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I returned to the UK in early August, after another wonderfully enjoyable visit to Aotearoa New Zealand – my second home – which included an opportunity to find out more about the inspiring Recloaking Papatūānuku initiative that has been developed by Pure Advantage.

Top Header Image: The rapidly wasting lower trunk of the Franz Josef Glacier is a stark reminder of the impacts of warming temperatures.

A critical election is now bearing down on New Zealand at a time of massive economic pressures and in the midst of rapidly accelerating climate chaos. 

I was publicly critical of both Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon during this visit. I detected a lot of the kind of backpedalling with which I am all too familiar in the UK. Your Prime Minister seems to have decided that climate is not a priority for hard-pressed Kiwis, while Christopher Luxon (who I knew well when he was CEO at Air New Zealand) seems to have misplaced the inspiring focus he had on climate issues in that role. 

And both, in the margins, seem to have bought into the idea that what New Zealand does is all but irrelevant given that New Zealand is only responsible for 0.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is true that New Zealand can do very little to slow the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That lies firmly in the hands of the USA, China, India, the EU and so on. And it can’t do much to persuade these mega-emitters to speed up their decarbonisation action – although it could at least stay true to its time-honoured record of punching above its weight on the international stage. 

Which means it can also do little to prevent the ever-worsening impacts of “climate change [that] is out of control” (to use the chilling words of Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General) hammering the lives of more and more people around the world. Including New Zealand and the Pacific.

Fences buried by silt and slash after Cyclone Gabrielle, Tairāwhiti.

So why bother? Sit back, “she’ll be right” style, and just keep on getting hammered year after year, with just a few half-hearted measures along the way to avoid international opprobrium. Is that the story?

I certainly hope not. Climate delay and climate defeatism are just the latest manifestations of out-and-out climate denial, and they’re both morally reprehensible. Especially from the perspective of today’s young New Zealanders who will, I’m sure, be urging the two Christophers to fill that depressing void by doing three things: 

First, do everything you can to strengthen the New Zealand economy by preparing for the radically decarbonised global economy that will, eventually, become a reality over the next decade. For instance, does anybody seriously suppose that New Zealand’s over-dependence on dairy exports will still give it some kind of “comparative advantage” by 2030, when improvements in the disruptive technologies of precision fermentation will have ripped the guts out of the global dairy industry?

Second, just get on with the total decarbonisation of the economy that has been available to New Zealand for many years, working off an almost unique natural advantage of 80-90% renewable electricity. Offshore and onshore wind, solar, green hydrogen – we all know the deal. Just get on with it!

Third, given that you can’t stop an “out of control climate change” inflicting as much grief on New Zealand as other countries, invest aggressively in the natural capital on which New Zealand’s future prosperity depends – from the maunga to moana. That’s always been the principal message of the Aotearoa Circle, of which I’m immensely proud to be a co-founder and co-patron. 

Which brings me back to the Recloaking Papatūānuku initiative being driven forward by Pure Advantage and partners. As they suggest, this has to be the time to do something radical to help build resilience, restore biodiversity, and sequester (over time) huge amounts of CO2 by investing in a large-scale programme of native reforestation. 

As the Climate Change Commission pointed out earlier this year, both the Government and the Opposition have got themselves into a total muddle about forestry policy. There’s still a lot of value in planting some exotic forests, on the right terms, in the right places, and properly regulated. But please don’t tell New Zealand citizens that this can ever be part of a “permanent forest category”, with native trees somehow “taking over” once the conifers have come to the end of their natural cycle. 

So here’s my message to the two Christophers! Sorry to have been so critical of your somewhat lacklustre leadership on climate change to date. So why not astonish your voters by sitting down and talking to each other now, before the election, about a bi-partisan agreement to create a genuine permanent forest category, carved out of the ETS, underpinned by three mutually reinforcing elements: short-term biodiversity credits, to promote native replanting and regeneration; medium-term resilience payments to restore natural capital (helping to protect New Zealanders from some of the inevitable damage from accelerating climate change, as we’ve just seen in Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti); and longer-term carbon credits. Native trees may be slow starters when it comes to sequestering CO2, but when they get going, they really get going. And the CO2 stays in those trees for a very, very long time.

Native trees may be slow starters when it comes to sequestering CO2, but when they get going, they really get going. And the CO2 stays in those trees for a very, very long time.

It’s doable. New Zealand has some highly experienced people and think tanks (including Pure Advantage and the Aotearoa Circle) to help sort the design of such a scheme. And you, the two Christophers, would, in the process, write your names into the pantheon of climate heroes – which, at the moment, is a somewhat unlikely outcome. 

And if it can’t be done on a bi-partisan basis, then I just hope that one of you seizes the chance to bring your campaign to life by backing something which is so obviously what New Zealand needs at this moment of climate and ecological peril.

This article was also published by Newsroom.

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