4th November 2011, Volume 124 Number 1345

Nick Wilson, Ralph Chapman, Philippa Howden-Chapman

Near the end of each electoral term seems an appropriate time to review the New Zealand Government’s response to major threats to health. Climate change is a very serious problem1,2 and is an important threat to international health3 as well as health in New Zealand (NZ).4,5 Actions to both mitigate climate change and to start to adapt to a more disrupted future climate are becoming critical. Such measures can be conceptualised as forms of “catastrophe insurance”.6

We therefore searched government websites (as per other work5), and examined media releases by the “Minister for Climate Change Issues” covering the January 2009 to mid-October 2011 period.7 An analysis of particularly significant new responses and progress in what we consider are the top five domains for action, is shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Evaluation of new responses by the New Zealand Government in the 2009 to 2011 electoral term that relate to climate change
Key domain (prioritised)
New responses (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation)
Summary around progress
Contributing to international action
Despite some positive work on agricultural greenhouse gas abatement internationally,8 the Government has not taken a leadership role in pushing forward international treaties on controlling greenhouse gases (GHGs), committing to stronger emissions reductions, or transferring appropriate technology to developing countries. While current international arrangements have major limitations,9 the NZ Government has not
Adopted an appropriate or ambitious goal for long-term GHG emission reduction. Instead, it has adopted a “50% by 2050” goal which is inconsistent with the scientific evidence on the scale of emission reductions that well-off countries need to make to contain climate change risks.10 11
Explored the promotion of alternatives to slow-moving international arrangements (e.g., the alternative of having “carbon clubs” involving a small number of countries which are major emitters9 or which can potentially apply taxes at the oil wellhead12); 
Explored direct relationships with major developing country emitters (e.g. as per Norway working with Indonesia and Brazil to reduce deforestation13). 
Advocated strongly for other OECD countries to eliminate their fossil fuel subsidies (worth tens of billions of dollars14).
Indeed, work in these areas will probably be impeded by the marked downsizing of the workforce in the Ministries of the Environment and Foreign Affairs.15 Nevertheless, a small plus is NZ support for renewable energy projects in the Pacific (e.g., Tonga16).
Very limited. Useful initiative in agricultural GHGs, but weak overall emissions target for 2050 adopted.
Giving price signals to the market
NZ’s carbon price under the ETS is currently only NZ$12.50 per tonne of CO2. This can only be described as inadequate, given that the ‘social cost’ of carbon is more likely to be in the hundreds of dollars.17 Even though NZ’s emission trading scheme (ETS) at inception was weak,18 the Government passed legislation in 2009 to weaken it further. The International Energy Agency (IEA) noted in 2010 that “there is no guarantee that the NZ ETS, with all its administrative burdens, will result in absolute emissions reductions”.19 The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s submission to the 2011 ETS review noted that NZ’s emissions are on course to exceed by 30% its pledged level for 2020 (of 10% to 20% reductions).20 In 2011, the Government signalled that it will further slow or postpone the entry of agriculture into the ETS, and slow the rate at which the ETS price steps up for sectors already included.21 22 Nevertheless, a positive aspect of having some form of ETS is that it may be making it easier for the Australian Government to pass a law for a carbon tax in 2012, and move towards its own ETS and related equity policies.23 The cooperation between the countries on such schemes is also promising.24
The Government cancelled a planned fuel tax increase in 2011,25 and government resources allocated to support fossil fuel exploration have been substantially increased.26 In terms of housing, however, the Government has continued to support subsidies on insulating homes through its “Warm Up New Zealand” programme, which has now been delivered to over 100,000 homes. This has been shown to achieve health gains in NZ27 and is highly cost-beneficial.28 Other subsidies are however, very minor (e.g., to solar water heating, electric cars and for biofuels).
Mixed – some ongoing support for insulating homes, but backwards movement on the ETS
Supporting domestic R&D (e.g., renewable energy)
The Government has continued to support research and development (R&D) on reducing agricultural methane and nitrous oxide.29 30 But as far as we can ascertain, there has been no signal from government for research funders to specifically prioritise funding in the areas of: renewable energy, and energy efficiency. For example, the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s Statement of Intent 2011-2014 does not mention renewable energy, energy efficiency or climate change.31 Nevertheless, this Ministry has signalled some helpful investments in research areas such as “Hazards and Infrastructure”, e.g. in “better urban design and development, and resilient infrastructure”.32
None of the Health Research Council investment signals relate to the health impacts of climate change or to related issues around sustainability.33 Only one grant (out of 19) for technology development in 2011 was energy efficiency related (energy-efficient light bulbs).34
Limited, some potential
Supportive regulation and policy development
A national policy statement on renewable electricity generation was introduced, giving greater weight to the national interest in meeting the government’s 90% renewable electricity target. However, there has been no substantive progress on strengthening regulations for: improved energy efficiency of housing stock and appliances; and vehicle advertising (which generally lack information on efficiency and emissions35). Work on a “regulated vehicle fuel economy standard” (in progress prior to the election) was abandoned in August 2009.36 There was also little evident progress on national-level regulations to reduce urban sprawl (work was folded into reform work on the Resource Management Act) and a moratorium on new thermal power stations (introduced by the previous government), was lifted.26
Some support given to renewable energy.
Supportive infra-structure investment
The Government is investing in public transport improvements (e.g., rail services in Wellington and Auckland37) which might favour long-term emissions reductions. There has also been additional government support for the development of recreational cycleways, and for two pilot local initiatives to improve cycling and walking.38 Nevertheless, the budget for encouraging walking and cycling has been trimmed. Overall, the focus on and budget for public transport, cycling and walking is very modest compared to funding for roading in recent government agency plans.39 Furthermore, the IEA in 2010 described the growth in the transport sector as the country’s “biggest energy-saving challenge”, and described policies for the sector as “vague” and unclear.19
One development that may indirectly lower emissions is the Government’s major investment in ultra-fast broadband infrastructure40 (e.g., with recent roll-out in various regions). The rebuilding necessary after the Christchurch earthquake has provided an opportunity for replacement buildings to be built to the higher current Building Code,41but has not been taken as an opportunity to retrofit existing housing to a higher energy standard as this is considered non-allowable “betterment”.
Mixed – good on some aspects of infrastructure, but problematic roading focus

