Is New Zealand clean and green?

  • Deborah Morris
Associate Minister of the Environment

Victoria University, Wellington

Thank you for the invitation to address your lecture today. Id like to talk to you today about New Zealands green credentials: where we're at and where we need to go.

We all know that New Zealand has the potential to become clean and green, but at the moment the evidence does not justify this claim.

There is a huge advantage to be gained in both quality of life for New Zealanders and in international trade by ensuring that there is substance behind the clean green image. The capacity to provide high quality products from a clean environment is of immense value to our agricultural, horticultural, fishing, forestry and tourism industries. And at the same time, all of these activities must be managed in such a way so as to ensure they do not impact detrimentally on our environment. So we have to get the balance right: make sure we start clean and stay green.

There are some positive aspects

New Zealands relatively small population of 3.5 million and few heavy industries in a country the size of the United Kingdom or Japan have protected us from the levels of pollution in the more industrialised world.

Our international profile on issues such as whaling, protection of the ozone layer, drift-net fishing, Antarctica, and on anti-nuclear issues have contributed to the perception of a country with strong environmental credentials.

In recent years, the development of a national environmental strategy, the Environment 2010 Strategy, and the introduction of a comprehensive and integrated system of environmental management through the Resource Management Act 1991 have created international interest in New Zealand. The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act passed in 1996 will continue this progress towards an integrated system. We can achieve this much more readily than countries with a federal system, such as Australia and the United States.

Many current environmental problems are the legacy of industrial activities in the past. A huge amount has been done over the past 10-20 years to minimise further damage and start improving environmental quality.

Further commitments to environmental progress are contianed in the Coalition Agreement - which Ill refer to later.

Around 30 percent of national land area is now in a protected conservation estate. This is the highest percentage in OECD countries.

Air and water quality are generally high by international standards, and water quality is improving now that direct discharges are being controlled under resource consents.

Government policies and programmes are moving to address many of these issues, e.g. Sustainable Land Management Strategy, Cleaner Production programmes which encourage businesses to minimise waste and resource use.

Business leaders and sector organisations are generally concerned to minimise the impact of their activities on the environment. They are aware of trade implications and of community expectations as expressed through the Resource Management Act.

The New Zealand Chemical Industry Council has created a Responsible Care Programme. They have decided that the Chemical Industry needs to be responsible for it's actions. Their programme, which is mandatory for all members, provides a worldwide agreement on environmental, health and safety responsibilities.

Also, the Packaging Industry has set up an Accord which will soon determine targets for the reduction of packaging use and waste.

I think its excellent that we can demonstrate increased awareness in the business sector.

The negative aspects

While recognising our strengths and the problems we have already tackled, we must also recognise the environmental risks and problems we still need to deal with. Unless we are willing to acknowledge problems, we are unlikely to deal effectively with those issues that detract from our clean and green reputation.

It has been estimated that New Zealand has more than 8000 sites that may be contaminated because they are, or were, used by an industry associated with site contamination. Of these sites, more than 1500 could be a high risk to human health or the environment.

Of particular concern are the sites contaminated by persistent toxic organochlorines. These are substances such as dioxins, PCBs, and the organochlorine pesticides which do not break down readily. They are not easy to destroy. There are particular problem areas where these toxic chemicals were used, stored or dumped, e.g. Mapua.

The Coalition Agreement stated that the Government would phase out persistent chemicals, such as organochlorines, by the year 2000.

We are quite lucky in New Zealand that most of the organochlorines recognised internationally, and agreed to be phased out, are already out of use. However, there are still some in use, and we of course have the stock piles, orphan sites and dumped chemicals to deal with.

We have set an ambitious target for phase out, and this can only be achieved through the co-operation of central and local government together with those in industry who are using organochlorines or other persistent chemicals.

It is important to note too that the phase out of persistent chemicals, such as organochlorines, will have a greater impact than just making New Zealand a greene place; this includes:

Possible savings on health expenditure, reducing environmental costs, e nvironmental benefits, competitive advantage.

I see us having to identify and prioritise key pollutants, so that we can focus on phasing out the most harmful and prevalent toxic chemicals.

In 1995 approximately 3,180,000 tonnes of solid waste were disposed of in landfills in New Zealand. Of this, 1.4 million tonnes was residential waste (401 kg of waste per capita) and 1.76 million tonnes was industrial waste. Hazardous waste represents 8 percent of the waste going into landfills. The National Landfill Census in 1995 showed that around 20 percent of landfills do not control dumping of hazardous waste. This is a serious situation, because what goes into a landfill can also come out. The census also showed that the unacceptable practice of open burning is still quite widespread, which is unusual in a developed country.

