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  • Writer's pictureZahra Shahtahmasebi

Lobbying for the environment

My first-ever protest was the September 2019 Climate Strike in Auckland’s Aotea Square.

I attended, along with 80,000 Kiwis, both in my capacity as a newly-minted journalist, and a citizen of Earth.

It followed on one week later from the largest climate protest in history, led by the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

At that point in time, Thunberg had been raising the profile of the climate crisis by skipping school once a week for over a year, starting a movement called #FridaysforFuture.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg in 2018

While in the crowd at the Auckland protest, I spotted a friend and former colleague who, unbeknownst to me, was doing short vox pop interviews with people to get their thoughts.

I had the tables turned on me when she put the microphone under my nose to ask me what my solution was for the climate crisis. Ever the interviewer and barely ever the interviewee, I was caught off guard.

Her question gave me pause – what do I really think the solution is, or could be? It’s the same question I’m pondering now as I write this piece.

Watching that live stream back, now five years on, I’m surprised to find I actually had some coherent thoughts on the matter.

Getting people out of cars was my main theme, to pave the way for more people to get onto bikes and also for public transport to be free.

James Shaw, former co-leader of the Green Party, and former Minister for Climate Change, agrees.

The cars we drive make up a vast majority of the pollution formed by a typical household, so if you tackle that, whether that’s by turning electric, embracing public transport, walking, or cycling, you’re 90% of the way there, he says.

And to Shaw’s mind, those that have the capacity to make a change should.

As he astutely pointed out in 2022, climate change is no longer something we as Kiwis can ignore. It’s not happening to someone else, or in the future, “it is happening here, to us, now.”

But he finds that the biggest challenge Kiwis face is knowing what exactly they can do to make meaningful change.

There’s a perception that being a good recycler scores you some points, a thought shared by our two prime ministerial candidates during the first pre-election leader’s debate last September.

Labour's Chris Hipkins and National's Christopher Luxon face off at the first Leaders debate of the 2023 general election.

But while recycling helps to look after our environment generally, it’s not going to make much difference towards climate change, says RNZ’s climate change correspondent Eloise Gibson.

So, in the fight against the climate crisis, having good information is key, says Shaw.

He adds that this is the reason why the Clean Car Rebate, which offered Kiwis a discount when they registered a vehicle with low or zero emissions, was so “off the charts” successful.

“People were being sent a strong signal - here’s the thing to do.”

As of the end of 2023, that discount was scrapped by the coalition government and since then, there has been a significant decrease in the sale of electric cars in Aotearoa.

Climate change is not a new issue, one the world has been grappling with for many decades and as Shaw knows, it’s an issue with massive amounts of lobbying, both good and bad.

In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established, a global organisation that provides governments with the latest science to inform their climate change decisions and policies.

In the late 90s, an international treaty called the Kyoto Protocol was developed, which was later replaced by the Paris Agreement in 2015, both of which hold the world to account by specifying a commitment to reduce emissions and to work together against climate change.

Many of the faces of climate change advocates and lobbyists are famous and familiar, from Thunberg, to Sir David Attenborough, to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Despite international movements to fight for change, there is also always a lot of push back. A 2023 InfluenceMap study assessed some of the largest companies in the world to find that despite having commitments as a company to cut carbon emissions, many were lobbying the government against climate action policies, like Shell, Total and ExxonMobil.

For Amanda Larsson of Greenpeace Aotearoa, climate change has never been about a lack of knowledge or even a lack of solutions to deal with the crisis: “What it ultimately comes down to is politicians the world over being lobbied into inaction by polluting industries and their lobbyists.”

In Aotearoa, dairy company Fonterra was found to be the country’s top polluter in 2023, producing around twice as many carbon emissions as the next biggest polluter on the list.

When Fonterra also makes up a large part of our national economy, we’re forced to ask ourselves some tough questions, including what exactly will it take to fight climate change here in Aotearoa?

It’s no secret that an issue this large and threatening needs a significant amount of investment - so, what amount of money will get us over the line?

According to non-profit GlobalGiving, it could take between $300 billion and $20 trillion over the next 20 years to end climate change. The large cost range highlights the different ways people argue over how to solve it, from reverting back to ancient agricultural practices to implementing green technology.

Shaw’s solution is all about taking action. Here he makes an important point - recognise your own limitations, but acknowledge that you’re doing the best with what you have.

Former Minister of Climate Change and Green Party Co-Leader, Hon. James Shaw.

A policy Shaw helped put in place in 2023 under the previous Labour Government was an investment partnership with Fonterra to cut their coal usage and reduce emissions.

Another large polluter, NZ Steel, also partnered with the Government and Contact Energy to shrink its carbon footprint by building an electric furnace over the next three years - in less time that it takes a bill to pass through the house, says Shaw.

In essence, the previous government paid the “big polluters” to do better. He calls it “ugly policy”, but the perfect policy takes a lot more time and work to get underway.

“With climate change we just don’t have time to wait until all is perfect. We’re up against the clock – so in the meantime I’m going to go with ugly policy because it’s making a difference.”

But most of all, as Holly Bennett, Kaitūhono Ariki of lobbying firm Awhi (as well as Engage Facilitator!), puts it: “the rubber hits the road when you actually do things”.

This is a crisis that needs action, with the key takeaway being that there is no one single answer – but rather a multitude of solutions, whether that is switching to an electric car, opting to bike or bus, or implementing public policies that encourage large corporations to reduce their carbon emissions.

It will take all of us, the people, our communities and our governments to act in the best interests of our planet.

Zahra Shahtahmasebi is a rising young journalist currently working in the not-for-profit space. Based in Tāmaki Makaurau, she predominantly writes on health, and politics with personal interest in women’s health. She was awarded the nib Health Journalism Scholarship - junior at the Voyager Award in 2021 and was runner up for the Le Mana Pacific Award in 2023.


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