The Ardern-led Government which came into office following the 2017 election, promised to be environmental leaders. The Prime Minister in her election campaign launch speech called climate change “my generation’s nuclear free moment”. She said “we will clean up our rivers”. So, now at the end of this term of Parliament and one term of the Ardern Government, (and hence weeks away from the 2020 election), let’s look at how it’s going.

This isn’t an Election Policy Scorecard. It’s a Government performance review.

The stand out achievement is the ban on issuing new offshore oil and gas exploration permits implemented within six months of the 2017 election, a decision that has global significance. In second place is the decision to place a limit on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to protect freshwater from agricultural pollution.  

Jacinda Ardern accepts Greenpeace petition ahead of announcing the ban on awarding new oil and gas exploration permits
Jacinda Ardern speaks at Greenpeace event presenting a petition signed by more than 45,000 people calling for an end to oil exploration.

The stand out failure is the complete absence of regulations or price signals targeting a reduction in agricultural climate pollution. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition government has continued with the failed voluntary measures of the previous National government, in spite of agriculture being by far New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter. The fertiliser cap, introduced to protect freshwater, is the only regulatory action that will indirectly impact agricultural emissions. The runner up failure is the failure to regulate the fishing industry to protect ocean biodiversity – in fact by perpetually delaying the decision to put cameras on fishing boats, this Government is worse than the last one on oceans protection.

"We will clean up our rivers" - Jacinda Ardern
Billboards placed in a polluted river depicting a promise made by Prime Minister Ardern to clean up our rivers

But there is a lot more than just these four key areas. Below we provide an assessment of the environmental performance of the Ardern Government, issue by issue, since the 2017 election.

Each section below identifies what is the nature of the environmental issue or initiative, the estimated climate impact of the initiative, the biodiversity impact of each initiative (beyond its climate effects as efforts to control climate change also protect biodiversity), and the limitations of the initiative.

This document is a work in progress and we welcome your feedback to improve the information in the comments below.

Ending large-scale irrigation subsidies – October 2017

What: The Key Government had earmarked about $500m to subsidise mega irrigation projects and the Ardern Government cancelled the programme after the election, which still had around $400m to spend.

Climate impact: These subsidies were enabling significant dairy expansion leading to more cows and more greenhouse pollution, and their cancellation abruptly brought a number of expansion plans to a halt. Hence this decision will have major climate benefits.

Biodiversity impact: These subsidies were enabling significant dairy expansion leading to more cows and more biodiversity destruction, particularly in freshwater ecosystems.Their cancellation shortly after the 2017 election abruptly brought a number of expansion plans to a halt.

Limitations: NZ First are still trying to get new irrigation subsidies through the Provincial Growth Fund but they are smaller in scale.

Billion trees programme – October 2017

What: Shortly after the election, the incoming Government announced its plans to ensure that NZ plants a billion trees by 2028. These include existing plantation forestry plans. The Government is providing funding to support permanent native forests.

Climate impacts: The impacts should be positive in the short term but if they are mostly plantation forests then the medium term impacts will be marginal. If they are mostly permanent native forests then the medium to long term impacts will be positive.

Biodiversity impacts: If they are mostly plantation pinus radiata then no great biodiversity gains but if they are permanent native forests then there will be significant biodiversity gains.

Limitations: It all hinges on the balance of plantation pinus radiata to permanent native forests and this is currently unclear.

Ban on new oil and gas exploration permits – April 2018

What: Around six months after the election, the Ardern Government decided to stop issuing new oil and gas exploration permits across all New Zealand land and ocean, except for onshore Taranaki.

Climate impacts: This has potentially locked up many millions or even billions of tonnes of carbon and has sent a message to the global oil and gas exploration industry that their days are numbered. This decision is nationally and globally significant and is by far the most globally significant climate action of the Government. 

Biodiversity impacts: The decision has reduced the risk of oil spills from oil exploration and the impact of further extensive seismic blasting on marine wildlife.

