Climate change conference 2021: Simon Wilson predicts the future for Auckland in 2030

As world leaders prepare to meet for crucial climate talks in Glasgow, Simon Wilson suggests how our biggest city could look by the end of the decade if we’re serious about meeting our climate goals.

Prince Charles doesn’t eat meat or fish “on two days a week” and he fuels his car, a 51-year-old Aston Martin, with wine and cheese.

That’s surplus wine from the English harvest, which there will be more of by 2030, because climate change is giving England a better climate for viticulture. As for the cheese, it’s whey, the sloppy byproduct from the process of turning milk into cheese.

Welcome to the world at the end of the decade, just nine years away, when we’ll have sorted ourselves out, climate emissions-wise, and will be on track to avoid catastrophic global warming by keeping the world’s average temperate below 1.5C above its pre-industrial level. Sure we will.

Charles is already living in the future, although he should probably flip that weekly meat ratio so there are more days without than with. But he’s not yet the model we should aspire to emulate.

In fact, if we all lived like him we’d be destroying the planet at a faster rate than now. Keeping castles and country houses warm will do that, even if you do have some solar panels. And despite the biofuel additives in the car, there’s also fossil fuel in that mix.

If King Charles III really wants to be the change he wants to see, he’ll have to rewild his estates, which are vast. And convert all the royal households to full renewable energy, ride a bicycle and require everyone else in his command to do it too. All the staff and the rest of the fam and everyone who comes to call. Or at least make them catch the train.

Will it happen? One thing we will almost certainly have by 2030 is high-profile celebs trying to model a climate-conscious way of life. Having the King of England and New Zealand etc chivvying them along would be quite something. What have you got, Harry and Meghan?

IT’S 2030. There are nine billion people on the planet and, for the first time in history, more of them are aged 65 or older than 9 or younger. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, our backyards and the streets around us are thick with birdsong.

The change happened quickly. One minute the Government offered to buy up all the old gas-guzzling cars; the next, fleets of electric ride-share vehicles turned up; the minute after that streets throughout the city centre and the suburbs were reconfigured to prioritise walking and safe cycling. Asphalt we no longer needed was ripped up and a lot of trees were planted.

Three things have driven us to reinvent the city. The first is the threat of another pandemic. In the wake of Covid, then Covid Delta, then the awful new virus that followed, we’ve reorganised our economic and social lives to allow for less random contact, fewer big crowds and timely lockdowns. That’s pushed us to make the most of being local.

The second driver has been changes to the way we work. City life has devolved. Companies embrace the idea of people working at home and in local hubs, connected by smart technologies. We no longer live in Auckland so much as in a large number of local centres, most of us just 15 minutes away from work, schools, shops, services, parks: so much of what we need and want in our lives.

We don’t need to drive, and most people have discovered how lovely it is not to be sitting in a car. Many of us still own one, although it’s likely to be an EV and it’s usually kept for longer journeys. Cars are no longer the default for every little trip.

City-centre restaurants that suffered so much through Covid have reopened in the suburbs. Music venues, theatres and bars have done the same.

All over the city, shopping centres have seen retailers and landlords working with council to develop circular economies. That’s local owners, with each centre curated to ensure we have the diversity of shops and services we need.

Now, wherever they can, people spend their money locally, so everyone is helping economically to support everyone else.

It’s a great time to be a small business owner, or a musician, or someone looking for childcare, or you name it. Neighbourhoods have never been so alive.

All that birdsong sure helps. The clean air, new trees and a whole lot of new pocket parks right by the shops: they help too.

We still say we live in Tāmaki Makaurau, city of a hundred lovers, but now we mean something new. We live in the city with a hundred hearts.

THE THIRD driver of all this is smart technology. 3-D printing and other tech advances, combined with the collapse of international supply chains that followed Covid, have led to a renaissance in small-scale manufacturing. Things cost a bit more, but we’re not so smitten with consumption these days. We buy fewer products but they’re better made, longer-lasting and more valued.

The Ubers and other rideshares we need are readily on hand, and algorithms ensure we share the ride with others along the route.

We meet online or in person and we like to think we’ve got pretty good at using social media to build relationships instead of being hurtful. The early 2020s were hideous like that, and we ain’t going back.

Lots of people still work in the city centre, but they tend to live there too, so most don’t even own a car. It’s said that perhaps half a million people – a quarter of the entire city population – now live in apartments within 15 minutes’ walk of downtown.

As for 15 minutes on a bike, the rows of new apartments on the first kilometre of Great North Rd are now the coolest place to live in the whole city, which also means, sadly, that they’re utterly unaffordable.

Hot spots like that aside, though, the crisis of house price absurdity is well on the way to being solved. That’s a result of the apartment boom in almost every suburban centre, supported by rent controls and affordable housing quotas for all new projects.

The Westlight model in Glen Eden, with its mixed high-rise living, pioneered in 2019, has been supersized.

And there’s a fabulous competition going on among property owners, architects and builders: to create the best “heart of the suburbs” place to live. With timber framing, because concrete-based construction is a terrible emitter and we really try to limit its use now. And with passive heating, because that’s now the norm, and energy generation from solar and wind that feeds into community microgrids.

There’s a constant search for better ways to balance privacy and communal living. The best apartment buildings aim for mixed occupation, with homes for families, singles and couples and a range of price points.

And with services for the elderly. Isolating them in “retirement villages”, so popular until quite recently, now seems quaint. Everyone benefits when people from every age rub shoulders together.

Fun and functional is the idea. Kids’ play facilities built into the complex: there’s a block in Penrose with a giant slide curling around the outside of the building, from top to bottom. Another in Birkenhead has a summer ski-run, made of grass.

