Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
As Director of Transition HQ, Grant Symons is helping local organizations, governments, and communities in New Zealand create and develop strategies for executing a successful energy transition plan. In this fireside chat, Grant highlights the importance of community inclusion and the bottom-up approach to scale change.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Living in one of the most energy-intensive countries, Grant highlights his experience in helping stakeholders in New Zealand build resiliency and become transition leaders.
What does “transition” mean?
The term “transition” is asking the following question: How do we move from our current state to a future with lower carbon, energy, and consumption?
We’re currently using an abundance of fossil fuels and we’ve mastered the ability to use up so much energy while increasing our consumption significantly. Our future is going to have to change.
However, producing no carbon is difficult because when you do reduce carbon, you end up having less energy available. For example, by the time we take oil and coal out of our system, we end up with less energy. It’s not the end of the world—it means that our current systems have to change and we need to reduce the amount of energy consumed in the future.
To begin transition, we need to look at our current energy systems such as how we transport what we produce, how buildings are built, etc. At Transition HQ, we’re helping organizations with this transition and we’re starting to nudge the government to think about transition as well.
What’s your experience in helping local governments with this transition, especially when there are several sectors involved (eg., transportation, building infrastructure, etc)?
In New Zealand, we’ve had a couple of losses. For example, the government initially wanted to stop extraction of oil in particular places. However, they backed out last-minute because they thought it was too difficult.
Every transition has to be local. Don’t forget that every place has its own community, energy use, and ways of doing business. Every city is going to have to figure out how to do its own transition.
If you try to do too much of the high level, it’s not going to filter down well. We have to have a grassroots-up approach and focus on regions individually. Ask and learn what isn’t working in specific regions.
Why are alternative business models and structures important for transitioning?
It’s difficult to make progress within government and large corporations because the population doesn’t trust them. Edelman is an organization based in the UK that does global trust analysis. The latest results are bad for the central government and corporations because there’s a lack of trust. In that vacuum, we just default to what we’ve always done.
I think organizations like nonprofits genuinely work towards their purpose and values. They’ll make progress because they’re probably more trusted among local communities. However, I worry that volunteer organizations are so stretched out where rich towns have more resources while other towns may have limited resources.
I believe it’s still possible for governments to shift in their way of thinking, which is why it’s so important to keep pushing ahead.
How are stakeholders in New Zealand being held accountable for opposing transition?
New Zealand’s consumption rate of fossil fuels per capita is pretty high, even though we have a relatively small population compared to the US. However, New Zealand has created legislation relating to taking out fossil fuel production. It won’t necessarily slow down consumption or demand, but there are climate-related disclosures, starting in 2023, where companies have to disclose their climate-related risks and their plans for mitigation. There’s a lot of pressure on company directors to identify transition risks and how they’re going to achieve net-zero by 2050. It might push back on oil consumption in New Zealand considering the pressure on companies and governments.
As a transition engineer, how have you learned from the local communities?
New Zealand is in the process of a widespread adoption of Indigenous thinking. I got a head start because I spent a lot of time with a Māori family while growing up. I understand more about the culture and Māori ways of thinking, which are often not similar to how other Indigenous groups thaoink. The Māori Tribe think more around Mother Nature as a whole and use a holistic approach. They have a vision for a regenerated world with less competition, and more collaboration and social engagement.
What are examples of band aid solutions vs. actual solutions when it comes to transitioning?
One example at an individual level is the transition from a gas to an electric vehicle. People are more inclined to switch vehicles as compared to switching modes of transportation like public transit. In this case, we’re locked into the idea of having a private car.
At a government level, New Zealand is starting to explore the use of hydrogen, but to what extent is it sustainable and useful? Hydrogen is often used to produce fertilizers and fuel heavy trucks that increase our emissions, which will only sacrifice the future. So, it’s important to ask if a solution is going to reverse transition. If we keep doing things the same way we have in the past, we'll continue to steal more from the future.
How can people who don’t have a transition engineering background think holistically and take action in their local communities?
The term “transition engineering” was coined by people who discovered its development. The work we do is actually a little bit of engineering. Change can occur by engaging with ordinary people. The real problem is not so much changing the systems but it’s changing mindsets. It’s helping people let go of the past.
We tend to believe we’re locked into our circumstances and habits. There can be several reasons—it pays for our jobs, there are contracts and arrangements in place, there’s a lack of infrastructure, etc.
Transition is starting to figure out how to unpick our locked-in habits and find entry points for change. So, having conversations with individuals, community groups, and organizations is a great place to start to create that change.
What type of responses have you seen after having those conversations?
One example is with a local government. At first, they might be on board with a transition plan, but back out at the last minute. However, New Zealand seems to include towns where local governments are conscious about having to take care of their citizens, maintaining a social good mindset, and being conscious of their finances. To see where we can start transition, we need to identify what people have the most ability to give up or change.
Another example is with a community group. If it’s a local community associated with Transition HQ, which are people who have decided there needs to be a transition, it can be uncomfortable. People are used to thinking that everything has to be smooth and upbeat; however, sometimes we sometimes have to struggle to learn and change for the better.
What are helpful techniques that nudge people to take action?
One idea is quantifying the risk. It might sound a bit theoretical, but if you can show people the risks they’re taking, they’re more likely to be interested. They get a vision of the negative consequences, which nudges them to act.
A second idea is to quantity and remunerate it. This method allows people to quantify their impact in their daily lives and identify which costs are adding up. For example, ask yourself what would happen if you gave up your car and switched to public transport for the rest of your life? How much carbon would that save? How much would you save financially?
Essentially, you want to create a vision that is empowering for younger people who are open to a different future. If people act towards this vision, they’re less likely to continue being locked-in.
What’s a key takeaway you learned from your time at Transition HQ?
You can’t just build a whole lot more products and networks to replace what we have. For example, wind and solar alone are not necessarily going to save the day. We need to think about how to down-shift and down-scale our consumption while finding ways to be more energy efficient. The good news is that this is possible on the ground if we urge people to act together in community.
For more resources, check out Transition HQ and learn how you can be a transition leader in your area!
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