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Government’s new five-point climate strategy – Expert Reaction

Climate Change Minister Simon Watts released the Government’s new climate strategy this morning. 

The strategy outlines five ‘core pillars’ to tackle the impacts of climate change and prepare for future effects, which includes infrastructure, clean energy, and climate innovation, among others.

The SMC asked experts to comment on:

1. The overall strategy
2. Climate innovation
3. Climate adaptation

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, Political Science, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The New Zealand Coalition Government has just released its Climate strategy – like the preceding Labour government, it is seeking to find an approach or policy edge that will work to unite diverse interests to act on climate.

“The Labour government had previously focused on the core concept of a ‘just transition’. The intent was to bring labour unions traditionally wary of loss of employment in the shift away from coal and gas on board, as the government pushed towards a greener economic future and to protect vulnerable communities. In many ways I see this new strategy as a similar tactic. The National-led coalition government is trying to find ways to unite its own support groups including farming and industry, some of whom have been wary of the implications of climate action for their future. In this government’s push toward a greener economy, in this case it is a focus is on technological innovation and investment and infrastructure.

“The good news is that we have finally matured politically as a country in that all our major political parties now recognise that there are urgent pressing problems due to climate change. This was not the case even eight years ago. While progress is painstakingly slow, the real challenge now is to ensure that the pillars of this policy approach are built on firm foundations of institutional structures and actions put in place to implement the plans and track our progress.

“New Zealand has only just made our first tentative steps in reducing emissions and protecting people; we have a habit of lurching wildly between governments in the actions we take but over the last three years we had made progress, my concern is much of that effort will be lost if the Climate Commission is down-scaled and if the Emissions Trading Scheme is not effectively overhauled and put into a wider context of a suite of other coordinated actions to reduce real emissions and plans to protect the incomes, health, homes, businesses and the environment.

“The five-pillar approach to climate action is an important statement for the National-led coalition – the question now is, what are the foundations that will support those pillars and ensure coordinated, effective outcomes?”

No conflicts of interest.

Dr Luke Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change, University of Waikato, comments: 

“There are several contradictions in the government’s plan. For example, the installation of more fast chargers is largely pointless if you simultaneously collapse the market by removing all incentives to purchase an EV and introduce new disincentives. EV sales have plummeted in recent months as a direct result of recent policy decisions.

“Similarly, the government knows how to turn the Emissions Trading Scheme into a credible market – they just seem unwilling to make the necessary changes that were recommended by the Climate Change Commission.

“Building resilience to future weather extremes sounds great, but this requires adequate resourcing to ensure councils can adapt to these ever-worsening climate extremes. There also needs to be targeted regulation to ensure we’re not building new things in places where they will just be destroyed by the next weather event.

“Too often, our focus on flood management comes at the expense of giving due consideration to the impacts of drought and extreme heat around the country. Commitments are lacking on the provision of drinking water during extreme dry spells, or indeed managing the health risks from increasingly hot summers as our population continues to age.

“Finally, I do like the aspiration of having more native forests in our environment. It would be brilliant if the government put forward clear commitments about how many additional hectares of native forest will be restored or replanted over the coming decades.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Professor Sara Walton, Co-Director of He Kaupapa Hononga Otago’s Climate Change Research Network, University of Otago, comments: 

“While it is good to see a plan being developed for mitigation and adaptation for climate change it would seem that the five pillars approach fails to address the decarbonisation needed to meet Aotearoa New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contributions.

“Overall, there is a lack of specificity in how these tools and barriers will be addressed, particularly as some climate subsidies have been removed and decarbonisation is not a significant part of recent transport polices nor changes to the RMA with the Fast Track Bill.

“Indeed, to realise these five pillars and for meaningful climate action we would expect to see a suite of policies to support the change needed to, for example foster innovation and transformation within industries. Thus far into the Government’s term it would seem that strengthening environmental legislation has not been on the agenda. As such, I look forward to seeing more detail, and changes to policy and regulation to enable any of these five pillars to be realised.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Anita Wreford, Faculty of Environment, Society and Design, Lincoln University, comments:

“The coalition government released its climate change strategy today. This three-page strategy states that it will achieve its targets through five pillars of resilient infrastructure and well-prepared communities; credible markets supporting the climate transition; abundant and affordable clean energy; world leading climate innovation that boosts the economy and nature-based solutions address climate change.

“Beyond the emission reduction targets, the strategy contains no information about how the five pillars will be achieved. There is no identification of potential policies or ways to measure success (with the exception of 10 000 electric vehicle charging stations (and it’s not clear whether these would be new or in total). There are no time-frames to achieve the pillars other than the renewable energy goals, and many of the examples of what the pillars might mean are intangible and vague (“people enjoy a better standard of living with more productive jobs and economic growth”).

