Features | Economy | Oceania

New Zealand and the Environment: An Economy Fit for the Past?

This small country has a proud history of progressive reform. But some worry that the current government is turning back the clock.

By Nathan Argent for

New Zealand is a young island nation, known the world over for its clean, green reputation and breathtaking scenery. It’s a reputation that opens up markets for its exports and draws in millions of tourists looking for adventure. It is the lifeline of the economy and the employer to many thousands of people.

Indeed, it’s a reputation that has defined New Zealand as a nation and reflects the values that many of its people hold dear.

It’s also a reputation that is under threat from government policies that are undermining the country’s clean, green values.

Missed Opportunities

New Zealand is well-placed and well-equipped to achieve economic prosperity without compromising its environment. The government could stop the on-going battle that’s being waged on the country’s land, air and seas, and instead take action to become a global leader in cleaner, smarter development.

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But, sadly, this is not the case.

The centre-right National party government has defined both its terms in office with two polarizing ambitions: to close the income gap with Australia by 2020, and to get New Zealand’s books back in surplus by the next election in 2014.

On the face of it, such aspirations would seem laudable. But they have become the basis for policies which are letting ‘economic growth at all costs’ ride roughshod over the people’s instinct and wisdom to protect their land.

Known in political circles as the ‘business growth agenda’, it has become the holy grail of economic reform. “Nothing creates jobs and boosts incomes better than business growth,” its architects claim. And who could disagree?

However, a more prosperous future for New Zealand depends on the type of business growth that it allows. And this is where the risk to its reputation lies.

At the heart of the government’s fiscal plan is the exploitation of the country’s natural resources — its oil, gas and coal reserves. The government has made it the centrepiece of its economic program. It is courting major oil companies to come and drill for oil in New Zealand’s deep seas and mine its land for coal.

Ministers are championing hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas reserves, in spite of international and local community concerns over the effects of this polluting practice on human health.

New Zealand’s state-owned energy company, Solid Energy, has proposed to unlock some of the country’s six billion tonnes of lignite — the dirtiest coal and the most climate-polluting form of energy — to turn into diesel and coal briquettes. It is a carbon bomb that will shatter New Zealand’s efforts to tackle climate change.

Yet the government is eager to light the fuse. Nothing, it seems, is off the table.

In order to make it easier for big business to exploit the nation’s natural resources and bypass local consultation, the government has been rewriting the laws that were put in place to safeguard the environment.

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Or, as the mantra has become, it’s ‘finding the right balance between economic growth and environmental loss’. In other words, a little bit of growth justifies a little bit of environmental damage, and so on. It pits the two against each other, rather than considering them as a whole.

The Demise of Environmental Protection

This is alarmingly evident with the recent introduction of legislation to manage activities such as oil exploration and sea bed mining in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone, which is the fifth largest in the world.

It is abundantly rich in biodiversity, an ecological treasure trove that the government has a legal obligation under international law to protect and preserve. The country’s oceans and beaches are loved by its inhabitants and also bring in overseas visitors and their tourism dollars. Yet the opportunity to put in place proper safeguards for the oceans under the exclusive economic zone legislation was deemed a step too far for both the government and the oil industry. Instead, the new laws will make high-risk activities, such as deep sea drilling, far more likely to be approved.

This is not an isolated case. To align other laws protecting the environment, the Minister for the Environment is also considering changes to New Zealand’s Resource Management Act (RMA) — the all-encompassing law that governs the sustainable management of the nation’s resources, along with developments such as roadwork and construction. The RMA was once considered the global gold standard for embedding sustainability in environmental law. Yet this, too, looks set to be sacrificed for the sake of ‘economic efficiency’ and exploitation.

The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which was introduced as a flagship tool to drive industry to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, has been rendered toothless following pressure from New Zealand’s biggest polluters. The ETS is the line that the Government takes at international conventions when asked about its commitment to tackling climate change. It’s what affords New Zealand delegates the position as brokers in key meetings. It’s vital to the country’s reputation.

Yet the scheme has been gutted since it came into being in 2009. Recent amendments, currently before a parliamentary select committee, mean that New Zealand’s heavy polluters will continue to be subsidized by the taxpayer, and the incentive for industry to move towards cleaner, smarter technologies is unlikely to materialize. As the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment said in September, in relation to the ETS; “Hollowing it out like this makes a farce of our climate change commitments.”

New Zealand, once considered a champion and protector of the Southern Oceans, now stands accused of thwarting efforts to protect this magnificent region. A recent Cabinet decision blocked a joint initiative with the United States that would have given greater protection for the pristine ocean wilderness of the Antarctic, to the benefit of the fishing industry. The Ross Sea is priceless — a petri dish where wildlife is relatively untouched. It could be a laboratory in which to discover and deliver the solutions to help the world’s overfished and damaged oceans, and an invaluable research centre for climate scientists.

New Zealand’s so-called environmental safeguards are being written to suit its biggest polluters and plunderers. The laws which were once the backbone of a clean, green nation are being dismantled.

How New Zealand Can Live Up To Its Image

There is dismay amongst progressive businesses that the government is so staunchly aligned with heavy-polluting industries, and that it’s missing opportunities to capitalize on its wealth of renewable energy expertise and world-beating ability to innovate.

New Zealand may be small, but it strives to punch above its weight on the global stage. Its people have a can-do attitude which has won them a reputation as innovators in creating and exporting technologies, products and ideas. It gave the world refrigerated shipping and companies like Fisher & Paykel set benchmarks in ground-breaking medical technology.

The nation has an abundance of clean energy — nearly 80 per cent of its electricity comes from renewable sources — and the ingenuity to deliver the clean technologies that the world needs. These are assets that could be the bedrock of a cleaner, smarter economy.

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If only New Zealand harnessed its global reputation and launched its renewable energy experts onto the world stage and into the emerging low carbon and clean technology markets.  The country is well-placed to claim some of the estimated U.S. $2.3 trillion that the world’s economies are expected to spend on clean energy development between now and 2020, and which could become the lifeline for a prosperous economy.

It’s an opportunity that is going begging and one that would restore authenticity to New Zealand’s clean, green image.

The former UK climate change ambassador, John Ashton, recently warned the British Government that it would be left behind if it didn’t move swiftly to a low carbon economy. The world’s most dynamic economies, he cautioned, are those that are successfully harnessing the potential of low-carbon growth to drive innovation.

To achieve this success and growth in New Zealand requires a major change in political thinking and leadership. It needs vision, rather than vertigo, when it comes to embracing these clean energy opportunities and being true to its global brand.

New Zealand has a choice. It could become the graveyard to failed, 19th century thinking. Or it could seize the opportunity to be part of the 21st century solution to global environmental and economic challenges.

Nathan Argent has worked in Europe and New Zealand alongside businesses and economists developing an extensive knowledge of global clean technology sectors. Formerly the Head of Energy Solutions at Greenpeace UK, he is now Greenpeace New Zealand’s Chief Political Analyst and strategist.