NZ election 2017: Going beyond environmental slogans

Lake Ellesmere from above.
DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Lake Ellesmere from above.

ANALYSIS: There is, it now appears, nowhere on the political spectrum to hide from the environment.

How could politicians respond?

It's easy to say the right things about the environment: We need to clean up our rivers, sort out our emissions, fulfil that feverish national dream of '100 per cent pure'. All easy to say, and most of the parties will.

But what do those things actually mean, in practical terms?

Here are a few things worth keeping an eye out for – or better yet, asking your potential representatives about – to establish their environment credentials, beyond the slogans.

A NEW MANTRA: 'WHOLE OF GOVERNMENT'

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Earlier this year, the OECD weighed in on New Zealand's environmental performance, essentially concluding the economy and the environment were on a collision course.

It often circled back to one idea: the need for what it called a "whole of government" approach to building a green economy.

It sounds vague, but "whole of Government" is a simple, powerful idea.

It means every part of the Government is in lock-step, marching towards a sustainable, green economy that resembles the way we market ourselves overseas.

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The OECD helpfully singled out an example of how this isn't happening. While one ministry was pushing ahead with a national policy for freshwater quality – a move the OECD commended – another had committed to doubling agriculture exports in real terms, and was investing public money into underwriting irrigation schemes without "systematic consideration of environmental and community costs."

Translation: One part of the Government was doing something good, while another part of Government was undermining it.

You can argue other examples of this. New Zealand has agreed to reduce its green house gas emissions by about half, but repeatedly invests in motorways.

One ministry announced a plan to increase the government's fleet of electric vehicles, while others developed plans to revive coal mining

How to address this? Cabinet can make directives requiring a whole of government approach to a particular issue.

If the environment is a concern, it's a straightforward commitment to ask for. Will your Government commit to a whole of Government approach to building a sustainable, green economy?

HAVE A GO AT MEETING OUR CLIMATE TARGETS 

It may be surprising that in some countries, climate change – once a reliably left-wing obsession – has become entirely apolitical.

Cross-party commitments to seriously reduce emissions are common overseas, and occasionally, it even happens here.

Secret left-wing groups like the Young Nats have backed Generation Zero's proposed Zero Carbon Act, for example. Both groups are youth-led, which may be a hint.

While dozens of developed nations have steadily reduced their emissions since 1990, our net emissions have increased by 64 per cent.

The last five years have been particularly bad: New Zealand's net emissions increase is likely among the highest in the developed world, as pointed out by Generation Zero's Paul Young.

 

So what can be done?

In her final report as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright urged the establishment of an independent climate commission, with legal requirements to meet carbon budgets progressively over time. 

She said: "[T]here is no direct link between New Zealand climate policy and reaching the Paris target."

That means we signed the document, talked about how chuffed we were at doing so, then did nothing to make it happen.

Others have been banging on about this for years. Among them are legal expert and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who last week called existing climate policy an "unholy mess". 

The Greens have already committed to a zero carbon economy by 2050. Last week, new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern – seemingly echoing a speech by Palmer – likened climate change to this generation's nuclear free movement. 

So if you care about climate change, there are policy commitments worth asking your representatives about.

Will they commit to not only reducing emissions, but holding themselves accountable for doing so through legislation? How will we meet our emissions reduction targets as agreed under the Paris Accord? Will you throw Palmer a bone for once?

POLLUTER PAYS, AND THE WORLD'S FARMERS' MARKET

When Labour announced its plan to impose a charge on commercial water use, one of the central arguments by opponents was its possible impact on local economies built around irrigated farming.

It's a fair point. But it highlights the bind these communities have been placed in.

A good example of this is Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere, one of the country's largest and most polluted lakes. It's surrounded by small farming towns, pivot irrigators as far as the eye can see.

Under proposed Government standards, the lake will need to be cleaned up significantly. The regional council looked at the numbers and found that doing so would require every dairy farm in the Selwyn District to shut down, resulting in an annual loss of $300 million, basically crashing the economy.

Yikes. But think about it another way: if that's true, it means the polluted lake is effectively a public subsidy for the dairy industry to continue operating.

So yes, it's fair to say a charge on commercial water use will impact those economies built on irrigation. But when cleaning up a lake is enough to crash your economy, perhaps it's the economy that's the problem, not the lake.

There's a few ways to start thinking about addressing this.

Over time, New Zealand has shifted from exporting milk and cheese to exporting milk powder and baby formula: lower value, higher volume products.

Since 2009, the volume of milk powder exported from New Zealand has doubled; infant formula exports have more than tripled. Both numbers are projected to keep going up.

 



Meeting that demand has required farmers to step up their output, often by intensifying and going into debt. It has done no favours for the environment, particularly places like Lake Ellesmere and the polluted rivers – such as the Selwyn – that feed into it.

Economists are increasingly saying that being a bulk exporter of low-quality dairy products is a risky long-term position for the New Zealand economy, particularly if synthetic meat becomes widely available in an affordable form.

That's not a new idea: even Dairy NZ acknowledges as much.

Farm consultant Dr Alison Dewes has described this change as us becoming a farmer's market for the world, clean and pure, like our branding.

So how does that happen? The Freshwater Rescue Plan, released by various advocacy groups this year, has a couple of ways.

First is setting up a public fund to transition farms to more sustainable practices. It proposes using the $480m committed to irrigation schemes for this.

That would be the carrot, not the stick: supporting farmers, some of whom are loaded with debt, to change their methods, which many are already doing on their own.

The second is the stick: a limit on cow numbers. It could be joined by other regulatory measures to make farming to the status quo effectively impossible, forcing change for survival.

It's a question worth asking your MP: What will you do to stop this kind of situation happening again, where a community has to make Sophie's Choice: a clean lake or a functioning economy?

 - Stuff

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