Environment Aotearoa 2019

by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ.

It synthesises the domain-specific reports from the past three years into a system-wide assessment of the state of our environment. It's a great report, but a very difficult read.

For example, how does knowing that the extinction risk for 86 indigenous species has increased in the past 15 years sit with most New Zealanders?

Advertisement

We realise that people have had an adverse impact over the past 1000 or so years, but how could that still be happening in our time across so many species?

Much of the response to the report has focused on how good it is to have some hard data (and how there are still gaps that we need to address). Some have gone further and argued the case for urgent policy responses.

These include promulgating new or improved National Policy Statements on indigenous biodiversity and freshwater, better funding of the Department of Conservation, creating more marine protected areas and capping cow numbers.

All those suggestions make good sense, and some are underway. But they miss the key lesson to be taken from Environment Aotearoa 2019: the present system of environmental management in New Zealand has failed, is continuing to fail and is in dire need of a fundamental makeover.

That involves much more than fixing a sector or focusing on particular problems.

Otherwise, how can it be – with such a sophisticated and growing understanding of our environment – that so many indicators, and not just those relating to species vulnerability, are in decline? It's not as if this is new information.

EDS's own publications over the past five years, previous environmental domain reports by the Government, and local assessments (such as the one showing the poor state of the Hauraki Gulf) have been reflecting this trend for years.

And now it's 2019, for goodness' sake. Surely it's not beyond us to find a comprehensive fix.

Advertisement

The answer lies in looking hard at the entire system we have for managing our natural and built environments. Yes, it's good to tackle key challenges one by one.

That may lead to some incremental improvements, especially where we have limited capacity and some things are more urgent than others. But we need to ask whether the system as a whole needs a rethink.

What would an optimal configuration of laws, administration, economic drivers and behavioural incentives look like?

That's what EDS is working on now (and has been for the past two years) and we expect our preferred reform model to be revealed by the end of this year.

We've been supported by the New Zealand Law Foundation and the Borrin Foundation. We've partnered with leading business groups under the auspices of Resource Reform NZ.

We started that work from first principles and have taken a wide view of "the system" which goes way beyond the Resource Management Act.

That's because so much of resource management is done (or not done) in ways and by people not provided for in that legislation – transport, climate, local government, conservation, biosecurity, taxation, waste – the list goes on.

Transformational change is also where the Government might be heading. In November last year Environment Minister David Parker announced "a more comprehensive review of the resource management system" that would kick off mid-2019.

Clearly we need a system reset. What is the optimal disposition of roles between central government and the regions? Are regional councils, too, conflicted to have such delegated powers for managing resources? Should there be a national regulator? Should there be a charge for freshwater (or other resource) use?

What about the utility of other environmental taxes? Is plantation forestry getting away with murder? Who should regulate the environmental impacts of fishing? Is the Resource Management Act itself in need of simplification and more clearly defined outcomes? Are biophysical bottom lines explicit enough? Is planning too prescriptive? Is there a role for more spatial planning on both land and sea?

My contention is that piecemeal improvements under the present system won't cut the mustard and turn around these adverse trends on their own.

A more strategic approach to reform is needed where nothing is off the table.

That's why the terms of reference for the Government's resource management review need to be broad and all-encompassing, not narrow and unambitious.

The review needs to cut across silos, institutions, sectors and practices. It needs to recognise the interconnectedness of it all. Transformational change does not necessarily need to happen overnight. It can be sequenced. But as a country we need a long-term plan for reform that recognises what we have now is simply not good enough, and certainly won't be good enough for our future citizens.

Our system of resource management has for the most part been in place for several decades. It reflects the norms and values of another age. It's time to do some serious reflection on what the next generation of resource management should look like. It has to turn around the direction of travel signalled in Environment Aotearoa 2019.

Gary Taylor is CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.