Jonathan Boston shares cross-cultural insights on sustainability between New Zealand and the UK

Jonathan Boston is a New Zealand academic, professor of policy studies at Victoria University of Wellington, School of Government. His recent research has focussed on the challenge of governing for the long-term in the face of strong presentist tendencies in democratic policy-making.

What do you think of the cross-cultural differences, in terms of approaching the climate emergency, between New Zealand and the UK from your understanding?

In relation to climate change, the political economy of the problem is somewhat different in the United Kingdom from the situation in New Zealand. Half our greenhouse gas emissions are from the agricultural sector in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. So if you think about the total, roughly half are carbon dioxide, a third methane, and around 17 per cent nitrous oxide. In New Zealand, a critical problem is that we have a lot of cows and sheep, which belch methane, and we use a lot of nitrates. Our economy is heavily dependent on dairy products and meat. That is very different from the situation in the UK where the overwhelming majority of the emissions are carbon dioxide. And when you look at the carbon dioxide emissions, there’s also a significant difference. In New Zealand, around 80 per cent of our electricity is from renewable sources: mostly hydroelectric, but also wind and to a very modest degree solar. In the United Kingdom, a much higher proportion of the electricity is from non-renewable sources. That has implications for the extent to which you can decarbonise the transport system. In New Zealand, if we electrified our transport system fully, we could use it in all our vehicles. In Britain, that isn’t the case yet. And although the decarbonisation of the electricity system has been significant, it’s not nearly as far advanced as New Zealand.
From a political point of view, in Britain, the fundamental issue is to decarbonise the electricity system and the transport system. Obviously there are other aspects to it, like industrial emissions. And so now in New Zealand, the politics of decarbonization are very difficult. Within the agricultural sector, there are a few technical solutions at the moment to reducing emissions from cows and sheep. We could reduce stock numbers, but in many situations this would reduce product profitability making it unviable for some farmers.

The current government is trying to introduce a feebate scheme, which involves placing a tax on high emission vehicles and then subsidizing low emission vehicles.

These schemes can be designed in ways that are fiscally neutral so it doesn’t cost the government anything. It’s simply shifting costs between the purchases of different sorts of vehicles. The main central national party strongly opposes this because it believes that such a scheme is inequitable as it could subsidise wealthy people who can afford to buy low emission vehicles, which tend to be more expensive. They think they will be penalising people who need high emission vehicles for their business or their farm. So even a simple policy measure like that, which will almost certainly help to reduce emissions, is politically sensitive and difficult for the government to secure cross-party agreement on. So that gives a snapshot of some of the challenges that we face.

Within such a political climate, what do you think are the challenges in translating these global policies and goals into local circumstances?

The challenges are immense. I have been working on climate change issues for almost 15 years in New Zealand and some of my colleagues in the academic world have been working on these problems for 25 to 30 years. We had our first climate change policy in the late 1980s. And we’ve made very little progress in 30 years. New Zealand’s gross emissions and net emissions have increased significantly in 30 years since governments started taking climate change seriously. They’ve gone up partly because emissions from transport and agriculture have gone up. They’ve also gone up because we’ve been cutting down forests: a valuable source. So we’ve been reducing reforested land and that’s had an effect on the net emissions.

I tell my students that in the early nineties we had no policies. We had a policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2000 by 20 per cent. Well, we currently have a goal of reducing emissions by 2030 by 11 per cent on 1990 levels. Our goal now is significantly less ambitious than the goal was almost 30 years ago. However, having said that, the current government has legislation in parliament in the form of a bill. It’s called the Climate Change Response (zero carbon). The bill is designed to achieve net-zero emissions in New Zealand by 2050. It’s not clear yet whether the main opposition party will support that legislation. That would be an ambitious goal if we achieved the legislative framework, which would be similar to that operating in Britain under the Climate Change Act 2008. If this was put in place we would at least have the legislative framework with an independent climate change commission and clear long term targets that would be broadly compatible with global goals. But as I’ve often said in the New Zealand context, we need to think about the climate change problem globally in the context of a global carbon budget.

We used up well over two-thirds of the budget for achieving 1.5 degrees or avoiding more than 1.5 degrees of warming. If we think about it from a global equity point of view, many would argue a country like New Zealand has already used its fair share of the atmospheric space. On that basis, we should be decarbonising even more quickly than it’s currently intended. But the key point here is, first of all, not many people in my country think about things globally or in terms of carbon budgets.

The efforts of people like myself are very hard to get through to people that we face. There is a global budgetary constraint and New Zealand needs to be thinking about its policies in this light. It is very hard to get people to understand that and harder to get people to seriously act on the basis of it. So even within my own circles, I know people who have travelled extensively, notwithstanding the fact that they know very well, what is happening on a planet-wide basis in terms of climate change.

It disturbs me that, people just don’t seem to be making the connections, and acting in accordance with that. I feel that at my stage, given what I know about the problem, I cannot ethically continue to travel extensively. I’ve now got to a stage where I feel I can’t any longer delay. I have to act personally consistent with what I believed in the case.

