Notes of an address to the Environmental Defence Society Conference, Auckland

Environment

Tēnā koutou katoa.

Can I begin by thanking Gary Taylor, Raewyn Peart and others in the EDS team for their herculean work in support of the environment.

I’d also like to acknowledge Hon Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, my parliamentary colleagues, and the many activists here who strive for better outcomes.

I endorse the view expressed by Kayla Kingdon-Bebb of WWF last night. If New Zealand with all our advantages – enormous natural capital in forests, fisheries, soils, water, abundant renewable energy ­– can’t achieve better environmental outcomes, no-one can.

The list goes on. Democracy, the rule of law, a successful economy, financial wealth, low population density, a strong environmental ethic born of the fusion of Māori and settler values.

Of course, we have some disadvantages on the biodiversity front. If there was a grand designer of our birds, he/she/it/they missed a few tricks, and the dietary preferences of stoats, rats and possums.

We know from our own experience that the OECD is correct in saying that environmental protection relies upon laws to stop human practice going too far.

Whether it’s carbon pollution, the logging of indigenous forests, nutrient and sediment pollution, or ever-increasing quantities of packaging and waste, rules are needed to stop the excesses.

A sophisticated mix of regulation, education and economic signals is often needed.

Many believe that the failure of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) to live up to its promise lay in the absence of the national policy statements, environmental standards, section 360 regulations, and price signals needed for any environmental system to work.

So today, I’m going to list what we have achieved over the last 5 ½ years to fill those holes. 

It’s election year, so I hope you will allow me the occasional political contrast, because actions do speak louder than words.

We’ve done a large amount in Government across many environmental domains.

This includes completing new national direction on urban intensification and for the protection of highly productive soils.

Freshwater

On freshwater we are making substantial progress implementing the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) we delivered in 2020. Strict new National Environmental Standards (NES) rules protecting wetlands are operative.

We are seeing behavioural changes brought about by rules on intensive winter grazing. It’s not perfect, but practices are improving.

Stock exclusion regulations are in place.

The Te Mana o te Wai hierarchy has settled in well – first the needs of the environment, then human health needs, then commercial uses.

Regional councils are working hard to implement their plan changes to give effect to the NPS-FM. These need to be promulgated by 31 December 2024.  Freshwater commissioners are in place ready to hear them.

The new freshwater farm plan system is also being developed. Certified (and audited) plans tailored to the risks and opportunities on each farm will make a difference.

Greater care with the use of fertiliser, caused in part by the per hectare per annum nitrogen fertiliser cap, coupled with new software tools developed by industry, have seen synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use drop by 5% pa for both of the last two years.

Waste     

On waste, the levy on each tonne of waste has tripled and the types of landfills covered has expanded. The increased waste minimisation fund is supporting improved infrastructure to sort and reuse more waste streams. Some of this is impressive to see – the machine that chops up computer screens into small pieces and uses optical sorters and air jets to sort those pieces at speed is a marvel.

A product stewardship scheme for tyres has been designed and is being implemented. That goes live in a couple of months.

We are developing new schemes for large batteries – eg in EVs –and for farm plastics. And another for plastic packaging, which is being developed with the Packaging Forum and the Grocery Council.

The Plastics Innovation Fund, recommended by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, is up and running.

We have phased out billions of single use plastic items, with more tranches kicking in on 1 July. 

We have finalised policy for standardised kerbside recycling, and the inclusion of organics – essential to meeting the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) biogenic methane reduction target.

The policy decisions on the new circular economy waste legislation have been taken following consultation last year.

Details will be announced in a week or two, and legislation will be introduced into the House this year. That will include the legislative authority for more product stewardship like the container return scheme (CRS), although final decisions on the CRS have been delayed until next year.

Climate mitigation and the ETS

I won’t detail the work underway on the ERP. It’s a long list, enabled by the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and the recycling of auction revenue via the Climate Emergency Response Fund.

The ETS is substantially but not perfectly restored.

This is important to me mainly because it is the central economic instrument needed to shift the economy and how we live our lives to low carbon. Secondly, as then-Minister of Energy and Climate Change, I led that work under the Clark Labour government, so I’m invested.

