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New Zealand election - how do the parties plan to tackle environmental issues?

On Saturday New Zealanders will go to the polls to elect a government for the next three years. Even though New Zealand has escaped the worst of the global pandemic, inevitably much of the focus has been on COVID-19 and the economic consequences.


However, the environment will always be a significant topic of debate in New Zealand. Since 1999 Tourism NZ’s slogan has been “100% Pure New Zealand” and, as the advertisement below shows, New Zealand plays heavily on it’s clean, green image to attract tourists.


 

In recent times the national debate around NZ’s environment has intensified, with some drawing attention to the environmental cost of intensive dairy farming and others querying whether Tourism NZ had in fact been too successful in attracting tourists to the country, to the detriment of the environment.


The coronavirus pandemic has meant NZ’s borders have been closed to all but citizens and permanent residents since March, meaning the question of over-tourism has been parked for now. The wider debate goes on though, made more urgent by the fact that the Paris Agreement takes effect from 2020 and New Zealand’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions apply from 2021.


So where do the parties stand on the environment and sustainability? Let’s take a look. Under NZ’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system means that there are 18 registered political parties, in the interests of brevity I have focused on the parties most likely to be represented in Parliament, or where the overriding purpose of a party is environmental.


ACT


ACT pledges “real solutions for the environment and climate change”, but broadly focuses on a few specific issues. They will ask politician’s to cut their flights by 25 per cent, repeal the Zero Carbon Act and tie NZ’s carbon price to its trading partners, remove regulations that favour landfills over modern waste reduction technology, stop councils from obtaining consents to spill raw sewage into streams and rivers, replace the Resource Management Act with new law to promote best practice in protecting and enhancing the environment as part of major projects and when land use changes, and strengthen New Zealand’s environmental reporting system at local, regional and national levels so we can track our progress over time. With regards energy policy ACT will repeal the ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration permits.


Green Party


As might be expected, the environmental policy dominates the election plans of the Green Party. They focus on ‘Heathy Nature’ - pledging to build on the reforms to the water system so that water is used fairly and efficiently, within natural limits, invest in restoring wetlands, riverbanks, and estuaries to protect communities against rising seas and floods, prioritise the health and sustainability of fisheries by protecting areas rich in ocean life and biodiversity, reduce waste,  and ‘Clean Economy’ - support regenerative and organic farming practices, bring forward the Government’s target for 100% renewable electricity from 2035 to 2030, and re-instate the ban on building new fossil-fuel electricity generation, ensure NZ meets its commitments under the Paris Agreement, ensure government investment is directed toward sustainable business initiatives, and create jobs in green energy. Interestingly though, they don't use the term 'Green New Deal' at all.


Labour Party


As the major coalition partner in the current government, Labour’s key message, “Let’s keep moving”, is a nod to stability. Its policies are fairly high level, but there are two areas that focus on environmental policy.


The climate change and energy policy aims for a transition to a clean, green carbon neutral New Zealand. The key points include:


  • Phase out fossil fuels in process heat by preventing installation of new low and medium temperature coal-fired boilers 
  • Decarbonise the public transport bus fleet by 2035
  • Support agricultural climate change research programmes
  • Transitioning to clean energy through 100% renewable electricity by 2030
  • Increasing investment in public transport and incentivising low emission vehicles
  • Supporting farmers to reduce emissions through integrated farm planning
  • Tackling waste emissions through action on food waste
  • Transitioning to clean energy through 100% renewable electricity by 2030
  • Increasing investment in public transport and incentivising low emission vehicles
  • Supporting farmers to reduce emissions through integrated farm planning
  • Tackling waste emissions through action on food waste
  • Continue its work towards New Zealand’s goal of planting one billion trees by 2028

Labour also has a natural environment policy, which pledges to:


  • Future proof our economy through preventing, reducing and recycling waste consistent with a zero waste approach 
  • Continue to improve the health of New Zealand’s freshwater and coastal areas
  • Work to achieve efficient and fair allocation of freshwater resources, having regard
  • to all interests including Māori, and existing and potential new users
  • Protect, preserve and restore our natural heritage and biodiversity, and promote the recovery of threatened species
  • Commit to sustained funding for a kauri dieback National Pest Management Plan to provide a nationally coordinated, long-term approach to the management of kauri dieback disease, which is threatening kauri with extinction
  • Repeal the Resource Management Act 1991 and replace it with a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Strategic Planning Act
  • Work with the agricultural sector to develop integrated farm plans to remove duplication of reporting requirements and achieve our goals of clean water, lowering emissions, and sustainable farming
  • Improve the sustainability of our fisheries sector where a range of environmental, recreational, tangata whenua and commercial interests can be upheld through an abundant fishery

