A Vision to Restore the Environment

An address to the Forest & Bird Annual Conference, Wellington, 23 June 2018

Tēnā koutou katoa

Greetings to everyone who has turned out here today from around the country. Thanks for the invitation to discuss further your Government’s vision to restore the environment.

I will cover our plans to address freshwater, urban development, and how we are approaching some of the complex issues relating to the Resource Management Act (RMA).

Like the rest of the world, we are dealing with the impacts of climate change.  We had the hottest summer on record and are now dealing with damage from major storm events.

These impacts were predicted, as warmer air and sea temperatures increase evaporation, moisture levels in clouds, winds and the intensity of resultant storms.

At a national level, we are facing the shocking decline in water quality and continuing loss of biodiversity. 

Addressing these concerns is top of mind for me as Environment Minister.

I also hold the Economic Development portfolio. I see these roles as linked. The Government is clear that economic growth should be within environmental limits. I often quote former World Bank economist Herman Daly: ‘The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse’.

I make the point that economic prosperity need not be at the cost of a spoiled environment. It is a false dichotomy. We can have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

And this is not idealism: it is grounded in common sense. Protecting our environment safeguards our economy. As a country we have built our economy and reputation on our natural capital.  Tourism and agriculture are our two biggest export earners. Both rely, firstly, on our environment for their very existence and, secondly, on our environmental reputation to obtain higher prices for the goods and services we produce. Our coalition partner New Zealand First shares this view as do the Greens, our confidence and supply partner.

I don’t want to put environmentalism solely in economic terms. It has intrinsic values that do not need to be justified economically. A healthy environment underpins well-being in many other ways – a connection with nature is grounding. Whether it is gardening, tramping or fishing. There is also the moral case for protection of the biodiversity that we are guardians of.

Our natural capital in New Zealand is huge – our forests, freshwater, soil, bird life, our enormous marine area, our fish stocks, our atmosphere and our biodiversity. They underpin our way of life and our standard of living.

At a personal level, much of my professional life as a lawyer was spent around environmental and resource issues, including advocating for water conservation orders.

As a Minister in the Clark Government, I held the Climate Change and Energy portfolios. I helped introduce a financial penalty for increases in emissions, and reverse the decline in renewable electricity, which was 64 per cent and dropping. We took a wide range of measures to reverse that trend, and we now have about 85 percent renewable electricity with no major hydro needed to achieve it. We’re now on the way to 90 per cent and then 100 per cent renewable electricity.

As Land Information Minister, I sought to protect fantastic landscapes in the South Island high country, and to improve public access to them. Sadly some of the settings I left around tenure review were undone by the next government. And it was a salutary reminder that legislative protection rather than reliance upon Ministerial discretion is more likely to endure.

I swim, I tramp, I camp and I ski.  I gather shellfish, go floundering and I delight in walking along rivers with a fishing rod. I love the experience, even though I seldom catch anything.  

Protecting our environment is hugely important to me. A decade ago, as Climate Change Minister, I had what to me was an epiphany. I came to understand that with New Zealand’s advantages – the huge natural capital I have already spoken about (we  are the  Saudi Arabia of renewable energy for example), the rule of law, a good environmental ethic, democracy, financial wealth – if New Zealand with all these advantages cannot overcome our environmental challenges, the world won’t.

It was a chilling realisation. If New Zealand doesn’t, the world won’t. I prefer the positive. New Zealand can. If we do, the world might.

To this end, the Government has three main environmental priorities outside of the conservation estate: freshwater, climate change, and urban development. These priority areas have wider influence on biodiversity, air quality, and land use.

Before I go any further I’d like to congratulate my colleague James Shaw on the consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill.  I know that everyone in this room is concerned about climate change, and I therefore encourage you all to have your say on the detail of New Zealand’s climate change objectives, and what net zero really means.

