Politicians have a ‘mandate’ for climate action, how do their policies stack up?

Before the 2017 election, Jacinda Ardern called climate change her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”. Three years later, do the climate policies on offer this time around reflect that? Leith Huffadine reports.

“What climate action?” That’s Ollie Langridge’s reply when asked his view on New Zealand’s efforts to deal with the climate crisis.

Langridge made national headlines last year as he protested outside Parliament for 100 days in a row, calling for the government to declare a climate emergency.

While that declaration didn’t happen, he’s still out there protesting every Friday.

But when asked what he thinks about Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s “nuclear-free moment”, he seems optimistic.

“Hopefully we’ll get a Labour/Green government this time around where things happen around delivering on that initial promise.

“I have faith that New Zealand once again has the opportunity to lead the world by example in this issue, and we’ll see the beginnings of ‘meaningful’ action.”

He might be in luck.

The Environmental Defence Society’s chairman and executive director Gary Taylor – who has been involved in climate change work for two decades – says overall, policies being presented by parties this year are the most progressive the country has seen in an election campaign.

“I think what we’ve done is we’ve moved away from climate change being a greenwash policy offering, and at least parties are offering substantive stuff.”

The Greens’ policies are the best, but Labour made a lot of progress in its last term, National has moved a lot in recent years, New Zealand First supported Labour’s work while in the coalition, and even ACT has shifted its position, Taylor says.

But he warns it’s still not enough.

“The problem with all of it, is that it’s not going to get us there.”

He says we will overshoot our Paris agreement 2030 greenhouse gas emissions targets by “a considerable amount, unless there is quite robust change”.

Taylor would like more urgency written into the policies on offer. And agriculture is really the crux of climate issues that policy needs to address, he says.

“It’s hard, you know. We need food, as the Nats rightly say. And we are quite good at it. And because of that, potentially we can provide global leadership on what to do to reduce emissions.

“But it may require some fundamental landuse changes away from methane- emitting animals to crops, to other forms of food production.

“So I would say the next three years, the big challenge is going to be farming and what to do about farming. And the only party that has given some serious thought to this is the Greens with their regenerative agriculture policy, their transition assistance fund.”

Taylor says government should also consider a law to cover managed retreat away from climate risks.

And also says that what climate change policy is made should be understandable.

“Otherwise it becomes a black box that you put money into, and people don’t like it.”

Taylor has seven key priorities for what climate change policy should cover in 2020.

They are:

  • A commitment to the scale and pace of change that the climate crisis requires
  • A commitment to develop policy informed by science to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to retain the current legislative architecture including the climate change commission
  • Address agriculture
  • A comprehensive approach to decarbonise the land transport system by 2030, including looking at fuel efficiency standards, clean car discounts, commitment to government procurement of EVs, investing in EV charging infrastructure, prioritisation of cycleways, buses and rail, and measures that reduce car trips and increase car occupancy
  • A pathway to decarbonise processed heat
  • Recognition that adaptation planning is important and must start now
  • An acknowledgement that this is a global problem and we need to – to the extent that a small country like New Zealand can – think about how we can provide leadership

So who has the best climate policy?

Taylor says of the major parties, “understandably”, it’s the Greens.

“They have the most detail and arguably robust and effective mix of climate change policies.

Farming for the future, the transport plan, clean energy plan, commitment to renewables and to the climate change commission.

“They have linked the climate change policy settings to landuse and water management challenges as well, which of course you have got to do.

“Their transport plan is enormously comprehensive, and kind of like a menu that I would think you would pick from, rather than expect to have every single line menu manifested.

“The Greens have put more thought and analysis into developing their policy than any other party.”

Greenpeace campaigner Amanda Larsson agrees the Green Party has the strongest climate policies.

“I guess the question with them is always, they are never going to be governing on their own, so what will they be prioritising in coalition negotiations?” Larsson says.

Taylor says Labour has made good progress on climate change, including establishing the framework of the climate commission; carbon budgets.

“Looking forward, they are promising to bring forward the 100 percent renewable energy target for the electricity network to 2030.”

He also highlighted Labour’s “strong policies on EVs and on rail”.

Larsson likes Labour’s plans to continue the low emission vehicle contestable fund for encouraging electric car use, and plans to introduce fuel efficiency standards for cars, but not the party’s roading project proposals.

