Sciblogs: Part 8: Solving the biodiversity crisis

Sciblogs: Part 8: Solving the biodiversity crisis

Over the past several weeks I’ve unpacked the essence of Vanishing Nature, pointing out where the fundamental drivers of the loss of nature appear throughout our economy and institutions.

The worrisome state of our national conservation agency (DOC) is a manifestation of politically sanctioned agency capture promoting low priority to safeguarding nature over competing government priorities. On private land, obsessions with short-term private profit irrespective of public costs have diminished and degraded the commons without the recompense for the public that natural justice demands.

Socialisation of environmental costs has affected freshwater ecosystems most severely, and the muddled regulatory context for freshwater means even if there are solutions, they are rarely adopted. Water quality and freshwater ecosystem intactness are pretty much commensurate with its distance from humans.

Out to sea, our stunning marine environment bears the brunt of regulatory and institutional failures both on land and at sea. An opaque governance regime and political disinterest in all but the economic offerings of the sea will ensure that the marine environment continues to degrade without disruptive innovation. It’s bloody dismal.

The good news is that just as losing biodiversity is a choice, so too is saving it.

Communities dig in, but they’re unfairly burdened with forgotten statutory mandates and a dearth of secure funding and support. Regional and district councils increasingly embrace their biodiversity mandates (none too soon) and the staff of DOC do their level best within a tough political environment. The public clearly care, but their attentions and thus outcomes are often misdirected and chaotic from a conservation point of view. There’s energy, but we need a game plan to bring focus and so achieve real improvement.

In Vanishing Nature, we said that solutions come in many forms and exist primarily at three levels. At the grass roots, there are the practical solutions (e.g. pest control, biosecurity interventions, captive breeding innovations, restoration planting) that are politically ‘sexy’, everyone wants them but they’re just time and resources-limited. We need loads more of them and fast.

Tactical solutions are the next level up – they seek to balance the public interest with the much more powerful private interests that want to harm nature for private gain. Law does this. While a bunch of our laws are pretty solid (aside from gaping implementation gaps), some laws are basically derelict.

The Marine Reserves Act 1971 is an example. The Act can’t protect anything beyond the territorial sea; the purpose for reserves is very narrow and; the Act fails to recognise the Treaty of Waitangi. The Proposed Marine Protected Areas Act also excludes the EEZ, waters down absolute marine protection and does a very ordinary job of recognising Maori interests.  One could be forgiven for thinking that the proposed Act was designed to protect vested private and industry interests from the public interest in a healthy marine environment.

Private interests capture governments so that legislation is weak and ambiguous and effectively protects the interests of those who need to be regulated instead of the public interest.  High principles and strong rhetoric to conceal weak and ambiguous legislation become the norm despite the best efforts of NGOs that dig in and fight for more effective laws because they do matter.

Vanishing Nature argued for strategic solutions – disruptive things that affect powerful economic drivers that harm nature. In particular, solutions that give vested interests a reason to do the right thing for the public interest in the environment (and thus free up agencies to do their job) and – most importantly – raise loads more money to rescue our natural heritage. Strategic solutions are the game-changers that align private, government and public interests toward a particular outcome: an outcome that works for nature and for the future public – our children and grandchildren.

This takes political courage, overwhelming public support and some systemic, long term thinking by those involved in environmental advocacy at all levels. It’s too easy just to focus on daily issues and battles instead of the systemic drivers that create the issues and the need to do battle at all.

Strategic solutions need to be locked in during periods of high support for conservation (it waxes and wanes over time) and they need to be good enough so that vested interests and their politicians have little incentive to roll them back. Here are the ones we set out, but there are more I’m sure…

Partnerships – are a strategic solution but only if they’re done right. Sharing the immense load of conservation across different interests of different capabilities can help to generate better outcomes for nature. Key tripping points are when the partnerships divert precious agency resources to low priority work or where the external partner has more power than the other and may abuse that by reorienting the partnership to suit their own agenda.  For example, DOC needs to be particularly careful lest its partnerships with industry constrain its ability to advocate for the protection of our natural heritage from the adverse effects of their activities.

Environmental Protection Fund – New Zealand makes piles of money from tourists and other users of the natural environment (and could stand to make piles more), but hardly any finds its way back to biodiversity conservation. We recommended launching a national endowment fund to gather impact investment funding, tourism income and other donations to distribute to the areas of need for conservation that exceed the capability of agencies  The fund would have to be strictly additional and complementary to  – and NOT a substitute for – publicly funded conservation.

Environmental Consumption Tax and Rebate System – is a novel institution that integrates economic, taxation and environmental policy by taxing harm to nature and providing rebates and support to those acting in the interests of nature. Corrective environmental taxes might seem extreme, but the present state of things is fast eroding the biodiversity and ecosystem services upon which our lives and welfare depend. Compared with the status quo, kicking our economy into shape and ensuring that polluters and damagers pay the true cost of their exploits seems really rather logical.

Payments for Ecosystem Services – landowners are paid to maintain and restore nature. Payment is commensurate with the benefit of their actions. Present discussions over compensation for landowners with sites of ecological significance highlights how important this prospect is to those otherwise disinterested in doing their bit for more than private economic reasons. Problematic is that these approaches are pretty expensive and financing the fund usually necessitates a polluter pays approach. Voices in support of compensation tend to quieten down when the coin flips to ideas about who would provide the funds for these payments…

National conversation on biodiversity – to build public support for biodiversity protection and to capitalise on that with implementing some of the changes above, we need to fire up the political furnaces and put nature on centre stage. This has happened before. The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy arose from a comprehensive and rigorous public process, was backed with funding, was even carefully reviewed and evaluated a few years on – and it set a goal to (among other things) “halt the decline of indigenous biodiversity by 2020”.

But we haven’t yet even slowed the decline. Biodiversity loss continues unabated and, in fact, has accelerated since the Strategy appeared in drier, lowland environments. The chances of halting it by 2020 are pretty slim, even with disruptive systemic change to our environmental and economic institutions.

A refreshed public process to set a course, be designed to meet DOC and council’s existing statutory commitments, incorporate the more recent Aichi targets and more effectively engage the general public is overdue. Without re-engaging the public in a meaningful discourse, modernising our approaches to biodiversity protection and implementing strategic and tactical changes we are unlikely to be able to maintain the public interest in a healthy environment that sustains a flourishing native biota.

Nearly 30 solutions inclusive of the above are set out in Vanishing Nature. Next week we draw it all together to set out a vision for biodiversity conservation and review progress so far on recommendations.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Loïc Lagarde.

Article by Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society

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Last updated at 3:32PM on March 24, 2016