Scientists’ advice for climate action – Expert Q&A

Over the weekend, delegates at COP24 in Katowice, Poland came to a global agreement for a ‘rulebook’ to put the 2015 Paris Agreement into practice.

It comes at the end of a year where at times it’s felt there’s been a new, dire climate report every few days: from the IPCC warning of the consequences of letting warming exceed 1.5C, to the UN saying nations won’t meet their 2020 Paris targets.

Sometimes it can all feel a bit overwhelming, so we’ve asked experts who work on the frontlines of climate change research for their advice on individual action, political change and how to cope with feelings of being overwhelmed.

The SMC put together a Q&A with some of the experts who work on the frontlines of climate change research – please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Bronwyn Hayward, Canterbury
– Catherine Leining, Motu
James Renwick, VuW
Rhys Jones, Auckland
Ralph Sims, Massey
Nick Golledge, VuW

Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward, Director: Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research Group: Hei Puāwaitanga, University of Canterbury.

Dr Hayward’s full comments have been posted on

Catherine Leining, Policy Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research. 

What advice do you have for people who want to take action to reduce their own emissions, or call for more action from Government?

“We have all had moments in our lives when the future we expected shifts abruptly. For me, reading the IPCC’s 1.5C report was one of those moments. It marked the end of business as usual, and start of a major turning point for positive change.

“Households can help by making ‘cool’ lifestyle choices. Motu’s research shows the biggest gains from cutting back on meat and dairy; choosing electric, public and active transport and flying less; and reducing home energy use. But this will not fix the problem by itself.

“Transitioning quickly to a successful low-emission economy will require people to vote consistently for high emission prices and ambitious regulations. This will happen only if those changes are part of a policy package that will safeguard New Zealanders’ wellbeing during the transition. No one will agree to a carbon diet if they think they will starve. Balancing the ‘yang’ of accelerating change with the ‘yin’ of cushioning change will be key to making change happen.

“To open the door for exciting innovation, businesses and governments need to overcome lock-in to high-emission infrastructure, technologies and practices. A useful tool is shadow emission pricing: building a high and rising target-consistent emission price (not today’s low NZ ETS price!) into every business case to make sure it aligns with a low-emission future.

“Some activists are calling for a war on climate change. As I discussed in this blog post, war creates enemies, overpowers, devastates and has an end. I prefer the hero’s journey of accepting the call to adventure, crossing the threshold from known to unknown, and challenging ourselves to innovate and redefine the drivers of economic security and human happiness. Let’s wage collaboration!”

Professor James Renwick, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

What advice do you have for people who want to take action to reduce their own emissions, or call for more action from Government?

“What do we do about climate change? What can I personally do about climate change? It’s the question I am asked most often when I speak to members of the public. It can all seems so overwhelming, what can any of us individuals actually achieve?

“The reality is that all of us can take individual actions that, when added up across society, really do make a difference. Using public transport (ideally electric) when we can, engaging in active transport – cycling and/or walking, flying less (and offsetting when we do fly), eating less red meat, making sure our homes are well-insulated, buying an electric vehicle if we’re looking to trade in our present car or get a new one, grow our own fruit and veges where possible. All these things lower our household carbon footprint, and if most households took these actions, our national emissions of greenhouse gases would reduce noticeably.

“Beyond that though, the best thing we can do is talk. Talk about the magnitude and the urgency of climate change with family/whānau, with neighbours, with workmates, and most importantly with our elected representatives in local and central government. Government policy sets the tone for how society operates, and signals to the business sector where to invest in our future. If all of us even sent a single email to our electorate MP, the volume of mail would be bound to get a response! If you feel like organising some political activism, be it a community event to talk about climate adaptation, or a march on Parliament to demand stronger and faster climate action, the more noise you can make, the better!

“Climate change and the realities it might bring can seem daunting, overwhelming. When I have read some of the bad news this year, around increased emissions of greenhouse gases and slow progress at the international negotiations, it has been depressing. What gives me heart is the knowledge that we know how to take action, that it isn’t too late, and that collective action can change the world.

“We can all feel empowered by adding our voices to the call for action, by taking steps in our own lives, and by calling on political and business leaders to move our society and our economy in the right direction. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose!”

Dr Rhys Jones, Senior Lecturer, Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, University of Auckland

What can people be doing at an individual or household level to reduce their emissions or take action against climate change?

