Election 2020

Campaigning hits credibility gap on climate

Environment and Climate Editor David Williams looks back on the week of political campaigning

ANALYSIS: Piecemeal policy pronouncements make political punditry perilous.

Each day of election season brings a new turn, a fresh twist. Announcements are picked over, but it’s difficult to know which, if any, might dislodge undecided voters from their electoral uncertainty.

The Covid-19 response looms large and underneath it, which party to trust with the economy. The rest, it could be argued, is relatively meaningless – small ripples in a roiling ocean.

Unless of course, you’re in the growing group of people who take climate change seriously.

Why wouldn’t you?

Parts of the west coast of the United States are aflame. Trapped, terrified people have died in fast-moving, climate-change-fuelled wildfires that have razed homes and turned places like San Francisco into a Mars-like haze so thick that drivers are forced to drive with their lights on at midday.

The extremes are dramatic.

Record temperatures have been recorded in Death Valley, California – including a likely 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or 54.4 degrees Celsius, in August, the hottest temperature since 1931.

In June, the mercury hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38°C) for the first time in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, in the Arctic circle. In the Canadian Arctic, the last fully intact ice shelf collapsed at the end of July.

Humans have, as WWF has outlined, caused a massive global biodiversity crisis, including an endangered list in Aotearoa that stretches to 4000 native species.

Seen through this environmental lens, and with scientists warning of greater warming to come, the climate-concerned among us could be forgiven for being underwhelmed by last week’s pre-election promises by New Zealand political parties.

Into the never-never

In a country of three-year electoral cycles, it’s a bold voter who pins their hopes on promises that extend beyond three terms. The incumbents’ performance is also worth examining.

Labour’s pledge to shift the country to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 grabbed headlines. But, as Marc Daalder writes, it’s a costly distraction from its unwillingness to act in the transport and agriculture sectors.

It’s also contrary to research by the Interim Climate Change Committee, which found there were more cost-effective ways to reduce emissions.

Perhaps sniffing a weakness in the Government’s track record, the National Party made noise last week about electric vehicles. Its package includes a laudable move, were it to enter government, to order all new vehicles purchased by departments and agencies are EVs.

As Marc Daalder reports, however, National’s targets of having 80,000 EVs in the national fleet by 2023, and, by the same year, having EVs make up a third of the Government’s vehicle fleet, are easily achievable.

The announcement shows how mainstream electric cars are now, but seemingly not important enough for politicians to pressure officials to ensure promises are kept.

Taking on dairying

There was much more of interest in Saturday’s agriculture policy announcement by the Green Party.

The beleaguered party, at risk of falling below MMP’s crucial 5 percent line, aimed a blow at a flabby part of the coalition’s track record – its unwillingness to deal with intensive farming, particularly dairying.

Environmental lobby groups heaped praise on the announcement. Greenpeace celebrated the proposed ban of imported feed palm kernel – of which this country is the world’s biggest importer. Forest & Bird said all political parties should offer such economic transformation.

The centrepiece was $297 million to help farmers change direction into regenerative agriculture, something about which Rod Oram has written.

Part of that fund would be covered by a 2-cent-per-litre levy on nitrogen-and-phosphorous-based fertilisers. (Greenpeace called that “far too weak”.) The Green Party also promised to implement a strict limit for dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) in waterways, something suggested, but controversially left out of, the Government’s freshwater regulations.

The National Party called the Greens’ policy a slap in the face for farmers, and suggested those DIN limits would “kill off dairying”.

On its face, the announcement is an attempt to deal with many things the government has been told, and has been saying, about intensive agriculture.

A Ministry for the Environment report warns many changes to the country’s freshwater environments are slow to reverse, and some are irreversible. “Loss of species and ecosystems could have significant impacts on our identity, wellbeing, cultural values, and economy”. That led Forest & Bird to say freshwater has reached breaking point. Other research suggests polluted waterways are threatening human health.

Almost half this country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and, despite millions of taxpayer dollars being spent on research, no magic pill has emerged. Without one, difficult decisions have to be made – decisions that will be unpalatable for some, and may spark an uproar.

But how can ministers dither in the face of research detailing how increasingly difficult it will be to stabilise temperatures at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, to avoid the worst climate effects?

Patchy track record

Parties within this Government seem to have a credibility problem.

Labour’s website says “we’re taking action on climate change because it’s the nuclear-free issue of our time”. Its first achievement listed is passing a Zero Carbon Act with a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which is true.

But paired with that, in the Labour-Greens post-election agreement, was establishing an independent Climate Change Commission, to ensure a check on Government policy.

In May, the commission wrote to Climate Change Minister James Shaw, the Greens co-leader, with concerns the Budget, arguably the most important in a generation, “does not take us far enough”.

That same day, the commission wrote to Environment Minister David Parker with concerns a fast-tracked consenting bill for new infrastructure projects might not ensure the Covid-19 economic recovery projects end up harming the environment.

To ignore such pleas sets this Government up as a coalition that only acts on the science that suits it.

(Another coalition deal promise was to plant a billion carbon-storing trees, part of the Labour-New Zealand First agreement. But tree-planting will only take the country so far in meeting its Paris climate agreement targets.)

Saturday’s policy announcement by the Greens takes aim at farming practices that are so intense they pollute water, and send harmful gases into the air. While $297 million won’t go far, it’s an attempt to give farmers financial help to move to less-polluting practices, which seems reasonable.

In November 2017, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said this country “may have got close to the maximum number of cows”. If the Labour Party still thinks that it should articulate what it plans to do about it, and by when.

Going hard and going early was the Government’s mantra on Covid-19. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the decision to impose a level-four lockdown was based on expert modelling showing, without it, tens of thousands of Kiwis would die from the virus. Economic advice was to shovel billions of dollars to businesses and workers to keep them afloat during a lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

There’s plenty of modelling about climate change. Political parties need to tell voters what they’re going to do about it.

* This story has been updated to correct what was said in a Ministry for the Environment report.

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