After just four months in office the scorecard for the new Government could hardly be worse. Forget about carbon-zero the Government is just plain zero when it comes to environmental sustainability.

Government Gets Zero For Sustainability

After just four months in office the scorecard for the new Government could hardly be worse. Forget about carbon-zero the Government is just plain zero when it comes to environmental sustainability.

Since December the Government has reversed some of New Zealand’s progress towards sustainability and self-sufficiency. Here is a shortlist:

Emissions Trading Scheme put on hold for review

The New Zealand Emission Trading Scheme, whilst controversial, was better than nothing. Now we have nothing. While the Government dilly-dallies over the best approach to meet our commitment to the Kyoto Protocol our national emissions are steadily increasing. The demise of the ETS will also mean that the $1 billion that the Green Party negotiated for investing in warmer homes will also go out the window – along with the heat.

The Biofuels Act repealed

Fossil fuels are getting more expensive, they cause climate change and they are imported. A 2007 report by SCION stated that New Zealand has enough marginal land, if planted with sustainable forests, to provide all of our transport fuel needs. Being self-sufficient in transport fuels would be a huge fillip for the economy including creating new jobs, decreasing imports and reducing the impact of currency fluctuations. The Biofuels Act was intended to stimulate investment in research and development of the fledgling industry.

Funding cuts at the Ministry for the Environment

The Ministry is set to lose up to a quarter of its staff according to the Public Service Association as an estimated 86 jobs are to be eliminated. Budget cuts at the Ministry for the Environment also reduces or ends funding for many organisations and initiatives. Important organisations like the Sustainable Business Network are likely to lose their most significant source of income.

Funding cuts for Coastal Shipping\

Coastal shipping is the most energy efficient way to move freight around the country, producing only 14 grams of CO2 per tonne-kilometre compared with road at 92-123 grams. The former Government’s Sea Change strategy aimed to transform coastal shipping in New Zealand and double the proportion of freight carried to 30% by 2040. This would take trucks off New Zealand’s roads and make the country’s freight infrastructure more sustainable. The previous Government had committed up to $179 million to develop sea and rail infrastructure through to 2019. National propose reducing this investment to between $8-13 million whilst spending several billion on roading.

Elimination of the regional fuel tax

Auckland in particular has been left high and dry again. Last year the controversial regional fuel tax was agreed to by Auckland’s local government as a necessary evil because it would fund Auckland’s much needed public transport infrastructure. In particular it was intended to raise the $1 billion needed to upgrade and electrify the Auckland rail system. The Government has ditched this for a lower, but national, fuel tax with no guarantee that Auckland will get the sustainable transport infrastructure it sorely needs.

Amendments to the Resource Management Act

The Resource Management Act was created to ‘streamline’ the sustainable management and protection of New Zealand’s natural resources. It is not perfect, there is plenty of room for improvement, but not at the expense of the environment and certainly not just to benefit developers. One of the key elements of sustainable development is a robust and rigorous resource management framework. Some of the Governments proposed amendments may indeed improve the management process but others will definitely compromise the purpose of the Act.

Increased spending on roads

The Government is increasing the amount that will be spent on roading from the Land Transport Fund. This is a double blow to sustainability because the fund is a finite amount so it effectively decreases the amount spent on public transport, walkways, cycleways and coastal shipping.

Ending the government’s carbon-neutral programme

Explaining why the Government decided to ditch the carbon-neutral programme Environment Minister Nick Smith said, “It’s not government policy that we should move to a carbon neutral public service.” This begs the question: Why not? The government must lead from the front when it comes to sustainability. Instead they are sending the message that you don’t need to try to be carbon neutral.

It is generally accepted that climate change is real and that a large-scale, rapid change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is needed. Nearly every country on earth is going out of its way to address this need, we aren’t. The Government’s actions are harming our international standing as a responsible nation and our brand as a clean, green country.

The Government argues that all of the cuts and changes noted above are necessary because the initiatives are inefficient and/or ineffective. This is short-term thinking. The effectiveness and efficiency in each case can only be judged in the long-term. It is easy to spend money on something, then throw it away and say that you have just wasted your money. It is wasteful to chop and change and yet our political system seems set up to do just that.

Efficiency has never been the only criteria for judging the value of something. It might be more efficient for Southlanders to help pay for Auckland’s transport infrastructure but is it fair? A carbon-neutral public service programme may prove inefficient in the short-term but it does send the right message. A biofuels obligation may be difficult to manage but it will help develop a fledgling industry that will be very valuable in the future.

Industrial-age strategies will not sustain us in a world that has reached environmental limits. Notions like productivity, competition and investment in extracted and diminishing resources must give way to strategies such as sustainability, cooperation and investment in natural capital.

Any Government has the role of looking after the interests of all citizens including those of the future. Our new Government’s actions will benefit just a few, and not for long. The ultra-conservative, short-term thinking of the Government will disadvantage the majority of New Zealanders for years to come.