Dr Mike Joy, Senior Researcher at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance shares his thoughts on the importance of environmental research and advocacy for the wellbeing of New Zealanders.

The world’s first Wellbeing Budget promises to ‘tackle long-term challenges’ and improve the living standards and wellbeing of all New Zealanders. With increasing understanding the world over of the climate crisis, threats to biodiversity and the increasing likelihood of adverse weather events, there is no area of spending more intrinsically linked to wellbeing than the environment itself. Spending on research and development, however, needs to appreciate this link if the government is serious about ensuring our continued wellbeing.

The Budget recognises investment in research and development is required to develop new ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the land sector, mitigate agricultural emissions, and to deal with the effects of climate change. The establishment of a New Energy Development Centre in Taranaki and a new science research fund for cutting edge energy technology is positive acknowledgement of the need for change.

However, there needs to be a greater emphasis on funding environmental advocacy and supporting the kinds of independent, blue-skies research conducted within our tertiary education institutions needed for promoting the level of change required to stave off the level of threat posed by climate change.

We need to fund researchers and advocacy groups who are willing to stand up and show, for example, that more mining, urban sprawl and land use intensification, especially through irrigation, make us less resilient.

We need to fund researchers with the courage to tell us that more mining means more fossil fuel use and more harm to the environment. That more urban sprawl means less high-quality land to grow food. That more irrigation means more intensification with increased emissions and more reliance on water, thus increasing risk.

We need much more research into climate adaptation and increasing resilience. We need to know how to keep water in the landscape, at farm-scale. We need much more work on regenerative farming and how to escape our reliance on fossil fuel derived fertilisers, transport and infrastructure.

We must look further than the present.

For wellbeing in the face of looming climate impacts, the best use of government spending would be to stop the things going ahead that make us more vulnerable to climate change. We need to turn away from industries and ‘dirty jobs’ that create huge future risks. Protecting mining - one such dirty job - puts us all at risk. Transitioning out of a fossil-fueled economy is our only future and all available money should be going into transition, adaptation and resilience research and projects.

The lack of significant new investment in tertiary education limits our capacity to truly address the many risks posed by the climate crisis.

The world’s first Wellbeing Budget offered New Zealand an opportunity to lead the way in this area, but instead it may have hamstrung those in the best position to challenge the environmental status quo. A status quo that puts our future at risk.