“There are plenty of things we can do at an individual or household level to reduce our carbon footprints. However, it is important to recognise that individual and whānau/household lifestyle changes on their own will not be enough – climate change is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions. In thinking about the changes we could make, I tend to focus on actions that can have other benefits for people and their families, such as improving health and saving money. Active transport is a good example – using our cars less and shifting to more walking, cycling and public transport will increase physical activity and lead to reductions in urban air pollution and road traffic injuries, while at the same time helping to tackle climate change.

“What’s really important about making these individual and household level changes, though, is that it can create the impetus for action at higher levels and generate systemic change. When people identify things they want to change in their lives and go about trying to make those changes, they often come up against systemic barriers. For example, I often talk to people who would like to bike to work rather than driving, but feel unable to do so because they consider the current transport environment to be too unsafe. So despite a strong desire to make the change and an awareness of the significant benefits that it would bring (e.g. being fitter and healthier, saving money, having a more social and enjoyable commute) they are effectively prevented from making the change.

“This can lead people to engage in community action to try to remove or overcome the identified barriers, such as joining together with others to lobby for cycle lanes and traffic-calming measures in their local area. Mobilising at a community level can then create the stimulus for action at a policy level such as advocacy for reprioritising transport funding to support growth in active modes.”

What would you like to see from a policy/political perspective – are there any policy moves you’re watching for in the coming year?

“Obviously, the Zero Carbon Bill is a significant piece of legislation for determining climate action in Aotearoa. It will set the framework for a long-term pathway towards carbon neutrality, which is critically important. However we know from the recent IPCC ‘1.5 degrees’ report that we can’t wait to act – the report calls for rapid, far-reaching, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. Global net carbon dioxide emissions need to decrease by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.

New Zealand, as a relatively wealthy country with high historical emissions, has a disproportionate responsibility to contribute to global mitigation efforts. What that means is that New Zealand needs to reach net zero emissions well before 2050 – probably in the 2030s – and be deeply into negative emissions by mid-century. Our shameful inaction to date means that we now have to act immediately and radically. The Zero Carbon Bill, therefore, needs to be significantly strengthened in order to set the appropriate trajectory for New Zealand’s emissions. Every sector and every aspect of society needs to undergo rapid, far-reaching transformation: if your vision for your business/organisation/community/enterprise/industry resembles the status quo – even remotely – you’re not thinking far enough outside the square.

“We won’t achieve the radical transformation of our society that’s required by doing things the way we’ve always done them. Policies and climate change mitigation actions won’t be sufficient if they are grounded in conventional ways of thinking. That’s why we need to engage with Indigenous worldviews, knowledge and value systems, which have the capacity to create truly transformative change. Supporting Māori self-determination is, therefore, a prerequisite for supporting effective climate action. Climate policy and legislation must centralise Te Tiriti o Waitangi and privilege kaupapa Māori approaches.”

How do you cope with having to confront this hard and scary reality – do you have any advice for people feeling overwhelmed or unsure where to start? Do their individual actions matter?

“The enormity of the climate challenge can feel overwhelming – I think most people feel this way sometimes. It can also be difficult for us to confront the need for change. But the good news is that the changes we need to make can have positive impacts on many aspects of our lives. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will mean cleaner air, a healthier population, greater economic independence and more jobs in renewable energy industries. Decarbonising our transport system can transform our urban environments into vibrant, healthy, attractive spaces that enhance social and economic activity. A shift to more locally-grown food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, will stimulate local economies and reduce food insecurity as well as improving health outcomes. Improving our housing stock to ensure all New Zealanders live in healthy, energy efficient homes will mean a better quality of life, fewer days off school and work, and fewer hospital admissions for diseases such as asthma and respiratory infections. Tackling climate change will also require us to address poverty and social inequality. So while on the one hand climate change is recognised as perhaps the greatest threat to humanity, on the other hand, climate action represents an unprecedented opportunity to create a fairer, healthier and more inclusive society.

“In thinking about how we can make this happen, individual actions matter. Not because we can solve climate change by each changing our personal lifestyles, but because individual actions lead to ripple effects that can stimulate action at higher levels and ultimately create systemic and structural change. So rather than focusing on the barriers or perceived risks, I’d encourage all of us to identify actions we could take that will have win-win outcomes – no matter how small or insignificant they may seem – and start making those changes. Then, when we come up against obstacles, advocate for policies to remove those obstacles, and keep going until we’ve created the transformation that’s required. Do it for your children and mokopuna, and for future generations. But also, do it because it’s going to create a better society right here and now. Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui. Kia ora tātou.”

