Taupo Deforestation
Land conversion happening in the Tahorakuri Forest near Taupo on the North Island. The land is being converted into large-scale intensive dairy farms. Greenpeace/John Cowpland

Today New Zealand is playing host to the UN-sponsored World Environment Day, a day of feel-good publicity stunts and a lot of back-patting over how well behaved New Zealand is when it comes to the environment.

The PR material says New Zealand is hosting the event because we are “among a pioneer group of countries committed to accelerating a transition to a low carbon and carbon-neutral economy". Really? Why? Because we have a Prime Minister for whom “carbon neutrality” rolls off the tongue with such ease? Because our landscape is naturally characterised by large patches of green? Because we’ve talked the clean green talk for so long that people have forgotten to check if it’s actually true?

It could of course be argued that, far from accelerating anywhere, we're going into a distinct backward slide when it comes to the environment. You only need to look at the recent State of The Environment Report to see that our scorecard is looking pretty grim and there are some frightening trends that need to be urgently reversed.

Among the most concerning problems raised in the report are rising greenhouse gas emissions, the collapse of many key fisheries and the massive environmental impact of agriculture on the land and climate. It revealed our per-capita greenhouse emissions are amongst the worst in the world, it showed more New Zealand fisheries were overfished since the last State of the Environment Report in 1997, and that fish stocks that were healthy in 97’ are now in strife.

The day before the report’s release in late January, Prime Minister Helen Clark gave her State of the Nation address. In it, she said ‘New Zealand is increasingly recognised for its willingness to front the environmental sustainability challenge’. Reports like the one released the next day make a mockery of these sorts of statements. You’ll notice she’s a bit more reticent these days to brandish phrases like “carbon neutral” and “world leader”, probably because she’s realised how far away we are from being either.

The thing about environmental rhetoric is that it’s neither sustainable, nor foolproof. In a nutshell, our reputation and branding is thin ice and if we don’t get our act together, “100 per cent Pure New Zealand” will be ousted as a farce. The economic impact of this fall from grace would be catastrophic.

Here’s a few of the ways we’re failing:

- Greenhouse gas emissions - New Zealand’s emissions record is extremely poor when compared to other countries. We’re among the worst in the developed world for emission increases, the greenhouse gas intensity of our economy is fourth highest in the OECD and our emissions per capita are in the top 12 countries worldwide. As a result, taxpayers will have to foot a whopping Kyoto bill.

 

Taupo Deforestation
Landcorp, a Government owned company, currently converting Tahorakuri Forest into large-scale intensive dairy farms. Landcorp has embarked on a project to convert more than 25,000 hectares of pine plantations northeast of Taupo. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) estimate that 455,000 hectares of forestry land is at risk of being deforested and converted into pastoral use ? the majority for dairying. Greenpeace/John Cowpland.

- Bulldoze the trees, bring in the cows - In recent times we’re seen large-scale deforestation to make way for the intensification of dairy farming in New Zealand. Our agricultural sector is already responsible for nearly half of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and through the intensification, deforestation and expansion of the dairy sector this contribution is set to soar. Remember that under the Government’s emission trading scheme, the sector doesn’t need to take responsibility for its emissions until 2013. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry some 455,000 hectares of forestry land is at risk of being deforested and converted into pastoral use. This is nearly seven times the size of Lake Taupo. Government figures also project that the number of dairy cows in New Zealand will increase by up to 21 per cent by 2010. We can expect a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions; to say nothing of dirty streams and waterways.

 

- Don’t inhale! - While New Zealand’s air pollution cannot be considered poor by international standards, a study released last year found that there are still measurable health effects (including death) from bad air, and there are locations and instances where air quality is poor enough to be of concern.

- Fisheries - this is one area where NZ is worryingly complacent because we think our Quota Management System is the bee knees and now we can sit back and put our feet up. The real state of New Zealand's oceans shows this is a very dangerous approach. The NZ fishing industry continues to fish each stock - like orange roughy - to collapse before moving on to do the same to other species - over and over. Not only this, it continues to use highly destructive bottom trawling practices, which are a bit like clear-cutting undiscovered rainforest to hunt rabbits.

- Black is the new green - New Zealand continues to mine, export and burn coal in gross quantities, and there are plans to expand all three activities. This is something that has totally slipped under the radar, and been cleverly overshadowed with policies like the Labour–led government’s renewable electricity target of 90 per cent by 2025. Just because we’re using less coal and gas to generate electricity, it doesn’t mean we’re not still churning through vast quantities for other purposes (for example, Fonterra uses hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal a year to run just one of its milk processing plants turning milk into powder) and it doesn’t mean we’re not shipping it off to other countries to burn to their hearts content.

- Government back-downs and national party pull-outs – in recent weeks we’ve seen significant backtracks from the government over key climate change policy. One of our key political commentators has subsequently concluded: "NZ is no longer a serious player when it comes to climate change". Meanwhile the National Party has pulled it support for the ETS and the 10 year moratorium on new fossil fuel generation, proving once again to be a close friend and ally of big business. Which brings me to…

- Climate-change, what climate change? - We have an opposition party - which may well take the country’s reins after the election - whose caucus includes climate-change deniers. And it wasn’t that long ago that National Party leader John Key was labelling climate change as a “hoax”. Just last year, he redirected this cynicism towards Kyoto and sided with US President George Bush on the Protocol.

- How embarrassing! NZ on the world stage - New Zealand's performance at international UN climate change negotiations has not been what you might expect. It has at times been embarrassing and at other times completely shocking. We are often on the side of those dragging their feet over comprehensive measures to tackle climate change.

- How to sh#t in your own nest - The government’s own companies (SOEs) are the worst offenders when it comes to climate change. (eg - Solid Energy, Genesis Energy (Huntly) and Landcorp overseeing the conversion of huge tracts of land from forestry to intensive dairy)

- Slip sliding away - Native habitats and species disappearing (net loss of nearly 175sq kms of indigenous habitat between 1996 and 2002)

- Waste mountain rising - no national environmental standards for disposal facilities.

And on it goes. New Zealand is currently claiming to be something it’s not on the world stage. Essentially our environment is not an example of excellence. It’s an example of a growing crisis. All political parties must explain how they intend to reverse these trends. Numerous surveys show that New Zealanders care deeply about the environment, and are looking for leaders who’ll help address the key challenges.

We need to start paying sustainability more than lip service in New Zealand. Slogans won’t save us.