National Party


National’s environmental policy is encapsulated in its commitment to a ‘greener, smarter future’, pledging a “practical and science based approach to protecting our environment and tackling climate change”. Some of the key points are:


  • Establish a fund within the National Infrastructure Bank with $600 million to develop a long term plan for water storage.
  • Develop a National Policy Statement on Water Storage to provide certainty around the strategic use of water, streamline consenting and set minimum environmental standards for newly irrigated land.
  • Guarantee common ownership of water for all New Zealanders.
  • Treat water as a prime strategic resource, recognising the importance of water storage for resilience, urban water supply, enhanced environmental outcomes, and better land use options in rural communities.
  • Re-affirm our commitment to a Predator Free New Zealand by 2050, and fully resource efforts to keep us on track towards this goal.
  • Begin work to establish two new National Parks – one on the Coromandel Peninsula and one in the Catlins, and build two new Great Walks.
  • Provide $15 million to DoC for predator free ecological sanctuaries and breeding programmes.
  • Recognise iwi have concerns and work with them to progress the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, while exploring options for the establishment of new marine reserves.
  • Ensure New Zealanders are able to continue to enjoy access to recreational fishing, whitebaiting and hunting.
  • Utilise expertise from the professional and recreational hunting community, including the Game Animal Council, in the control
  • Target a third of the government light vehicle fleet to be EV by 2023.
  • Set a target of 80,000 EVs on our roads by 2023 – four times the current level.
  • Overturn the Government’s costly and harmful oil and gas ban.
  • Investigate new technologies that can support a transition to a net-zero emissions economy such as carbon capture and storage.
  • Support a case-by-case assessment for mining proposals on lower-quality conservation land that meet a ‘net conservation benefit’.
  • Repeal the RMA and implement an environmental legal and regulatory framework that is less complex and provides more certainty to all stakeholders.

New Zealand First


NZ First believes “the government must strike a fair balance between environmental stewardship and utilizing our natural resources. It is when this is done properly that good environmental policy becomes sound economic policy, helping New Zealanders get the most out of our environment while ensuring its longevity”. There’s little in the way of specific policies, apart from one interesting idea to investigate the feasibility of a ‘New Zealand Native Tree Seed Bank’ and the greater use of ‘Native Tree Sanctuaries’.


Sustainable New Zealand Party


The last party I’ve chosen to look at is Sustainable New Zealand. They were founded in 2019 by Vernon Tava, a former Green Party member, and pitch themselves as a “centrist environmental party” that can work with the left or right. Its top policy priorities are:


  • Safe, healthy water that sustains life. 
  • To lead New Zealand’s transformation to a prosperous, sustainable economy.
  • To save our native species from extinction

Rather than having policies on all areas, Sustainable New Zealand focuses on 10 policy areas, for example a sustainable economy through innovation, conservation, waste, energy, transport and reducing emissions, which it thinks governments of all stripes are not doing enough; and that they could have a significant influence on.


There you have it, that’s a whistle stop tour of the main parties’ environmental policies. Having read through them I think it’s fair to say that they are all committed to improving New Zealand’s environment, but that some parties will more beholden to NZ’s entrenched interests in the dairy, fishing and mining industries than others. Polling suggests that Labour and the Greens will win enough seats in Parliament to govern in coalition, and on balance that is probably the best result for NZ’s environment. However both these parties have been part of the government for the past three years and will need to improve on their records if NZ is to live up to its commitments in the Paris Agreement. On the one hand the passage of the Zero Carbon Act and subsequent agreement with farmers was a triumph, but the landmark pledge to plant 1 billion trees was disingenuous at best given it banked 500 million trees expected to be planted by commercial foresters (meaning they will eventually be cut down).


Jacinda Ardern famously said climate change is “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”, but whether action will live up to rhetoric and the next government will deliver transformational change remains to be seen.

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