National’s new Environment Policy Discussion Document released this weekend in Raglan has plenty of virtue signalling, and motherhood and apple pie. But despite the Party’s claim of an ambitious approach, it fits neo-liberal solutions to ecological problems, and in many ways reflects business as usual.
The discussion document shows that the consideration of the environment is a basic 21st Century political requirement – for a sustainable economy as well as because middle New Zealand wants it. Certain environmental conditions are essential to business but also politically important to the privileged kiwis and tourists who can go tramping or mountain biking, or carry out predator control in their spare time.
The document asserts a point of difference between National and the current government on environmental concerns, and shows it’s easier to be sanctimonious and take the higher moral ground in opposition, than it is in a three-way coalition government. Because the document is the starting point in a discussion with (actual and potential) National constituencies, those seeking real leadership in environmental protection shouldn’t get their hopes up. Especially given National’s track record in Government.
The discussion document says New Zealander’s should trust National with the environment the way we trust them with the economy. For left-wing observers, that’s an ironic expectation, and a false economy. Just as National’s economic ‘successes’ have been built on cashing up existing investments and natural capital like state assets and fresh water, the latest propositions put much faith in private interests to deliver public environmental goods. They argue that the pursuit of self interest and partisan ambitions will lead to net positive environmental outcomes, whether it’s hunters and fishers who are ‘best responsible for managing their own activities and resources’, or concessionaires in the conservation estate.
National say access to the outdoors is a birth right, but ignore intrinsic values of nature, so reduce every element of the wild world to the importance and use we can make of it. They propose a natural capital assessment, to ‘ascribe value and improve data’ with a ‘natural assets register to identify and quantify natural capital’. As if the complex, diverse, beauty and resilience and interdependent elements of nature, are something that you can trade off and buy and sell on a financial ledger.
The document responds to the widespread public concern about fresh water and beach water quality, and farmers’ demands for irrigation. National say they invested $400million into river and lake clean ups in the last term, whereas ‘the current government has done nothing, despite the rhetoric’. They note that investment in infrastructure is essential, including storm water and waste water separation in urban areas, with a potential new water infrastructure fund to help councils with water quality and management projects. As if it’s also good for the environment, they suggest returning funding to the big agricultural irrigation schemes dumped by the current government. The towns get their public water and beach quality concerns addressed, and the farmers get their irrigation.
Picking up on another serious public concern with economic ramifications, they note the challenges presented by the proliferation of plastics. But instead of defining this as a production problem, a problem with the basic economic model, they adopt the language of a circular economy, fail to address the first step in the waste hierarchy – reduction, and, encourage ‘voluntary action, regulation, pricing, incentives and waste to energy options.’ Industry is not every answer to every problem and when it comes to plastic we should be making less of it to start with.
The discussion document also taps into current concerns about litter – again related to over-production, and propose a review of the Litter Act, and container deposit schemes – again using neo-liberal economic instruments – sanctions and rewards to address a problem that should also be dealt with at source. The current Government might also note the public support for, and value of container deposit schemes, though it’s not the whole answer to the problem. National do suggest a (commendable) target of 90% of beverage containers diverted from landfill. And also a timetable to achieve zero ‘avoidable’ waste to landfill – whatever that means. Everything is avoidable if you don’t make the rubbish to start with, but waste, even in a circular economy, contributes to GDP, and that’s a powerful driver.
Calling themselves ‘practical environmentalists’, they say they want to address climate change in a ‘measured and responsible way’. They say they want a ‘science based, technology driven’ global response, with long term incentives and minimal environmental impacts, that don’t undermine NZ’s competitiveness or drive production offshore where standards are lower, which is another way of saying that currently privileged sectors like agriculture, need not be alarmed because nothing much will change.
They note the ‘unique emissions profile’ of agriculture in New Zealand, with half our emissions from that sector. Again they pin their hopes on techno-fixes, and commercial and other incentives, apparently without seeing a role for regulation or transformation of the rural economy to one that creates less emissions to start with. More business as usual – don’t rock the boat, or scare the horses; but with technology, she’ll be right.
There’s a section on transport which considers incentives and subsidies for electric vehicles, forgetting the wider costs of car travel – more roads, single occupancy vehicles, production impacts of new cars (all the raw resources that go into new vehicles compared with getting the most out of the existing fleet), though they do question the impacts of a new national fleet largely dependent on electricity.
Conservation itself is also seen as an economic value – a means to an end for human enjoyment, identity, access and tourism benefits. It’s not noted for its intrinsic or ecosystem values. There’s celebration of the previous National Government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative, with the dig at the current Green Party / Government ‘outdated ideological opposition’ to gene editing for pest control. As if letting that genie out of the bottle could never possibly lead to worse unintended consequences, like bringing in a cascade of pests, and predators to control them, did in the first place.
The party tends to emphasise the role of the private sector and private interests in achieving conservation goals too. They suggest more concessionaires on National Parks as long as at least some of the proceeds are returned to the conservation estate – encouraging DoC to identify more recreational opportunities through private tourism activities. Expect to see more support for gondolas up through glacial valleys, boutique accommodation in wilderness areas, and changes to conservation policy and national park management plans to enable ‘more dynamic parks’ because wild New Zealand isn’t dynamic enough in its natural form. They suggest a new National Park in the Catlins, which would be commendable – even if there’s no suggestion about how or where that might happen.
They say they want to review Stewardship zoned conservation lands with a ‘net conservation benefit for landscape acquisitions and disposals’. We’d be wise not to trust that policy either given their plans when in Government to allow mining in National Parks.
To its credit, the draft discussion document proposes putting the response to biosecurity risks like kauri dieback onto the same par as agricultural responses, with more money, and better collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries and DoC.
In the oceans issue, National picks up on a clear weakness and area of risk of the current Government, which seems to be held to ransom by the self-interest and cronyism of New Zealand First. Not that National are immune to that, but they must be hearing the widespread dissatisfaction with current marine stewardship even if it’s falling on the coalition government’s deaf ears. National reckons they’ll create three more marine reserves in their first term, including a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, that they’ll update the Marine Reserves Act, develop a new Oceans Management policy, and finish the job of putting cameras on the fishing fleet which the current government stymied.
Overall, the draft discussion document pre-empts the proposed new ‘Sustainability Party’ policy platform; picks up on key issues important to white middle New Zealand; continues to treat nature like it’s ‘capital’ to be used and traded, and traded off; continues to pander to special interests; puts all its faith in techno-fixes; and fails to address the big problems of over-consumption, over-production and climate change. It takes a lead over Labour et al on oceans policy and container deposit schemes, but puts nature and the environment to the service of human use and industry, all of which is to be expected.
You can view the draft discussion document here: