Jane Clifton: A glimmer of hope amongst the gloom and doom


There are a few brighter moments among the gloom and doom. Just don’t mention roads or the cost of housing. By Jane Clifton

At a time when the daily news diet is one long indictment sheet – New Zealand being shamed and doom-warned by climate-change scientists, economists, pandemic experts and even baristas – it feels superstitiously dangerous to highlight any positive portents.

But after the twin indignities of New Zealand’s being sacked by health chief Ashley Bloomfield after all it has done for him, and ticked off for disloyalty by yachting autocrat Grant Dalton, it has become an absolute national imperative to look for silver linings.

Astonishingly, some can be found in the latest telling-off from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The headline admonition was, fairly, the usual “time is running out”. But there’s bloom amid the doom.

The cost of renewable energy and batteries on which future clean economies depend has fallen faster than IPCC researchers believed possible a decade ago. They’re delighted the clean-energy economy now has its own competitive momentum.

The panel also calculates that keeping warming within 1.5C is in the world’s fiscal interests as well as to its existential benefit. Cutting emissions is not apt to take a chunk out of countries’ growth rates – and that’s even without accounting for climate-related fires, floods and other such costly disasters.

It’s also possible to extract a sigh of relief from the panel’s warning that it’s not good enough to rely on exotic-forest planting to sequester carbon. While alternative carbon-storage means are urgently needed, this country’s carbon-forestry fixation of recent years has been a decidedly mixed bag – not least because climate change makes such forests increasingly likely to weaken and fail, re-releasing their carbon. The Government is tightening the rules for it, because overreliance on these plantations will cause countervailing threats to food production, biodiversity and the environment generally.

For our economically vital agricultural sector, the IPCC conveyed a welcome degree of proportionality. It said its methane emissions were still not, overall, as big a menace as carbon emissions. To keep warming within a liveable range, carbon needed to fall by about 48 per cent (from pre-Covid levels) by 2030, and methane by only 34 per cent.

As for meat and dairy, the report said reduced production would make a useful difference, but remained well down its Must Do list.

Even the lion-hearted Ukrainians’ suffering is doing some incidental good for the planet. The petrol-starved northern hemisphere is piling into electric cars with a will. Practically overnight, two electric models have become Britain’s top-selling cars. Russia’s invasion is the last cue anyone would have sought to wean nations off oil and gas, but it has accelerated that process like nothing else.

Obvious rethink

But enough optimism for now. A head-slapping moment came and went here this week with dismayingly little fanfare. The Infrastructure Commission pointed out that, ahem, the pandemic has brought a degree of permanent behavioural change, and it might be smart to recalibrate a few of our more expensive pre-pandemic policies accordingly.

It should by now be a well-worn truism that two-plus years of Covid have resulted in considerably fewer people commuting to work each day. Research here and abroad suggests strongly that at least 20 per cent of workers will no longer commute daily, or even at all.

The commission’s new housing report says we need to recalculate accordingly where we’ll likely need transport and other urban amenities.

This is technically an observation meriting a response along the lines of “Duh!” But astoundingly, none of the other authorities, from the Government on down, which decide the provision of roads, pipes, parks and schools, seem to have noticed.

We’re not going back to our pre-pandemic usage of infrastructure, but our leaders are carrying on with old plans to give us infrastructure in the configuration we used to need. Those configurations were arguable enough pre-Covid. Now they’re likely to be an extra 20 per cent out in commitments measured in billions of dollars, to be funded not just by current but also future generations.

Gritty humiliation

There is a Pollyanna version of this: less commuting could be a huge incidental benefit from Covid, especially for regional development and climate-change mitigation.

Still, this report probably needs a trigger warning. People of a sensitive nature – more so those prone to violence – will not respond well to reading that house price inflation could and should now be 69 per cent less than it is.

The commission has calculated that this is the house-price impost of politicians having for decades limited both urban density and sprawl, because defying Nimbys costs votes, and skimping on infrastructure because it’s not sexy or vote-winning, either.

We began the 60s with enough buildable land to treble central Auckland’s population capacity, but subsequent accumulation of planning restrictions halved that potential.

Another downer: despite the recent building uptick, we’re building fewer houses than our low-tech, pre-motorised-transport grandparents’ generation did, which is beyond embarrassing.

It’s outside the commission’s brief, but it’s also worth noting that our primitive forebears built highly durable dwellings without the benefit of today’s comprehensive building standards and product specifications.

If one of these primitive structures leaked, it was possible to fix it rather than having to demolish it and start again. Amazing. However did they do it?

Our ancestors were also touchingly clueless about capital gains. From 1938-1977, a 1 per cent rise in income lifted house prices by a measly 0.5 per cent, the commission calculates. From 1978 to 2018, the same take-home pay lift hiked prices by about 2 per cent. New Zealand’s population from 1950-1970 grew faster than in the boom of recent years, but house prices have grown twice as fast this century.

Such stats are usefully grim, if unsurprising. Home owners have made money out of inertia, rather than productivity. A crowning humiliation: New Zealand doesn’t spend less on infrastructure than other developed countries, the commission finds. It just gets poorer results.

This won’t be novel for drivers repairing cars chipped by a trip through the brand new Transmission Gully, or those whose lack of patronage has caused the Te Huia Hamilton-Auckland commuter train – round trip about five hours – to fall nearly a third short of its (Covid-adjusted) business case.

Perhaps the next officials’ report should be: What Would Nana and Grandad Have Done About All This?

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