Our natural environment is the real crisis

close up of kokako
© Matt Binns
Advocacy Update

Reading through the agreements between our three-party coalition, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d gone and solved climate change. Or that we’d already brought the 4000 native species at risk of extinction in Aotearoa New Zealand back from the brink.

Because these issues barely get a look in.

Climate change and the alarming loss of nature are perhaps the most pressing challenges of our time.

But we’re staring at a gaping vacuum of policies to address these twin crises and a Government that seems intent on closing its eyes and pretending they don’t exist.

There’s no denying our new Government needs to support New Zealanders with the rising cost of rents, mortgages, and food.

But the cost-of-living crisis is with us for the short-term. Like most other countries struggling with the aftermath of Covid-19, Aotearoa’s economy will recover.

Climate change and nature loss are existential crises. Their costs – both fiscally and in terms of lives, livelihoods and the wellbeing of people and nature – will span generations.

New Zealanders deserve a Government that is prepared to lead courageously to achieve intergenerational equity and address the scale of the challenges we face.

Not doing so will only cost us more in the long-run – and our future selves, and future generations, will be the ones paying the price.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and National have committed to meeting New Zealand’s international climate commitments and reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

And despite protestations from the ACT Party, the architecture that underpins our climate response seems to have survived the coalition negotiations largely intact.

The Zero Carbon Act is working. For the first time, New Zealand’s emissions are coming down.

This would never have happened without the Zero Carbon Act requiring the establishment of the Climate Change Commission, setting of emissions budgets, and development, and funding of an Emissions Reduction Plan.

But while these fundamental building blocks are largely still standing, the tower is on shaky ground.

It’s difficult to see any kind of credible pathway to achieving our international targets, and with the new climate and environment ministers outside of Cabinet, it’s hard to see any signal from the new Government that it understands the scale of the challenge.

After all, it wants to kick the can down the road on pricing agricultural emissions, ignoring our largest-emitting sector.

The ring-fencing of Emissions Trading Scheme revenues into the Climate Emergency Response Fund is the single most powerful investment New Zealand has ever made into our climate response, yet the Government wants to scrap this to pay for tax cuts.

And shockingly, it’s going to repeal New Zealand’s ban on offshore oil and gas exploration at a time when we should be consigning our exploitation of fossil fuels to the annals of history.

Aotearoa New Zealand has the highest species extinction rate in the world, and our ocean is under increasing threat from overfishing, plastic pollution, rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification.

Auckland was deluged by floods this year and Cyclone Gabrielle was the second costliest natural disaster in our history. We’re only going to see more of these disasters, at an even greater scale.

To drive action, my strong view is that key targets in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – the global treaty to halt nature loss – should be reflected as binding commitments in a new Act for Nature, much in the same way the Zero Carbon Act entrenched our Paris Agreement commitments.

Now is the time to replace the dysfunctional Wildlife Act and ensure our legal framework is actually placed to halt and reverse the loss of nature by 2030.

We also need urgent action to meet New Zealand’s commitment to protect at least 30% of our ocean in well-managed, highly protected areas by 2030. Currently, less than 1% of our ocean territory is protected – despite our deep reliance on the marine environment.

We should be investing in nature by restoring the health of our forests, wetlands and marine habitats. Nature can be our biggest ally in our efforts to mitigate and adapt to future climate disasters, and it must be at the heart of our climate response.

If our new Government fails to prioritise these issues or continues to shut its eyes to the challenges we face, our children and grandchildren will be on the receiving end of a litany of pain.

We will see more of our treasured native species become extinct as we grapple with ever more increasing natural disasters. Future generations will be crippled by the cost of our sustained inaction.

Climate change and nature loss seem to be an afterthought for this Government. But I live in hope that our political leaders will soon wake up to the reality we face and put these issues front of mind. They owe that to all New Zealanders.