Article by Guest Contributor: David Hall
New Zealanders are not usually known as passionately political. So when tens of thousands of protesters marched through downtown Auckland, as they did on 1st May this year, it was obvious a nerve had been struck.
The issue was environmental. The centre-right National Government had proposed opening 7058 hectares of premium conservation land to mining, including beloved areas such as Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula. Public opposition was formidable and the Government officially abandoned the review in late July. It recalled the 2004 backdown of the previous National Party Leader, Don Brash, after suggesting a review of the nation’s nuclear-free policy to increase the chances of a free-trade agreement with the United States.
In New Zealand, such issues are simply non-negotiable, part of the national identity. Financial incentives have little sway against these environmental passions.
So why has the issue of climate change not been embraced by this green ideological streak?
Some reasons are the same wherever you go. Mistrust of climate science is common in New Zealand as elsewhere—although it’s always difficult to tell if this is the cause of public cynicism or a form of post hoc rationalization. Apathy is also easy when New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions account for only 0.2% of the global total (perhaps though the more morally relevant figure is emissions per capita, for which New Zealand is fifth highest amongst industrialized countries).
National politics haven’t helped either. New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme was borne out of fractious politicking, an uninspiring sight from the sidelines. The final product is a messy melange of concessions that is, understandably, beyond the comprehension of most New Zealanders. In addition, the burden of emissions costs is being carried largely by households and small businesses, not large-scale polluters. No matter what your views on climate change, it is difficult legislation to like.
Yet certain aspects of New Zealand’s situation are uniquely challenging.
For instance, New Zealand is unable to reduce emissions by cleaning up the energy sector because two-thirds of energy production already comes from renewable sources, largely hydro and geothermal. While other countries have cut emissions by switching from coal and gas stations to renewables or nuclear energy, New Zealand has little room to move.
Similarly, reducing transport emissions is difficult in a country that is slightly larger than the United Kingdom yet has only 6.5 per cent of the population (4 million). While there is great scope to improve public transport in urban areas, a comparable national network of rail and buses is economically implausible.
New Zealand’s geographical isolation also makes it especially vulnerable to increased costs of long-haul transport. Given that the tourism and export industries constitute the bulk of the national economy (not to the average New Zealander’s love of travel), this is a sensitive issue with no simple solution. It is also an issue that New Zealand faces with the rest of the global south, looking to international trade as an engine for development.
There is also the not unreasonable suspicion that the concept of ‘food miles’ is being used to unfairly exclude New Zealand produce from northern hemisphere markets. Research shows that transport emissions are often amply compensated by New Zealand’s significantly lower emissions in food production—to the extent that New Zealand sheep meat in a British market is four times more energy efficient than British meat, and dairy two times more. Given that almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, the nation could drastically reduce its emissions by lowering production to subsistence levels, but how would that pan out for countries like the United Kingdom that consume far more than they produce?
It is these complexities that make New Zealanders more ambivalent about climate change policy—if not climate change itself. Nuclear bans and natural landscapes stir the New Zealand soul, to the extent that many New Zealanders are happy to make an economic sacrifice. Yet the implications of climate change policy, as it presently stands, are more difficult to fathom, even for those committed to reducing emissions. Ultimately, both environment and livelihood are vital for any nation, but the latter looks more precarious when you live at the edge of the world.