The Problem with New Zealand’s Climate Emergency

Ollie Law Chief Bushman at Bushman Tours Ollie
6 min read

Emergency is a strong word and if we use it for everything, we’re just crying wolf.

New Zealand‘s climate emergency situation is an emergency, but it has a multitude of impacts depending on the context it’s used in. As with any emergency, failure to act immediately means the fire keeps growing.

This is where the New Zealand government is falling short, so much so, Greta Thurnberg called them out on her Twitter account prompting Jacinda Ardern to publicly dispute her comments.

It came as a welcome surprise that on the 2nd of December, 2020, the New Zealand Labour government announced that we have officially declared a climate emergency within our small community of islands. 

But it seemed like a hollow victory given that within their first three years in government, we’d seen multiple natural disasters, the largest climate strikes on record, and major economies leaving the Paris Agreement. So, why the wait?

Only eight of the 46 government agencies can provide complete and up-to-date data on their own emissions, but that’s not just it.

According to reports by Newsroom (whose article prompted the Thurnberg tweet), a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office told reporters that the energy and transport needs of the Government alone contributes to 483,000 tonnes of greenhouses a year. This sounds like a lot, right? 2020 research shows that New Zealand emits about 78.9 million tonnes a year. “This means the Government has just committed to reducing less than 1% of the country’s emissions by 2025” says Newsroom. 

It’s this that Thurnberg attacks in her tweet, and while it has weight, it ignores that this incentive by Ardern is only one of a few. 

The prime minister rightly declared that “If that was the sum ambition of any government [public service carbon neutral goal of 2025] then it would be worthy of criticism”. But she made a point of ensuring there were solid and complex plans in place that they were working through. 

What she failed to recognise (or admit) was New Zealand’s second place position in the ‘greatest emission increase’ (in percentage terms) on the Annex list. 

We’re second.

And it’s expected to increase through to 2025. This means, right now, we’re falling well short of the Paris Agreement target and the 2050 net zero target enshrined in the Zero Carbon Act. In a landmark climate agreement in Copenhagen, 2009, New Zealand over shot it’s Copenhagen climate agreement by 27.7 million tonnes.

The Government’s plan to decarbonise the public sector by 2025 is a step towards its goal of a carbon-neutral New Zealand by 2050, but boy is it minor. 

As it stands (taking into account current climate action plans) New Zealand will come nowhere close to meeting the IPCC’s recommendations that countries reduce emissions to 45% below 2010 by 2030. We’re on track for just 6% according to projections by the Ministry of the Environment.

The Climate Commission’s plan needs legs, and 2050 is a marathon away for this sprint.

Leaders are currently preoccupied

Generally speaking, most executives and decision makers are busy. They have very immediate and visual hurdles outweighing any smouldering crisis like climate change.

Only 8% of Directors say that climate change is “one of the top three impediments to economic performance” from a recent survey hosted by the Institute of Directors.

As of 2021, investors, board members and stakeholders aren’t chasing organisational climate strategies. They’re asking how they’ll keep their people in jobs and keep the business moving.

9% of Directors say another lockdown will destroy their business. 14% say they’re neutral but concerned.

These figures don’t take into account the 60 to 70% of international tourism focused operators who are expected to go out of business between 6 and 9 months from now – according to the Tourist Council NZ paper released in February. 

With such a huge number of people’s livelihoods on the line, how solid is their commitment to their carbon footprint?

Perhaps then, we need to be confident the government can provide the support on behalf of the people struggling to keep their jobs. While businesses scramble to stay afloat, climate change is still not seen as an immediate problem to barely anyone. 

Not enough talk during the election

I was concerned about the lack of credible information and planning around climate and conservation support by either of the two major parties. The 2020 election was probably the first time I’d spent such considerable time studying all parties. 

I watched closely for meaningful and innovative talk on how they would support the climate and conservation, but saw minimal response. Recognising that these leaders in the spotlight are often handed well-researched scripts, it was concerning that even behind the scenes none of their team were focusing on this message above a COVID response. 

Like a cloak of anticipated distraction, the government watched the huge climate marches promoted by Thurnberg simply be pushed aside. Although some questions came up during the debates, focus was on the pandemic.

As a Tourism Industry Aotearoa registrant, we’re constantly invited to private webinars and conferences. One of which provided members from all the political parties to be asked questions by the delegates.

Is climate action within your immediate top five priorities? If so, what’s your first action?

The political backhanders they handed each other as a response to my question was embarrassing and infuriating.

