The Environment’s Big Five for 2020
This article appeared in the NZ Herald on Monday 20 January 2020.
There are 5 big environmental issues that the Government needs to deliver on during 2020.
First, making good on the freshwater reform promises: stop further degradation, reverse past damage and fix allocation problems (for both nutrient discharges and water takes). Measures to achieve these are being strongly resisted by the agriculture sector and we can expect greater pressure on Ministers to cave in. That will no doubt come in the form of more misleading assertions about costs and ignoring benefits of reducing pollution.
The agricultural sector wants to rely on so-called good management practice, a euphemism for “trust us, we know what we’re doing.” But that hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work now. What is needed to stop things getting even worse is a National Environmental Standard that takes immediate effect, followed by a revamped National Policy Statement to plug existing gaps by setting bottom lines for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Regional councils would then be tasked with quickly putting in place catchment plans that set actual limits, subject to those national bottom lines, and timelines for meeting them. Cleaning up pollution of our waterways is essential and Ministers Parker and O’Connor have to stand staunch.
Secondly, reversing our alarming biodiversity decline. The Government needs to deliver its new National Policy Statement for Indigenous biodiversity. Unlike the freshwater reforms, this has wide support across the rural sector so is relatively uncontroversial. The perilous state of our precious wildlife and plants is well known and needs urgent intervention.
There have been a number of attempts to provide national direction on protecting biodiversity on private land, all of which have failed to date. Getting this instrument into play will be a singular achievement for the 2 sponsoring Ministers, Sage and Mahuta, and for former Minister Nick Smith who kicked it off. As with freshwater, it’ll be the role of regional councils to deploy the policy via their plans. It should reduce the amount of repetitive litigation over plan-making and lead to improved outcomes for indigenous species.
Thirdly, addressing this generation’s nuclear-free moment. The new Climate Change Commission is now up and running, and proposed ETS reforms are currently subject to consultation. Ensuring these settings are sufficiently ambitious and urgent will be crucial if New Zealand is to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement target. We are currently not on track to do so.
In light of this, consultation on the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Reforms) Amendment Bill requires attention. Although agriculture is responsible for almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions, neither the sector’s proposals in He Waka Eke Noa nor the modified commitments (which are set out in Supplementary Order Paper 413 to the Bill) include any undertaking to actually reduce emissions. Both are thin on detail with the sector seeking to rely on yet-to-be delivered technologies that have been promised since 2002 and still haven’t emerged. No mention is made of existing farm management practices that have demonstrated their potential to lock in immediate emissions reductions (and often economic benefits), including stock reduction and land use change.
Whatever form the Government’s partnership with agriculture takes on emissions, it will require far greater ambition, detail, accountability, and robustness if the sector is to properly play its part and New Zealand is to have any chance of meeting its reductions targets.
Fourthly, delivering better outcomes for the natural environment and urban areas. There are 2 sets of reforms to the resource management system underway. In the short term, the Resource Management Amendment Bill is currently before a select committee. This repeals some of the egregious changes made by the previous government and is likely to be enacted later this year.
It’s the longer term review of the system that is far more important. That’s being led by former Court of Appeal Judge Hon Tony Randerson QC and a panel of experts and is expected to report mid-year. It’s taking a broad look at the RMA and related laws and is expected to come up with a generational shift in how we manage our natural and built environments. This is hugely significant and warrants cross-party support given the quasi-constitutional nature of the legal framing for resource management. That’s something for Hon Judith Collins and Hon Scott Simpson to be thinking seriously about during 2020.
Fifthly, paying attention to the most neglected part of our environment: oceans. Reform here has stalled under the current Government. The deployment of marine spatial planning, the expansion of marine reserves, improvements to destructive fishing methods and nailing the Kermadec Oceans Sanctuary have all failed to materialize. On the upside, implementation of the Seachange recommendations regarding the Hauraki Gulf, seen as a pilot for wider reform, is being actively pursued by Ministers Sage and Nash and needs to be delivered on this year.
We can expect a joined-up focus from the environmental sector and offerings in election manifestos this year on much-needed improvements to oceans management. At this stage National is ahead of the game with its proposed oceans policy.
Finally, EDS is actively involved in all of these issues, either through current research, membership of advisory groups or presentation of submissions. The EDS environmental conference in August will profile party policies and our climate change and business conference in October will assess progress, including looking at lessons from recent events in Australia.
Gary Taylor is the CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.