Sustainability. Implications for NZ in a Covid-19 World

17 August 2020

Back in the 1950’s when I was born, the global population was 2.75 billion and it had taken roughly 2 million years to reach this figure. During my lifetime, the world’s population has nearly tripled to 7.5 billion.

This population explosion has helped to ruin pristine wilderness areas from the Amazon rain forest to Africa and Asia and triggered growing competition for resources, including water, to sustain our ever-growing numbers!

Human beings and the animals we eat now dominate the planet’s landscape to an unprecedented degree.

NZ may only have five million people, but we are not immune to environmental degradation. Our environment has also suffered from air and water pollution, not to mention the introduction of invasive species since our country was first settled.

As with the rest of the world, we have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So far, our Government has done a good job in my view in handling the health aspects of the crisis.

The economy though has already been bashed in 2020 and whoever wins the forthcoming General Election is going to be faced by the worst economic pandemic since the Great Depression of the early 1930’s.

This will pose a massive challenge to us all.

In the long haul, climate change is the more important issue.

In the shorter term though, common-sense dictates that all Governments internationally need to focus on avoiding any repetition of the massive long-term unemployment of the 1930’s which triggered the ‘beggar my neighbour’ economic policies followed by many Governments and hence helped pave the way for the Second World War.

So, what does this mean for sustainability issues?

Should they be put on the back burner for the next few years while we focus on the economy or should we continue to press ahead and take action?

When all is said and done, sustainability should be about protecting the environment both nationally and globally.

Ultimately, we will sink or swim together on this planet of ours. As such, the environment includes the air we breathe and the water we drink. That includes the rivers, lakes, seas, oceans and forests that we take for granted.

Like most of you, I have enjoyed watching David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries. In my case since the early 1960’s. His documentaries have done more to publicise the growing plight of wildlife and the natural environment as a whole, than anyone else.

Sadly, they tell an increasingly gloomy tale of habitat destruction, pollution and species extinctions.

So, what does this mean for NZ? What should our Government do to reverse the tide of environmental degradation. Available options include:

  • Manufactured goods – where humanly possible they should be made from 100% renewable materials.
  • Packaging – suppliers (not customers) should be made 100% responsible for disposing of packaging material, including polystyrene!
  • Glass bottles – reintroduce refundable bottle deposits on all glass bottles nationally and replace plastic bottles with glass bottles.
  • Plastics – waste recyclers to have uniform standards nationally regarding what plastics are recycled and what go to landfill. If some types of plastic can’t be recycled in NZ, their use should either be banned outright or a new national facility should be set up to process them. There are currently big regional differences regarding what plastics can and can’t be recycled.
  • Coal vs natural gas – given that the rate of carbon emissions associated with coal is nearly twice as high as they are for natural gas, recognition should be given (as it is internationally) of the important role that natural gas/LPG will play for the next 20 years as a transition energy source on the road to 100% renewability and carbon zero. 
  • Transportation – the idealogues on the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ of politics are both right and wrong when it comes to transport policy. The left is correct in believing that we need much better integrated public transport networks (road/light rail/car parking) in the main centres. The right is correct that whether we like it or not, Kiwis like the freedom that comes from having your own vehicle. Hence, we need to sort out and future proof the road network in the major centres and also upgrade the roads in long neglected areas like the Far North. Clearly it makes good sense to transition to electric vehicles, especially given that the carbon emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles are far higher that carbon emissions from electricity generation.
  • Local manufacture vs imports – again within reasonable bounds, I am a strong believer inbuying NZ manufactured goods versus importing from the usual source. By doing this, we are using suppliers who are likely to have a greater environmental conscience. Also, the carbon footprint associated with shipping the goods to NZ is avoided. We also provide work for our fellow citizens and keep their income circulating in our local economy. Similar arguments apply to our choice of holiday destination, even when Covid-19 international travel restrictions are finally lifted!
  • Housing – make it mandatory for all new houses nationally to have both solar power units and water tanks installed from day one. Also, the All of Government (AOG) procurement process could be utilised to encourage local manufacture in both areas and financing options for both.

We are facing unprecedented challenges on a number of fronts and our Government needs to act accordingly in a politically bi-partisan way!