Limitations: The Government still hasn’t stopped issuing new permits for onshore exploration in Taranaki, existing permits have not been cancelled, and the Government has extended a number of existing offshore permits. Fourteen offshore exploration permits remain active to potentially cause climate and biodiversity mayhem. OMV drilled three exploratory wells in 2019 and may choose to develop one of the fields.

Extending the 100% ETS subsidy to agriculture to at least 2025 – October 2019

What: One year out from the 2020 election, the Government decided against bringing the biological emissions from agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme. The coalition deal between Labour and NZ First was to bring them into the ETS at 95% subsidy – ie polluters would have paid 5% of the cost of their greenhouse pollution. The decision not to act on biological emissions means that the 100% subsidies will continue to at least 2025 at a multi billion dollar cost to the public.

Climate impact: This decision will result in more climate pollution from NZ’s biggest polluter. The price impact of bringing agriculture into the ETS would have only been 1c per kg of milk solids so the initial reduction in emissions would have been marginal. However, the principle that agriculture would pay anything at all was critical. It would have sent a clear message to dairy companies and the banks that the massive ETS subsidy will come to an end progressively over the years ahead and this would have slowed the expansion of the sector and incentivized reductions in emissions. It would also have pushed up the price of ETS units which would have had broader effects across the economy to cut emissions.

Biodiversity impact: This decision will lead to more biodiversity destruction. De-intensification of the dairy sector would have had positive freshwater biodiversity effects but very limited by the 95% subsidy.

Limitations: This decision is supposed to be up for review in 2021 but given the victory of the dairy sector it is unlikely to be overturned unless the Government had a change of heart and decided to prioritise actually cutting emissions from NZ’s biggest polluting industry. Most surprisingly, the Greens endorsed the decision.

Zero Carbon Act – November 2019

What: Government has passed a Zero Carbon Act that sets long term targets for greenhouse emission reductions; establishes an independent but powerless Climate Commission to write reports and make suggestions for carbon budgets; places new restrictions on the ability of environmental NGOs to win a judicial review against Government actions related to climate; and provides greater freedom for public sector CEOs to ignore climate targets.

Climate impacts: It is hard to say what the net effects of the Act will be. On the one hand the setting of long term targets may create expectations that emissions will decline, the setting of advisory carbon budgets by the Climate Commission may also help, and having the Climate Commission making noises about climate will help the public discussion. On the other hand the Climate Commission is only advisory and has no powers to force the adoption of its budgets nor to influence the price of carbon. 

Biodiversity impacts: Negligible.

Limitations: This could have been a useful piece of legislation if the Climate Commission had real powers, such as the ability to influence the price of carbon, but it does not. The restrictions on judicial review will make it harder to use the courts against a Government that isn’t acting on climate change; and the new rights for public sector CEOs to ignore climate targets makes it harder to judicially review them.

Transport infrastructure investment changes (NZ Upgrade) – January 2020

What: The Government announced its new transport infrastructure plans with a big emphasis on new motorways: $5 billion for new large roads, $1 billion for rail, and $360m for walking and cycling. 

Climate impacts: This package will significantly increase climate emissions from transport. There are some sustainable transport elements but they are a small minority of the spending. 

Biodiversity impacts: New motorways almost always result in biodiversity loss somewhere.

Limitations: This was a real opportunity to invest in sustainable transport and they have largely missed it and some of the worst of the previous Government’s Roads of National Significance will now go ahead. The transport projects listed in the RMA fastrack bill (which came out in June 2020) are generally better than the NZ Upgrade projects.

Default KiwiSaver providers can’t invest in fossil fuels – March 2020

What: Govt has announced that the next round of default KiwiSaver providers will need to exclude fossil fuel investments from their investment portfolio.

Climate impact: This is one small part of the broader global movement to isolate the fossil fuel industry and restrict its access to capital.

Biodiversity impact: None

Limitations: This is good but other government investments need to exclude fossil fuels too.

