Despite an increasing awareness of the worsening health impacts of climate change, not enough is being done both domestically and globally, write Dermot Coffey and Summer Wright in the final issue of New Zealand Doctor Rata Aotearoa for 2022. We are grateful for permission to now republish their op-ed here.
Turn up the heat on emissions goals: Short-changed on climate in year of disaster after disaster
The year 2022 was one of climate-related disasters – from a heatwave in Europe and a record high temperature in the UK to floods that devastated Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the only bright light from the international climate convention known as COP27 was agreement to found a dedicated Loss and Damage Fund to support poorer nations in responding to unavoidable climate impacts.
As part of the urgent and drastic curtailing required in greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use must rapidly be reduced, but action remains insufficient. Global emissions have remained high after the 2021 post-pandemic rebound. Certain countries, particularly in Europe, are further strengthening their 2030 goals but a COP international framework is still needed.
In Aotearoa, our year in health has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the health sector reforms. From a climate and sustainability perspective, Aotearoa has taken advantage of neither.
We were too timid early in the pandemic to make the planning changes to support active and public transport, which have been transformative in places like Paris. The health system reforms have had underwhelming results as well. In April – in light of the reforms’ 1 July start – OraTaiao, with the support of 10 other health organisations, took recommendations to health minister Andrew Little. We asked, for example, that a dedicated sustainability unit be urgently set up to oversee the health sector’s decarbonisation. The Government, after all, is aiming for a carbon-neutral public sector by 2025.
Our recommendations remain unfulfilled.
While the stresses caused by the current health sector crises are understandable, it beggars belief how a government that says climate change is “the nuclear-free moment of this generation” can embark on once-in-a- generation health sector reforms without placing the sector’s climate response front and centre.
This also undermines goals for health equity in Aoteaora, because climate change will greatly compound existing disparities in health outcomes. A huge opportunity may have been missed for health services to display climate leadership in the public sector. In primary care, this is compounded by the lack of attention shown, in general, throughout the reform process so far.
The country’s first National Emissions Budget was announced in late May but failed to properly close the gap between our international commitments and our domestically legislated goals (let alone our ethical obligation to account for decades of climate pollution).
Climate change minister James Shaw in August unveiled the first National Adaptation Plan, drawing together work from a range of departments, but side- stepping the crucial questions as to who will pay for things like managed retreat.
Health sector resilience was a feature of this adaptation plan, but typically it focused on secondary care.
The role of primary care, and in particular rural primary care, in our adaptation to climate change was largely neglected.
Finally, agriculture – our largest source of emissions – became the centre of attention as the Government consulted on plans to price agricultural emissions over coming years. The agriculture sector, predictably, pushed back but in a somewhat muted manner. The approach to emissions goes nowhere near far enough yet to ensuring agricultural pollution is properly priced, nor does it properly address how to protect and transition the Māori economy to sustainable industries, which are sensitive to both environmental legislation and the effects of climate change.
However, some of the larger agricultural representative organisations appear to recognise that the proposed plan represents an opportunity as much as a threat, and that a country that produces healthy food in a properly sustainable (as opposed to greenwashed) way stands to reap rewards in international markets.
Positives from the year included Auckland Council introducing a climate-action targeted rate. Twothirds of submissions on the proposal were in favour. A new mayor in Wellington stands to lead a council that will continue to improve the city’s woeful active transport infrastructure. Reduced public transport fares have gone some way to offset the decrease in patronage over the pandemic, and campaigns seek to continue and expand this in 2023. Electric bicycles continue to be the e-vehicle of choice, and 2022 was another best-year-ever for sales.
Although bodies like the Climate Change Commission are there to provide independent advice, the make-up of our next government, after next year’s election, will have a huge impact. Overt climate denialism is rarely heard from mainstream politicians these days, but unnecessary delay can ultimately have the same impact.
Election year looms
Climate action may also become increasingly partisan despite its effects reaching across all groups. Even the most ardent Labour supporter would find it difficult to argue that the Government’s actions on climate change align with its pronouncements – disappointing given its majority in Parliament.
The National Party has been less than inspiring so far on climate, and the stances of minor parties – the Green Party, ACT, Te Pāti Māori and perhaps The Opportunities Party and New Zealand First – may well be influential.
Climate change was a factor in Australia’s change of government. The votes are there for the party willing to take an ambitious and future-focused position.
This year, for the first time in history, COP at least highlighted food, rivers, nature-based solutions and the right to a healthy environment. This right was recently recognised as a human right by the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council.
In Aotearoa, however, we remain climate laggards, and internationally we can see the long-standing target of a maximum temperature rise of 1.5o C slipping away. The next target shouldn’t be a ceiling of 2o C. It could start with 1.51o C, and then 1.52o C, and so on. What’s needed now is some inspiration and ambition to highlight that the changes we need to make are not only possible but desirable and that, far from representing an imposition or a sacrifice, are an opportunity for a healthier future.
Dermot Coffey and Summer Wright are co-convenors of OraTaiao NZ Climate & Health Council