Freshwater

For many decades there have been repeated attempts to categorise rivers into those which are wild and scenic, while allowing others to be used as drains. I have always been suspicious of attempts to identify wild and scenic rivers. Most of them rise in national parks and carry such enormous volumes of water that you have to tip a lot of pollution into them in order to degrade them; and they are usually too swift to swim in anyway. 

I have long believed that the most important river or lake to New Zealanders is the one they live closest to and use. If your local river and my local river are clean, then all our rivers will be clean. This is not too much to expect. I strongly hold the view that it’s the birthright of New Zealanders young and old to be able to head down to the local swimming hole in summer and put their head under without getting crook.

And as nitrate levels in some Canterbury aquifers, and the crisis in Havelock North in 2016, made clear, we must look after the health of our groundwater resource too.

As Environment Minister, improving freshwater quality is my number one priority. I was pleased that water quality, allocation, and pricing were top issues throughout the 2017 election campaign. It has been many years since an environmental issue has had such prominence throughout an election.

By the end of the election, every political party agreed publicly on television that the problem caused by nutrient pollution from intensive ruminant production meant that in some catchments we have passed environmental limits. Every political party!

At the election we won a mandate, and we now carry a duty to improve the quality of our rivers.

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the launch of Catherine Knight’s new book Beyond Manapouri – 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand. In her book she said the ‘expansion and intensification of dairy farming in recent decades has created impacts on the environment on a scale unlikely to have been foreseen by dairy farming proponents, or even by environmentalists, when its growth began in the 1970s.’ I agree.

Catherine also referred to the Manapouri story. Sir Alan Mark – one of your most esteemed members – reminded me recently that it took from 1959 to 1972 to save Manapouri. After 13 years of civil society activism, the issue was fought and won by Labour in the 1972 election. Manapouri was saved. Norman Kirk made good on his election promise. Sir Alan Mark was even then a loyal member of Forest & Bird and has been ever since, and of the New Zealand Labour Party as well.

While as Catherine Knight said, the rate of change in the  intensity of dairying took most by surprise, by 2004 councils, politicians and NGOs knew better. That is because Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Morgan Williams, in his report Growing for Good, nailed the problem we had with nutrient load, especially nitrogen.

Thirteen years later – as with Manapouri – the political battle was settled by a general election. We now have to implement the changes that are needed to fix the problem. We don’t need to debate the existence of the problem.

Another similarity should be noted, Catherine pointed out that one of the leaders in the campaign to save Manapouri was local farmer Ron McLean.

We now have leaders in agriculture stepping up to the mark to help. Some are local farmers, leading by example with sustainable land use practices. Others are farm leaders, and this is new. If I could name two: Andrew Morrison, Chair of Beef and Lamb, and Jim van der Poel, Chair of DairyNZ. We also have Theo Spierings from Fonterra leading some important examples. We have many regional councils increasingly concerned to show progress.

And last but by no means least, we have NGOs and scientists grappling with the detail needed to achieve ecological health and sustainability.

It's clear that we need to do more. We need better compliance, monitoring and enforcement of our existing regulatory system.  We need our farmers – all of our farmers – to commit to improving our freshwater quality. And in part we need stronger regulation.

Already as a Government we have wound down central Government funding for large-scale irrigation projects, which would have increased the intensity of ruminant agriculture. We’ve increased funding for Overseer – the software that helps farmers and growers to improve nutrient use on farms – and we’ve also increased funding for the Sustainable Farming Fund.

These are steps towards my first priority to stop the degradation of our freshwater environments getting worse.

We want to see a material improvement in water quality within five years. Within a generation, we aim for all of our rivers and lakes to be healthy enough to swim in, to gather food in, and to support aquatic ecosystems.

We’ll support sustainable land use practices to help primary industries achieve value within environmental limits. 

We do need limits on the intensification of land use, and stronger freshwater quality attributes and limits, if we are to ensure each generation leaves our land and rivers in a better not worse state for the next.

We intend to consult on a stronger Freshwater National Policy Statement (NPS) over the coming year, and on a National Environmental Standard (NES) or a number of NESs.

