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17 March 2021

What do the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations mean for consumers?

Jon Duffy, Consumer NZ CEO, shares his thoughts on the Climate Change Commission’s draft report.

The Climate Change Commission (CCC) caused a stir in February when it dropped its long-awaited 2021 Draft Advice for Consultation. The dull title undersells what is a potentially game-changing piece of analysis and a line in the sand for New Zealand’s relationship with the climate.

Once the recommendations had been digested, some industries seemed more surprised than others to be singled out, and at the suggestion that profiting from burning fossil fuels ad infinitum may not be the best idea for the planet. For these sectors the timelines recommended in the report seem to have been a much-needed reality check.

Some were quick to point out that this is only draft advice and there’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before any recommendations become law or policy. Fair enough, that’s true. But there’s plenty of industry support as well, with some businesses very advanced in their thinking and, rather than railing against the inevitable, already focussing on how to bring about change sensibly.

Some consumers were taken by surprise, as well. There were reports of customers cancelling orders for gas appliances and plumbers and gasfitters losing installation contracts. We received complaints suggesting the CCC was out to rob people of their BBQs.

That the government would be seizing everyone’s BBQs seems a stretch, at least until it’s finished dealing with the pandemic and the America’s Cup is over. That said, the commission does propose transitioning away from the domestic use of natural gas by 2050. This means at some point before then, an alternative will need to be found and we’ll have to work out what to do with all those BBQs.

Badly overestimating the likely quality of summer in Wellington this year, I recently bought a BBQ. Obviously, I am interested to know how long I can (and should) use it. I also have children, who will hopefully be around a lot longer than me. These recommendations have real-world consequences: both for how I choose to cook a sausage and whether my children will inherit a planet worth living in.

What the CCC has released puts high-emission sectors on clear notice, but that was always going to happen at some stage. For consumers, it’s a wake-up call that addressing climate change will involve actual changes in our behaviour. And that we have to act sooner rather than later.

Some consumers will have the luxury of choosing when to change their lifestyles. However, that transition won’t be easy for everyone. For example, not everyone can afford to swap out their petrol car for an electric model. This means any policy decisions made in response to the CCC report must be fair for everyone, and not disproportionately place the cost of change on those least able to afford it.

An entire chapter of the report is devoted to how the proposals could impact the people of Aotearoa. To its credit, the CCC moves beyond the science to consider fairness. It also acknowledges that emission reduction needs to occur at pace, but without slowing economic growth.

Central to the commission’s thinking is a concept of connectivity borrowed from Te Ao Māori. As the commission puts it: The people, the land, the atmosphere, the oceans – all things are connected.

In contrast, the fast consumer culture that drives many of our buying habits isn’t connected to, but is exploitative of, the environment, which is treated as a free resource. The only connectivity? The connection to profits. This isn’t sustainable.

Our habits make it difficult to imagine consuming in different ways. However, if we think about how we are connected to the world around us, our role in changing how things are produced for our consumption becomes clearer.

We already have the power to make better choices. Being more discerning about whether we need to buy that new fridge or T-shirt – despite what the marketing says – can make the purchasing decisions we do make have a positive impact. If we do need to buy, and we can afford to, we can have a positive impact through buying things that are built to last, not built to last until the two-year warranty expires.

Choosing not to buy at all and extending the life of products by repairing rather than replacing them slows demand and keeps broken goods out of landfill.

If we all did these things, manufacturers would, in turn, be forced to improve the quality and durability of what they produce to meet consumer demand.

Only time will tell what recommendations the government takes on from the CCC, but the draft report is already a success for framing its response in terms of connectivity.

As the CCC points out, it would be harmful and disruptive to go cold turkey tomorrow and eschew any product or service that produces harmful emissions. That is sensible cricket. But if there’s one thing capitalism has taught us, the quickest way to bring about change is to threaten profits.

We have some power here, but we need to break some habits to use it.

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