National Party leader Christopher Luxon's climate credentials

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says lowering emissions is a priority for the National Party.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon says lowering emissions is a priority for the National Party.

On the second-to-last day of the world’s biggest climate summit, COP26, New Zealand was singled out for a fossil award – a top accolade for countries that lack ambitious climate targets and policies.

While New Zealand didn’t win the supreme ‘colossal fossil’ prize – summit organisers Climate Action Network International handed this to Australia – it was ranked second place for ‘fossil of the day,’ behind the UK.

But National Party’s new leader Christopher Luxon brings hope of pushing the Labour Government to be more ambitious – and herald in a new era for the Opposition –if he maintains the focus on sustainability from his business career at Air New Zealand and Unilever.

“If his political life is going to be consistent with his corporate life, I'd say we are going to see a National Party which is more proactive on environmental issues than the previous National government,” AUT lecturer David Hall explains.

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Christopher Luxon spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand. (File photo)
John Anthony/Stuff
Christopher Luxon spent seven years as chief executive of Air New Zealand. (File photo)

Speaking at the Beehive in Wellington, Luxon made it clear lowering emissions was a major priority for his party and took a swing at the Labour Government’s record.

“It's not good enough saying you're going to lower greenhouse gas emissions but not doing it,” he said on Tuesday. Meanwhile, farmers were not villains, he said.

Hall said this signalled a shift from his mentor Sir John Key, whose National Government took a ‘fast follower’ approach to climate change which “deliberately resisted taking a leadership approach”.

Judith Collins, Luxon’s predecessor as leader, was also outdated and unengaged on climate change, he said.

“The National Government under Key and English, their environmental sins were more about omission than commission,” he said.

“They did sign up to the Paris Agreement, they retained the emission scheme, although they tempered and muted it a little bit ... there was progress, but it was deliberately not leadership quality.

“Their explicit strategy was to let other countries take the lead and then to follow in areas that were appropriate.”

Talk on climate change is imperative for any leader who wants to sound “contemporary and relevant” with the public, and demand for action has accelerated since the last National Government, he said.

But Luxon has shown leadership on climate change came amid the “vacuum” under Key and Bill English – a void filled by non-governmental organisations and grassroots groups like Generation Zero, but also businesses like Air New Zealand.

“I would count Air New Zealand under Christopher Luxon as one of those businesses that did take a proactive position on climate change and sustainability to fill some of that gap and emphasise the opportunity side of climate change.”

Dame Anne Salmond says new National Party leader Christopher Luxon has a genuine interest in sustainability. (File photo)
Lawrence Smith/Stuff
Dame Anne Salmond says new National Party leader Christopher Luxon has a genuine interest in sustainability. (File photo)

Luxon set up a sustainability advisory panel which pulled together world-leading experts to help the company achieve its sustainability goals, and led sustainability events where politicians and other business leaders were challenged.

Prior to this, Luxon spent almost two decades at Unilever, an international company with an “amazing reputation for its sustainability turnaround”, Hall said.

But there is an obvious tension between sustainability and air travel, and fuel efficiency gains were swallowed as the company became more successful. It points to the conundrum Luxon will face as he seeks to increase the nation’s productivity while lowering emissions.

“It just means that greater efficiency means that people use more of the product and so you end up with the perversity that while you increase efficiency you end up with greater consumption,” Hall said.

“And that is the great paradox for someone who falls into the green growth category which I think he probably belongs to.”

Environmentalist Dame Anne Salmond ​sat on Luxon’s Air New Zealand sustainability board from its inception in 2015 to early 2020. She said his passion for climate change was “absolutely genuine” and he participated in all the panels and implemented all recommendations.

“We investigated absolutely everything: biofuels, electric flights, how to reduce emissions through the way in which flight is managed at airports with circling planes, how to lighten planes; every aspect of the technology and management of the airport, the flight process. It was cutting edge,” she said.

Luxon also had some innovative ideas about how to tackle climate change and enhance sustainability across the country, she said. It included a deal with iwi in Tairāwhiti Gisborne to improve economic growth in the area.

“I think that engagement was again genuine. The sustainability panel and Christopher went out to the regions and talked to leading figures both among iwi, but also in rural sectors about how to deliver sustainability to the country.”

She agrees with Luxon that farmers are not villains, and said she was working on a catchment restoration project in Gisborne with support from local farmers. “We have pretty much every farmer in the catchment involved in this [doing] planting, fencing,” she said.

Instead, systems should be set up to transform rural landscapes and economies and to make things like sheep and beef farming more economic.

While in Government, Labour has suspended offshore oil and gas permits and passed the Zero Carbon Act, which sets out the framework for climate change policy. But it continued to allow permits for onshore prospecting and issued two permits for areas in Taranaki on June 30.

So while the “talk is good” Salmond said “the walk has to be examined with a lot of scepticism”. She hoped Luxon would have a positive effect on climate action.

“Any Government, whatever its colour is, has to come up with thoughtful and intelligent ways of tackling climate change that contribute to New Zealand’s prosperity and international reputation – and at the moment we are not doing that,” she said.

“I am hoping we will see a much more rigorous and thoughtful debate about how we tackle climate as a country from now on.”