Paul Young says NZ businesses are taking, and want to take, meaningful action on climate change, but don't want to be undermined by freeloaders

By Paul Young*

Businesses are often seen as the bad guys when it comes to climate change, lobbying governments to stymie action and water down commitments.

That seems to be true in some cases – as we’ve seen recently with Exxon Mobil’s alleged lying to the public about climate science.

But not all businesses are donkey-deep in the fossil fuel-powered status quo like Exxon. Increasingly we see business leaders and investors among the most strident voices for action.

The National Government claims they’re ‘doing their bit’ with their emissions reduction targets and policies. They say doing more would adversely impact our economy and hurt Kiwi businesses.

But a remarkable new survey and briefing released last week by Business New Zealand shows that a big chunk of businesses think we can and should do more.

In fact they think that our current ‘do the least possible’ approach risks greater harm than we would suffer from taking stronger action on climate change, as it could damage our international reputation.

The 54 public and private sector organisations that participated in the survey are shown below. BusinessNZ says the business respondents have a collective turnover totalling over a third of New Zealand’s private sector GDP.

Here are our top 5 points from the survey.

1. Businesses want stronger targets and government leadership.

Asked what they want to see from the global climate summit kicking off in Paris at the end of this month, the survey found business wants to see “strong New Zealand Government leadership in a way that makes a stand and sets an example.” 69% said that Government leadership would be beneficial for their business. They also want clarity of direction, greater ambition, unified commitment, certainty and practical action.

In terms of the Government’s current pledge, the survey report says: “The view is that the current New Zealand targets do not position New Zealand in a way that is consistent with our international image/brand. There was a sense that more ambitious commitments would create impetus, drive some new legislation and a greater alignment of business activity with national and global goals.”

As one (unnamed) company put it: “We would love for the New Zealand Government to be bolder and more aggressive in our COP21 commitments. If there were meaningful targets it would stimulate the right market behaviour and investment.”

2. Businesses are taking action anyway.

Despite the current lack of political leadership and policy signals, the majority of the businesses that responded to the survey are working to monitor and reduce their emissions. The survey found two thirds have emissions reduction targets, 61% have introduced initiatives to reduce climate emissions, and 52% publicly report on their emission reductions. BusinessNZ has just announced it’s going carbon neutral to set a positive example.

3. Businesses get that climate action creates winners as well as losers.

Interestingly, 49% of the businesses think that climate change action will lead to a positive impact on consumer demand for the products or services their business sells. Only 15% think it would have a negative impact (the rest thought it would have no impact). The numbers are similar for those who think climate change will positively impact their decisions on investment in technology and new equipment.

What this shows is that a big proportion of businesses are seeing the opportunities in the transition to a zero carbon future. It’s a stark contrast to what we hear from our political leaders, which is that it’s all cost and if we try to do anything serious the economy will implode.

4. Businesses support cross-party consensus building and an independent climate commission.

As we’ve discussed recently, everyone seems to want to build cross-party agreement on climate change policy now – except for National. The survey again shows businesses want the Government to work with opposition parties to build consensus around stable long-term policies. Almost two thirds of the organisations said this would be beneficial for their business.

A smaller but still large group of 37% also said that establishing an independent climate commission (to propose how to implement a target) would benefit their business. The Morgan Foundation has supported this idea for a while. Labour, the Greens and NZ First all say they want to implement it.

5. Businesses recognise we need to get to net zero emissions in the long run.

In her statements accompanying the release, the Sustainable Business Council’s Executive Director, Penny Nelson, said: “In the long-term, low-emission growth isn’t going to be enough. The planet will continue to warm as long as we are emitting more than we can capture and store. That’s why a group of business leaders are starting to explore the long-term systemic change we will need to make to steer towards a net zero emission economy.”

We’ve written a lot about how getting CO2 emissions to zero is the priority. It’s remarkable to see business leaders going even further to talk about achieving net zero emissions overall. That means the climate impact of ongoing emissions of other greenhouse gases (from agriculture, etc.) would also be offset by carbon sequestration. This is in line with the IPCC’s findings about where we ultimately need to go to keep warming under the 2 degree limit.

Source: Track 0

Great, so if business is on board then we’re all sorted right?

Nope. While the survey highlights the inspiring steps many businesses are taking, New Zealand’s emissions are still going up. Voluntary action will only ever get us so far without policies to drive and lock in change. These businesses are taking action because they know the writing is on the wall with carbon emissions and they are better off preparing for that now. But businesses need to survive in the short term too. If their competitors have lower costs because they aren’t doing anything to reduce emissions, this might stop some businesses investing in preparation for a low carbon future.

Businesses who want to do more are calling on the Government to act with more ambition. They need the right policy settings and long-term signals to ensure the low carbon investments they make are secure and won’t be punished. Just look at what happened to our forestry sector with the change of government. The businesses who don’t want to act, simply won’t until the Government does its job and regulates in the public interest, by putting a real price on carbon among other things.

It’s time the Government stopped pandering to the vested interests and laggards and listened to the progressive businesses who see the opportunities in an ambitious climate response.


Paul Young is a researcher and activist at Generation Zero. He is doing research for the Morgan Foundation on climate change and anything else that perks his interest.