Seven Things We Could Do With a $3b Fund for the Environment
Being willing to work with either National or Labour enabled New Zealand First to negotiate the best possible coalition deal. By contrast, with almost the same number of votes, the Green Party was able to negotiate little more than was already in the Labour Party manifesto. That is because it had no bargaining power, as it was only prepared to work with Labour.
The centrepiece of NZ First’s coalition deal was a $3b Provincial Growth Fund. But it has been an exercise in making it up as they go along, because it wasn’t part of NZ First’s manifesto and the party never had a very clear idea of what it was trying to achieve. It is a purely political showpiece to enable Shane Jones to proclaim himself the “First Citizen of the Provinces”.
What could a well-thought through $3b environmental fund achieve? Here are seven ideas, many of which would still benefit the provinces:
1. Riparian Planting
Planting riverbanks is really important for improving water quality. It won’t solve everything, but it really helps. Unfortunately this sort of planting is too small to count for carbon forestry. Farmers should get help with doing this planting, provided that it meets certain specifications.
2. Restoring Wetlands and Other Natural Infrastructure
In recent years, we have realised how important wetlands are and what a problem it is to have drained 90% of them. Wetlands are natural infrastructure – just like pipes and roads. They regulate flooding, clean our water, and provide food for animals. Now we should invest in them the same way that we do other infrastructure, both in cities and in the country.
The Billion Trees Programme isn’t a terrible idea, but subsidising pine is. How about investing in silviculture, which involves planting erosion-prone hillsides with poplars that can stabilise the land, but still enable sheep and cattle to graze? We can reap the benefits of locking up carbon and saving the soil, but also keep the industries that are so important to rural communities.
4. Making Money from Native Forest
We have three million hectares of erosion-prone land in New Zealand, depending on your definition. This land absolutely needs to be converted to forest. Silviculture and commercial pine forests may be suitable on some sites, but most Kiwis would prefer to see more native forest. This raises the question of how landowners can make money from it.
Of course, the Emissions Trading Scheme provides some income, but more research is needed to determine accurate carbon estimates for native forests. The honey industry is also promising, but currently operates like the Wild West and landowners often don’t get their fair share. And finally, we need to look much more closely at selective logging as a potential income source.
5. A Revolving Land Fund
How about setting up a fund that buys farms in environmentally sensitive areas, reforms them to be sustainably run, and sells them on? In most cases, the changes could be made with little impact on profit, but pay big environmental dividends. For example, farms could be destocked and then switched to organic or biological farming, or a completely different land use such as wine, nuts, or pipfruit. Wetlands can be restored, riparian margins planted, and marginal land returned to forest. These farms could accelerate the uptake of good practice throughout the country.
6. Renewable Generation in the North
Moving towards a 100% renewable electricity system is likely to push up power bills in the north of the North Island, which is furthest away from cheap hydro power. More thought needs to go into micro grids in remote areas and consenting more wind and geothermal generation in the Far North.
7. Research into Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture has the potential to reduce the impact on water quality and store more carbon in our soils. The problem is that there are no corporate backers to invest in the research needed to validate this approach to agriculture so that farmers can be rewarded for their work. A $3b environment fund could help finance this research.
The important thing is to set clear criteria for such a fund, e.g. to reduce emissions, improve water quality, and transition to a circular economy. These are just seven ideas that it could get behind. And I’m sure there are many more!