While the new Climate Commission recognises New Zealand’s manufacturing, supply chain and agriculture sectors as the most difficult to tackle, it ignores the high-emission products we’re importing from the likes of Japan, Thailand and Vietnam; all of which produce a large portion of the cement used in New Zealand. (cement and steal equates to 16% of all carbon dioxide emissions while cement is expected to be used in up to 2.5 trillion square feet of buildings by 2060 – that’s a New York city every month for 40 years). 

These three countries have a low or no carbon tax in place. In this example, the continued importation of cement comes off the back of a 2013 decision by Holcim not to replace its aged Westport plant with a modern, $500 million-plus low-emission plant near Oamaru. 

In other words, while focus is on what we’re doing in NZ, it’s ignoring how others are working alongside us.

The elephant in the room is the agriculture sector – one that needed to be swayed during our recent election. 

Making up just under half of our country’s emissions, the government has deferred the entry of agriculture into the ETS (New Zealand Emission Trading Scheme) until 2025. Even then, farmers are grabbing a bargain at 1c per extra kilo of milk solids to cover the offset.

New Zealand’s Climate Emergency? We’ve been here before

The Clark Labour government in 2007 launched a similar initiative aiming to have the six lead ministries carbon-neutral by 2012 and 28 other agencies “on the path” to neutrality by that year.

However, this was abruptly scrapped by the National government in 2009 for political reasons and the worst economic crises in a hundred years. Concern at the estimated $400,000 annual bill expected for offsets overpowered any need for electric cars in parliament.

The programme was also under-funded, with just $10.4 million allocated for three years, with many agencies having to fund the work out of operating budgets. 

And in 2020, it’s not getting much better. Of the 43 Annex I Countries (which the UN defines as industrialized nations which have benefited the most from greenhouse gas emissions and the greatest obligation to reduce emissions) 12 have seen net emissions increase since 1990. New Zealand is one of them. 

The covid response

Imagine if the stigma of not wearing a face mask on a plane, or not signing in via the COVID app was shared for those who buy plastic bottles, or drive a 5 minute walk. While many see a difference in the urgency of these, we’ve proven that initiatives can be put in place to cause mass change.

Avoiding alienation is key. We need to ensure that we’re not making people or businesses feel bad about their carbon footprint, but instead be aware and educated. It’s the government’s responsibility to lead this and provide the messages and resources for our day-to-day lives.

A key reason there is so much disinterest rests on what people can physically see and what they’re subjected to each day. COVID-19 has dominated our airwaves astronomically and pushed out many other stories. Society can’t see climate change because it’s so slow in comparison. And this is the problem, people generally still think there is time.

What’s the rush?

Although they all agree it’s going to happen, many scientists provide conflicting messaging on when. It’s almost impossible to put a date on it (although some have), and this makes it hard for people with busy lives to pencil it in their calendar.

“OK, sure. But I have lunch at one, a meeting with the client at four and need to take my daughter to ballet at six. So when does the climate thing happen?”

The Government is supposedly waiting on the Climate Commission to release emission budgets before designing and sharing out its plans for emission reduction across industries and sectors.

While they move copious amounts of paperwork around the Beehive, there are many businesses already getting on with it. As reported by BusinessDesk, Dairy processor Danone is spending $40 million converting its Balclutha plant to run on wood waste. (But it is keeping the existing LPG boiler in place for backup and to smooth the way for further expansion).

The Government has also banned new offshore oil and gas exploration and established the Climate Change Commission, which will advise governments on how to meet targets set in the Zero Carbon Act passed in 2019. 

But, Sir David Attenborough had to produce an immensely powerful message via his Netflix documentary about how he believes we’re on the verge. He’s heard it all before over his nine decades – the promises from officials that are not met with any action.

So, what can we do? 

We must start local and get ahead of the public sector’s policies.

Only vote for those who have climate within their policies. Only pick carbon neutral energy suppliers (they’re cheaper by the way). Consider Sunday food markets where produce is made local. Stop buying plastic things you don’t need. Do what I did – get your parents on board and tell them it means a lot to you because it will mean a lot to your children, their grandchildren.

New Zealand’s new climate emergency is young, but joins the ranks of Scotland, Wales, United Kingdom, Portugal, Canada, France, Bangladesh, and South Korea to name a few. It’s a promising move and the right one, but we have a long, long way to go. 

But, as we saw with the local response to COVID-19 here in New Zealand, people have the power to move and solve significant problems in as little as five weeks. It’s remarkable what we’re capable of doing. 

Imagine if we did the same with our climate?

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Ollie Law Chief Bushman at Bushman Tours Ollie

I have been blessed to travel much of the world over the last few years and there are three things I’ve come to learn: 1) nature NEVER disappoints, 2) if EVERYONE knew who fragile the planet was, they’d try harder 3) people are remarkable if you give them the opportunity. These, and some other topics are what I love to write about.

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