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Rightwing NZ government accused of ‘war on nature’ as it takes axe to climate policies
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Rightwing NZ government accused of ‘war on nature’ as it takes axe to climate policies

The New Zealand government has been accused of waging a “war on nature” after it announced sweeping cuts to climate action projects, while making no significant new investments in environmental protection or climate crisis-related policy.

In its 2024/25 budget, handed down on Thursday, the rightwing coalition announced spending on law and order, education, health and a series of tax cuts, as the country struggles with inflation and cost-of-living pressures.

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

But absent from the budget documents was any meaningful new spending on the climate crisis. Instead, dozens of climate-related initiatives, including programmes in the Emissions Reductions Plan and funding for data and evidence specialists were subject to sweeping 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.”

He said the government would invest to reach those goals, including funding climate resilience projects such as stop banks and floodwalls through the Regional Infrastructure Fund, a $200m boost for the Rail Network Improvement Programme, and extending the reach of the Waste Disposal Levy to support a wider range of waste-related and environmental activities.

When asked by the Guardian if there was any significant new funding directed towards tackling climate change and environmental protection, Watts pointed to the resilience projects.

Meanwhile, the environment minister, Penny Simmonds, told the Guardian 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.

But critics said the government’s approach to protecting the environment and tackling climate change was backward looking, while climate resilience projects were the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff without future-facing climate mitigation plans.

New Zealand’s finance minister, Nicola Willis, delivers the budget address as PM Chris Luxon looks on.View image in fullscreen

Meanwhile, the rail improvement programme was understood to be focused on existing rail lines. It was unclear if it included new rail projects. Changes to the waste disposal levy involved mostly reallocating existing funds.

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

The only new investment in the environment section of the budget was a $23m annual commitment to pushing through the government’s resource management changes, including a controversial fast-track bill that could see conservation concerns ignored and projects once rejected for environmental reasons given the green light.

The government says it has found $102m in savings and revenue per year across the environment sector through various cuts, including cutting climate change programmes, reducing spending on specialists that provide evidence and data including updates to environmental standards, monitoring and reporting and scaling back funding for the Climate Change Commission, which advises the government on climate change policy.

In conservation, another $33m a year will be cut. There is a $1m annual investment listed in the budget documents, but government officials could not explain where this money would go, citing “commercial sensitivities”.

The programmes and areas related to climate policy that are subject to cuts across government included:

  • Māori knowledge-based approaches to agricultural emissions reduction

  • Community-based renewable energy schemes

  • The Climate Change Commission

  • External and internal specialists who supply 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 programme creating jobs to benefit the environment

  • Reducing biosecurity monitoring

New Zealand is still rebuilding from massive destruction caused by 2023’s deadly Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, which killed 11 people and laid waste to large swathes of the North Island’s east coast.

Among the spending promises in the budget was $1bn to rebuild the regions hit by these disasters.

Human-caused climate breakdown has increased the occurrence of the most intense and destructive tropical cyclones (though the overall number a year has not changed globally). This is because warming oceans provide more energy, producing stronger storms.

‘Head in the coal’

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.”

As the budget was announced, a protest criticising the government for its policies toward the Indigenous Maori population, took place outside parliament in Wellington.View image in fullscreen

The first budget from the rightwing coalition – made up of the centre-right National party, libertarian ACT party and populist NZ First – is a sharp departure from the previous Labour government’s commitments to protecting the environment. In 2017, Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern said climate change was her generation’s nuclear-free moment and put climate policies high on her agenda.

In 2022, her government unveiled the most significant announcement on climate change action in the country’s history – $4.5bn for a climate emergency response fund (CERF) to try to drive a low-emissions economy and prepare the country for the effects of climate collapse.

On Thursday, the government said $2.6bn of climate change initiatives previously funded by CERF would continue, including a public network of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, decarbonising public transport, and public transport concessions for community service card holders.

But the climate change minister also said the government would discontinue the practice of ring-fencing money raised through emissions trading for that climate fund, meaning the previous government’s ambitious fund would be absorbed into the usual budget process.

Environmental group Forest and Bird said the budget signalled another blow in the government’s “war on nature”, and singled out its 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.”

Source: theguardian.com