“The lack of detail aside, the strategy will be impossible to achieve if policies in other areas are working against it. In other areas, the coalition’s policies actively undermines the goals of this strategy. Obvious examples are the reduction in investment in public transport and reducing our dependency on cars; the reversal of incentives for electric vehicles; the renewed support for fossil fuel exploration; the fast-track legislation that is likely to prioritise short term gains over protecting our natural environment; and the delays in pricing emissions in the agricultural sector, to name just a few. Indeed, the only mention of our largest emitting sector, is “agriculture uses technology to lower emissions and lift productivity”. The misalignment in policies across government is stark and it is hard to see how the government will be able to achieve the aims of this strategy against this reality.

“I sincerely hope we will see more detail and a coherent plan that sits behind this strategy. The IPCC highlighted in its last assessment reports that we have a small and declining window to secure a liveable future – every decision we make matters. It is hard to see how this strategy gives sufficient thought and gravity to securing a liveable and prosperous future for Aotearoa in a rapidly changing climate.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Geoff Willmott, Assistant Dean Research (Commercialisation), Faculty of Science, University of Auckland, and Principal Investigator, MacDiarmid Institute, comments:

“New technologies based on R&D-intensive intellectual property developed here in NZ can provide a win-win by addressing global climate issues while at the same time making us wealthier and more resilient. This is at the heart of the ‘opportunity’ referred to in the strategy’s tagline “Climate change is a challenge and an opportunity”. Apart from developing new products and processes, a well-functioning innovation ecosystem can bind together different areas of the economy so that researchers, industrialists, agricultural experts, financiers and so on all work together and bounce ideas off each other. There are all types of flow-on benefits to this type of ‘complex’ and well-connected economy – skilled people would be attracted to come and live here, investors with deep pockets would take greater notice, and adoption of technologies developed overseas (e.g. resilient infrastructure solutions) would become quicker and easier.

“That is the vision, anyway. The reality is that any chance for New Zealand to be “boosting its economy through world-leading climate innovation” will be challenged in the context of long-term underfunding of our research sector. Businesses and farmers won’t, and can’t, do this on their own. Recently, ‘support’ for the strategy announced today has included minimal funding for climate initiatives in the Budget, paring back of MBIE’s Endeavour fund (one of NZ’s key R&D funding engines), and chopping an estimated 350 to 360 irreplaceable specialist science jobs in recent months (according to the Save Science Coalition).

“Our research capability underpins the whole idea of technological innovation, as it populates the ecosystem with people, knowledge, and ideas – the kinds of ideas that really are world-leading and attract global investors with deep wallets. Other bottlenecks to innovation, where words could be turned into action by the coalition Government, were helpfully identified in the inaugural NZ Cleantech Report released in May – among them raising investment, supporting infrastructure, improving regulatory settings, and improving access to global markets.”

No conflicts of interest.

Dr Axel Heiser, Chief Scientist, AgResearch, comments:

“The Government’s climate strategy released today rightly points out that the effects of climate change are already being felt. This is evident in the frequency of drought and severe weather events that have impacted the agriculture sector and rural communities.

“New Zealand’s primary sector remains the backbone of the New Zealand economy and given it is exposed to the effects of climate change, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that we need to be working together to reduce those impacts.

“Adapting to a changing climate will be critical for our farmers and growers. They will need to be supported to evolve or transition over time to methods and practices that fit the climate they operate in, and what the changing global need is.

“Importantly, the strategy also notes that we need to think long-term, which is where sustained investment into research for the agriculture industry is so critical.

“Right now there are limited options available to farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without cutting livestock numbers and putting their profitability at risk.

“The strategy speaks about the need for technology to lower emissions while lifting productivity. We have evidence this is possible in AgResearch’s work with the sheep industry to breed lower methane emitting animals. Breeders who have already embraced this approach, based on the research, are telling us that they can produce animals that are both productive and less of a burden on the climate.

“That longer term commitment is needed in the research and development of tools such as modified pasture, and methane reducing feed additives or vaccines, which are complex and take time. Overseas, greenhouse gas mitigation options are being developed but they won’t necessarily be suited for use in New Zealand’s unique pasture-based farm systems.”

Conflict of interest: “The organisation I work for receives public and commercial funding for research related to climate change.”

Professor Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Four out of five pillars are devoted to mitigation. If anything, the destructive events of January 2023 should make it clear to all that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and that we need to urgently also talk about adapting our communities and economies to that new reality.

“The emphasis on resilient communities, and the infrastructure that serves them (first pilar), is welcome and important. Clearly, a necessary part of achieving that will have to be planned relocations in some specific instances. Some communities will have to move out of harm’s way. Without a clear legal framework for planned relocations (what is sometimes called ‘managed retreat’) it will be very difficult to achieve that efficiently and fairly.

“The Strategy details how climate change already is impacting our economy using outdated numbers from 2007-2017 (full disclosure: I was part of the team that produced those numbers). These are obviously outdated as the costs of extreme weather events have skyrocketed since 2017. The reason that the government used those numbers is that they don’t have more up-to-date information. We don’t know how much damage extreme weather events are already causing because we do not collect this data. It is always difficult to manage what we don’t measure, so if we really want to seriously tackle adaptation, the government and treasury need to do more to measure the impacts.”

No conflicts of interest.