We support the principle that all our freshwater bodies should be valued for freshwater ecosystem health, but don’t think the current Freshwater NPS adequately provides for this. 

We need better management of sediment to stop our precious soils washing off our land into our streams and rivers, smothering not just their beds but also those of the fragile coastal environments they flow into.

This year the Ministry for the Environment’s report Our Land 2018 found that each year we lose 84 million tonnes of sediment from our pastures.  Officials are currently assessing the viability of national bottom lines for clarity, turbidity and fine sediment deposition.

We must protect our remaining wetlands, the kidneys of our ecosystem. We lost 90 per cent of these critical environments decades ago, drained to make space for our cities and farms. Sadly the Our Land report showed 1,247 hectares of remaining wetland area were completely lost over the period from 2001 to 2016. That’s 214 wetlands.

We must preserve those that remain, and I am looking at how to better protect estuaries and freshwater wetlands. I am not one of those people who say that wetlands are swamps, and smell. I like wetlands. We actually need more of them, including on farms to trap sediment.

We know that intensification of land use links to poor water quality.  A previous draft Freshwater NPS by Judge Sheppard – which came out of its RMA process after the last Labour-NZ First government left office – contained provisions that would have required a resource consent for intensification of land use.

That NPS was spiked by the National government – an act of environmental vandalism. As a consequence, intensification was left unregulated in many parts of the country. In the same period, previous illegal non-point source pollution sources were legitimised by consents and plans.

I remain interested in the Judge Sheppard approach, which has since been implemented by some regional councils of their own volition.   

Many of you will know that we tasked the Land and Water Forum with seeing if agreement could be reached on how to allocate nutrient discharge rights amongst competing land users in nutrient enriched catchments. They got close, but in the end couldn’t resolve the tension between existing users and owners of under-developed land.

It falls then to government to resolve this important issue. It would be unfair and expensive to let the same issue play out over many years through litigation on individual plans and consents up and down the country. We need a solution that meets environmental limits while efficiently allocating nutrient discharge rights fairly between those with existing capital investment and those who have under-developed land. This is of course of particular importance to Māori, who have lacked the capital to develop their land.

I intend to make further announcements on these and other water issues before the end of the year.

RMA Compliance

Enforcement of the rule of law will always be important to encourage broader compliance. This is true in criminal, transport, taxation, or environmental law. Without robust compliance, monitoring and enforcement (CME), it is unlikely that our laws and policies will be effective in practice.

We announced funding in the budget for the establishment of a Compliance Oversight Unit to improve the consistency, effectiveness and transparency of council enforcement of the RMA – particularly in relation to freshwater.

There’s some good work by councils and Local Government New Zealand to improve CME practice. A number of reports have nonetheless observed low levels of monitoring and enforcement by some councils, particularly territorial authorities.

The Unit will support councils to increase the effectiveness and transparency of compliance and enforcement actions.

Urban water

Our urban areas have their own freshwater issues. It is true that very few of our rivers and lakes are located in urban areas, and that point source discharges of factory waste and municipal sewage have decreased markedly in most towns and cities.

Nevertheless, some streams and estuaries in some of our largest cities are badly degraded. The worst problem is often the result of stormwater intrusion into sewerage systems. I am pleased that, in response to public concerns, Auckland Council has brought $856 million of investment forward to reduce stormwater overflows into its sewerage system, and as a result reduce sewage flows to city beaches by 80 to 90 percent. I think that’s real progress.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is leading our Government’s efforts to help improve urban water quality, which includes collaboration between councils, developers and officials to ensure greater use of water sensitive urban design.

Urban development

It is a disgraceful blight on our international reputation that New Zealand has the highest rate of homelessness in the OECD.

Successful, well-functioning cities are important to any modern economy.  They can provide a range of benefits including a high quality of life, housing choices, and economic innovation.

Many cities around New Zealand, but especially Auckland, are facing serious housing and infrastructure pressures.

We face billions of dollars of cost to meet the unfunded bow wave of capital expenditure needed to service our communities. This deficit has grown over the last decade as population growth has not met the marginal cost of growth.

