#43 - Will New Zealand’s post-COVID 'transformation' solve its environmental challenges?

By Sitara Morgenster in New Zealand

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Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credit/copyright: Michael Levine-Clark, Flickr

It was certain to me that the New Zealand Labour party would win the elections.

What is not certain is that Jacinda Ardern's new government will be green enough to face the country's massive environmental challenges. But with the return of the Green Party's James Shaw as climate minister and a new dedicated ministry for oceans and fisheries, I’m now seeing hopeful signs.

The vast majority of New Zealanders want their environment, wilderness and climate protected. Their close proximity to untouched nature and national problems like droughts, wildfires, flooding, coastal erosion, and water pollution from agriculture makes New Zealanders especially attuned to their vulnerability to man-made changes in the natural world. This became clear in a poll last year of Kiwis views on climate change pre-COVID and again in the elections last month.

A renewed government

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems to understand this well. In her newly formed cabinet presented on Monday 2nd November, she re-appointed James Shaw as climate minister, giving him the additional responsibility for biodiversity.


Ardern did not need to co-operate with the Green Party. Her Labour Party gained 64 seats (compared to 46 in 2017) and had the power to reign alone. But the freshly re-elected Prime Minister of New Zealand has purposely chosen to bring in the skills of the Greens “in the environment space”.

It is in fact the best possible outcome for Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment and climate. The Green Party presented the most extensive and ambitious plans for environmental improvement and reform.

Many of the votes gained by the Labour Party are a result of people’s appreciation for Jacinda Ardern’s leadership in stamping out the coronavirus in the country. Much of the credits for her previous governments "green" initiatives went to the Green Party, which grew from 8 to 10 seats in Parliament.

Meanwhile, parties promising to turn back the clock on restorative and protective climate measures and environmental action were punished with a tremendous loss of seats in parliament. The New Zealand First Party, part of Ardern's 2017-2020 coalition government and blamed for “putting the handbrake” on much of the more progressive, green plans of Ardern’s previous government, was essentially voted into oblivion, winning no seats at all.

A giant task

The prime minister now has the political capital to include essential green policies in her promise to “build back better” from Covid-19. There is plenty to be done. Greenpeace New Zealand outlines the need for Ardern’s new “emboldened” government to tackle climate pollution from agribusiness, illegal and destructive fishing in the oceans, while also seriously transforming the way New Zealanders move around, from safe cycleways to electric cars and public transport.

Pine timber being exported from Wellington, New Zealand. Photo credit: WRI, Flickr

Like everywhere else, established industries and interests under pressure are all too keen to push back, such as the intensive dairy farming sector, fertiliser companies, fish farms and the large fishery companies.

There have also been issues with public agencies failing to act on existing policies and trends. Environmental lobby group Forest & Bird showed in a recent report that dozens of local and regional councils are failing to protect the natural environment. It documented hundreds of instances of what it calls deliberate damage to native habitat.

New Zealand also has the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, including 90% of all seabirds, 84% of reptiles, 76% of freshwater fish and 74% of terrestrial birds. For years it has struggled with water pollution from agriculture, with current measures so far failing to produce results.

In addition, a devastating report by the environment ministry together with Statistics New Zealand, published two days before the elections, projects that days with very high or extreme fire danger are likely to increase by 70% in the next two decades.


The report also shows that New Zealand’s emissions per capita are amongst the highest in the world. In particular, it reveals it as the fifth worst per capita traffic polluter in the world, with 3.2 tonnes per person per year from driving alone; worse than UK and Germany.

Poor public transport networks, low road user costs and an almost complete reliance on trucking for the distribution of food and goods are the culprits here, together with a burgeoning agriculture industry. There are also no efficiency requirements for cars, most of which are shipped in second hand from countries such as Japan.

New promise

In her last term, much of Ardern’s tough talk petered out when time came to put policies into practise. Her government’s most recent budget was short on climate policies. Cameras on fishing boats still haven’t been installed. A promised plan to protect Māui and Hector's dolphins, due to be released in December 2019, was delayed with no end date confirmed. Twenty-one mining applications were approved on conservation land, despite Ardern's promise in 2017 there would be no more, due to a delay with finalising legislation.

But the person to watch closely when it comes to climate action and the environment in New Zealand is not necessarily Jacinda Ardern herself, but the man she just re-appointed to be her climate minister over the next three years: James Shaw.

Ardern with Green Party co-leader James Shaw at Victoria University of Wellington, 12 April 2018 . Photo credit: Stuart Yeates,Wikipedia

In an interview with news website Stuff in May, Shaw emphasised that the need to cut global emissions in half over the next 10 years means we cannot afford to restore it to the status quo after Covid-19. “It has to be a different economy”, he said.”

A heavy responsibility rests on his shoulders, but if he can’t set this clean train in motion, probably nobody can.

In June this year, Shaw was the key driver behind returning climate change rules into the Resource Management Act – a parliamentary act promoting the sustainable management of natural and physical resources such as land, air and water. This climate clause closed a longtime loophole and makes it possible to decline permission for large projects with significant negative climate change implications.

Among Shaw's other achievements have been finalising the Zero Carbon Act, the reform of the Emissions Trading Scheme and establishing a green investment fund - all successes which he will be able to build on.

Sitara Morgenster is a bi-lingual, Aotearoa New Zealand-based health, ecology and culture writer and accredited freelance journalist. Sitara lives off-grid in regenerating native bush with all kinds of creatures big and small. Find her on Twitter as @SitaraWrites

Must reads from the region

In New Zealand’s deep south, Māori landowners make money by keeping their forests intact, Monica Evans, Climate Home News

Once considered useless because it couldn’t be farmed, New Zealand’s Eastern Fiordland is home to swathes of tall indigenous rainforest with scores of native birds, including tūī, kākā, kererū and the endangered, endemic Kea parrot. Now Māori landowners are earning money through carbon credits by keeping these forests intact

Kūmara flee climate change, Kate Evans, New Zealand Geographic Magazine

“Worldwide, sweet potatoes are under threat from climate change—and a new international study has found that maintaining the crop’s genetic diversity will be key to ensuring you can get a fix of kūmara fries with your beer.”

You do not create wetlands; you stop draining them. You do not ‘clean up’ rivers; you stop polluting them; my Message to Jacinda, Mike Joy, Newsroom.co.nz

“The biggest driver of the degradation of New Zealand’s waterways is the uncontrolled intensification of agriculture, primarily dairy,” writes ecologist Mike Joy in a recent message to New Zealand’s Prime Minister advising her how to spend the COVID-19 recovery budget. Joy urged Jacinda Ardern to move New Zealand’s agriculture industry to a low-intensity, highly diverse farming model as the country’s only good future.

Voting opens in New Zealand’s beloved Bird of the Year competition, Phil Taylor, The Guardian

It started 15 years ago as a modest promotion to draw attention to native birds, many of which are endangered and has become a national phenomenon.

What else I’m reading

Kauri – Witness to a Nation’s History, by Joanna Orwin

The kauri, New Zealand's giant, native conifer that once covered the country's landscape in the Far North, are currently under threat from “kauri dieback disease”. This 2004 book by scientist and historian Joanna Orwin, updated and republished last year, details the history and modern day challenges for this iconic tree.

Who we are

From A Climate Correspondent is a weekly newsletter run by four journalists exploring the climate crisis from around the globe.

Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.

Jocelyn Timperley is a climate journalist based in San José, Costa Rica.

India Bourke is an environment journalist based in London, UK.

Mat Hope is investigative journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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