Labour's climate emergency: Virtue signalling, or the start of real progress?

A prominent British environmentalist thinks Judith Collins is wrong to say declaring a climate emergency is empty virtue-signalling.

But at the same time, Sir Jonathon Porritt says New Zealand is dragging the chain when it comes to actual policy to fight climate change. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday will declare a climate emergency, free to do so with an absolute majority in Parliament. 

"We weren't in the position to do it last term," she told The AM Show on Monday, with New Zealand First getting in the way. 

Opposition leader Judith Collins on Wednesday said the Government's record in its first term suggests it doesn't truly believe there is an emergency.

"I say, well if it is such an emergency, they could have declared it yesterday," she told The AM Show on Wednesday. "What the Government has done is continuously put up emissions with no particular plan to deal with it."

New Zealand is in the minority of industrialised nations whose emissions are still increasing. Only 12 of 43 'Annex 1' countries signed up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change saw their emissions rise between 1990 and 2018, with New Zealand coming in second behind only Turkey.

If every country followed New Zealand's example on emissions, recent analysis found the world's temperature would rise at least 3C by the end of the century - well outside the Paris Agreement target of 1.5C. 

But not even this is enough to convince Collins of the worth of an emergency declaration.

"We are not going to indulge in a declaration of a climate emergency knowing the Government has absolutely no plan whatsoever to do anything about it. It is simply virtue-signalling and we are not going to indulge in that."

Sir Jonathon Porritt.
Sir Jonathon Porritt. Photo credit: The AM Show

But Sir Jonathon, a veteran environmentalist whose father served as the Governor-General of New Zealand, says words can matter.

"Don't underestimate the degree to which words sometimes help get the actions moving a bit faster," he told The AM Show. 

"I think there are something like 28 countries now and nearly 2000 jurisdictions, local authorities and municipalities that have committed to a climate emergency, and the truth is some of them are now trying to turn that emergency into genuine actions."

But not all. 

"Some people are just sitting back and saying, 'We signed this piece of paper - aren't we clever?' So it is literally all in the actions." 

He said the urgent response to COVID-19 showed by some nations, and the apparently successful rush to develop a vaccine in record time, suggests preventing the worst outcomes of climate change is possible.

"An awful lot of people still think the climate emergency is for tomorrow, not really for today. I guess the real story is, how quickly will this Government be able to row in behind the words, the declaration, with some genuine commitments and action? 

"Going after some of the really critical things for climate policy in New Zealand, including transport, including getting out of any remaining use of coal, things like this. This is how people will actually see whether or not this is substantive or just fine words." 

Sir Jonathon had clearly done his homework on the New Zealand situation, blaming New Zealand First for slow progress in Ardern's first term as Prime Minister.

"I listen to Jacinda Ardern and the things that she says, and I think she does mean it. She's now got an opportunity to put that into practise... This is a majority Government now, no excuses in terms of New Zealand First clogging up the works. This can be done now in a much smarter way than was possible before." 

Even the UK under a Conservative government is making progress, such as committing to phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and ending coal use by 2023.

"If the UK can do it, why wouldn't New Zealand not be able to?"