Fourteen new mines approved on conservation land – March 2020

What: The Government has approved 14 new mines on conservation land in spite of its 2017 promise of no new mines on conservation land.

Climate impact: The fossil fuel industry has unlimited ambition to dig up fossil fuels on the conservation estate so this is bad for the climate.

Biodiversity impact: These mines routinely destroy biodiversity through their operations.

Limitations: This issue is mired in coalition politics.

Fertiliser limit as part of new freshwater regulations – May 2020

What: The Government made a final decision on new freshwater regulations. They included a limit on the annual per hectare rate of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser application, which will affect about 20% to 30% of all dairy farms. There were many other positive elements such as the requirement for a resource consent to convert to dairy, 3 metre setbacks and fencing of many waterways and central government mechanisms to oversee regional council freshwater plans The main weakness was the failure to agree to a 1 mg/L Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen limit in freshwater.

Climate impact: These standards will significantly limit further dairy expansion and will hopefully reduce cow numbers, reduce stocking rates, reduce synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use, leading to reductions in emissions. This is the Ardern Government’s only significant policy that will cut NZ’s greenhouse emissions. 

Biodiversity impact: These standards will have a significant effect on improving freshwater quality and biodiversity. This would be the most important biodiversity step of the Government.

Limitations: The lack of a Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen limit is a fundamental weakness and the synthetic fertiliser cap is too high, and ultimately a total phase out is needed. 

Budget 2020 – Jobs for Nature May 2020

What: As part of Budget 2020 the Government pulled together a set of funding initiatives that they packaged as a $1billion environmental jobs initiative. The focus is on restoration projects. This included $162m in water restoration projects, particularly the Kaipara Harbour.

Climate impacts: The Jobs for Nature projects will have some benefits for sequestering carbon in permanent native forests, offset by the wilding pines removal project.

Biodiversity impacts: It is likely to have significant biodiversity benefits in localised regions which get funding for projects such as wetland restoration..

Limitations: As a conservation focussed project it doesn’t deal with the practices of the industries that are driving a lot of environmental harm.

Budget 2020 – Increased DoC Funding – May 2020

What: Budget 2020 increased Department of Conservation funding by $45m per year over four years.

Climate impacts: Will help DoC protect nature and the carbon sinks its holds.

Biodiversity impacts: Will help DoC protect biodiversity.

Limitations: DoC is still dramatically underfunded and much of the attack on biodiversity is coming from sectors such as agribusiness outside the DoC estate.

Budget 2020 – Green Investment Fund – May 2020

What: $100m government investment fund to accelerate low carbon investment.

Climate impacts: It’s a relatively small fund but will have some impact especially if it co-invests with private sector investors or other larger public sector investors.

Biodiversity impacts: Minor.

Limitations: This is a relatively small fund.

Budget 2020 – Rail investment – May 2020

What: Government announced a further $1.2billion investment in the rail network, on top of the $1billion invested in Budget 2019. This sits alongside the Rail Investment Plan and legislative changes to help planning the rail network.

Climate impacts: To decarbonise the transport system (freight and passenger) we need a great heavy rail network and so the ongoing investment is important and positive.

Biodiversity impacts: None

Limitations: This is heading in the right direction but still only a relatively small sum compared to the investment in new motorways. It is not visionary or transformative.

National Plan of Action on Seabirds – May 2020 

What: Government has released its National Plan of Action to protect seabirds from the impacts of commercial fishing. The Plan includes no new regulatory measures to protect seabirds from becoming ensnared in commercial fishing gear, instead relying on voluntary action plans by fishers, with limited options for enforcement. 

Climate impact: None

Biodiversity impact: New Zealand is visited by a greater number of seabird species than anywhere in the world, and up to a third of these species only nest and breed in New Zealand. This means our action, or lack thereof, to protect seabirds has an outsized impact on biodiversity on a global scale. 

