poison. You can try and lead them all you like. Instead, we must be brave and innovative in our use of collective institutions to produce the collective outcome we all depend on.

The state-led model for tackling climate change has its own flaws, though. When leaders don’t show leadership, nothing happens. You can see that in the present Government’s winding-down of the home-insulation subsidy, or take Wellington Regional Council for a more local example.

With the proposal to extend the high-school concession to university and polytechnic students, the Regional Council has an opportunity to lead the way to lower our region’s carbon footprint and free up existing roads for those who really need them. The demand for new road construction will fall, saving ratepayers and taxpayers in the long run. The risk is that this worthy proposal is hushed away and our emissions continue to rise. I really hope that doesn’t happen, that instead these 13 people, elected to lead, can find the spirit within themselves to make the choice that will allow us all to make a choice. The choice to ditch the car for a cheap, reliable and regular bus or train. The choice to contribute. It’s not big, but it’s our bit.

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