News from the front desk Issue 481: If you’ve ever languidly wished you could vote for Jacinda Ardern as Australian PM you may not want to read further.
From across the ditch, New Zealand looks clean and green and wonderful. We know it’s a red-hot destination for preppers, especially Americans. And former NSW premier Bob Carr famously bought a farm on the South Island not long after he had one of the first global leaders’ briefings on climate change from then UK prime minister Tony Blair. And in what is probably another connected event, just before he resigned as state leader.
Carr still lives in Sydney. Maybe that’s because he had the blinkers pulled up from his green-coloured glasses, just as we have in the past few hours on Thursday after we read about NZ’s first post-Covid budget, with a familiar sinking feeling. The one you get every time you watch a hero, or even a much-admired person, lose momentum; their wings seem to stop flapping quite as beautifully and they start to fall further to earth. Sometimes crashing.
Beware any form of hero worship. Most of it is spin and our planet hasn’t got time for that. Now with Covid-19 we don’t have money to spare for rubbish programs.
Now that’s not to say Ardern’s glide has entirely come to earth.
Her demonstrated humanity, empathy and pure leadership in the face of disaster is still nothing short of magnificent. But that’s her personal quality.
And if there were expectations on her election that she would be a champion for the environment and climate action, that too was not misplaced. On a personal level.
Politics is different. Ardern’s Labour Party governs in coalition with the conservative New Zealand First.
And politics is about compromise.
In the budget announced on Thursday, the first after the onslaught of Covid in our region, Ardern has thrown some filaments to the hopes for green-led recovery, but not much more.
There’s 11,000 environment jobs for a total commitment of NZ$1.1 billion, including NZ$433 million for freshwater restoration, NZ$56 million to better insulate 9000 homes and NZ$1.2 billion for rail.
There is still hope for more. Ardern has held back around NZ$20b of spending, mostly around infrastructure, leaving optimists hoping that some of it will make its way to the hoped for – not so much promised – low carbon economic transition.
But the real problem in New Zealand, it turns out, is that the country is captive to a giant dairy industry, built up strongly over the past 20 years.
According to Global Rural, “New Zealand is a global dairy superpower. In 2016, it was the second largest exporter of dairy products in the world, exceeded only by Germany – a country with 17 times its population.”
A single company dominates the industry, Fonterra, with its integrated dairy processing and marketing, and with its membership of more than 10,000 farmers it controls more than 90 per cent of New Zealand milk production.
The kicker is that the agricultural sector produces half of all of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the dairy industry produces around half of that total. Thanks largely to this, the country with such a clean green reputation is actually on track to increase its emissions by 20 per cent to 2030 from its baseline of 2005.
And if this doesn’t impress on the downside enough, the revelation that NZ’s emissions trading scheme excludes the agricultural sector ought to do the trick, to underscore the powerplays underway. (At least NZ has an emissions trading scheme).
NZ has its dairy cattle. Australia has its coal.
“Your coal is our dairy”, says Greenpeace executive director Dr Russell Norman who is also a former member of parliament and a former leader of the Greens in that country.
He says there is a long way to go before anyone can call a low carbon transition for NZ.
“Water pollution from dairy is substantial. Chunks of money have been spent on freshwater restoration, which in a sense is cleaning up the mess created by the industrial dairy industry.
“So yes, in this budget, so far the government has done nothing to reduce that.”
Certainly, the political narrative from the Ardern government on climate when they were elected was vastly different than today’s, he says.
“There was an expectation to cut climate emissions and act to clean up freshwater. Seventy per cent of flows to inland rivers are unsafe for swimming; a lot of the groundwater is toxic. It would kill babies if they drank it.”
On top of that, there is no price on carbon for agriculture and as Norman says, the very first place to start with a low carbon transition is a price signal.
“Every economic textbook says you need a price signal and to stop the cross subsidies.”
The sector has instead been subsidised by the rest of the economy because political power representing agriculture is so strong.
The cleaning up of the water ways is an effective cross subsidy for the sector, he says.
The next biggest contributor to emissions is transport, at 20 per cent.
Historically, there’s been very low investment in mass transport, Norman says. And there have been very few cycleways. “There’s been some improvement over the last decade but it’s still a long way short.”
Electricity generation is currently 70-80 per cent renewable but with planned new electrified transport demand set to grow, the country is mapping out a way to grow its rooftop solar.
In housing, New Zealand still also suffers the aftermath of the leaky buildings syndrome thanks to the 1991 building act that effectively removed prescriptive rules in favour of self-regulation (read “deregulation”) resulting in people who were not at the top of the tree and cared about their reputation doing what they might have been expected to do – producing substandard work. A familiar story in Australia.
There’s been some reregulation since, Norman says, but it’s from a low base with widespread poor insulation standards.
The current investment from Thursday’s budget is good news: “There’ll be 9000 warmer Kiwi homes from a boost, but just to put that in perspective there are 600,000 under-insulated homes in New Zealand, impacting people’s health.”
Does this mean that Ardern is losing her wing speed?
Norman is careful to be balanced and fair and to point out that around $20 billion of the budget has yet to be announced.
In his official media statement, he says Greenpeace was “quietly applauding the government’s conservation, freshwater, rail and small home insulation measures announced in today’s budget”.
But he adds: “looking at where money’s gone in the massive spend-up, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the climate crisis was no longer with us.”
There’s a bit of disillusion around, he says and it’s partly because of the nature of coalition governments. Big actions are restricted.
“There is a minister for climate change and climate action is still written into the budget but in the paper that came out today there was nothing much.
“If you look at the actual policies of the government rather than the rhetoric there have been very few policies to cut emissions.”
If the disillusion grows it could threaten an otherwise inspirational leader when she faces the ballot box later this year.
It’s a lesson for the Australian government too. After earning brownie points through the Covid crisis, will our PM risk losing the love by reverting to former bad habits?
We bet PM Scott Morrison will be closely watching events across the ditch.