Australian Outlook

In this section

New Zealand’s Climate Emergency: A Test for People More Than Politicians

11 Dec 2020
By Rod Oram
A picture of the Vote Jacinda campaign in Christchurch, New Zealand. Source: Stephen Trinder

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is deeply committed to tackling the climate crisis. But the real leadership has to come from citizens living the changes they know are essential for survival.

In some respects, New Zealand seems better placed than many countries to turn its recent declaration of a climate emergency into action. Political, business, and civil society leadership on climate, plus health and economic success so far in the COVID-19 pandemic, suggest the country can rise to the vast challenges of decarbonisation.

However, like all nations New Zealand must overcome the great complexity of climate issues, and some vested interests fighting for the status quo. It is not yet clear whether the country has confronted the truth of having to cut carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. This is the minimum New Zealand has to do to play its part in keeping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent catastrophic climate changes.

On Wednesday 2 November, moved in Parliament by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the climate emergency declaration was passed by 76 votes to 43. Labour, Green, and Maori party MPs voted for the declaration, and National and ACT MPs against it. The two right-of-centre parties said the declaration was merely “virtue-signaling” by the Labour government and its Green support partner.

New Zealand became the 33rd country to declare a climate emergency, bringing the total of national and local jurisdictions to do so to 1,855, collectively home to 820 million people.

This marks very fast growth of the worldwide movement from 600 elected bodies representing some 74 million people in 13 countries 18 months ago, and from its origins in 2016. The first governmental declaration of a climate emergency in the world was tabled by Trent McCarthy, an Australian Greens Councillor at the City of Darebin in Melbourne and passed in December 2016.

Ardern is frequently forthright on the climate crisis. “This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on,” she said when launching the Labour Party’s election campaign in August 2017.

Winning the election, the Labour-led coalition laid some vital groundwork in its first term. It set a goal of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases other than biogenic methane by 2050, established the Climate Change Commission to advise government and society on decarbonisation, and restored the effectiveness of the Emissions Trading Scheme after nine years of compromises under the previous National-led government.

But Ardern’s coalition partner, New Zealand First, blocked her from declaring a climate emergency or from doing much beyond framework legislation. Its opposition, for example, prevented the government from introducing a scheme to incentivise the uptake of low emission and electric light vehicles and disincentivise purchases of high consumption fossil fuelled vehicles.

In the recent general election, however, NZ First failed to win any seats. Labour won an outright majority for its second term of government, bolstered by a support agreement from the Green Party, which also saw its co-leader James Shaw retain the portfolio of Climate Change Minister. He says the government will produce a wide range of policies over the next three years to start reducing emissions in line with the country’s climate framework legislation and targets.

A majority of voters say they want climate action from the government. For example, 63 percent of Kiwis responding to a global poll earlier this year, released on the 50th annual Earth Day, agreed with the proposition that if their government “does not act now to combat climate change, it will be failing the people.” Only 14 percent strongly disagreed.

As well, 52 percent agreed with the proposition “If a political party’s policies don’t deal seriously with climate change, this would put me off voting for them.” Only 19 percent strongly disagreed.

There is also broad business support for climate action. For example, the chief executives of more than 100 companies across all sectors have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition, an initiative of the Sustainable Business Council, which is itself part of Business New Zealand. In doing so, they have committed their companies to measuring and reducing their emissions. Together the companies account for some 60 percent of New Zealand’s gross emissions, nearly a third of private sector GDP, and employ more than 170,000 New Zealanders.

Notably, the agricultural sector, the source of almost half the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, is working with the government to begin measuring, managing, and pricing its emissions (mainly methane) by 2025. By December next year, the government is required by law to set declining national carbon budgets and pathways to achieve them out to 2035.

But still, the enormities of the climate challenge call for considerable political leadership from the Prime Minister downwards. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ardern has shown exceptional skill in explaining the science and tough policy decisions required to tackle it, and in encouraging people to support them. The climate emergency, though, requires people to make big, permanent changes in their behaviour over years and decades. This presents Ardern with an even greater leadership challenge.

The question of whether she is capable of such a political tour de force on climate and other fundamental reforms of society was explored by Colin James, the veteran New Zealand political journalist, in a lecture in Wellington in November.

James remarked Ardern “has proved far tougher underneath than she looks on the surface. Her grasp of detail, firmness and inclusiveness in managing COVID-19 and communicating the government’s measures pushed her already strong personal approval ratings stratospheric.”

A clue to the mindset of Ardern and her deputy, Grant Robertson “lies in Jacinda Ardern’s announcement when dumping capital gains tax that she didn’t have a mandate. But mandates don’t come from heaven. They are built – best by leaders who subscribe to [Director General of Health] Ashley Bloomfield’s designation of leadership as ‘an invitation to collective action.’”

Despite Ardern’s considerable political skills and evident conviction on critical issues such as child poverty and climate, James says evidence so far suggests Ardern will not be far more ambitious in seeking societal transformation in this term and, if she wins re-election in 2023, a third term.

Yet James is open to being proven wrong. He has posited that “[m]aybe in this term they will be bold and commanding now they have full power and a reshaped cabinet. But Jacinda Ardern herself said a couple of weeks back that future progress towards her ‘transformation’ would be incremental.”

While James’ judgements are well-founded, there is another way of looking at societal transformation, particularly on the climate crisis which demands deep and urgent change. Good politicians can lead and encourage. But they can only move broadly in line with majority national sentiment.

Therefore the real onus is on people, individually and collectively, to live the changes they want to see; and to push politicians to deliver the policies, programmes and other governmental support they need for the future they choose.

New Zealand business journalist Rod Oram contributes weekly to Newsroom, Nine to Noon, and Newstalk ZB. Rod is a member of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, which brings together people from New Zealand and abroad who seek to contribute to global change from Aotearoa. In Citigroup’s annual global journalism awards, Rod was the winner in 2019 in the General Business category in the Australia and NZ region for his columns in Newsroom on Fonterra; and he was the NZ Journalist of the year. In the New Zealand Shareholders’ Association Business Journalism Awards, Rod won the Business Commentary category in 2018 and 2020 for his Newsroom columns. In 2016, Bridget Williams Books published Rod’s most recent book, Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.