Barely Afloat? New Zealand’s Climate Change Battle

“We are the change that we seek,” we were memorably told by Barack Obama in 2008. Taking heed from this notion was a group of peaceful protesters who took part this week in “The People’s Climate Rally” in Taranaki, a region on the west coast of New Zealand’s north island. The three-day event was inspired by the New Zealand Petroleum Conference which was scheduled for March 21st in Taranaki. Executing a blockade on Tuesday afternoon, the organization was successful in both delaying the summit and inciting national debate surrounding the ever-pressing issue of climate change in New Zealand.

A country rightly renowned for its environmental beauty and remarkable landscape, New Zealand is the subject of increasing scrutiny regarding its environmental policy and carbon footprint. This week, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report outlining several critical problems in the country concerning an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and threats to biodiversity, with New Zealand reportedly claiming one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. The continued growth of dairy farming and expanding urbanization in cities such as Auckland and Queenstown further presuppose detrimental effects on the country’s “green” status.

The report stated that “New Zealand’s strong growth has come partly at the expense of environmental quality, a dynamic that puts the country’s “green” reputation at risk.” Perhaps this seems unsurprising, given the economy of New Zealand rests largely on primary industries, such as farming, and natural resources, which made the documented increase in freshwater contamination all the more alarming. With agriculture accounting for 49% of emissions, the highest of all OECD countries and almost 20% above Ireland who followed in second, suggestions from governmental consultation group, Vivid Economics, to reduce ruminant livestock by 35% would be environmentally progressive. Another productive way to reduce the country’s carbon footprint to zero by 2100 is afforestation, with Vivid Economics proposing 1.6 million hectares to be used as a means to this end.

With the temperature of the planet rising at unprecedented levels, grave concerns regarding New Zealand’s susceptibility to the consequences of this are increasing. A primary issue of global warming is the corresponding rise in sea levels. Current predictions estimate the sea level surrounding New Zealand to rise another metre this century, foregrounding the country’s coastal cities at high risk of flooding and potential submersion. Already, a number of the Solomon Islands which neighbour New Zealand have been submerged by the Pacific, and many of those which remain are suffering severe erosion leading to housing and agricultural crises.

In October 2016, New Zealand ratified the Paris Agreement, a global initiative which addresses climate change. Whilst this is a vital step in monitoring the global carbon footprint, data recently released by the National Geographic predicts that limiting the world’s temperature to a 2°C increase would still result in a sea level rise of 4.7 m, severely endangering cities such as Blenheim, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Napier. Significantly, these statistics do not account for the drastic changes in the polar regions, with the Arctic ice cap hitting a record low in its winter season this year at 1.22 million square kilometres smaller than the average minimum extent for 1981-2010, according to NASA. The Antarctic continent reads a similar story, with NASA reporting this week that “since November, daily Antarctic sea ice extent has continuously been at its lowest levels in the satellite record.”

Seemingly, the urgent issue of climate change failed to be prioritized at the oil summit on Tuesday, with nearly 500,000 square kilometres of land, primarily in Southland, being authorized for gas and oil exploration. Judith Collins, Minister for Energy and Resources, stated: “We need to make sure the environment is protected, but I want to make sure that risk and cost are appropriately balanced […] ensuring New Zealand remains a predictable and globally competitive investment destination.” In short, Collins acknowledged that her policies are centered on, and driven by, financial gain, rather than environmental stability. However, the responsibility of climate change belongs not just to governmental and corporate bodies, but to everyone. Indeed, to return to Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”