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NZ’s progress on environment & sustainability: A view from the year 2030

Michael Worth Michael Worth

The year is 2030. I’m sitting in my home office in an apartment that’s ironically located in what used to be an office building. Commercial high rises are now a thing of the past thanks to the working from home practices prompted by COVID all those years ago. They’ve been mostly repurposed as apartment buildings which helped solve Auckland’s housing crisis during the 2020’s! 

Today, when I look back on that time and New Zealand’s environmental and sustainable challenges, it’s amazing to see how much progress we have made – sometimes it’s hard to remember what the catalysts for change were. Because back in 2021 it was looking a little bleak; I think it was a combination of tipping points and leaders in the public and private sectors that led to the transformation we’re enjoying today.  

We were at a real crossroads. We hadn’t even begun to truly tackle the problem, despite the science of the long lived CO2 and short lived CH4, and the problems caused by nitrogen and phosphorous emissions. 

COP26 aimed to accelerate progress towards the Paris Agreement, instead it only created widespread disbelief and even outrage around the world, that the fossil fuel lobby seemed to still wield a powerful influence, and governments around the world were not stepping up. New Zealand was singled out for a less than ambitious emissions target, despite our Government declaring it “their generation’s nuclear moment”. I do however recall one bright note, when then Climate Minister James Shaw announced that for the first time the combined pledges of the countries projected a pathway of less than 2C of global warming. 

Today, I’m proud to say New Zealand is now seen as a world leader in the battle against climate change – so much so, it’s hard to recall why we were so wedded to our old way of doing things. Almost all of our agriculture has transitioned to regenerative and restorative, the herds of ruminants vastly lower than they were, and we’ve even created an industry out of sharing our science and technology with our global neighbours. Over the past decade, the country reduced its emissions radically and is now sitting on a sub 1.5C warming track, our rivers are clean and swimmable and we have reduced the amount of energy our society consumes by finding smarter ways to live, work and move.  

But let’s not forget the errors of our past so we’re not doomed to repeat them  

Once upon a time in New Zealand, one of our major pollutors was agiculture, responsible for over 20% of the county’s emissions.Despite impressice media and PR campaigns, more of society was becoming conscious of the science.  So, farming regulations increased. Fed up with this, some farmers protested in the streets demanding the status quo while others worked hard to utilise their land in different ways by diversifying their operations to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Over time this minority became the majority. 

I think another major tipping point was He Waka Eke Noa’s first discussion document showcasing its plan to price agricultural emissions, which suggested the prices proposed would lead to a less than 1% reduction. This laid bare to the public the agri sector needed a lot of support and much stronger incentives to come up with a viable scheme to do their part.  

What were leaders doing at the time? Many strived to create a better future for Kiwis; their efforts both small and large swung the balance towards the regenerative agriculture we all benefit from today.  

Investment in data and science increased and helped industry players control their emissions. The science was undeniable. Farmers started capturing agricultural waste and converting it to energy, reducing the quantity of fossil fuel utilised in the sector. More sophisticated mixed farms were emerging, along with more urban farming and generation of food closer to the point of use. Food waste was radically reduced through education programmes, there was much more extensive use of supply chain digitisation and a substantial national move towards the circular economy. The extension of the Waste Minimisation and Jobs For Nature programmes, as part of the new social employment insurance scheme accelerated many projects up and down the country to remediate and enhance the landscape; it created a whole generation of skilled, empowered and caring citizens. 

Citizens and science won the day. 

Michael Worth is a passionate advocate for planet earth and the leader of Grant Thornton New Zealand’s Environment and Sustainability Sector.