TEU member Dr Mike Joy is Senior Research Fellow at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government. Here, Dr Joy shares his thoughts on the Budget’s environmental spend.

From an environmental perspective Budget 2021 is infuriatingly underwhelming. We know that to have any hope of having a chance at a livable planet humankind must reduce GHG emissions by more than 7.6% per year, every year, from now until 2030 and reach zero-carbon by 2050. To put that essential reduction into perspective even with our national Covid lockdown last year we only reduced our emissions by 4.8%. Alas, despite this stark existential menace nothing in this budget goes anywhere near slowing our emissions growth, let alone reducing them.

There are a few crumbs in this budget that will help - the increased funding for warmer Kiwi Homes and some funding for rail. But the rest in the climate/environment space are techno-optimism projects that are unproven, are potentially money down the drain, or based on creating more environmental damage, like ‘sustainable biofuels’ or methane reducing biotechnology. The funds tagged for incentivising the uptake of low emissions vehicles sounds virtuous but ignores the huge environmental impacts of manufacturing these vehicles along with the infrastructure needed to capture and distribute the energy to run them.

The talk of biofuels and hydrogen reveal the Government’s naïve lack of basic understanding of energy. Globally, we use fossil energy in one year equivalent to 400 years of the planet’s total annual plant growth (including the microscopic plants in the ocean) and given the need to grow food, biofuels could only ever be a miniscule addition to energy use. Furthermore, hydrogen is in overhype at the moment as the oil and gas industry push it, but it is no solution.

Agriculture and transport are our two big emissions sources and environmental issues - what did we get in Budget 2021?

Agriculture

There was an extra $37m announced for national integrated farm planning systems for farmers and growers. Sounds great, but farm-plans are just plans, like us buying a diet book and gym membership to lose weight. There is no guarantee of real change for most unless plans are matched with enforced regulation. We have seen farm plans advocated by the agricultural industry for decades now, in an attempt to avoid regulation and despite widespread use, net emissions to atmosphere and water have continued to rise.

The $24m allocated to research on reducing agricultural greenhouse gases is in reality simply a continuation of what has been put into this area over at least the last decade and crucially ignores the fact that methane is just one of a raft of harms from intensive farming. This search for a methane biotech silver-bullet solution omits seeing the bigger picture that there are multiple benefits from reducing agricultural intensity with reductions not just in methane, but also nitrous oxide, nutrient zoonotic pathogen pollution of freshwater, and harms to soils. Low-tech solutions like reducing intensity via lowering stocking rates are a win-win for all except for fertiliser and industrial dairy, but require government intervention to even the playing field by halting subsidising harm and assisting farmers with education and research into markets for sustainable production.  

The $900,000 to collect vital statistics on agricultural production including greenhouse gas emissions is miniscule but better than nothing. Clearly, measuring is important, but the big changes like de-intensification can happen immediately, and we don’t need any more research to know what will really reduce emissions.

Transport

The budget allocation of $1.3bn towards rail is a step in the right direction especially money for the railway workshops. However, to put this amount into perspective my colleagues Robert McLachlan and Paul Callister revealed just how pitiful the amount is. KiwiRail’s network covers 3,700km, and the total funding allocated to it is about the same as the cost of building the 27km Transmission Gully expressway into Wellington.

To highlight the environmental dissonance in this budget, it promises increased investment in state highways and road upgrades which will inevitably drive-up car and truck use and thus emissions increases. Worse still, there was no indication of any additional support to the really emissions-significant areas of public and active transport, urban planning or reducing freight emissions (apart from the rail investment).

Crucially there is no mention of any increased funding to assist councils who are facing climate change impacts and need to prepare for enhanced risks to property and infrastructure.

Budget 2021 - avoidance and deferment

What this budget could and should have been centered on is the imperative that all spending must be allocated to rapidly shifting our economy and society towards life without fossil fuels. The scale of the transition required is utterly unprecedented. It means shifting away from coal, oil, and gas in just 30 years when almost everything we have was built with fossil fuels over more than a century.

This is a mammoth and complex task that gets exponentially more difficult with every day and every budget that ignores it. When we needed strong decisive action all we got was more of the same - kicking the can down the road.