Although overall water quality is high by international standards, as I stated before, we still have some water pollution problems to deal with. Urban and agricultural runoff has serious effects on water quality, particularly in the lower reaches of our rivers and streams. And despite our low population numbers, the faecal waste from agricultural stock is equivalent to that of a population of 150 million people.

Nearly 10 percent of New Zealands land suffers from severe to extreme erosion, although this is mostly concentrated in a few high risk areas.

Loss of biodiversity is one of New Zealands most serious environmental concerns. At least 1000 of our known animals, fungi and plants are considered threatened, including both of our endemic marine mammals, two-thirds of our endemic birds, and ten percent of our native plants. Around 85 percent of original lowland forests and wetlands have been removed since human settlement began. We have already lost 32 percent of our endemic land and freshwater birds, 18 percent of our endemic seabirds, one of our three native bats, at least three of 64 reptiles and 12 invertebrates. The survival of our indigenous forests and the species that live in them is threatened by an estimated 70 million possums eating about 21,000 tonnes of vegetation every 24 hours.

While we have initiated some highly successful ecosystem and species recovery programmes on offshore islands and extensive pest control operations on the mainland, we still have some considerable distance to go. The main pressures on biodiversity today are insufficient habitat in lowland areas, declining habitat quality, impact of pests and weeds, and for some marine species and ecosystems, human fishing activities.

Public attitudes

It is not just the natural and physical environment we need to consider when looking at whether New Zealand is clean and green: we also need to consider the attitude of people and businesses here to protecting the environment.

In 1993 the International Social Survey Programme, which Massey University is involved in, looked at attitudes to the environment. The survey showed that New Zealanders are generally concerned about the environment and believe that special effort is needed to protect it. Nearly 80 percent were prepared to have stricter laws to do so, and two thirds favoured stronger measures to protect the environment even if it harmed business growth or interfered with their rights to make their own decisions. Yet in some respects our attitudes are less green than those in Europe, where the problems are much more visible. For example, we are devoted to our cars and reluctant to consider alternative means of transport.

International accounting firm KPMG recently reported that New Zealand companies rate poorly compared with 13 other countries in environmental reporting. Only 39% of companies surveyed in New Zealand mentioned the environment in their annual reports, and none of the companies surveyed produced a separate environmental report. In Norway, for example, 95% of companies produce environmental reports, and in the United States 43% of companies. While New Zealand companies are generally small by international standards, this result is disappointing.

Reporting environmental performance to the community encourages companies to look at ways in which their performance can be improved. The Coalition Agreement between NZ First and the New Zealand National Party has identified improving environmental reporting by companies as a key objective. The Ministry for the Environment is advising the Government on how this can most effectively be achieved.

Environmental education is important in helping people understand their impact on the environment and what they can do to protect and improve the quality of the environment. The Ministry for the Environment is working with other departments on proposals for a New Zealand environmental education strategy.

Tracking our performance

The wider issue of reporting to the community on the health of our environment is also being tackled. The Coalition Agreement identifies state of the environment reporting as a key programme. The Ministry for the Environment is working with central and local government agencies to develop indicators which will help us track trends in environmental quality.

Monitoring under the Resource Management Act is increasingly being focused on whether we are achieving the environmental outcomes we are seeking rather than simply monitoring process.

The Coalition Agreement stated that the Government would develop State of the environment reporting and amend the Companies Act to require statutory disclosure of environmental impacts by companies.

The state of the environment report is due to be published later this year, this will include a set of national environmental indicators. The Resource Management Act, as you will be aware, requires local authorities to monitor the state of the environment, the effectiveness of their policies, the operation of resource consents, and to make this information public.

The introduction of a statutory disclosure of environmental impact by companies is a mechanism for improving corporate governance. Not only would this increase the transparency of individual companies impacts on the environment, allowing public scrutiny, but it would also encourage competition, with every business wanting to promote it's green credentials, vying to be the cleanest in the business!

I envisage companies having to outline their environmental impact in annual reports, and I expect that like accounts, these could be routinely audited to check for accuracy. We want more than just a passing mention of the environment from 39% of companies!

Final messages

This is no time to be complacent. New Zealanders generally want to protect the health of the environment and of their families, but we still have some distance to go to achieve a clean and green environment. Future generations should not have to inherit the liabilities of past and present generations. There are also good economic reasons for taking our environment seriously: citizens in countries with which we trade have increasingly high expectations of the suppliers of products they use.

The Coalition Agreement has identified 17 key initiatives in the environmental area, plus a further 6 issues raised by New Zealand First. They are all directed at improving the state of our environment, and setting in place work programmes that move us towards sustainable environmental management.

As future professionals in fields which have strong impacts on the environment, you need to bring to your career a strong commitment to ensuring that New Zealand does become genuinely clean and green.