Just How Sustainable is Aotearoa New Zealand?

Source: Catapult

Nestled in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, Aotearoa New Zealand has long been celebrated for its breath-taking landscapes, vibrant culture, and a clean and green image. From the snow-capped Southern Alps to the pristine beaches, New Zealand’s natural beauty has become synonymous with sustainability. However, beneath the surface, there are pressing challenges that call for a deeper examination of the country’s sustainability practices. In this article, I explore how our image contrasts with reality and critically assess areas where improvements are needed.


For over 30 years New Zealand has benefited from a marketing and advertising campaign promoting it as a clean, green country and 100% Pure food exporter and tourism destination. This carefully crafted image has made the country billions of dollars in export earnings from dairy products, tourism, and organic foods. The origins of “clean and green” are believed to be linked to the Rainbow Warrior incident in 1985 and New Zealand’s stance against nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms in the 1980s.

However, as consumer awareness of sustainability issues has increased, expectations are changing. In a world where key markets are prioritising climate action and indigenous rights, this clean and green narrative no longer stacks up.


New Zealand is ranked 25th in the Global Sustainability Index. Here, we break down how sustainable New Zealand is into economic prosperity, social wellbeing, and environmental performance.

Economic Prosperity

In economic prosperity, New Zealand ranks:

Social: Wellbeing

The Human Development Index uses life expectancy, education, and per capita income to rank countries into four tiers of human development. In 2022 New Zealand ranked 13th (UNDP).

The Better Life Index compares wellbeing across countries across 11 topics in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life (OECD). New Zealand outperforms the average in income, jobs, education, health, environmental quality, social connections, civic engagement and life satisfaction. New Zealanders rated their life satisfaction an average of 7.9 grade, higher than the OECD average of 6.7.

Is everyone equally well off?

International indices look at the overall wellbeing of a country, rather than whether different groups are doing better than others. Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand 2022 found that different communities such as Māori and Pacific peoples, young people, disabled people and women and the rainbow community have extremely varied experiences of health, housing, educational achievement, income, mental distress, and a sense of belonging.

The New Zealand Treasury introduced the Living Standards Framework (LSF) in 2021 to understand the drivers of wellbeing and to consider the broader impacts of their policy advice. The LSF measures:

  1. Our individual and collective wellbeing.
  2. Our institutions and governance.
  3. The wealth of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Treasury’s first Wellbeing Report (2022) assesses how wellbeing has changed over time, how it is distributed, how the wellbeing of Māori is evolving, and whether wellbeing is sustainable into the future. Key findings include:

  • Life in Aotearoa New Zealand has improved in many ways over the past 20 years.
  • Compared to other OECD countries, Aotearoa New Zealand is a good place to live in many ways, but performs less well for children and young people and on rental housing.
  • Māori have had especially rapid increases in rates of psychological distress, high levels of discrimination, and low trust in government institutions.
  • While New Zealand has high natural capital, aspects of the natural environment are deteriorating.
  • Sustaining wellbeing will depend upon our society’s ability to adapt to a lower-carbon economy and a warmer global climate.

Environmental Performance

The Environmental Performance Index ranks New Zealand as 26th out of the top 100 countries. However, April 19 in 2023 marked Earth Overshoot Day for New Zealand: the day we began to use more from nature than our planet can renew in a year.

The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment stocktake report, Environment Aotearoa 2022, highlights weaknesses and degradation in the areas of land and soil, biodiversity and land-based ecosystems, freshwater, and the marine environment. Shifting rainfall patterns and warming temperatures threaten our agricultural economy, native ecosystems, Māori customs, and impact our mental wellbeing. Air quality is slowly improving across Aotearoa, but air pollution at monitored sites is above the World Health Organisation 2021 guidelines for most air pollutants some of the time.

Climate change poses significant risks to New Zealand (Royal Society, 2016). The New Zealand Government’s climate-change work programme includes:

  1. Setting targets and establishing a pathway to meet them. The target to meet New Zealand’s share of the Paris Agreement — our nationally declared contribution — is a 50% reduction of net emissions below our gross 2005 level by 2030 (Oct 2021). The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 sets targets to reduce emissions by 2050, and is supported by the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) (May 2022). Work on a second ERP is underway at present. 
    In early 2023, Climate Action Tracker said “New Zealand’s NDC target is rated “Critically insufficient” when compared with its fair share contribution to climate action and “Insufficient” when compared to modelled domestic pathways. Its policies and action do not put it on track to meet this target and its climate finance is inadequate.”
  2. Emissions reduction initiatives. The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) was established to drive abatement and meet legislated emission reduction targets and emissions budgets. The NZ ETS has been heavily criticised by the Climate Change Commission and was under review, although that work has now ceased. There is also a plan to accelerate emissions reductions within the public sector via the Carbon Neutral Government Programme.
  3. Adaptation. The National Adaptation Plan aims to help New Zealanders to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The Government’s climate change work programme is supported by the independent Climate Change Commission, and a sustainable finance work programme including New Zealand Green Investment Finance, and mandatory climate-related financial disclosures.

Climate Action Tracker had rated New Zealand’s climate action under the Labour Government overall as “highly insufficient”. The Climate Leaders Coalition and Sustainable Business Council prepared a Briefing for incoming Ministers in late 2023 outlining their support of a continued climate change response. Since the change of government in October 2023, the emphasis on how to achieve the carbon reduction targets may shift to renewable energy, resilient infrastructure, and new technologies, but the commitment to the targets remains.

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) ranks New Zealand as 34th, putting it among the low-performing countries. In a previous edition, the CCPI noted that the Zero Carbon Act, ERP and ETS are not aligned with the Paris Agreement: “these pieces of legislation are not 1.5°C-compatible (despite the commitment to the 1.5°C target) and lack important details. And although agricultural sector emissions (including methane and nitrogen dioxide [NO2]) account for 50% of New Zealand’s overall GHG emissions, the agricultural sector is not included in the ETS and does not face any regulations.”

The CCPI also welcomed the 2018 ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, and the target of 100% renewable electricity by 2030. But “coal mining and onshore oil and gas exploration remain unrestricted.” The incoming Government has signalled they will reverse the ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, but retain an emphasis on increasing renewable energy production.


To elevate its sustainability practices, and to live up to the ‘clean and green’ image, Aotearoa New Zealand must address the challenges it faces. This requires:

  1. Strengthening Climate Action: Implementing more ambitious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supporting sustainable transportation systems, and accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy.
  2. Prioritising Wellbeing and Equity: Tackling housing affordability, addressing income disparities, investing in social programmes, and improving access to quality education and healthcare.
  3. Enhancing Environmental Regeneration: Strengthening environmental regulations, promoting sustainable land-use practices, and investing in habitat restoration and protection.
  4. Supporting Indigenous Perspectives: Partnering with iwi / Māori, recognising and respecting their rights and knowledge systems, and involving them in decision-making processes.

Leaders Like You, Nick Sceats & Andrea Thompson


Aotearoa New Zealand’s sustainability journey goes beyond its clean and green image. By acknowledging its successes and addressing areas that require improvement, the nation can pave the way for a more sustainable future. Embracing te ao Māori principles, strengthening climate action, promoting social equity, and prioritising environmental conservation are crucial steps toward lifting New Zealand’s sustainability to new heights.