Professor Ralph Sims, Director, Centre for Energy Research, Massey University.

What can people be doing at an individual or household level to reduce their emissions or take action against climate change?

“Become less wasteful – particularly by avoiding wasting food (global food supply produces 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions): wasting food is wasting money.

“Reduce your intake of milk and meat products – good for your health as well as for the health of the planet. Like it or not, the world has little choice but to move away from animal protein consumption – not just for climate change but also for the more sustainable use of water and fertile soils.

“Drive your car more smoothly to save fuel. Most people can save 20 per cent of fuel consumption – hence 20 per cent of fuel costs – just by how you drive. Drive at lower speed, with less rapid accelerating, anticipate the need to brake, turn off the engine when stopped, remove roof racks when not needed, etc.

“One person in a car (weighing around 1 tonne) driving from say Auckland to Wellington consumes more fuel per passenger km (~150g CO2 per passenger km) than if that person flies in a nearly full plane instead (~ 90 g CO2 per passenger km). Four people in a car obviously produces a lot less per passenger km (~50 g CO2).  (IPCC, 2014 data).

“And a typical SUV produces more than a family saloon, with a hybrid less and an EV lower again. So when replacing your vehicle, forget having a car as a status symbol, and ensure it has the lowest fuel consumption of vehicle type to suit your needs.

“There is no doubt that the pump price of gasoline and diesel will have to rise significantly in the future – and not just in NZ where it remains cheaper than many developed countries.

“Avoid over-heating or over-cooling of rooms in the house. Opening a window costs nothing, nor does wearing warmer clothes in the winter.

“Most people know they can save money by turning off lights when not needed, not over-filling a kettle with more water than needed, only using the dishwasher or washing machine when full, putting lids on saucepans, using a microwave instead of the oven when appropriate, setting the hot water heater temperature to no more than 65C; insulating houses; walking/cycling short distances instead of driving, etc., etc.

“But many people still fail to take such simple actions. It’s difficult to know why when there are cost-saving benefits to be had.”

What recommendations do you have for businesses that want to reduce their energy consumption?

“Many businesses have undertaken successful energy audits and significantly reduced their annual energy demand as a result (both electricity and process heat) – thus reducing their operating costs. But many more haven’t yet done so and should give it higher priority.

“Managers of commercial buildings should undergo a NABERSNZ rating (administered by the Green Building Council) to save energy and hence reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as their operating costs.

“Every business and commercial building is different, but general information and useful contacts can be found on the EECA website. All SMEs can benefit as well as larger-scale businesses.”

What would you like to see from a policy/political perspective – are there any policy moves you’re watching for in the coming year?

“Vehicle fuel efficiency standards, as used by many other countries, should have been implemented years ago. Many of our vehicles are second-hand imports so that is a possible constraint, but since they tend to be less fuel efficient than imported new vehicles, then all the more reason to introduce standards. Also, feebate systems should be considered (high registration fees for high fuel consumption vehicles, rebates for low fuel consumption vehicles).

“Strengthen the building code. A building constructed today will be using energy for 50 to 100 years – so it has to be energy efficient. Existing buildings, large and small, can be retrofitted to reduce energy demand, but at a higher cost then designing in energy-efficient materials and technologies when new.

“Wooden buildings have a future given their lower carbon footprint than using steel or concrete and should be encouraged.”

How do you cope with having to confront this hard and scary reality – do you have any advice for people feeling overwhelmed or unsure where to start? Do their individual actions matter?

“Climate change is happening. Everyone will be affected so everyone needs to fully understand the consequences, and what will be needed to become more resilient to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

“Everyone in New Zealand has contributed to this global problem – being around the 5th highest emitter per person of all greenhouse gases of all countries and around 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas that enters the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and gas. Therefore everyone has a responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint and try and help to reduce the enormity of the task even just a little bit.

“It is well understood that any cost or inconvenience experienced from doing this now will be a pittance compared with the cost and inconvenience we will all have to experience in coming decades.”

Associate Professor Nick Golledge, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington.

