Rating the government's progress on environmental issues: Greenpeace

8:49 pm on 4 January 2020

As we enter the new year, the prospect of the coming election looms. The government's performance will be under more scrutiny than usual, and its performance will be weighed. So with that in mind, how has a government whose leader made statements like that about climate change being a generation's nuclear-free moment done by the environment?

RNZ asked a range of experts what they thought. This is part four of a daily six-part series, concluding with the minister:

- Gary Taylor, Environmental Defence Society chair and director

- Lennox Crowe, School Strike 4 Climate member

- Rod Oram, Business journalist

- Mike Smith, Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group chair

- David Parker, Minister for the Environment

Greenpeace campaigner Genevieve Toop

The Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior

The Rainbow Warrior Photo: Greenpeace New Zealand

Genevieve Toop is a sustainable agriculture campaigner at environmental activism NGO Greenpeace. Her review sees high and lows for the government, but perhaps unsurprisingly, expects more.

  • What's your short assessment on environmental action?

"The government took power riding on a wave of promises to tackle climate change and clean up our rivers. Early on in their tenure they took the kind of bold and decisive action required to do this. They banned new oil and gas exploration, slashed public subsidies to big irrigation and industrial dairy expansion and banned plastic bags.

"These decisions were great news for the environment and a demonstration of people power. They were a welcome reprieve from nine years of the National-led government which pushed for more oil exploration, incentivised industrial dairy expansion, slashed conservation funding, and let plastic pollution skyrocket.

"But since these decisions, the government's visionary rhetoric has not been matched with the kind of transformational policy reform that is urgently needed. The government have begun to favour incremental change and in several instances they have let big polluters carry on business-as-usual.

"Austrian oil giant OMV is currently exploring for new oil and gas in our waters, a mega-dairy conversion is underway in the iconic Mackenzie Basin, the fishing industry is still bottom trawling 3000 tonnes of coral every year and there is still no backing for a solar revolution to help us get off our dependence on oil gas and coal and end imports of polluting SUVs."

  • What's something you think the government has done well?

"Just months after taking power, the government banned new offshore oil and gas exploration. This kind of courageous and transformational policy is critical in the fight against the climate crisis...

"They also ditched public subsidies to big irrigation schemes which were being used to drive more land into industrial dairying, banned plastic bags - showing regulation can be used to tackle our plastics problem at the source, and increased the conservation budget."

  • What's something you think the government has dropped the ball on?

"Industrial dairying is the nation's biggest climate emitter and water polluter. Yet this government has completely failed to bring a single new environmental regulation to deal with the dairy industry.

"In fact, they have done the opposite. Just weeks after 170,000 New Zealanders striked in the streets demanding climate action, the prime minister announced that agriculture would continue to be exempt from the Emissions Trading Scheme.

"This was a major sell-out to the dairy industry. Labour and the Greens had promised, pre-election, that agriculture would start paying a small sum for its hefty emissions. NZ First had even signed off on it in their coalition agreement with Labour.

"Additionally, they have made little progress in protecting our oceans from exploitative fishing."

  • What's one thing you'd like to see the government achieve before the election?

"The government must put a nationwide cap on synthetic fertiliser, which is one of the key drivers of industrial dairying and river pollution. They have the chance to do this in the new freshwater rules due to be finalised in mid-2020.

"These freshwater reforms are going to be [Jacinda] Ardern's defining moment on the environment. This is when New Zealanders will see whether or not she will live up to her promises to clean up our rivers and move the country towards sustainable food production. Freshwater reforms without a cap on synthetic fertiliser use will be toothless and will amount to another capitulation to industrial dairy lobbyists."

  • How does the government's progress on environmental issues stack up?

"Ardern's government have signalled a change in direction for New Zealand compared with the previous government. However, they have failed to match rhetoric with real action.

"Incremental and reformist policies cannot hope to create the systemic change needed to stem the tide of pollution and stop the ecological breakdown. Aside from the oil and gas exploration ban, this government have yet to step up to the plate with the visionary and transformational change needed.

"This is surprising given the obvious urgency of the climate crisis and the huge mandate for action that they have for example the recent climate strikes."

  • Is there anything the government is doing (or failing to do) that the public should be more aware of?

"A lot of people don't know that agriculture could be a major solution to climate change and ecological decline, if we transitioned to regenerative farming. Rather than treating the land like a factory, regenerative farming treats the land like a diverse ecosystem and can bring back biodiversity, restore soil health, store carbon and clean up waterways.

"New Zealand can be a leader in transforming how the world's farms, but the government is failing to support this visionary transformation for the farming sector."

  • Do you think the government pays enough attention to environmental issues?

"No. We are in the midst of a global climate emergency which is threatening all life on earth. A government that was taking this seriously would be devoting a sizeable chunk of Budget 2019 towards funding the transition towards a sustainable economy.

"Flagship policies should include a billion-dollar regenerative farming fund, massive investment in solar for schools, homes, public buildings and marae and a big boost for electric and public transport."

  • What would you score the coalition out of 10 for its action on environmental issues?

"We'll give them 5/10."

  • Rating the government's progress on environmental issues: Rod Oram
  • Rating the government's progress on environmental issues: School Strike 4 Climate
  • Government's environmental scorecard: Gary Taylor