Failure to act in 20 years since Rio vows

MATT STEWART AND SHABNAM DASTGHEIB
Last updated 13:27 28/05/2012
Crying Eye

New Zealand has failed to carry through on a number of promises made at the Rio Summit in 1992.

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Twenty years of broken promises and failures to meet environmental obligations have left New Zealand with little to be proud of, according to a new "wake-up call" report issued on the eve of a global summit.

The World Wildlife Fund report, Beyond Rio (pdf), has slated successive governments for failing the environment since promises made at the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and says the country now risks some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss on Earth unless urgent action is taken.

The 1992 United Nations conference brought world leaders together to set out a global agenda for action. Countries made promises and left with a set of responsibilities. The report, which has the backing of prominent scientists, says that 20 years later, New Zealand has little to be proud of.

Made public today, it left no doubt that the country needed to urgently rectify broken promises or risk becoming a case study for some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss in recent times, University of Waikato professor David Hamilton said.

"Almost every environmental performance indicator points to deterioration in the New Zealand environment, particularly in biodiversity across freshwater, marine and terrestrial systems."

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright welcomed the report, saying New Zealand is dropping the ball.

"This is a failure of successive governments and bodes badly not just for the future of our environment but for the future of our economy," she wrote in a statement.

"New Zealand's economy is strongly reliant on our 'clean and green' image, and our environmental record will only become economically more important in the future.

"There has been some progress on environmental issues. For example, the approach being taken through the Land and Water forum, and the commitment to independent environmental reporting  - but there’s much more to be done.
 
"I would hope that the WWF’s report will help encourage debate on whether we are satisfied with our environmental record, and what we need to do to make progress on our environmental problems."

The report says the country has failed to stem the loss of marine and terrestrial biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fully incorporate sustainability into education, ensure fisheries do not exceed ecological limits or clean up waterways.

It says successive New Zealand governments have failed to live up to promises made in 1992 and at the follow-up summit in 2002 in Johannesburg.

In the report, WWF chairman J Morgan Williams says the Rio summit was a time of aspiration, and each country left with an important set of responsibilities after agreeing to an unprecedented global agenda.

Dr Williams views the report as a wakeup call.

"We cannot afford another 20 years of inaction. For our most critical sustainability issues – freshwater, greenhouse gases, native biodiversity and fisheries – this Government, and its successors, must not only make good on the promises made in 1992, but significantly step up efforts."

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National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research principal climate scientist James Renwick said New Zealand had behaved like many other countries and the continued failure to act was likely to bring about a climate with grave consequences for food production and economic stability.

"Instead of tackling the problem, we have squandered the last 20 years and are now in a very difficult position, as a global community."

The report comes just weeks before the Rio+20 global summit, which marks the 20th anniversary of its predecessor and is described by the Environment Ministry as "likely to be the biggest international event in 2012". It will be attended by Environment Minister Amy Adams.

WWF New Zealand executive director Chris Howe said the minister had some explaining to do over the failings identified in the report, as they showed the country had been "irresponsible in its commitments to the international community".

"It reflects very poorly on New Zealand ... it's disappointing that John Key doesn't show leadership on these issues," Mr Howe said.

Ms Adams said the Government recognised the importance of managing the country's water resource, oceans and biodiversity. "Addressing issues of water use and quality is a priority area of work, but also some of the most difficult challenges we face."

She was satisfied with progress made by the National-led Government. "We have put a plan in place to improve the quality of our rivers, lakes and aquifers, insulated more homes, recycled more waste, and enhanced environmental governance, all while helping our economy grow."

Labour environment spokesman Grant Robertson said the cuts in this year's Budget came from areas such as resource management, water management, marine environment and Treaty settlements.

"The minister may be hoping that, by keeping her head down, she will get away with not having to explain the cuts. Unfortunately, all it does is highlight the Government's aversion to making environmental issues a priority."

- The Dominion Post

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