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Andrew Little - Environment Speech

Speech to Environmental Defence Society Conference

12 August 2015

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Thank you for the invitation to speak. The Environmental Defence Society is a true leader in New Zealand’s environmental discussion and so it is very special to be able to talk here today.

Can I begin by acknowledging my colleague, Megan Woods, who is our Environment and Climate Change spokesperson and who has been doing excellent work this year.

I’d also like to acknowledge Gary Taylor. I know first-hand that Gary is a forceful advocate for the environment. His voice counts.

Can I also thank and acknowledge the EDS board and delegates for having me along to speak this afternoon.

Today, I want to talk about the future of New Zealand’s environment and give you an understanding of the importance the next Labour Government, and myself as Prime Minister, will be placing on these issues.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of frequent walks up Mount Taranaki with my father.

He was a biology teacher at New Plymouth Girls High, and he’d spend those long walks pointing out the native flora and fauna and discussing their names and properties with us.

In retrospect because he was a recent immigrant from the UK, I suspect he was doing a bit of homework of his own.

He was tasked with teaching kids about the biodiversity of their own native country, and he definitely gave me and my siblings an appreciation of New Zealand’s biodiversity.

What Dad taught us is that it’s our unique environment that sustains our Kiwi way of life.

It’s who we are as New Zealanders.

We have a proud record as a country for taking a courageous stand on important moral issues. There is none more important than our environment.
Often, you will hear some politicians say we can have a pristine environment, or we can have a growing economy, but we can’t have both.

Well, I reject that.

I will lead a government that takes its responsibilities to the environment and future generations seriously.

I will lead a government that ensures that everyone who works hard can get ahead, and that the next generation is given every opportunity to succeed as well.

We acknowledge wealth has to be created before it can be shared.

But the way we generate wealth today must not take opportunities away from people tomorrow.

We know that you have not generated sustainable wealth if you are leaving a cost for future generations to meet.

Sustainable wealth creation will be at the centre of the mission of the next Labour government.

It will be a personal priority for me as Prime Minister.

Labour’s approach stands in stark contrast to that taken by the current Government.

I believe that their approach to the environment, and their lack of action on some of the largest environmental and social challenges of our lifetime is not only irresponsible, but out of step with who we want to be as New Zealanders.

Climate change

Let’s start with climate change.

It’s happening, it will get worse before it gets better, and it demands a response in keeping with the scale of the problem we face. It is the biggest environmental and economic challenge facing the planet.

According to the latest IPCC report, without additional mitigation, we are now facing average global temperature rises of 3.7 to 4.9 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.

That’ll mean more extreme weather events, rising and warming seas, more crop failures, unknown impacts on biodiversity and more human hardship.

We face a carbon-constrained future, and we must try and reduce our emissions and accelerate our adaptation.

That’s not a matter of choice. That’s inevitable.

As President Obama put it recently, “we’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”

This isn’t just a technical challenge.

It’s a test of our most fundamental values because how we choose to respond to climate change will affect every facet of our ecosystem, our economy and our daily lives.

The stakes are huge.

If we get this wrong, our environment will be degraded, our economy will suffer, the costs of transition will be much higher and we will leave our children with fewer opportunities than we inherited.

This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to.

As you would expect I would have, given I led the EPMU - the union of miners, oil workers, and aviation for more than a decade.

I know that we need a just transition, that not only meets our responsibilities to the planet, but gives people opportunities to build good lives for themselves and their families.

We have to meet this challenge.

And we have to do it in a way that protects our way of life and the opportunities we want our people to enjoy.

And as a global citizen, we cannot shirk from our mutual responsibilities to the people of other nations.

Sadly, the current government has its head in the sand, which is especially worrying right now because the sea level is rising.

National says that we’re too small to address this problem.

Instead of a leader on the world stage, they say they want us to be a fast follower.

They tell us addressing climate change is someone else’s job.

I simply don’t accept that.

That isn’t who we are.

When we sit on the sidelines all we do is give comfort to the deniers of climate change.

We’re a better country than that.

Seven years into John Key’s government, its record on the environment and climate change is clear.

New Zealand's emissions per capita were the 5th highest out of 40 developed nations in 2012.

A recent Global Action Network survey found we had slipped to 43rd out of 58 countries when it comes to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

National gutted the Emissions Trading Scheme by removing agriculture which accounts for half of our emissions, leaving it ineffectual.