Limitations: Despite recognising 90% of seabirds in New Zealand are threatened or at risk of extinction and that commercial fishing is one of the major mortality risks, the new plan gives no enforceable protections from fishing risks to seabirds. 

Increased insurance cover for oil exploration – May 2020

What: The Government has picked up a proposal from the previous Government to increase the level of insurance that oil and gas exploration companies are required to carry when they drill. They have significantly increased the upper limit from $27.7 million to $1.2billion for the riskiest activities.

Climate impacts: The increased insurance adds a further hurdle to oil and gas exploration in NZ but it still doesn’t require them to cover the full cost of a disaster – Deepwater Horizon cost BP NZ$90billion.

Biodiversity impacts: This does add a hurdle to oil and gas exploration with its inherent risk of a massive oil spill.

Limitations: The Government will still be responsible for the vast bulk of the cleanup costs – eg if the cleanup cost NZ$90b, the Government would pay NZ$89b. If the Government had chosen instead to make the oil companies’ parent companies responsible for the full cost of a clean up, oil and gas exploration would stop in NZ. The new rules also limit the pollution risks that an oil company is liable to cover. Specifically, companies are no longer liable for third party lost profits, for example the likely economic impacts on tourism and fishing companies (including Māori-owned businesses) should a spill occur in their area.

Māui and Hectors dolphin threat management plan – June 2020

What: Government has released its Māui and Hector’s dolphin Threat Management Plan. The Plan introduces a range of new protections in an extended part of the dolphin habitat areas, though not all of it. These protections include extensions on bans on set netting and trawling as well as proposed extensions to the marine mammal sanctuaries and a ban on new permits for seabed mining and seismic blasting in these areas.

Climate impact: None

Biodiversity impact: The new measures significantly improve the protections for the dolphins, though not to the extent that the International Whaling Commission called for. A significant additional benefit is that the measures will effectively protect large areas of the North Island West Coast inshore marine environment from some of the most destructive fishing methods. This will have very significant biodiversity benefits for those areas. 

Limitations: There should be a straight ban on all set nets and trawling in all of Māui and Hector’s dolphin habitat – ie out to the 100m depth contour.

Auckland light rail failure – June 2020

What: The Government’s signature Auckland public transport project – light rail up Dominion Road to the airport – failed to get started.

Climate impact: This project is a key part of decarbonising the Auckland transport system.

Biodiversity impact: None

Limitations: It will be reassessed post election 2020.

Almost zero cameras on fishing boats – June 2020

What: The Government has backtracked on the previous Government’s commitments to put cameras on fishing boats. They are now delayed to October 2021 at the earliest. There are currently cameras on around 20 boats out of 1000. However, they have made an allocation to fund cameras, as part of the Fit for Better World initiative.

Climate impact: None.

Biodiversity impact: The absence of cameras on boats means that the true biodiversity destruction that is happening in the fishing industry is hidden and can continue. 

Limitations: The Government has been almost uniformly terrible on the issue of regulating the fishing industry to protect biodiversity.

RMA Fast track Bill and associated infrastructure projects – June 2020

What: The Govt has passed an RMA fast track bill to give the Minister for the Environment the power to send major projects down a fast track consenting process with limited public participation rights. There are twelve projects designated to be immediately placed on the fast track pathway.

Climate impact: Depends a lot on what projects are given the fast track and if they are approved. One of the twelve is bad, SH1 motorway expansion, but a bunch of the projects are good eg cycle and walking access over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the cycle path around the Wellington harbour.

Biodiversity Impact: Again it depends on the projects given the green light. Some of the wetlands reconstruction projects could be positive.

Limitations: There’s going to be some good projects and some bad ones approved by this fast track because there are no climate or biodiversity bottom lines.

Climate change back in the RMA June 2020

What: The Government has reintroduced climate change as a consideration in making resource consent decisions under the RMA.

Climate impact: Will make it harder to get resource consents for projects that produce a lot of emissions, but likely to have impact in a small number of cases.