What can people be doing at an individual or household level to reduce their emissions or take action against climate change?

“In New Zealand, half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. All transport combined accounts for less than one-fifth of the emissions, with power production also responsible for another one-fifth. Clearly, the single biggest change an individual can make is, therefore, to reduce (better still, completely omit) meat and dairy consumption. If everyone did this it would increase the chances of staying within Paris targets by almost 50 per cent by 2030. This also has added benefits of improved environmental quality and sustainability, animal welfare, athletic performance, and human health. Best of all, this can be done right now, at whatever level can be managed by the individual or household. There are plenty of others taking this step, and numerous initiatives such as ‘meatless Monday’, or the ‘one meal a day for the planet’ plan led by Suzy Amis Cameron (wife of film producer and vegan advocate James Cameron). Check out for more information on transitioning to a plant-based diet.

“It’s often overlooked, but carnivorous pets (mainly dogs, cats) consume a vast amount of meat, with all the associated impacts described above. In fact, a recent US study concluded that dogs and cat ownership is responsible for nearly one-third of the environmental impacts associated with animal production (land use, water, fossil fuels etc). So ideally, if you’re keen to get a new pet, go for something herbivorous or at least an adaptable eater (like pigs, for example). There are plenty of animals in rescue centres that need good homes, so why not adopt a horse, lamb, goat, rabbit, guinea pig, or alpaca?

“Buy local produce, whether it’s food grown locally or goods manufactured in New Zealand rather than imported from overseas. Freight that is shipped around the world accounts for 3 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing our dependence on imports makes a big difference to our overall ‘carbon footprint’.

“Car use is a problem because we all enjoy the personal mobility cars provide, but that comes with an excessively high carbon cost. Using public transport where possible is, of course, preferable, but for some, the lack of personal freedom is a big disadvantage, as well as the sometimes less than perfect transit networks that exist in many parts of the country. One alternative for many people looking to commute short distances might be an e-bike – but think of it as an alternative for your car rather than a replacement for your bike. For those looking to replace their car, buying a hybrid or full electric model would be the best thing from a carbon perspective, even if the production of the cars themselves isn’t entirely without environmental problems. The network of electric vehicle (EV) chargers is growing rapidly, but generally speaking it’s easiest to charge at home if you’re only doing daily commutes. This becomes really economical if you have an electricity supplier who offers a special low rate for EV charging (for example, Meridian). On that rate, you can fully charge a Nissan Leaf for less than $4, and that will do about 150 km.

“On the subject of electricity, an easy and quick way to reduce your carbon footprint is to switch to a supplier that only generates power from renewable sources. Luckily in New Zealand we have an abundance of renewable options, from solar, wind, and hydro. Set up your home to be energy efficient by using low energy appliances, or maybe invest in your own solar panels if you want – many power companies will ‘buy back’ any excess you produce.

“Plant trees! This kinda requires having some space, but if you have land available, planting trees is a great way to invest in longer-term carbon sequestration – you’re essentially offsetting some of the emissions from your other activities. In terms of carbon storage, fast-growing species like pines are excellent for short-term uptake, whereas slower-growing species like oaks, with denser wood, are good because they generally live longer and so eventually take up more CO2. There is a lot of variability between species, but as a rule of thumb, a tree that lives to 40 or 50 years old will have taken-up about a ton of C02. Planting 40 or 50 trees, therefore, offsets a ton of C02 every year (roughly equivalent to 24 hours of international air travel).

“Reduce / reuse / recycle – we all know it, but actually being aware of doing each of these things will make a significant impact, especially if everyone does it.

“Air travel is, for many of us, an essential part of our work. With New Zealand being a long way from anywhere it’s sometimes unavoidable to have to travel overseas for meetings, conferences and so on. There is some progress in the field of aviation emissions reductions, but it’s still a long way off. In the short term we have to find alternatives, whether that is in the form of teleconferencing instead of travelling, or if travel is essential, then carbon offsetting schemes can be useful (but far from a perfect solution unfortunately).

“Vote for climate-aware politicians and council representatives. These are the people who have the power to implement large-scale changes that are beyond the scope of individual actions. Make your voice heard through voting, and by contributing to discussion and consultation processes such as organised by the Ministry for the Environment.”

What recommendations do you have for businesses that want to reduce their energy consumption?