HOW DID all this happen? In the middle of the decade, there was a kind of community explosion, especially among young people. Perhaps it was the arrival in Auckland of the first malarial mosquitoes. Perhaps three flash floods in two months and a large bushfire in the Waitākere Ranges did the job.

The demand was simple: change, or step aside. And that actually happened. In all the parties, a new generation of political leaders stepped forward.

They championed the idea that we couldn’t cling to all the old ways just by greening them up a bit. It was called “No more blah blah blah”, in honour of the veteran campaigner Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN in 2021.

They understood – we all understood – that climate change requires social change. New ways to live.

They also understood – this was the kicker for a lot of people – that just being more “sustainable” wouldn’t solve traffic congestion, address the housing crisis, reinforce public health or provide budgets big enough to manage the city and address the future.

And so we committed: to embracing the chance to live more rewarding lives, by making them different.

Endless arguments about car parks disappeared. In their place, we debated what shops and services we wanted in our communities and what to plant in the communal gardens that sprang up everywhere.

The seeds of this change were sown in the Covid lockdowns. Few people had liked being shut up with the kids all day every day, including the kids. And few embraced a future of work that meant hours alone in a boring spare room with occasional, surprisingly irritating meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

But we did like having the kids more in our lives. We also liked not having to go to the office every single day. We wondered if there might be a happy medium. Turned out there was.

It was called the 15-minute city. It thrived on the circular economy.

COMPANIES EMBRACED it. And the industrial parts of town were an important part of it.

We’d learned from Covid that people who are poor and marginalised are the ones who will suffer most in any crisis. We knew we couldn’t just wring our hands and continue to let it be like that.

So the suburbs near the factories and warehouses had resources poured into them, to beef up services and create appealing town centres. Alongside the much improved public health, public transport and cycling networks became really excellent.

Community leaders, including teachers and healthcare workers, were boosted at every turn. The best of them are local heroes.

Living and working locally doesn’t mean our horizons are lowered to end of the street. We travel a lot now. Mostly we stay within the country: it’s easy and safe from disease and the effects of climate catastrophe. And the all-electric rail network has ushered in a new golden age of local travel.

Weekends away, with a suitcase on the train, have become a thing. Not to be left behind, several local airlines have invested heavily in planes powered by hydrogen and biofuels and that’s pretty exciting too.

The tourism industry has pivoted brilliantly, revitalising old attractions like the Chateau on Mt Ruapehu and inventing a whole host of new ones. Marae visits, offered all over the country, are very popular.

So are farm visits. The rise of the circular economy in cities has been mirrored by the growth of regenerative agriculture in the countryside. City folk are fascinated with “regen ag” and many are keen to get involved.

You can now spend a weekend, or longer, helping farmers convert the worst dairy land to better use, learning how to grow crops without fertilisers, helping with free-range pigs and chickens, prepping vegetables for sale.

It even has a name: Bring Your Own Gumboots.

King Charles will be visiting in 2031 and has announced he will be travelling the country, by train, holding workshops for farmers on how to convert their tractors and utes to run on biofuels.

Because climate change has led to an excess of vineyards in this country too. As in England, we also have to do something with the glut of sauvignon blanc.

Our blah blah blah moment

Is any of this happening? Well, it’s true about Prince Charles (the first part). It’s true there’s a lot of disquiet, especially among young people, about all the blah blah blah.

And this week Climate Change Minister James Shaw has announced proposals for our first Emissions Reduction Plan that include some transport proposals, including a scheme to buy old gas-guzzling cars, a 20 per cent reduction in our use of cars by 2035 and a 30 per cent transition to EVs.

It’s not nearly enough. Shaw has been clear enough that he does not believe he has “whole of Government” backing for what is needed. But despite his frustration, the proposals he’s announced define our very own blah blah blah moment.

There is not even a subsidy for e-bikes, although if they were cheap enough their potential to change our approach to transport would far outstrip electric cars.

Meanwhile, other digital tech continues to grow apace, but it’s predicted that data storage alone could soon consume more than 10 per cent of the country’s power output. Add EVs to that, and it’s clear we need substantially more investment in renewable energy.

Electric planes are also on the way, especially for domestic travel, but oddly a big rollout of electric rail seems to be on a slower track.

Progress to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists on the streets is also slow and very hesitant. The prevailing view is anti-transformative: that it should be done without disrupting motorists.

The UN’s climate change agency, the IPCC, tell us the world’s carbon emissions must fall by 45 per cent if we want to stay within the 1.5C warming limit. The world is already 1.2Cwarmer.

The IPCC says current commitments will reduce emissions by about 12 per cent. According to Climate Action Tracker and the 1Point5 Project, the 45 per cent target for the world means developed countries like New Zealand should be looking at 70 per cent.

Since 1990, our emissions have risen by 34 per cent.

It’s not just transport that’s stopping us from creating a new Tāmaki Makaurau, the city with a hundred hearts.

The crisis is coming at us fast and we remain confused about how to evolve working from home, how to strengthen local centres and boost the circular economy, how to transition spending habits to buying less but buying better, how to boost local tourism, how to bring agriculture into the national emissions reduction effort and, in particular, the value of regenerative agriculture.

We have excellent research into green buildings and there are already several great examples. But the Government is not leading this work.

Sadly, the 15-minute city is a forlorn hope for most of Auckland, although not all. One developer is already building a 15-minute town near Papakura. There’s no reason it couldn’t become common.

We have delayed for 30 years on climate action. The more we delay, the harder it will be to turn the moment to our advantage. Instead, before long we’ll be spending our time, not to mention horrendous amounts of money, lurching from crisis to crisis.

We’ve learned a bit about what that’s like with Covid. Do we really want to do it all over with the climate?

As for that new generation of forward-looking politicians: way too hard to tell.

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