16 Feb 2024

Environmental groups say government's plans breach free trade agreement

10:55 am on 16 February 2024
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World Wildlife Fund says weakening environmental protections may backfire on the industries it is meant to support.(file image) Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

A coalition of environment groups says New Zealand is breaching its free trade deal with the United Kingdom by rolling back environmental laws.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Environmental Defence Society (EDS), Greenpeace, Forest and Bird and Pure Advantage complained in a submission to staff at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade, saying the new government's "war on nature" is an attempt to give New Zealand exporters an advantage, and breaches the UK deal.

The free trade agreement (FTA) has a strong environmental chapter, which includes a clause where countries agree they will not encourage trade by weakening environmental laws.

Trade Minister Todd McClay said the ministry will respond to the submission, but the government strongly rejected the assertions. In an emailed statement, he said New Zealand "takes its obligations under trade agreements extremely seriously" and the free trade deal lets both parties set their own environmental law.

WWF chief executive Kayla Kingdon-Bebb told RNZ weakening environmental protections might backfire on the industries it was meant to support.

"Whether government like it or not, the global market and consumers are demanding more sustainably produced products," Kingdon-Bebb said.

"This is quite a novel process. The FTA with the UK has only been in force since last May and it includes one of the strongest and most far-reaching environmental chapters we have ever negotiated in an FTA, as New Zealand.

"[It] basically requires that there can be this free market access, that's great, but, to provide for that, countries need to ... at least maintain the environmental protections they have in place.

"The governments respectively have opened up the opportunity for groups and the wider public and businesses to submit on the FTA's implementation, and that's what we've done.

"We have seen in the early days of this coalition government what can only be described as a war on nature ... and the government has been quite open that it is seeking to do this to ease the burden on the primary production sector."

The groups' joint submission stated: "The government has repealed key environmental Acts under urgency and intends to replace and amend evidence-based national policies that were collaboratively designed to protect nature."

The submission also highlights plans to allow fast-track developments with "uncertain environmental safeguards", scrap clean energy schemes and carbon-cutting plans, and "redirect emissions reductions funding to tax cuts", as well as plans to allow more ocean exploitation.

"We submit that the government's agenda to 'cut red tape' for industry and the primary sector is to give New Zealand producers a market advantage and enhance New Zealand's export competitiveness at the expense of the climate and the environment. In short, it is creating an implicit subsidy for New Zealand exports," the submission stated.

The UK government is also being criticised by environmental groups in its country for backsliding on climate change.

Dr Kingdon-Bebb acknowledged that might make it less likely to complain about New Zealand. However, she said the European Union (EU) might be in a stronger position to enforce its FTA (which contained even stronger climate provisions) when the EU deal is ratified this year.

Lawyers and trade experts have previously said the bar for enforcing environmental clauses in the EU deal would be high, with any disputes going through an extensive mediation process before they could result in sanctions.

However, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade has the ability to advise other parts of government about compliance with international deals.

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