3 Nov 2009

Environmental priorities should be changed - NZIER

9:59 pm on 3 November 2009

New Zealand's environmental priorities have been questioned by an economic think-tank, which says there's too much emphasis on fighting climate change through emissions reduction.

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) has analysed the Government's sustainability policies using criteria designed to rank competing threatened animal protection programmes.

It says protecting biodiversity should be a top priority, as should reducing air pollution because of its effect on human health.

The institute says reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the lowest priority, because climate change is largely out of New Zealand's control and any action will have a high cost on the economy.

It says programmes to reduce waste have run their course and there is little more to be gained.

The paper's lead author Peter Clough says the New Zealand's policy effort needs to be reordered.

"The risk ... is that policies get a certain momentum of their own and they carry on beyond the point at which they are going to be useful," he says.

'Bad' for economy

Greenpeace says reducing focus on the emissions trading scheme will be bad for the New Zealand economy.

Its political advisor Geoff Keey says while the other problems are important, any watering down of emissions trading will push New Zealand out of step with the global economy.

He says retaining focus on emissions trading would in any case help clean up the air and waterways.

'Misses point'

The World Wildlife Fund says the report misses the point.

Its climate change programme manager, Peter Hardstaff, says those are false choices that don't need to be made.

He says improvements to wildlife habitat will also arise from a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Royal Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell says the report is right to single out air quality and saving biodiversity.

But he says the authors have missed the point that New Zealand's sustainability policies cannot be separated from its trade.

"We are going to need to show we are sustainable if we want to sell to markets on the other side of the world, and overcome things like food miles arguments," he says.

Needs bigger picture

Guy Salmon, executive director of Ecologic, which describes itself as a sustainability think tank, says the report fails to recognise the large changes needed to transform New Zealand's economy into one based on much lower greenhouse gas emissions.

He says it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture of where the country is trying to get to over the next 40 years, rather than taking the economists' approach of weighing the costs and benefits of each little step.

He says the Government is right to have climate change and water as its two highest priorities.

Economy, environment linked

Environment Minister Nick Smith told Morning Report the Institute's report also makes the point that economic considerations are vital to environmental policy.

"The idea that you can have an environmental debate in one room completely separate from the Government's economic objectives is just not the way it can be in reality," he says.

"We need to tie those two better together, and I think this NZIER report helps further that debate."