Biodiversity impact:

Limitations: Will need NGOs to challenge the projects at consenting stage and the consenting authority may still decide the project can proceed even if it increases emissions.

No vehicle fuel efficiency standards – July 2020

What: The Government had proposed to introduce fuel efficiency standards on imported cars and to add a small fee to the cost of polluting and use the revenue to reduce the price of climate friendly cars including EVs. But NZ First stopped it. (The government won’t meet its own targets for electric vehicles in the whole NZ fleet nor even electric vehicles in the government fleet!).

Climate impact: There were relatively modest climate gains from the original policy but they could have been the start of more impactful regulations to come. So like getting agriculture into the ETS at 5%, it was the principle of fuel efficiency regulations and the feebate that matters the most as they could be improved later.

Biodiversity impact: Negligible

Limitations: These were modest proposals and it is remarkable that NZ is one of the few countries without vehicle fuel efficiency standards. In fact, there are incentives to buy gas guzzlers in the form of the Fringe Benefit Tax exemption for double cab utes. FBT exemptions have been discussed for public transport and EVs but rejected/not progressed.

Primary Sector Plan – Fit for  Better World – July 2020

What: Govt has announced a series of funding and regulatory initiatives aimed at a number of primary industries with the primary purpose of increasing the value extracted from those industries, and secondarily to decrease their environmental footprint. The Fit for a Better World document is largely about vision and direction.

Climate impacts: Not clear that it will lead to reductions in emissions from agriculture. But if they followed through on the regenerative agriculture ambitions they might.

Biodiversity impacts: The funding for cameras on boats is likely to accelerate the rollout by removing some of the financial arguments and hence will have a positive impact. If the agricultural initiatives fully embraced regenerative farming techniques they would deliver biodiversity gains.

Limitations: Regenerative agriculture section of the plan is still visionary with limited effective policy.

Water Infrastructure Upgrade – July 2020

What: Govt has announced $761m in funding to upgrade water infrastructure – drinking, storm and wastewater.

Climate impacts: Probably none.

Biodiversity impacts: Storm water and waste water from urban areas are having significant negative consequences for the marine and freshwater environments into which they are discharged so if this works to clean this up then it will have positive biodiversity effects.

Limitations: Doesn’t address nitrogen pollution of drinking water supplies.

Kāinga ora and MBIE building industry climate initiatives – June/July 2020

What: Kāinga Ora has committed that all new state houses will meet an energy performance standard slightly above the Building Code (6 Greenstar) and MBIE has initiated a project to improve the energy efficiency of new buildings and to reduce the climate impacts of construction.

Climate impacts: The new state houses will have better energy performance so will use less energy. The MBIE initiative could make a significant difference if the Building Code was transformed to a passive standard for example, whereby buildings don’t need external energy input to maintain healthy internal temperature and air quality.

Biodiversity impacts: Limited

Limitations: The 6 Greenstar standard is well short of a passive standard, and the MBIE work is yet to deliver so difficult to judge if it will be useful. 

Investigation into Pumped Storage – July 2020

What: The Govt has announced a $30m investigation into the feasibility of pumped hydro storage, mainly focused on the giant 5TWh Lake Onslow option but open to considering other options.

Climate impacts: If the Onslow storage plan proceeded it would underpin a deep decarbonisation of the NZ energy system by removing the dry year risk (and allowing better seasonal management options) and lead to the closure of all fossil electricity generation while allowing the electrification of transport and industrial processes. The investigation will look further into these opportunities.

Biodiversity impacts: There are significant wetlands that exist around the artificial Lake Onslow and these would be inundated by the pumped storage system, with likely biodiversity impacts. There are potentially significant biodiversity gains from the other hydro lakes being much more stable as a result of the storage scheme. The investigation will consider these potential impacts.

Limitations: It’s an investigation at this stage and there are a lot of uncertainties.

