Environmental Legacy Within Reach of Next Government


Environmental politics played a dominant role during last month’s election campaigns, more so than in any other campaign season in New Zealand’s contemporary political history. With almost every major party endorsing an overhaul of the governmental approach to climate change, headlines and policy announcements were flying thick and fast.


Given that this month marks the twentieth anniversary of a report that serves as the modern foundation of domestic political environmentalism in New Zealand, the recent environmental emphasis seems apt.


In October 1997, during Simon Upton’s time as Minister for the Environment, MFE and GP Publications published a report presenting a disambiguation of our struggling national ecosystems. Diplomatically titled The State of New Zealand’s Environment, the report subverted the ‘clean, green’ image that New Zealand had cultivated for itself internationally.


The report and its arguments went on to become the focus of a sustained political dialogue, and yet, mostly due to a lack of formal legislation, the issues themselves were insufficiently addressed and have continued to mount pressure on ecosystems nationwide.


Despite the lack of a long-term legislative commitment to the report’s core concepts, the legacy of The State of New Zealand’s Environment demonstrates the value of accessible, transparent, and independent environmental study.


At the time of the report’s release, Upton endorsed its “magisterial narrative”, and acknowledged that the report was an “invaluable educational tool… awash with facts”. Perhaps today we are skeptical about the relationship between politicians and facts, but Upton’s acknowledgment that environmental issues are intersectionally “ecological, historical, and cultural” indicates that some of those in power were willing to listen, and responded accordingly.


Since serving as Minister for the Environment, Mr. Upton has spent seven years leading the OECD’s environmental directorate. Upton will be leaving this role later this month, returning to a domestic role within New Zealand’s political milieu.


 Simon Upton2

 Simon Upton (2017), Photograph by Aron Urb CC-BY 2.0


Earlier this year, under Upton’s leadership, the OECD published New Zealand’s environmental performance review. While the review acknowledges that New Zealanders have “a very good environmental quality of life”, its central claim is that New Zealand is “approaching its environmental limits,” due to increasingly intensive industries.


The review proposes a number of strategies to catalyse a domestic transition towards eco-sensitive growth. First and foremost is the call to “establish a whole-of-government, multi-stakeholder process to develop a long-term vision for the transition of New Zealand towards a low-carbon, greener economy… [and to] develop a framework for monitoring and reporting progress towards green growth objectives… as a way to build consensus around low-carbon, green transition.”


With this in mind, it is promising to note that Mr. Upton will be returning to New Zealand’s political sphere as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE). Dr. Jan Wright, who has held the role for two consecutive terms, will pass the mantle to him later this month.


While serving as the PCE, Dr. Wright has made recommendations synonymous to those made in the OECD’s Environmental Performance Review. She has called for a legislative framework which includes the formation of a new commission, a Climate Commission, which would be responsible for evaluating the ongoing domestic response to climate change, and would serve to hold those in power responsible for the decisions they make in light of empirically justified evidence and advice.


In making this recommendation, Dr. Wright implied that the PCE is unable to deal with a changing climate on its own. The PCE, designed to provide a more holistic study of the environment, produces reports on all contemporary environmental issues; the two commissions would, however, form a complementary relationship.

If we accept the recommendations and advice of Dr. Wright and Mr. Upton, the way forward is clear. The first step toward a genuine reconciliation will address the need to create, and to commit to, a functional political mechanism that is capable of producing positive changes and of mitigating harms.


The first step, then, will be a shared commitment to legislating the Zero Carbon Act, an Act which has been designed to answer both Dr. Wright’s plea for change and the OECD’s diagnosis of New Zealand’s problematic environmental trajectory.


The Zero Carbon Act is the resolution to the sustained stagnation of long-term climate action legislation that has been part of our political culture since 1997. It will require current and future governmental powers to make a climate change plan and meet binding targets in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.


Part of the new Climate Commission’s ongoing reporting would be a regular review of the domestic mitigation of climate change and of the reduction of the component causes. These nonpartisan reviews would then go on to be the foundation of policy decisions enacted by executive powers.


In the long term, the Act would provide a structure for our judicial systems that ensure the integrity and utility of policy decisions.


Whoever comes to power in the wake of last month’s election will have the opportunity to lead our next Parliament in passing the Zero Carbon Act, and to join those at the forefront of first-world environmental politics.


With the Zero Carbon Act on our legislative doorstep, we have an opportunity to express our mana and acknowledge our obligations to tangata whenua, and to future generations of New Zealanders.


With the Zero Carbon Act, we can introduce an era of sustainable development that will secure New Zealand’s place in the clean, green, carbon-neutral future.