In terms of goal setting, should the burden of effectuating change be put on the individual? What are the limits to individual voluntary action?

As you appreciate, my field of study is public policy, and so as you might expect, I’m someone who takes the view that policy matters and there are many issues where individuals acting voluntarily and independently cannot achieve the sorts of results that you want.

Policy matters and by creating favourable incentives and regulatory frameworks, you can incentivise behaviours that are going to be more sustainable or more consistent with sustainable outcomes. Although the limits are very clear, we are facing the consequences of that globally and the global community has known about this problem for at least 30 years. Despite that, local emissions are continuing to rise.

We will need much more effective policy measures and instruments and need to globally decarbonise very rapidly over the next decade or 15 years. It seems to me we’re going to have to have much more vigorous, rigorous and effective regulatory mechanisms. So for example, I have proposed in the New Zealand context that we should forbid the purchase of vehicles with internal combustion engines beyond a decision date.

In contrast, what do you think about the future of the Sustainable Development goals?

I’m a strong advocate of having global goals. I think the millennium development goals were a very positive initiative and it’s evident that, in many parts of the world, a significant number of the goals were achieved or almost achieved. The Sustainable Development goals from 2015 are global in nature and apply to every country. They cover 17 categories, 169 targets with 232 indicators.

This was highly desirable. It’s important to ensure that democratic political leaders, governments, politicians take these sorts of goals seriously. One of the goals is to dramatically reduce poverty. Whether you’re using a relative measure, or using absolute measure 50 per cent seems to be a very desirable goal. You can ask for more, but 50 per cent is certainly a good place to start.

In my country, the previous government refused until fairly close to its demise in 2017 to set poverty reduction targets. We now have a government which has actually implemented a child poverty reduction act, which requires the achievement of certain medium and long term goals. If we achieve domestic targets, we will in fact meet the Sustainable Development goal targets, at least the families, by 2028. But that’s just one of 49 targets. So you can have the sustainable development goals, but if in the domestic policy they aren’t taken very seriously, then they’re not going to have much effect.

Shifting this dialogue towards a university set up, what kind of role do you think universities should play in terms of addressing climate change policy as well as implementing them?

Here in the UK, universities have a responsibility to contribute to public life. In New Zealand, the education act requires that university academics act as a critic and conscience of society. So, this implies that academics are to use their knowledge and the fruits of their research not just to contribute to public life, but to actually take a critical role in challenging things that are wrong.

When you know something, you have a responsibility to act on the basis of that knowledge, not to deny the truth, not to misuse the truth, but to act responsibly in the light of your knowledge. Academics obviously are involved in creating knowledge, but also must apply their knowledge to new problems and solve them. It seems to be really incumbent on all academics to take the truth seriously and to seek to defend the truth, protect the truth and protecting the interests of the truth in the challenge of deceit and duplicity, fake news and so on.

When it comes to sustainability, universities should be on the front foot in seeking to operate their campuses in ways that are ecologically sustainable and sustainable in other ways. Universities have a substantial carbon footprint because of the nature of their operations. I think universities should not be seeking to reduce the size of that carbon footprint in places that are difficult to account. Instead, that would mean buying high-quality carbon credits on domestic or international markets to offset the carbon footprint. But then the first approach must be to reduce emissions because there are so many issues around offsetting. It seems to me universities have a responsibility to encourage and support research that will assist communities to find ways to cost-effectively reduce emissions. Universities have a major responsibility in terms of channelling research, funding in ways that will encourage overall sustainability, ecological sustainability, but specifically the organisation in adaptation.

Within this sphere, what role do you think students should play in light of the climate emergency?

First of all students are citizens, so it seems to me they should be exercising their responsibilities as well informed citizens. They should be politically active and take part in efforts at different levels of government, national and in the case of Scotland, sub-national government to put pressure on governments to take policy measures that will contribute to a more sustainable world. Secondly, students have a responsibility to make the best of their studies. And so to the extent that they’re studying in areas which are going to be relevant to achieving a sustainable world and that would apply in many, many disciplinary areas. Then they need to be thinking about how they can make the best use of their knowledge to contribute to a more sustainable world. And then thirdly, they need to be thinking about their future careers and how they can think about career options that are likely to contribute to a more sustainable world.

I’m mindful I’m part of the Victoria Business School, teaching the school of government but it means a lot of our students are commerce majors and a lot of them seem to have a strong interest in making money. Sometimes in my lectures, exercise, I will explicitly pose the question to students, “What are you here for? Are you here to get a degree and would like to make money or are you here to enable yourself as a part of humanity to contribute to a better world?” And making money, may or may not contribute to a better world because you may be making money out of destroying the prospects of future generations. I was mindful that a son of the former prime minister set his goal to be a billionaire. And I remember thinking how sad. How much more valuable it would be if he used his intelligence and his father’s connections and good offices to contribute to a better world. Every student must keep this in mind.



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