She also rated Labour’s clean energy policies well.

The Environmental Defence Society is not political and as an organisation won’t tell anyone how to vote, but Taylor says a Labour-Greens government would be the most progressive for climate action, although their challenge would be how to manage agricultural emissions.

Langridge is hopeful for a Labour-Greens coalition that will be more progressive without New Zealand First to hold them back. And the Greens have indicated they would push Labour to go further on issues and create meaningful change.

National’s stance on climate has moved a lot in recent years, Taylor says.

“They supported the Zero Carbon Bill after much to-ing and fro-ing… but their current leader is opposed to that bill passing, and they now propose to make some amendments to it. They intend to repeal the oil and gas ban, but they have quite a detailed policy on the EV transition.”

They are taking the approach that John Key did – that we will be fast adopters of technology as it evolves to low emissions, but not leaders, Taylor says.

As for National’s agriculture-related climate policy – that’s “completely negative”, he adds.

“Whilst it’s not as progressive, and not as detailed, quite a lot of thought has gone into (National’s policies). Somebody has written it who understands the current settings quite well.”

Larsson says National has a lot of commitments to build out active and public transport and railways, which is good. And she says National’s EV policy is OK, too.

But that needs to be balanced against their many commitments to build roads, she says.

“ACT have been very outspoken about wanting to go hard to repeal a lot of climate change legislation, and I haven’t seen much from New Zealand First, mainly just silence.”

Larsson ranks ACT’s policy the worst – it’d be bad for climate change, she says.

Taylor says ACT has the most troubling approach.

“They say they would replace the Zero Carbon Act with a ‘no-nonsense plan that ties New Zealand’s carbon price to that of our other five highest trading partners. Well I’ve looked at them, and most of them, the carbon price… is zero.

“So if ACT had it’s way, our current carbon price under the ETC of about $35 would go down to zero.”

A National-ACT coalition’s climate action would depend on how much influence ACT had, Taylor says.

“I think the only upside from ACT really on climate change is they do seem to have moved from outright deniers – which is where the party was five years ago.

“[With] a strong ACT presence you could expect some of their radical and unhelpful policies to potentially be implemented, and that is frankly a scary proposition.”

A shift in thinking

Massey University’s Dr Anna Berka says we need consensus across political parties on climate policy to “raise ambition levels and to set expectations”.

“In my view, climate policy needs to be seen as a long-term investment from which we can actually generate competitive advantage.”

The lecturer in management, entrepreneurship and innovation says the only way to establish consensus is by setting out the socio-economic benefits of responding to the climate emergency.

“It goes hand-in-hand with diversity and civic engagement in policy. It’s about broader and deeper engagement, not just of a wider range of industry stakeholders, but also local government, civil society.”

Berka would like to see New Zealand making experimental policy.

“Elsewhere we have seen really effective government policies on [climate]… They are not shy of putting resources into policy experiments with uncertain outcomes.

“We have to face up to the fact that the answers to this problem are not actually out there – often it’s about working with the existing technologies that we have, or existing ideas we have in new ways.”

That means trying different things and a “less risk-adverse approach” to policy making.

Langridge goes further – he says Western thinking needs to change.

“We’ve had it so good for so long in most of the Western world, and we believe that we’re entitled to the luxuries we’ve become accustomed to forever, so we stumble ever-onward towards climate collapse…

“Nothing will fundamentally change as long as we see ourselves as separate from Nature. We need a radical re-education on our place in this ecosystem.”

A huge public mandate

Larsson thinks climate policy should be flagship policy for political parties.

“We’re in the middle of a climate crisis… so I think in that context we’re not doing nearly enough. But also in the context of what New Zealanders want – the latest polling shows 79 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about climate change.

“The majority of people think if the government isn’t acting on this it’s failing the country; seven out of 10 people want a green recovery from Covid-19. So there’s a huge public mandate not just for acting on climate change, but rebuilding in a way that makes the economy work within the bounds of our natural systems.”

Tackling climate change is about the future of our lives on the planet, she says.

“It has to be the number one.”

Langridge says as long as we continue with business as usual, “nothing much will change”.

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors. We’re here to protect it for future generations and we’re failing catastrophically.

“Whatever (Covid-19) is bringing, climate collapse will be a thousand times worse. Yet here we are, shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. What part of this situation is not already an emergency?”