“Businesses can encourage employees as well as clients to adopt low-carbon practices, whether it is by promoting the use of, for example, bike use for commuting (provide bike racks, showers etc), or by providing incentives for customers who adopt sustainable approaches.

“Switching to renewable energy sources wherever possible is clearly an easy way to reduce emissions for business premises, as well as the adoption of EVs for vehicle fleets (as being undertaken by the current government).

Community initiatives such as tree planting or shared gardens, or just maintaining open or ‘wild’ green spaces are ideal for carbon sequestration. This isn’t just because of the plants these gardens or green spaces accommodate, it is also because of the soil. Globally, soil holds two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere, but the ability of soil to retain this depends on it being managed well. Generally speaking, the longer and more densely planted an area of soil is, the better it will sequester carbon. Allowing plant matter to decompose into the soil means that plant carbon is locked away, rather than being released to the atmosphere through burning etc.”

What would you like to see from a policy/political perspective – are there any policy moves you’re watching for in the coming year?

“Financial incentive for low-carbon options is the most effective means to encourage population change. This can be in the form of subsidies or rebates to partially offset costs associated with purchasing EVs, domestic solar panels, household insulation etc, or could be applied at a market level, for example by reintroducing agricultural subsidies to promote the expansion and greater affordability of plant-based foods.

“Although the New Zealand Government doesn’t currently subsidise agriculture directly, it does finance infrastructure, such as the irrigation systems widely used in pastoral farming. Per 100g of protein, land use for beef farming is 20 x that of most pulses, or 75 x of what is required for tofu. Land use for cow milk production is 12 x that necessary for soy milk. A US study recently concluded that shifting from ‘beef to beans’ could free-up nearly half of the nation’s cropland.

“Assuming that all agricultural land requires some level of irrigation, it is clear that a shift to more plant-based farming will not only liberate considerable land area, but will also reduce costs associated with irrigation, pest control etc. These funds could, in turn, be reinvested in plant agriculture either as start-up financial incentives to encourage farmers to make animal-to-plant transitions, or as direct subsidies on the ongoing costs.”

How do you cope with having to confront this hard and scary reality – do you have any advice for people feeling overwhelmed or unsure where to start? Do their individual actions matter?

“One of the frustrations of climate change is perhaps the realisation that this is not something that can be left to politicians to deal with on our behalf, the urgency is simply too great. But individual actions are massively important in two ways. First, they can make immediate impacts on our total carbon footprint, without any of the inertia of political machinations. This means that our actions have an immediate effect, however small, and that is immensely empowering. Secondly, by adopting and advocating for low-carbon life choices, individuals are sending a clear message to political leaders that this is important, and that an increasing proportion of the voting population will favour leaders whose policies are aligned with similar priorities. This was made patently clear in the recent US Midterms, in which pro-environmental representatives were widely successful across the country.

“It is, of course, hard to stand your ground and stick with new lifestyle choices when you feel surrounded by people who choose not to change, or worse still, actively mock and criticise. This is, however, normal human psychology. People subconsciously tend to feel attacked if they see someone else making a so-called ethical or moral choice, as if they themselves are being judged, or criticised. In many cases, this results in a backlash, but it is rarely well-founded. In the context of climate change the science is so overwhelmingly clear, and the current and future impacts so manifestly important, that to not acknowledge this in a meaningful manner either reflects a lack of understanding or awareness, or is simply selfish.

“Rather than take issue with those members of society, a more useful and positive approach that can help cope with the feeling of marginalisation is to actively seek out like-minded people, helping to reinforce the value of individual actions by seeing them as part of a wider movement. Whatever changes you decide to make, there are groups and networks out there to help, whether it is EV-owners clubs, local and national vegan groups, or eco-home enthusiasts willing to share tips and resources. A quick browse on the internet makes you realise that whatever you’re doing, you’re part of a global community of similarly-inclined people, not just an individual on your own.

“A final thing that we need to consider is that many people will simply not be in a position to make substantial changes to their lifestyle – even if they want to – either for financial, domestic, or health reasons. The onus is therefore on those of us who can adapt, to do so, but this recognition also raises the question of how it could be possible to help those less able to make appropriate transitions. In some cases, this may amount to more accessible or more effective education, social support, or community engagement. At a broader level, it may be sufficient to simply make low-carbon lifestyle choices more widely available, cheaper, and more versatile.”