Nearly five years since my last visit, I was delighted to find that the waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour still sparkle like no other; that the beaches of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula are just calm and beautiful as ever; and that Great Barrier Island remains a paradise, unique in the world.
Each visit, however, I notice something big and important that is different from the time before. Last time, in 2004, it was the amount of change and new prosperity in Auckland and the extent to which the city had become plugged into the economy of the Asia-Pacific rim.
This time, something was missing. It seemed to me that New Zealand has, sadly, lost some of its green edge. Concern for the environment, sustainability -- kaitiakitanga -- seemed less significant in politics and public debate than in the past.
Kiwis have a deep sense of pride in our natural environment, our green credentials. Clean and green, 100 per cent pure, are the national brand. It’s not just spin: the 2006 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked New Zealand first in the world. (OK, last year we came in at number 7)
New Zealand has often led the world for environmental commitment. In 2007, for instance, the then prime minister, Helen Clark, set the country a goal of being carbon neutral.
As long ago as 1972, New Zealand had the world’s first green political party. Both main parties now have vocal environmental lobbies. In NZ general elections, the Green Party usually wins between 5 and 7 per cent of the vote and, under the MMP electoral system, a commensurate number of seats in parliament.
When it comes to environmental policy, there is, sadly, a growing gap between the rhetoric and the reality.
The most obvious example is climate change. New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by about a quarter since 1990. The fulcrum of an effective policy to tackle emissions is a clear price for carbon, to ensure that those responsible pay for the damage they cause the environment. This way, emitters receive clear incentives to change their behaviours. A carbon price can be delivered through emissions trading (as in the EU), or via a carbon tax. After years of talk, New Zealand has neither.
In 2008, legislation was finally passed to enact an emissions trading scheme, that was innovative and ambitious, even if it agriculture, responsible for half the country’s emissions, was excluded until 2013 and cushioned with free credits after that. At the end of last year, the incoming National-led government suspended the scheme, pending a comprehensive review of climate change policy by a parliamentary select committee. The review arises from National’s coalition agreement with Act, whose leader says that climate change and global warming are a hoax. The committee’s terms of reference strike a sceptical tone, to say the least. The MPs will even look into the basic question of whether or not climate change is real! Back to square one . . .
In December, Simon Upton, who was environment minister in the National-led governments of the 1990s, noted in a Dominion-Post article that:
“Millions of dollars have now been invested in policy development [on greenhouse emissions]. New Zealand is the only country in the world to have fully elaborated both a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme and implemented neither. That takes some doing.”
He took all the key players in New Zealand’s multi-party parliament to task for this state of affairs. Mr Upton predicted that some kind of trading scheme will be enacted (he is probably correct) and called on the main political parties to build a political consensus behind whatever scheme finally emerges.
New Zealanders care a lot about the environment but that doesn’t shift too many votes. One reason may be the complexity of the issues, on climate change for instance. Moreover, the recession is now biting and Kiwis (like people in other countries) become more worried about jobs and mortgages. Last week, a survey for the NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development (NZBCSD) asked what New Zealanders saw as the most serious problem facing them and their family. Their top concerns were rising fuel and other prices, followed by the domestic recession, health care, household finances and crime. Climate change came in at number six. So the politicians may be tempted to perceive green issues as being less urgent than other problems.
Still, New Zealanders do not appear to have gone into a full-blown “climate trance”: 59 per cent of respondents to the latest NZBCSD survey picked climate change as a top problem. Earlier NZBCSD surveys suggested that Kiwis are clearly concerned about climate change and demand action. [click here].
Trance or no trance, it’s crucial that New Zealand gets this one right, even if its contribution to global greenhouse emissions is infitessimal.
The reasons are about trade and money, as well as greenery. Foreign investors will expect New Zealand to be credible on climate change policy. The world will look at the greenhouse record of NZ and its products when assessing whether to buy Kiwi. So will tourists deciding whether or not to visit. Kiwis can’t afford to risk losing their “clean, green” brand.
If New Zealand doesn’t get its climate act together, foreign governments and others may get stroppy. In 2006, the French prime minister asked the European Union to investigate imposing new border taxes on countries which have not put a price on emissions or carbon.
Let’s not forget the foreign policy issues. As new international climate change agreements are thrashed out, for Kyoto 2 or at Pacific and other levels), New Zealand’s negotiators need to be credible, seen to represent a country that “walks the talk”.
The new NZ government must provide the leadership and the vision and build the political consensus that is needed around climate change action. A programme to reduce emissions, including an emissions trading scheme, is essential. The price of failure could be very high.