They’ve put public money into subsidising big emitters by giving them a free ride while taking money out of environmental research programmes.

They’ve watered down our emissions targets to the point where international watchdogs now list New Zealand as a laggard.

Just ask our Pacific neighbours.

Even a modest change in the sea level can flood the supply of fresh water in nations like Tuvalu or Kiribati, making their islands uninhabitable.

Their very survival requires the world, including New Zealand, to take serious action on climate change.

This government’s ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude to addressing climate change helps seal the fate of some of our country’s closest friends.

That’s an awful legacy to leave.

That short-termism is something that defines this government. They govern day-to-day, without an eye on the horizon.

Oceans

Take our oceans.

New Zealand has a very large marine environment, rich in resources. But the environmental protections we have in place are very new and lead to ad hoc decision-making.

EDS’s recent work on safeguarding our oceans has been important and necessary.

You have unpicked the jumble of legislation governing our oceans and suggested innovative ways forward in understanding the environmental impacts and how we might use tools such as marine spatial planning to take a more strategic approach to oceans management.

I believe there is merit in the idea of introducing a form of spatial planning to help resolve conflicts in our oceans.

I am watching the outcome of the Seachange Hauraki Gulf project, which is a pilot for marine planning, with great interest.

In our caucus we have set up an Oceans group that includes not only the usual suspects of the environment, conservation and climate change but also primary production, fishing and energy spokespeople.

We’ll be taking an integrated approach to making sure we are protecting our oceans and their biodiversity for future generations.

Resource Management Act

I want to turn now to the resource management act.

It is disappointing to see the government yet again trying to unravel the Resource Management Act.

Of course, seven months after he told us he was going to reform the legislation, we are all still waiting to see what it is the Minister is actually going to do.

Nick Smith’s speech may have been a litany of half baked ideas, many of which will never reach the statue book, but it did send up enough smoke signals for me to reiterate my, and Labour’s, bottom line.

We will not support the watering down of the fundamental environmental protections of this cornerstone legislation.

Whether this is through an attack on the purpose clause as it was last time around, or whether it is through more subtle tinkering with the essential protections– such as prioritising private rights over the public interest -  we will oppose it.

The RMA is a proud piece of the Labour legacy and it is a legacy I will defend.

They’re using housing development as a stalking horse to unwind the basic architecture of this legislation.

We are not against sensible changes to the RMA. In fact, we suggested some in our policy at the last election.

We know there are changes, many of them aimed at improving RMA processes, that many of us here in this room would agree with.

One of these areas is where we can make changes to promote housing development, but it should be through a National Policy Statement on Housing rather than by wedging in legislative changes that undermine the basic principles of our most significant environmental law.

Of all the government’s poor decisions, it’s those that threaten our environment that are among the riskiest.

That’s because damage done to our environment is the hardest to reverse, and the most far-reaching.

Labour will support RMA changes that help to address our housing crisis but my undertaking today is that if the Government passes RMA reforms that fundamentally lower environmental standards a Labour-led Government will reverse those changes.

Kiwi way of life

Our environment touches the daily lives of every New Zealander, at home and at work.

In Labour, we stand for jobs.

Good jobs.

Secure jobs.

Well paid jobs.

Failure to protect our environment puts thousands of those jobs at risk. This is why sustainability and climate change are core considerations of our Future of Work project.

Nearly one hundred and fifty thousand New Zealanders are directly employed in our agriculture sector and thousands more rely on the sector for their livelihood.

Those jobs are tied directly to the health of our land.

When our environment suffers, due to climate change or polluted rivers or erosion or extreme weather, those jobs disappear and the families that rely on them suffer.

We see this in the hundreds of jobs lost at Sanford’s in Canterbury because warming seas in Northland stopped the mussel spat growing.

Another one hundred and fifty thousand Kiwi jobs depend on our tourism industry.

If our environment deteriorates, fewer people will come to visit.

People travel to New Zealand to see clean and green, not grey and grimy.

It’s not just jobs that suffer when the state of our environment declines, it’s also our quality of life.

According to Environment Ministry figures, more than 60 per cent of monitored rivers in New Zealand are unsafe for swimming. Last summer forty swimming beaches were hit with a caution label for water quality.