The last National-Act government severely and deliberately undermined it:

  • They introduced a 2 for 1 deal. For every tonne of CO2 emissions paid for, two tonnes were allowed. This effectively halved the ETS price signal.
  • They then halved it again. Despite independent reviews to the contrary, they excluded the 50% of our emissions that come from agriculture.
  • They introduced a price cap of $25 per tonne on the residual emissions facing a price, with no price floor, and left it there for close on a decade.
  • They abandoned the phase down of free allocation.
  • They allowed unlimited quantities of Ukrainian and Russian hot air to flood into the New Zealand system after Kyoto collapsed. Those hot air units had nowhere else in the world to go, and flooded our system, collapsing the price of carbon and leaving us with a large stock of emission rights in the ETS registry.

I am grateful to Climate Change Minister James Shaw for his work restoring the ETS, and to Finance Minister Grant Robertson for recycling its revenue.

National and Act oppose recycling, presumably to pay for tax cuts weighted to the wealthy which seems to be their main reason for being.

The ERP is a huge piece of work, grounded in work by the Climate Commission, whose duties are legislated in the Zero Carbon Act, which the Labour/Greens/New Zealand First government legislated.

The stand-out success this last year has to be the clean car standard and related discount, which has seen the registration of new low emission light vehicles leap to one of the highest rates in the world.

A shout out is also deserved for Megan Woods who as Energy and Resources Minister is responsible for the Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry – the GIDI fund. This works in tandem with new RMA national direction banning new coal fired boilers.

She is also overseeing the in-depth case for and against building the pumped storage facility at Lake Onslow. This giant battery would both shield New Zealand’s electricity system against dry year risks, and provide a predictable hedge against intermittent wind and solar. This would mobilise international capital at lower cap rates to build the intermittent wind and solar we need to fully decarbonise transport and industrial heat. 

I became involved in politics in part to stop more Otago rivers being dammed, so my support for Onslow was carefully considered, but in my view we need it.

Of course the challenges keep coming, so I will say a little about

the Government’s response to the recent severe weather, before describing where we’re at on resource management system reform.

Climate adaptation and response to Cyclone Gabrielle

After Cyclone Gabrielle the Government launched a ministerial inquiry into land use and forestry slash led by Hon Hekia Parata. This reports back at the end of April, in time to inform revisions to the NES for Plantation Forestry. It will also inform policy on carbon forests.

The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) is also working with other agencies to develop emergency legislation to support the longer-term recovery, modelled on the Kaikōura quake recovery legislation.

You may also have seen recent news about Government working with insurance companies to urgently identify where we should not rebuild or, if we do, how to minimise future climate hazard risks.

In 2022, the Government published its first National Adaptation Plan (NAP) setting out New Zealand’s long-term strategy for responding to, and minimising, climate change risks.

Local government wants help to use consistent processes to identify and assess the level of threat from natural hazards, including how those hazards may become more dangerous due to climate change.

This is needed both under the RMA and in the new system.

Restricting development in areas at risk from natural hazards is a difficult issue. While councils can technically restrict development in areas subject to high natural hazard and climate change risk, councils such as Christchurch and Kāpiti Coast have faced strong opposition from local communities and landowners, including legal challenges, when trying to address these issues.

The impact of cyclones Hale and Gabrielle on recently-developed areas has raised questions about why development was allowed, or whether improved stormwater infrastructure could have lessened the impacts.

Update on RM Reform

Now I want to turn to the Spatial Planning Bill (SP Bill) and Natural and Built Environment Bill (NBE Bill) and the development of the National Planning Framework (NPF).

The resource management reforms are on track.

There is broad support for them.

There is overwhelming support for reducing the number of RMA plans from over 100 to 15, which will be more consistent and of better quality. This necessitates regional planning committees. These allow council and other groups in each region to pool resources, with provisions embedded to ensure that local voices are heard.

Fewer, better plans will enable better outcomes and cost savings. More powers in respect of permitted activities will also reduce the number of resource consents required.

We intend to pass both Bills before the election. MfE is well resourced to assist the select committee (the Environment Committee) to land the legislation in a good place.

Many years of work preceded the launch of the reforms, including the extensive efforts of EDS with the Property Council, Infrastructure NZ, and the Northern EMA. Others like the Waitangi Tribunal and LGNZ did their own reports. Then we had the recommendations of the Randerson Panel, which consulted widely. Then a select committee inquiry on core provisions. And an efficiency review by independent experts, plus the current select committee process.

It’s time to finish the job and drive it through.

Everyone is now working hard to further improve the Bills based on the very detailed and thorough submissions we have received.

We continue to put a lot of time into Part 1 of the NBE Bill and the many submissions received on this.

We remain focused on ensuring a sustainable natural environment is put first, but alongside that an efficient and effective planning and consenting system for development enabled within limits and targets.

