July 11, 2023

Sustainability Highlight: New Zealand

New Zealand is larger than life, home to landscapes like snowy mountains, fiordlands, raging rivers, and stunning beaches. The environment of New Zealand is one of a kind. This summer, CIRT intern Sara Jane, had the life changing opportunity to study sustainability abroad in New Zealand with the University of Georgia. When asked about her trip, Sara Jane reflects, “As I was flying into Queenstown for the first time, my jaw dropped, sprawling untouched green mountains went on for hundreds of miles. During my time in New Zealand, I had the privilege of seeing every landscape from the Milford Sound in the Fiordlands to the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook (native name Aoraki) to the rocky beaches of Kaikoura, and one thought I had the entire time was: This is unreal.” One of the most special aspects of the country was how well the landscape had been preserved. The whole country looked like it had been plucked out of a movie. Through speaking with locals and learning from my professors, Sara Jane slowly realized that the state of the environment was due entirely to the efforts of sustainability.

One thing that sets New Zealand apart from other countries is the legislation they put into place. The 2022-2025 New Zealand Strategy outlines sustainability in three regions: people, environment, and finances. Pertaining to their people, they hope to increase the kiwi capacity to understand how to reduce carbon emissions and waste. In terms of the environmental benchmarks the government is trying to achieve by 2025, New Zealand aims to reduce their emissions by 30% from their 2017/18 baseline. They are also trying to reduce waste to the landfill from their head office by 70% from the 2017/18 baseline. The financial part of the plan is working to include carbon emissions into the performance reporting so that decisions can be made based on the environment first and foremost. By integrating people, environment, and finances together, the government can make big positive impacts on the climate one step at a time.

One of the individuals Sara Jane met in New Zealand, Geoff Ross, a farmer at Lake Hawea Station in New Zealand, gave her a new perspective on what it means to be a sustainable business. LHS is a merino wool sheep farming business that focuses on being climate positive, which means they sequester more carbon than they release. Right now they are working on sequestering ten times more carbon than they emit, which is very uncommon for businesses in current times. Another thing they focus on is biodiversity , which is a sign of a resilient environment. At Lake Hawea Station they have 300+ species including 10 endemic and 8 native bird species, which areis very important for the surrounding environment. Overall, this carbon and biodiversity focused business strategy, in Sara Jane’s opinion, is the future of business, and getting to see these cutting edge tactics was eye opening for her.

From the time you step off the plane, New Zealand is making sure to protect its environment. Sara Jane reflects “the Biosecurity in New Zealand is the strictest I have ever seen before.” With fines of 400 NZD, every person passing through has to be very careful to check their belongings for any items that could endanger the wildlife. There are 15,000 plants, animals, diseases, and pests that New Zealand is actively trying to keep out of their country. These species and diseases could spread like a wildfire in the naive populations of New Zealand. This also helps an initiative called the Predator-Free 2050 Mission, which is the process of eliminating major predators in New Zealand which are out-competing the native species of New Zealand. Since New Zealand is an island, they have a lot of control over what and who they let into the country, they take this responsibility very seriously and use it to preserve their environment.

A fascinating waste reduction tactic Sara Jane witnessed in New Zealand was a huge push for less single use items. The entire time she was in the country, she only saw a paper towel one time. She also never saw a single plastic dishware item, not even in the grocery stores. New Zealand normalizes the use of other alternatives such as wood for single use items. Even on the airlines, not a single thing was made from plastic, which was incredible. In the streets, there are equal amounts of recycling bins to trash cans, which lessens the amount of recyclables in the landfill because people have the option to easily recycle. In the grocery stores, brown paper bags were used instead of plastic ones, and you had to pay for them, as the norm is to bring reusable bags. These little actions have such big impacts on the environment overtime and it was great to see them worked into the New Zealand way of life.

Perhaps the most important part of sustainable New Zealand is the mindset of the people. One interaction Sara Jane remembers in particular was with a woman in Kaikoura, a beach town in the South Island. She remembers, “I was in the process of buying a souvenir postcard when she [the woman in Kaikoura] asked what group I was a part of. I told her I was with a university group studying sustainability. She looked at me confused, and inquired why. I responded by explaining how amazing the sustainable practices of New Zealand are, and how we were studying them. She said something I did not expect: “I think we need to be way more sustainable.” She explained that she didn't think that New Zealand was doing enough for the environment, which was surprising to me, an American, who has never seen such green practices in my life.” The mindset of the kiwi people is climate focused, they do not see being climate friendly as an extra thing to do, it is the normal. This interaction changed Sara Jane’s mindset about being eco friendly; these behaviors should be assumed, not doing extra. We should habitually recycle, avoid single use items, and bring our own bags to the grocery store. We have the power to make these practices our new normal and New Zealand is a great example to follow.