Report questions NZ's environment action

It's 20 years since the Earth Summit - but what's been achieved? Photo / AP
It's 20 years since the Earth Summit - but what's been achieved? Photo / AP

New Zealand can "hold its head up high" at next month's Rio Earth Summit, Environment Minister Amy Adams says, despite a report saying the country has failed to meet environmental commitments.

A World Wildlife Fund report claims New Zealand has failed to meet any of the major commitments agreed to at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years ago.

New Zealand was among 178 countries at the summit which committed to cutting greenhouse gas emission, improving water quality and protecting biodiversity.

However the Beyond Rio report, which document progress since the summit, said New Zealand has little to be proud of.

It comes ahead of the Rio 20+ summit, the 20th anniversary of the world's biggest environmental summit.

The report said New Zealand lakes and rivers are increasingly polluted, with 43 per cent of monitored lakes now classed as polluted and an estimated 18,000-34,000 people catching waterborne diseases annually.

More than 60 per cent of native freshwater fish, as well as the only freshwater crayfish and mussel species, are now threatened with extinction, almost two-thirds of New Zealand's seabird species are listed as threatened with extinction, and seven of New Zealand's ten official "indicator species" for measuring biodiversity status are threatened.

New Zealand's gross emissions have risen by 20 per cent since 1992, due to increased pollution from energy, transport, agriculture and industry sectors.

WWF-New Zealand executive director Chris Howe said rather than "the land of the long white cloud, [New Zealand] is now a land of polluted rivers and lakes, rising greenhouse gas emissions, pressured marine ecosystems and disappearing bird and mammal species.

"While it is important for the government to constructively engage in the upcoming summit, we should not lose sight of the many commitments that already exist.

"If New Zealand's political leaders had made good on the promises made back in 1992, then we wouldn't be faced with such a battle to turn things around."

Mr Howe said while there are solutions that can help New Zealand improve its environmental record and restore integrity to its international commitments, the "political will has been sorely lacking".

"As world leaders prepare to meet again in Rio this June, we urge John Key's government to heed this report's wake-up call and, regardless of new agreements, take immediate steps honour our existing international commitments," he said.

"New Zealand's future social and economic well-being is dependent on functioning and flourishing ecosystems. Sustainability must be put at the heart of decision-making to ensure a future where people live in harmony with nature."

GOVT DEFENDS RECORD

Minister for the Environment Amy Adams said New Zealand can "hold its head very high" and has a good record in addressing the environmental issues raised at Rio 20 years ago.

"I think in terms of other countries and the work that we have done ... we can hold our heads very high," she told Radio New Zealand.

"The fact is we have taken the commitments from Rio, woven them into our mainstream policy development and New Zealanders are seeing more and more of that all the time.

Ms Adams said the National Government has spent $104 million on improving water quality compared to $17 million under the last term of Labour Government.

"The work isn't done, we still have more to do, but there are always going to be groups that want to go around bringing down New Zealand's reputation and I think that's unfortunate."

SCIENTISTS' CLIMATE WARNING AHEAD OF RIO 20+

Meanwhile scientists are warning swifter action is required to avert a climate catastrophe.

Climate negotiators have been meeting in Bonn ahead of Rio 20+, and have issued warnings about more severe droughts, disease spread and sea level rises.

"Let's consider climate change like you are in a car trying to stop before reaching a ledge. We are applying the brakes but we are still far away from decelerating enough not to fall from the ledge," Wael Hmaidan, director of activist group Climate Action Network, told AFP on the sidelines of the talks which ended Friday.

Last week, climate researchers said the planet could warm by more than 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 if countries do not raise their game.

The UN's target is a 2 deg C limit on warming from pre-industrial levels for manageable climate change.

Paul Hare from German policy research group Climate Analytics said the gap between countries' promised interventions and the reality was "getting bigger."

And the International Energy Agency said CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached a new high last year, providing "further evidence that the door to a 2 degree Celsius trajectory is about to close."

The Earth Summit had yielded the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in turn led to the Kyoto Protocol binding 37 rich nations to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

"I would say that the climate negotiations at their twentieth anniversary are definitely moving in the right direction, but not at the speed and not at the scale" required, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said in Bonn.

Scientists who monitor progress under the name Climate Action Tracker (CAT) say warming of 3.5 deg C could cause many plant and animal species to die out, deserts to expand and agricultural production to plummet.

They say the scenario can be avoided if governments raise their commitments considerably, and fast - cutting fossil fuel subsidies and boosting renewable energy production.

"The only thing that is creating the gap is a lack of political will," said Hmaidan.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said climate change posed the greatest threat to the well-being of people and ecosystems 20 years after the Rio conference.

"It is not too late to address this threat, but scientists tell us the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Without much more ambitious action now, we will be condemning our children and grandchildren to suffer the consequences of truly dangerous levels of climate change."

Countries agreed at UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa last December to draft a new climate pact by 2015.

Due to take effect from 2020, it should bind all countries to greenhouse gas emission cuts.

But gathered in Bonn for the past 11 days, negotiators tasked with laying the groundwork for the new deal got stuck in procedural bickering as battle lines were redrawn between rich nations and some in the developing world over apportioning responsibility for tackling global warming.

"The now-predictable drama and upheavals at the United Nations climate treaty talks underscored the precarious state of multilateral efforts to reach a new agreement to protect the world's climate," observed the Environmental Defense Fund.

Fast-growing economies like China and India, fearing emission cuts may slow their development engines, insist the developed world, which polluted more for longer, should bear a greater mitigation burden.

But the West and small countries most threatened by climate change are eager for the emerging polluters to step up to the plate.

Even as countries hurled accusations at one another in Bonn, all agreed on one thing: "it is getting very late", in the words of EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

Some progress has been made as the world prepares for the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development next month and the next round of UN climate talks in Qatar in December.

Twenty years ago, when United States climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing attended the Earth Summit "we met in a room for the entire world that was the size of the room here", he said -- gesturing at a press conference room in Bonn.

"The most recent meeting than we had in Durban, we had 10,000 people and we had global coverage and we had heads of state."

Every major economy in the world has now made a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Pershing pointed out.

"I think the world is recognising how much damage could be caused but also the importance of acting."

- Herald Online and AFP

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