The current money wasted on consenting infrastructure is unconscionable and undermines public support for much needed environmental protection. The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga is also developing standards for common development activities, to reduce the need for bespoke consent conditions.

The purpose clause works with limits and targets, given expression via the NPF.

The NBE Bill acknowledges that the economy is essential to wellbeing, but that it must operate within clearly established environmental limits and mandatory targets that ensure its sustainability.

Submitters understand that limits and targets are at the heart of the new system, and we have received many helpful submissions to improve these provisions.

Once those limits and targets are met, councils and planners are required to look at all the outcomes that communities are seeking to achieve, including those relating to the built environment.

Communities can then set priorities within these limits and targets, and businesses can have confidence that the development they seek will be enabled.

The SP Bill requires long-term spatial planning in each region – a key step in building climate resilience and the right infrastructure in the right place.

The NBE Bill requires the Minister to notify an NPF within six months of the Bill becoming law. The first iteration of the NPF is one of the first steps in transitioning to the new system.

National Planning Framework

The NPF is the vehicle for all national direction under the new resource management legislation and will provide direction to local and regional decision makers on matters of national significance.  

It brings together and fills gaps in the existing national direction instruments we have under the RMA.  It is important in bringing together existing national direction that we don’t lose any of the good work that has already been done.

It will be easier to keep up to date and more responsive than the existing system. 

Developing the NPF will be an iterative process. We intend to publish a roadmap of future changes to provide a clear signal of what is coming next, and to provide this in time to inform the development of Natural and Built Environment plans (NBE plans).

The first iteration of the NPF will focus on transition of existing RMA national direction alongside the new direction we most need now.

This new direction, which will include a new chapter on infrastructure, will focus primarily on what is needed to inform the development of regional spatial strategies.

Important parts of the first NPF include an overarching layer that sits across the various topics that provide broad system direction.

The NBE Bill mandates an initial set of limits and targets for six domains: air, indigenous biodiversity, coastal water, estuaries, freshwater, and soil. It also requires directions on greenhouse gas emissions, and on risk reduction and resilience to the effects of natural hazards and climate change.

NPF content is also required for the protection or restoration of outstanding natural features and landscapes, and cultural heritage.

There will be recognition of, and provision for, the relationship of iwi and hapū and the exercise of their kawa, tikanga (including kaitiakitanga), and mātauranga in relation to their ancestral lands, water, sites, wāhi tapu, wāhi tūpuna, and other taonga.

Another challenging issue we have moved to resolve over time is the duration of freshwater related resource consents. Consents under the Natural and Built Environment Act will have a maximum duration of 10 years when granted before the relevant NBE plan is updated. This will allow NBE plans to make meaningful change in the way our freshwater is allocated and free up water for allocation. That is a departure from what the current RMA enables, but it is not a significant change from current practice for water abstraction because 35 year consents are becoming rare.

We are granting exemptions to the 10 year limit for renewals for hydro generators, because climate change makes it clear we need that hydro.       

Te Waihanga is leading the infrastructure chapter in the first NPF. The new resource management system will better enable the provision of infrastructure to address the current infrastructure deficit and support our population. It will also contribute to reducing climate emissions, improve natural environmental impacts.

Rolling out the new system

Transitioning to the new system will start immediately but take up to 10 years to complete. A staged approach will see some regions begin developing their regional spatial strategy soon after the legislation is enacted, followed by a second group of regions. MfE is working with regional partners to identify the first regions.

Funding was provided in Budget 2022 for the delivery of the resource management changes, including support for the first group of regions to develop regional spatial strategies and NBE plans. Officials are also exploring ways to manage capacity across the resource management system during the transition. 

MfE will work alongside this first group of regions, providing guidance, funding, and support to establish regional planning committees and develop their strategies and plans in the new system. Key to this will be agreement on how Treaty settlements and existing resource management agreements will be upheld equivalent to how they are under the RMA; and working with Māori interests, including post-settlement governance entities, and councils to demonstrate how the new system works.

Conclusion

As I have said often, the RMA costs too much, takes too long and has neither adequately protected the environment nor allowed necessary development of housing or infrastructure.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to fix this crucial environmental law. We need to fix it and we are.

I know some people are calling for delay. There will always be people of that view. They are wrong. I’ve laid out the long history. It’s time to finish the job.

Lastly, can I put in a plug for national direction on estuaries. They need biological indicators. An estuary with healthy flounder needs crabs that feed on shellfish, which can’t endure excessive sediment.

Thank you for your time.

Ngā mihi.