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The Government of Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership and action by changing its laws to conform with the laws of nature, writes Klaus Bosselmann.


Rather than relying on International Panel on Climate Change reports, Earth system science gives us a much clearer idea of the complexities and threats humanity is facing by looking at the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere.


Opinion: In his article ‘Urgency on climate vastly underplayed’ (NZ Herald, 27 March), energy and climate change expert Kevin Anderson says the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) conservative nature masks the true scale of action needed to avert catastrophic climate change and writes that the IPCC “has been as damaging to the agenda of cutting emissions as Exxon was in misleading the public about climate science”.

Such criticism may surprise readers, given that IPCC reports regularly make headlines and call for more climate action. Yet, we need to understand that the IPPC does not conduct its own research, that governments appoint its members, that its reports tend to represent a lowest common denominator and therefore, that they underestimate the impacts and complexities of climate change.

Rather than relying on annual IPPC reports, Earth system science gives us a much clearer idea of the complexities and threats humanity is facing. The atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere are interrelated components of a single dynamic system called Earth. As important as climate change mitigation and adaptation are, governments – and we all – must not lose track of what humans are doing to the Earth system, our home. Its very integrity is at stake, and not even the much-needed shift to renewable energy will be enough to prevent planetary tipping points.

For fifteen years now, leading Earth system scientists have shown that humanity has exceeded some key planetary boundaries (climate change, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, land use). It is time for governments to wake up and address the systemic nature of these issues.

Surprisingly (or not?), international law has no obligation for countries to protect the global environment. So while more than 25 international agreements express concern for the integrity of the Earth’s ecological system, governments are still free to accept or ignore any responsibilities. And it’s not just the United States, Russia or China that have continuously rejected calls for an Earth Charter, a Global Pact for the Environment or Earth trusteeship.


Klaus Bosselmann
Dr Klaus Bosselmann is a professor of environmental law at the University of Auckland. He advises the UN Secretary-General on Earth system governance.


None of the past or present governments in Aotearoa New Zealand have ever shown an interest in accepting a legal obligation to protect the global environment (akin to the protection of human rights) or supporting global initiatives aiming for that. By contrast, hundreds of civil society organisations, together with past and present UN Secretary Generals, have repeatedly called on States to accept trusteeship responsibilities for future generations and the Earth. In essence, national policies and laws must be revised to preserve and restore the integrity of ecological systems.

It is not too late to take action. One opportunity is the Summit of the Future that the United Nations will host in September 2024. A central issue there will be whether and how member States accept mentioned trusteeship responsibilities.

Another opportunity is our government’s current reform of the resource management system. There is general agreement that the Resource Management Act has failed to protect the integrity of ecological systems (through emissions reductions and protection of rivers, lakes, coastal areas, forests and biodiversity). The main reason for this failure is a lack of clarity, leadership and enforcement.

The Government’s Natural and Built Environment Bill promises a little more in this regard, but not enough. The Bill defines its purpose as recognising and upholding Te Oranga o te Taiao (the health and well-being of the natural environment), but qualifies this with enabling use and development. Ecological integrity appears further down as one element of a national planning framework.

This is flawed thinking. Unless the protection and, where needed, restoration of ecological systems is an overall purpose of the Act, we will see more of the same: muddling through the impacts of a deteriorating climate system instead of effectively protecting the integrity of ecosystems (including climate). After all, humans are part of ecological systems and depend on their well-being.

The Government of Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique opportunity to take leadership by changing its laws to conform with the laws of nature. This could inspire similarly inclined countries in the Pacific region, South America and the EU.

Imagine an alliance of progressive countries sending a compelling message: economies are successful if they operate within ecological boundaries, not the other way around. Unfortunately, it will be too late if we do not accept what physical reality essentially is telling us.