New Zealand

 

The New Zealand government faces accusations of waging a “war on nature” after announcing significant cuts to climate action projects without introducing substantial new investments in environmental protection or climate crisis policies.

In its 2024/25 budget, presented on Thursday, the right-wing coalition prioritised spending on law and order, education, health, and tax cuts, amidst ongoing struggles with inflation and cost-of-living pressures.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis delivered the budget against a backdrop of a technical recession and widening government deficits. She said it was a “fiscally responsible budget” that was “putting New Zealanders’ money where it can make the biggest difference”.

However, the budget notably lacked meaningful new spending on the climate crisis. Instead, numerous climate-related initiatives, including programs in the Emissions Reductions Plan and funding for data and evidence specialists, faced extensive cuts.

In a media release, climate change minister Simon Watts said “responsible and effective climate related initiatives that support New Zealand to reduce emissions, and adapt to the future effects of climate change are a priority.”

The government claims it will invest in climate resilience, such as funding projects like stop banks and flood walls through the Regional Infrastructure Fund, a $200 million boost for the Rail Network Improvement Programme, and extending the Waste Disposal Levy to support more waste-related and environmental activities.

However, when questioned about significant new funding for climate change and environmental protection, Finance Minister Willis pointed only to these resilience projects.

Meanwhile, the environment minister, Penny Simmonds, said that the increases to the waste levy “will mean a broader range of environmental projects can be funded”, including waste disposal in emergencies, cleaning up contaminated sites and freshwater improvement.

Critics argue the government’s approach to environmental protection and climate change is regressive, emphasising that resilience projects are merely reactive measures without proactive climate mitigation plans. The rail improvement program is mainly focused on existing lines, with unclear details about new projects. Changes to the waste disposal levy involve reallocating existing funds rather than introducing new investments.

The Labour opposition called the budget a “catastrophe” that was “taking us backwards”.

The sole new environmental investment in the budget is a $23 million annual commitment to push through resource management changes, including a controversial fast-track bill that could sideline conservation concerns and approve projects previously rejected for environmental reasons.

The government announced $102 million in annual savings and revenue across the environment sector through various cuts. These include slashing climate change programs, reducing spending on specialists providing evidence and data for environmental standards, monitoring, and reporting, and scaling back funding for the Climate Change Commission, which advises on climate policy.

In conservation, $33 million will be cut annually, with an unexplained $1 million investment listed in the budget documents. Government officials cited “commercial sensitivities” regarding the allocation of this money.

Cuts across government impact numerous climate policy areas, including:

  • Māori knowledge-based approaches to agricultural emissions reduction
  • Community-based renewable energy schemes
  • The Climate Change Commission
  • External and internal specialists providing evidence and data on environmental monitoring and science
  • Freshwater policy initiatives
  • Native forest planting
  • Development of a circular economy, relating to recycling and reuse
  • Jobs for Nature, a program creating jobs to benefit the environment
  • Biosecurity monitoring

New Zealand is still recovering from significant destruction caused by the 2023 Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, which killed 11 people and devastated large parts of the North Island’s east coast. The budget promises $1 billion to rebuild regions affected by these disasters.

Human-caused climate breakdown has intensified the most destructive tropical cyclones, though the overall annual number has not changed globally. Warming oceans provide more energy, resulting in stronger storms.

Green party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick described the government as a “coalition of cowards” that was allowing the climate crisis to “rage on unchallenged” and whose attack on the climate would ripple through future generations.

“The other day, government parties said, ‘drill, baby, drill,’ and today, they may as well have said, ‘burn, baby, burn’,” Swarbrick said, adding that the budget had seen funding from almost every major programme in the Emissions Reduction Plan gutted.

The government was “choosing to bury its head in the coal,” she said. “It has made the choice to put cynical politics ahead of people and planet, serving the short-term interests of wealthy donors over the wellbeing of all of us.”

This budget marks a stark shift from the previous Labour government’s environmental commitments. In 2017, Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared climate change her generation’s nuclear-free moment, placing high priority on climate policies. In 2022, her government announced the most significant climate action in the country’s history: a $4.5 billion Climate Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to drive a low-emissions economy and prepare for climate impacts.

On Thursday, the government stated that $2.6 billion of previously funded climate change initiatives would continue, including electric vehicle charging infrastructure, decarbonising public transport, and concessions for community service card holders. However, the climate change minister indicated the discontinuation of ring-fencing emissions trading revenue for the climate fund, integrating it into the regular budget process.

Environmental group Forest and Bird condemned the budget, calling it another blow in the government’s “war on nature” and criticising the funding of the fast-track bill.

“The government’s biggest new investment in the environment is to implement reforms that are going to cause untold environmental harm through the fast track,” said Richard Capie, the organisation’s general manager for conservation.

“In the middle of a climate emergency, you don’t walk away from investing in climate action – this isn’t business as usual, and to call it such is head-in-the-sand stuff.”

 

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