The action at COP 28 offers the new government a chance to prove to its detractors that it’s not such a “fossil” after all.  

Although the new coalition government in New Zealand has already begun reversing key environmental and health protections established by the previous Labour government, perhaps it’s too early to wholly dismiss its climate mitigation plans. Signing onto COP28’s declarations on Food Production and Sustainable Agriculture, on the first ever Climate and Health Declaration, and the pledge to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency globally by 2030, are laudable commitments. National had made a more modest goal of doubling renewable energy by 2050. Now come the complicated parts: the details of how we reach our goals.  

In light of policies National has decided to scrap—Three Waters, Te Aka Whai Ora Māori Health Authority, co-governance, the Clean Car Discount scheme, and the ban on oil and gas drilling—how will it fulfil its declared international commitments? By adopting even more boldly sustainable and equitable policies—a holistic approach that protects people and our ecosystems while ensuring a robust economy from which we all benefit. Otherwise, the U-turn on earlier policies will run counter to New Zealand’s new international commitments.  

First, National can seize on opportunities to combine health gains with climate security. The first objective of the Climate and Health Declaration is to develop and implement policies that maximise health gains from mitigation and adaptation. Win-win climate and health interventions include sustainable food and agriculture, clean water, adequate housing, urban planning, health care and low-carbon transport.  

At the core of these commitments is the need to diversify our economy to reduce reliance on high-emissions industries and to shift our farms to organic, regenerative techniques and sustainable food. This will help achieve the goals of the Declaration, which also calls for protecting food security, natural ecosystems, biodiversity, soil health, low emissions production and consumption. Using New Zealand’s climate to its advantage, we could lead the world in some plant-based crops that need our specific environmental conditions. 

Secondly, urban design that integrates ecosystem-based adaptation and land-zoning, will help cope with a coming extreme world. Nature-based solutions, such as restoring wetlands, urban forests, coastal plantings, green buildings and spaces, simultaneously reduces climate risks, improves water and air quality, and provides habitat for biodiversity—all while bolstering human health. These offerings should be widespread and equitably accessible.  

Tripling or even doubling our renewable energy sources by supporting and incentivising rooftop solar, wind power, expanding geothermal applications, and electrifying our fleets will benefit New Zealanders’ pocketbooks and health, in part by reducing exposure to polluted air and water. But clean cars are not enough. We need safe, affordable, accessible public transportation systems that integrate walking, biking, shade, and natural green space. Early mitigation saves lives and money. 

Reducing waste and retrofits will also support these goals. Zero waste can be achieved by shifting away from landfilling to circular economies with re-use, recycling, and new technologies that turn waste into energy.  

Short-term thinking that protects status quo interests is costing New Zealanders health, wealth and peace of mind. We’re already seeing climate change ravage our people and our land. Cyclone Gabrielle, a single climate-related event, killed 11 people and resulted in $13.5 billions in damage. A hotter environment means these extreme storms will happen more frequently alongside increased fires, diseases, infections, heat-related deaths, food insecurity.  

The gradual health effects are even more insidious. Simple climate-driven changes, such as the quantity and timing of pollen releases combined with increased storms and winds, means increased respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma. Increased air and water temperatures increase the frequency of many water and food-borne diseases, and extreme weather events worsen mental health. The toll on our well-being will be magnified by the costs on the back end, requiring training and planning with our health professionals to adapt long-term strategies to cope with worsening crises. Emergency preparedness and response also requires adequate funding, risk reduction, and preparedness education. 

Another key part of safeguarding New Zealand means adaptation as a matter of urgency. Extreme weather events, including tornados, floods, droughts, heatwaves, alongside rising sea-levels and intensifying environmental problems, such as freshwater pollution and degradation, means our infrastructure needs upgrading to withstand these disasters. As just one example, Auckland’s stormwater and sewage pipe system is simply not designed to cope with large flows of water.  

We won’t be able to engineer our way out of this problem and we can’t delay. To truly protect New Zealanders will require policies that simultaneously safeguard our people and ecosystems while bolstering a resilient economy. The most critical part of this is in the thinking. It’s urgent now for the new government to engage with its environmental experts to plan a climate response that is holistic, future-focused, and equitable.  

Authors: Maria Armoudian– Faculty of Arts, Jacqueline Beggs – Biological Sciences, Meg Parsons – Environment, Alistair Woodall – Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

Photo with thanks by Wenn die Bilder Pixabay

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