In summary, in this last electoral term there appears to have been little substantive progress by the current government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (via work internationally or domestically), despite government targets (2020 and 2050) requiring material action. Government responses towardsadapting to climate change impacts seem to be even more deficient (hardly more than some guidance documents42). This lack of attention may be considered to be very serious given the potential size of the climate change threat – to public health and for the whole of society. It can also be considered economically wasteful in that the New Zealand economy is placed at increased risk of having to make a more abrupt and disorderly transition in the future. Also if other nations react to this lack of response by imposing carbon tariffs on New Zealand exports, this could also have serious economic consequences given the economy’s dependence on trade.

A more detailed review of the New Zealand Government’s performance in the area would encompass many other aspects (some of which we have discussed elsewhere43 44). A more extensive review could also make comparisons with the previous government. We briefly note, however, that the previous government also made relatively poor progress in most of the areas tabulated above, albeit with more action on public transport and a stronger version of the ETS.

A reason for the lack of progress by serial New Zealand governments in addressing climate change may reflect concern around the costs of action and also a lack of appreciation of the co-benefits to health.45There is also the role of vested commercial interests in influencing policy (as can be seen with the country’s food sector46), and a strong focus by politicians on crises e.g., most recently the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. Nevertheless, these are not sufficient reasons for inaction, given the serious and potentially catastrophic nature of climate change.

Nick Wilson,1* Ralph Chapman,2 Philippa Howden-Chapman1
  1. Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  2. Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
*Correspondence: nick.wilson@otago.ac.nz

Author Information

Nick Wilson,1* Ralph Chapman,2 Philippa Howden-Chapman1. 1. Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand. 2. Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

Correspondence

Nick Wilson

Correspondence Email

nick.wilson@otago.ac.nz

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