Planning for climate change amid the pandemic recovery

Since the first case of Covid-19 was found in New Zealand on 28th February we have all had to change our way of life. These Wellington images and video portray some of that journey.

The traffic stopped, birds sang, and people stayed home – was the coronavirus lockdown a climate-fighting miracle?

For five weeks life was put on hold, and air pollution around the country dropped to levels seen only on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Many say we should not return to the busy, polluting “normal” we once had.

Victoria University Sustainable Energy Systems chairman Alan Brent says he’s not optimistic the climate change crisis will take priority in the Government’s Covid-19 recovery.

“Government is going to [rightly] listen most to the plight of small businesses.

Wellington was barren of pedestrians and traffic for many weeks.
Wellington was barren of pedestrians and traffic for many weeks.

“I am not too optimistic that they will give climate change a high priority over creating short-term employment.”

Quick-win “shovel-ready” projects could simply mean more roads for more cars, he said.

Flooding at Owhiro and Island Bays in Wellington during lockdown.
Flooding at Owhiro and Island Bays in Wellington during lockdown.

“We definitely don’t need another Vic tunnel.  We need less focus on projects that will enable more private vehicles on the road.

“In fact, we need to discourage it with less parking and the closures of roads … dedicated to e- and bike-mobility and pedestrians.” 

Air quality in New Zealand during the lockdown improved to levels normally only seen on Christmas and New Year's Day.
Air quality in New Zealand during the lockdown improved to levels normally only seen on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Wellington needs urgent interventions on electrifying its public and private transport, including charging infrastructure for electric buses, and small electric vehicles. 

“We also need a faster roll-out of broadband internet and wifi infrastructure so people are less dependent on the workplace.”  

The Local Government should take the lead, he said. 

Greater Wellington Regional councillor Thomas Nash wants to tackle climate reality with a post-Covid-19 economy “fit for purpose in the 21st century”. 

Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Thomas Nash wants a focus on a green Covid-19 recovery. 
Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Thomas Nash wants a focus on a green Covid-19 recovery. 

Decarbonised transport, native forest planting and social and economic equity are high on his list for Nash’s “new normal”. 

“Wellington could have a new economic model. It could be an international leader.” 

Nash doesn’t want the economy bounce-back to see money flung to international business. 

“Instead of doing that, we use those procurement budgets to prop up local businesses.” 

With cars almost eliminated from roads, lockdown was a taste of what a climate-safe future could look like. 
With cars almost eliminated from roads, lockdown was a taste of what a climate-safe future could look like. 

“Let’s not build back the massively consumer-orientated and often wasteful environment that we’ve built,” Nash said. 

The Wellington City Council has already submitted a $1.3 billion-plus wish-list to the Government this month, including money for safety improvements at Island Bay cycleway and CBD wastewater upgrades. 

“When we’re thinking about how we’re going to select those projects, we need to be making sure we’re not locking in the emissions for the future. 

Electrifying the existing rail network, electric bike infrastructure, electric buses and could slash the region's emissions.
Electrifying the existing rail network, electric bike infrastructure, electric buses and could slash the region’s emissions.

Nash said a bid from the Wellington Electric Boat Building Company is already in the works for an electric ferry passenger service for Wellington – and they’re made in Seaview. 

The boats being built locally was a great example of boosting local business, he said. 

“This is an opportunity for us to re-think ownership and economic output, and really democratise that,” he said. 

He wants to see “people making things” receive the most. 

“The lockdown has really revealed that imbalance between the people who are actually making things, and people who get wealth from rent.”  

Electrifying the existing rail network, electric bike infrastructure, and electric buses would slash the region’s future carbon emissions, Nash said.  

James Renwick is Head of the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University.
James Renwick is Head of the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University.

Nash used the term “natural infrastructure” to describe what Wellington should be aiming for – transport options which are climate-friendly.  

“In my view, this is the best value for money that we can spend in terms of infrastructure and it would have the best long-term gains for our residents and quality of life.” 

Victoria University climate change professor James Renwick said Covid-19 had arrived at the start of the critical decade for climate action – but he remained “somewhat optimistic”.

Electrifying Wellington's existing rail network is one option for a safer emissions output. 
Electrifying Wellington’s existing rail network is one option for a safer emissions output. 

“Central government is focused on a ‘green stimulus’ and is actively looking for infrastructure spending that will help with climate change mitigation. The city and regional councils are aligned with this thinking.

“It would be very possible for Wellington to be a leader in the green recovery, given political will.” 

Wellington already had good public transport infrastructure, but it could be better, he said. 

That included bringing light rail to the city, improving or expanding the bus network to renewably-powered buses, and making services more frequent, reliable and convenient.

Bike and pedestrian priority projects could make the cut. 
Bike and pedestrian priority projects could make the cut. 

On the other hand, Renwick said anything that “locks in fossil fuel use” shouldn’t see the light of day – including the extension of Wellington Airport, and more diesel-powered buses. 

The pandemic was very damaging, in terms of human lives and livelihoods, and was costing New Zealand and the world huge sums, Renwick said. 

“[It] will damage economies and global economic activity for years to come.” 

People were right to focus on the virus for now, but it would be necessary to ramp up climate action as soon as the pandemic eased, he said. 

The Mayor says Covid-19 could speed up the delivery of a range of walking, cycling and public transport improvements. 
The Mayor says Covid-19 could speed up the delivery of a range of walking, cycling and public transport improvements. 

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said the natural environment, transport and waste management could be “supercharged” through the coronavirus recovery. 

“Covid-19 potentially gives us the chance, we hope with Government support, to deliver environmental restoration employment to accelerate becoming predator-free as a city, bring back kiwi and potentially other species and tackle invasive weeds and restoration.” 

It could also be the perfect time to improve stream quality and improve peoples’ environmental understanding, Foster said. 

As for transport, the coronavirus disruption could actually “speed up” the delivery of a wide range of walking, cycling and public transport improvements, he said.  

“Especially if we obtain Government support through the Shovel-Ready Project list bid which totals almost $360 million, and an upcoming bid to the Innovating Streets programme.” 

A project to deal with the city’s wastewater, for a sludge treatment plant, has also been included in the “shovel ready”  submission to the Government, Foster said. 

Watch the video at https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/121406434/planning-for-climate-change-amid-the-pandemic-recovery

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