In a country like ours, with our extensive coastline, rainfall and pristine mountain catchments, it should never have come to this.

And when we’re not at work or at home, New Zealanders have always valued our time in the outdoors. Whether fishing or tramping or swimming, going bush or going to the beach is part of our Kiwi identity.

The coastline we love to walk and kayak along is being washed away.
And, having already lost so much of our prized biodiversity to extinction, so much more is under threat:

The Longfin eel that only a few decades ago were so prolific.

Plant species like our rarest rata and fuschia.

Even our national icon - the Kiwi - the very bird we take our sense of identity from, risks mainland extinction.

Labour’s approach

What the current Government is doing simply isn’t working.

It’s putting our environment, our jobs, our way of life at risk.

We have to do better.

I want to lead a Government that puts these things right.

My government will take a calm and measured approach to combating climate change and adapting to its effects.

We recently submitted our proposal on New Zealand’s position for the upcoming Paris climate change talks.

Our proposal would see New Zealand push out of the middle of the pack, and start taking our responsibilities seriously.

We are proposing that New Zealand’s targets should be at least comparable to what the EU has undertaken to do within its overall target of a 40 per cent carbon dioxide emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.

And here’s where our approach is different from the government.

We know it isn’t enough just to set hopeful targets, sit back, relax and hope the greenhouse gas emissions fall.

National has no workable plan to reduce emissions, despite setting target after target.

Labour is committed to an independent Climate Commission, tasked with planning a transition pathway towards a low carbon economy and implementing a serious plan of carbon budgeting using the emissions trading scheme and other complementary measures.

We know that when it comes to reducing our emissions, failing to plan is planning to fail.

And our approach is different to other parties because we take seriously the need for an evidence-based approach to climate change.

Our approach would ensure not only a credible response to climate change, but a just and carefully managed transition that avoids disproportionate impact on low-income households and small businesses. 

We’ll take the same evidence based approach when it comes to water quality.

We believe all of our rivers and lakes should be safe to swim in.

Kiwis shouldn’t have to accept anything less than that.

We’ll set minimum standards for clean lakes and rivers, and require that dirty rivers and lakes are cleaned up over a generation.

We’d start with amendments to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management under the RMA. We need robust national bottom-lines and the present National Policy Statement doesn’t provide them.

Under Labour, we would begin the restoration of degraded waterways and wetlands, and look to see new storage and irrigation schemes that are environmentally and economically sustainable.

Tomorrow

In Labour, we believe in sustainable economic growth.

Growth that delivers a fair reward to the people who work for it, and builds opportunities for the people that come after us.

My vision is of a diversified economy, in which low-carbon technology, weightless exports, a healthy high-quality tourism sector and sustainable value-added agriculture all have a role in keeping our people wealthy and our country working.

Today, we have a government that prefers the easy way out. Under this government we have gone from being a nation that has acted as an example to the world, to being just another of the small countries scrambling to protect our vested interests.

That’s short-sighted and counterproductive.

It is undermining our national reputation, and with it our pride as New Zealanders.

It is all too easy to say “we’re too small, there’s nothing we can do.” Anyone can make excuses. Meanwhile the world warms.

It’s everyone’s job, including ours, including the Prime Minister’s, to stop making excuses and start making plans and taking action.

Some of my best time with family and friends comes when I am in the bush or at the coast.

When I talk overseas about what makes us Kiwis who we are, our environment is centre-stage.

New Zealand is defined by its environmental reputation.

We need to live up to more than a slogan.

This is an economic reality too.

It is the value abroad in our clean, green, brand.

In a world with an ever growing population and a growing demand for natural, healthy and safe foods, we are cutting our own throats if we don’t give priority to environmental soundness and sustainability.

Our oceans, our biodiversity, our sense of who we are in the world. Our economic future. All of this is at stake as we come to grips with how we protect our environment for the future.

But I believe that we will. And that we will do so by working together.

Like the plants and animals my dad would school us on all those years ago on the mountain, New Zealanders are shaped and brought together by our unique and shared environment.

We should not - and will not - put that environment at risk for short term gain.

The right choice is often easy to see, but hard to make.

Making the right choice for the environment is the most important challenge our world, and our country, must face.

Under Labour, New Zealand will face that challenge, and make the right choice.

Thank you.