3 May 2020

Shovel-ready projects choice must consider environment - lawyers

11:22 am on 3 May 2020

Spending on infrastructure projects to get the economy going post Covid-19 must legally take into account the environmental impact of those projects, say a collective of lawyers.

construction worker on construction site

Photo: 123rf.com

The government is developing 'shovel-ready' infrastructure projects that can start as soon as the construction industry returns to normal. And Ministers are expected to receive a short list of projects within the next couple of weeks.

However the professional body Lawyers for Climate Action has written to Ministers, worried about how the funding decisions will be made.

"We are concerned that the criteria for shovel ready projects published on the Crown Infrastructure Partners website do not refer to climate change, and do not specifically include either the impact on domestic greenhouse gas emissions, or New Zealands capacity for adaptation to the effects of climate change over time, as relevant criteria by which the projects will be assessed."

Lawyers for Climate Action president Jenny Cooper QC said they're seeking assurances the government will make impact on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change resilience core parts of its assessment for all post-Covid-19 stimulus spending.

Cooper said the projects are an opportunity to build resilience to climate change into the economy, and to transition to a low emissions economy faster.

However she added the 'shovel ready' projects also pose a risk.

"If the money isn't spent in the right way then we lose that opportunity, we spend money now that we are not going to have in the future and even worse than that we could really entrench the emissions profile of New Zealand, if we spend money that means we are creating infrastructure and facilities that are going to continue to produce emissions into the future."

She added there is not just a moral obligation to make the right choice, but a legal one.

"The Paris Agreement target is now part of domestic law in the Climate Change Response Act through the Zero Carbon Act amendments, so having put that into law the Government can't now just turn around and do something which is totally inconsistent with those obligations, that would be unreasonable," she said.

The call has been backed up by the New Zealand Green Building Council.

The criteria for the projects does include consideration of overall economic, social, environmental, regional and nationwide benefits of the project. But Green Building Council chief executive Andrew Eagles said the criteria offered very 'woolly' and vague sentiments, despite there being billions of dollars worth of projects on the line.

"They are not calling for low carbon or sustainability elements, and those are available, simple and used by most of the sector, it is a real missed opportunity," he said.

Previously, the government said it would consider providing funding for projects involving water, transport, clean energy and buildings.

But Eagles argued the government needed to not only take into account what will be built, but how it will be built.

"Embodied emissions from the built environment have climbed 60 percent in the last 10 years, and is equivalent to one million cars on our roads, we need to think about how we're building and analyse that as well."

He said these were points the government needed to take incredibly seriously.

He noted in the UK, legal action had been taken against the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, because the country's climate policy wasn't taken into account.

In response to the concerns raised in the letter to Ministers, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said decisions on the projects will be made by Cabinet, which will operate according to plans that have already been announced, including the transition to a low carbon economy.

"We have in mind all of the things that matter; creating jobs, making sure we can transition to that low carbon environment, growing productivity, and keeping the economy moving. We continue to balance those in our decisions about the infrastructure projects," he said.

Robertson said the government had already demonstrated that with the New Zealand Upgrade Programme.

"It had a mixture of projects, which yes, included some roading projects, but it included rail, getting rid of some of those boilers in our schools and in our hospitals, it included cycling [and] walking projects," he said.

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