As an undergraduate, Mike Burrell wrote a 10,000-word honours paper entitled “The greening of mainstream politics”.

It was 1990, an election year, and Burrell, who is now head of the Sustainable Business Council, felt a sea change. His research showed the environment was now a top-five issue for voters, and politicians would surely have to take it seriously and move quickly on repairing the degradation. Wouldn’t they?

Thirty years later, the optimism of the 1990s green movement has been proven to be misplaced. The political rhetoric has been strong, and there have been achievements in New Zealand – ratifying the Paris Agreement, the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Climate Change Commission and Zero Carbon legislation.

But our greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Between 1990 and 2020, gross emissions increased by 21 percent, net emissions by 26 percent, mostly because of increased methane from dairy and CO2 from road transport.

In 2022, emissions were still increasing. Some of the political hesitancy and delay over the years has been the result of some sometimes vociferous lobbying against environmental measures by business interests – farmers, oil and gas, transport groups.

The ‘fart tax’ lobbying scuppered an emissions research levy in 2003. Photo:

Companies in favour of reform have been far less likely to make their voices heard.

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And now, here we are back in election mode. Burrell, who returned to business in 2020 after eight years at MFAT, including heading its sustainable economic development team and stints in Myanmar and South Africa, says it’s time businesses pushed politicians of all colours much harder on the environment. 

New Zealand should be moving faster on getting greenhouse gases down, he says, and political parties need to be putting more specifics into their policies.

Mike Burrell wants green business to make more noise. Photo: Supplied

The two organisations Burrell is involved with – the Sustainable Business Council and the Climate Leaders Coalition – represent 165 companies producing 40 percent of New Zealand’s GDP and 60 percent of our total emissions. They also employ more than 210,000 people.

As the election approaches, “you’ll see, we’re going to be really noisy”, Burrell says. Not protesting in the streets noisy, or tractors at the steps of Parliament noisy, but certainly more pressure.

“You’ll hear it through the Climate Leaders Coalition, you’ll hear Sustainable Business Council talking about this, and you’ll hear it coming through the businesses themselves. It’s about us communicating our climate action message both to the parties themselves and also to the public through the media to say: ‘These are important things, these are (not to use the term we’re all getting tired of) ‘meat and potatoes’ things, core, fundamental things.”

And the message?

“Stick to the game plan, keep those significant policy planks in place, don’t lose momentum – it’s only going to get harder and more expensive. And you need to provide the long-term advice that will give businesses certainty, rather than this going backwards and forwards.”

“And then privately we’ll be saying to politicians of all persuasions: ‘For goodness sake, put your big kids’ trousers on and make this stuff happen because, you know, we’ve waited 30 years. And we don’t have time any more.”
– Mike Burrell, Sustainable Business Council

Burrell says he is disappointed but not panicked at Labour’s ‘bonfire of the policies’ last week, where climate-related initiatives including the clean car upgrade, the container-return scheme, public transport improvements and Auckland light rail were ditched or postponed. 

“I would have been more worried if some of the more fundamental policies around transport, emissions reduction in process heat, or their commitment to working in partnership on agricultural emissions had been cut. If you are going to make cuts, at least make it things that are small scale.”

And while National Leader Christopher Luxon’s speech at the National Party Bluegreen forum appeared to Newsroom to be light on environmental policy commitments and heavy on attacking Labour on Three Waters and co-governance, Burrell says it is reassuring Luxon has reaffirmed the party’s commitment to basic climate change legislation.

“It gives the certainty business needs that we are going on net zero by 2050, we’re going to abide by the ETS setting, and the climate budgets. And it doesn’t matter which government it is, that broad direction of travel is there.”

Part of the urgency, from a business leaders’ perspective, is about making sure there are no surprises in terms of future regulation (“If we don’t steer this waka, we’re going to get regulated the hell out of,” Burrell says), but also making sure New Zealand companies don’t find their products out of favour with overseas customers because we are falling behind environmentally. 

Pressure from the kids

But there’s another motivation from some of the business leaders Burrell speaks to – pressure from the younger generations. 

“People are saying to me: ‘I need to be able to face my own kids.’ One guy said: ‘My daughter hasn’t spoken to me for three months because she says I work for the devil. I need to show her I am taking action so she can be proud of what I’m doing.’”

In Auckland, Rachel Brown, CEO of the Sustainable Business Network, says she’s hearing similar things from her members.

“They want to see action on these big issues. They can see they are going to cost the nation, and they’ve got kids or grandkids. They don’t want to be leaving a legacy those kids have to pay for.”

Rachel Brown says we should be putting pressure on our politicians. Photo: Supplied

Brown formed the Auckland Environmental Business Network in 1999 and the Sustainable Business Network in 2002. She calls this election “the most pivotal”.

“We absolutely need to be putting pressure on our politicians to demonstrate what they are doing, no matter what party they are from.”

Without minimising the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle [Mike Burrell, head of the Sustainable Business Council] says until you’ve seen the sort of full-blown cyclone they get in the Pacific, you can’t understand what our future could look like.

She says SBN has a huge variety of members from social enterprises to big corporates; their leaders would have a wide variety of political views.

“But the common thing they are looking for are signals from politicians of how they can make the sustainability stuff work.”

The slower you go, the bigger the mess 

For Burrell, there are significant risks if environmentally active businesses stay quiet in the lead-up this election, and politicians do nothing.

“If we keep kicking this can down the road we’re at real risk of not being able to meet our climate obligations. We belong to the OECD; we have international commitments, so we’re still going to have to reduce our emissions, it’s just going to be dramatically more expensive. Because the further along you go, the faster you have to move and the more expensive it is.

“The second risk is our trade risk, which is that Europe particularly and other blocs are going to say: ‘Wait a minute, we’re taking the hit, making changes, and you guys are just free riding. Why should we allow you access to our markets?’

“And we’ve already begun to see that in some of the more recent trade agreements, which have climate and sustainability elements in them.”

When Burrell talks about urgency on climate change, he knows what he’s talking about. Early in his career he spent time working in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where he was on the ground for four cyclones. And without minimising the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle, he says until you’ve seen the sort of full-blown cyclone they get in the Pacific, you can’t understand what our future could look like.

“Imagine the 2040s, 2050s, which is when Niwa is saying we might start seeing weather intensifying. Imagine you are getting three cyclones a year, and two storms coming up from Antarctica and devastating the southern part of New Zealand. We need to be passionate about the climate.

“This election is really important, and we’ll be making noise wherever we can,” Burrell says, including a pre-election briefing paper coming out next month.

“And then privately we’ll be saying to politicians of all persuasions: ‘For goodness sake, put your big kids’ trousers on and make this stuff happen because, you know, we’ve waited 30 years. And we don’t have time any more.” 

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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