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New Zealand PM Ardern urged to apply crisis skills to climate change

Environmentalists urge re-elected leader, who won praise for her handling of the pandemic, to double down on fossil fuel use and farming emissions.

New Zealand’s re-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should use the skills she honed in successfully crushing the threat of Covid-19 to focus on a green recovery and help farmers tackle climate change’s “nuclear-free moment”, environmentalists said.

Ardern, whose Labour Party won a landslide victory in the general election last weekend, made a name for herself by responding decisively to the coronavirus pandemic and healing the nation after the killing of Muslims by a white supremacist.

Having previously formed a coalition government with the Green Party, which secured a bigger 8 per cent mandate this time, Ardern famously called climate change “my generation’s nuclear-free moment” in a 2017 speech.

After decades of debate on whether the country should be a nuclear-free zone, a Labour government in the mid-1980s banned ships that were nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed, causing a security spat with the United States.

In drawing the comparison, Ardern described climate action as an “opportunity” and “a challenge that defines my generation” - but progress on it has been slow, green groups say.

Amanda Larsson, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace in Auckland, said Ardern had shown she excelled at leading her nation through a crisis.

The prime minister now needs “to apply the skills that she’s developed from dealing with the unthinkable, to tackling the ongoing, known crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss”, Larsson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In addition to the pandemic, climate change was a key issue in the election, with many New Zealanders becoming more aware of the threat early this year as ash from bushfires in neighbouring Australia turned skies red and glaciers brown.

Every day we don’t act is a lost opportunity and increases the future cost and the drastic nature of the transition needed to stop climate change, so it is essential that climate change is a priority for the government from day one.

Siri Andersen, co-director, 350 Aotearoa

Proud of being one of the world’s most pristine, naturally beautiful countries, New Zealand has introduced climate change into its school curriculum, while parliament approved a bill to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.

Earlier this month, Ardern said her government would phase out coal-fired boilers, replacing them with electric ones, and reduce carbon emissions from public buses if returned to power.

Larsson said billions of dollars that had been set aside for infrastructure, as part of a bid to rebuild the economy after Covid-19, should be used to make up for decades of “under-investment” in public transport and boost cycling.

Siri Andersen, co-director at climate campaign group 350 Aotearoa, urged the public sector to lead on decarbonisation by banning new fossil-fuel boilers in its buildings and shifting schools, hospitals and prisons to clean heat sources by 2025.

“Every day we don’t act is a lost opportunity and increases the future cost and the drastic nature of the transition needed to stop climate change, so it is essential that climate change is a priority for the government from day one,” Andersen said.

Methane problem 

According to analysis by research coalition Climate Action Tracker, New Zealand’s current climate policies are “insufficient” and inconsistent with limiting global warming to the Paris accord’s tightest goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Methane from agriculture and waste - which accounts for more than 40 per cent of New Zealand’s emissions - is exempt from the nation’s zero-emissions goal and has a separate target not yet covered with significant policies, it noted.

The quickest and most effective way to cut methane emissions would be to start reducing cow numbers and bring agriculture into the emissions trading scheme, said Greenpeace’s Larsson.

Fertilisers made from nitrogen, which damage the planet’s protective ozone layer and are seen as a driver of intensive dairy farming often blamed for polluting water supplies, should also be phased out, green groups said.

Greenpeace earlier this year called on the government to set up a NZ$1 billion ($661 million) fund to support “regenerative agriculture” that protects the land and biodiversity.

“Demand for regenerative, organic produce is growing exponentially in New Zealand’s overseas markets,” said Larsson. “This is the future of farming.”

Transport & energy 

A key task for Ardern’s new government will be introducing policies and measures that enable the country to meet its pledge of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, said 350’s Andersen.

It could now resurrect an electric vehicle subsidy plan to incentivise imports of cars with lower emissions and introduce a minimum fuel efficiency standard, after coalition members previously failed to back it, said environmentalists.

Denys Trussell of Friends of the Earth New Zealand called for a shift away from car use to public transport, adding that New Zealand’s “enormous private car fleet” needed to be cut by about 90 per cent through investing in the rail network.

Exploration of fossil fuels such as oil and gas should also be halted, said Dermot Coffey, co-convenor of OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health Council, a climate advocacy group.

“We would like to see an immediate declaration that coal-mining and coal-burning will cease in the next five years, with clear plans to assist workers affected,” he added.

Trussell of Friends of the Earth urged the government to take a more comprehensive approach to climate change and the environment rather than “small-scale, piecemeal solutions”.

“The really huge issues are not being properly dealt with,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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