Banning plastic shopping bags and other waste initiatives – 2018 and July 2020

What: The government banned plastic shopping bags in 2018 and in July 2020 has declared six categories of waste as a ‘priority product’ to regulate under the Waste Act – plastic packaging (excluding beverage containers), tyres, e-waste, agrichemicals and their containers, farm plastic, and refrigerants. The Government is exploring beverage container return schemes. In addition it has increased the waste levy, plans to include construction waste in the levy, and invested $124m in waste initiatives.

Climate impact: The oil industry is relying on a huge growth in single use plastic production for their future viability and hence all efforts to control plastic production undermine the oil business and help with climate change. However, it depends whether the priority product process leads to a rapid phase out of single use plastic or just some greenwashing industry led non-event.. 

Biodiversity impact: Plastics getting into the marine environment is a major global risk to ocean biodiversity hence removing a billion plastic shopping bags per year from the waste stream is a good start,  this is significant if it leads to a cut in plastic production.

Limitations: The plastic bag ban is a good start but the rest of it depends on what happens with the priority product process – will it actually cut plastic production and waste or just another industry greenwashing scheme. And the exclusion of plastic beverage containers is a problem – will they ban them? 

Global Ocean Treaty – 2020

What: New Zealand is party to a process to establish an international agreement that would allow for the creation of ocean sanctuaries in international waters (60%+ of all the ocean). Currently there is no effective mechanism to establish global sanctuaries. The Government supports the Global Ocean Treaty but is not fully supporting the strongest possible version of it. 

Climate impact: Protecting oceans helps protect their ability to act as a carbon sink and builds resilience against future climate impacts.

Biodiversity impact: If the strongest version of the GOT were approved it would give the global eNGOs a new tool to protect the high seas with massive positive benefits for ocean biodiversity. However because NZ is not taking the strongest position possible, the NZ Government isn’t as good as we hoped.

Limitations: NZ is not supporting the strongest GOT. And the GOT process has been delayed by Covid.

Leaving the Paris climate targets untouched – 2020

What: The previous Government committed in the Paris Climate Agreement to increase NZ’s net emissions from 2005 to 2030 by about 10%. (This was presented as a 30% cut in emissions from 2005 to 2030 by using a gross figure in 2005 and a net figure in 2030.) The current Government has so far made no global commitments to change the Paris commitments.The Government’s own figures predict that NZ net emissions will increase 20% 2005-2030 with current policies.

Climate impact: Governments don’t tend to take their Paris commitments seriously so doesn’t mean much. However there is global value in Governments making statements that they intend to cut emissions at some point in the future so it would be useful if NZ committed to cut rather than increase emissions.

Biodiversity impact: None

Limitations: Under current Government policies, New Zealand won’t get close to meeting its Paris target.

No action to stop destructive fishing practises – 2020

What: Despite the robust science about the destruction wrought by bottom trawling – a fishing technique where heavy weighted nets are dragged on seafloor, destroying marine ecosystems – there has been no action to stop the NZ commercial fishing fleet using this technique in New Zealand waters or the South Pacific. New Zealand signed on to international obligations to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems from bottom trawling, however continues to do so. Around the world several countries and regions have already banned or heavily restricted this practise. 

Climate impact: Indirect, however, the IPCC has found that a thriving and resilient ocean ecosystem is one of the primary levers in combating climate change. Ocean health is underpinned by the habitats and species often found on seamounts. By destroying these through trawling we are undermining the oceans ability to be our ally in the fight against climate change. 

Biodiversity impact: The deep sea, seamounts and other marine ecosystems are some of the most bio diverse places on earth. The habitat forming sponges and corals found on these features are often endemic, slow growing (often over hundreds of years) and underpin the whole ocean ecosystem. Research shows that trawled areas show no signs of recovery even decades later. Protecting these areas before they are trawled has enormous positive impacts for biodiversity. 

Limitations: At the moment there are no public plans to limit this practise further. The New Zealand fishing fleet is using this technique in our waters, and in the South Pacific. 

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