The Government is charting a new course for urban development led by Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford. Important tax considerations are led by Finance Minister Grant Robertson, and are being advanced via the Tax Working Group chaired by Sir Michael Cullen.

We seek to end homelessness, improve housing and renting affordability and reverse the decline in home ownership rates. We intend to make room for growth up and out in well-designed urban centres and help create thriving communities.

I have been working on the Government’s Urban Growth Agenda with Phil Twyford, in particular around the powers – and checks on those powers – needed for government to deal with the serious problem we face.

We are addressing the fundamentals of land supply, development capacity, and infrastructure provision. We aim to improve housing affordability by bringing down the high cost of urban land, while ensuring that developments meet the infrastructure costs they cause.

The steps we are taking to improve freshwater, rural land use and urban development will inform a wider review of the RMA. I’m taking a staged approach to that complex piece of work and am grateful to the many groups that are helping. The Environmental Defence Society, Property Council and Infrastructure New Zealand ­– as well as Local Government New Zealand, the Productivity Commission and Forest & Bird – are all providing their insights.

Planning standards

Already some practical first steps have been taken. We released draft national planning standards earlier this month. This work was begun by the previous government but we are finishing it off. 

The planning standards aim to make RMA plans simpler and more efficient to prepare, and easier for people to understand and comply with.

The planning standards do not affect the substantive content of plans; rather, they seek to bring some standardisation to plan formats, definitions, and electronic accessibility.

This in my view is long overdue and will enable local councils and plan users to focus their time and resources on the local content important to achieving sustainable management.

To enable implementation to coincide with plan reviews, we are proposing a five-year implementation period for most planning standards, and a seven-year implementation period for councils that have recently concluded major plan update processes.  There are also some basic electronic delivery requirements that have to be complied with by everyone within 12 months.

Submissions on these draft standards close on 17 August and your input is encouraged. I believe that by addressing the justified frustration of people who find plans hard to follow, we will help restore faith in our environmental law.

The future of the RMA

There are other issues with the current RMA that I believe need fixing now. I intend to make a number of changes in the short term to reduce complexity, improve certainty and improve public participation. These will largely reverse changes made through the 2017 RMA amendments that were widely criticised by all sides. 

One example I point to is reversing the change that took away appeal rights of applicants and objectors on applications to subdivide land. This ill-considered change resulted in some developers modifying their applications to ensure they were non-complying in order to maintain their own appeal rights. That must be the very definition of a perverse outcome, but sadly was predicted by people objecting to that change at the time.

Other significant changes to the RMA require careful consideration. Any substitute for the RMA would require plans and local decisions based on local facts. If first hearings are informal, which they generally should be, appeal rights are needed. National direction will always be needed some of the time. All of these features are found in the RMA, and would be needed in any replacement.

However, it is true that some of the RMA’s processes are arcane. Process alternatives have bred like fleas, so that the RMA is now excessively long and complex.  

Through all of this, I’ll be a staunch defender of Part 2 of the RMA – its Purpose and Principles. Part 2 sets out crucial environmental bottom lines. Valuable jurisprudence has developed around Part 2 and I don’t think we should be quick to discard it. Especially as it’s only since the King Salmon decision of the Supreme Court finally made it clear that the hierarchy of RMA instruments mean what they say, that the woolly ‘balancing’ approach favoured until then has been discarded.

Biodiversity

I haven’t had enough time today to talk about work around biodiversity or national guidance to protect elite soils. I can only acknowledge the good work of my colleagues in the biodiversity area, Minister Eugenie Sage in conservation, and Associate Environment Minister Nanaia Mahuta in progressing an NPS on Indigenous Biodiversity.

I am also trying to progress the Kermadec Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary, which I have Ministerial responsibility for. I am working to see if I can find a way through that.

Conclusion

We are working to resolve the long-term challenges we are facing. Growth must not, and need not, come at the cost of our environment.

Finally, I think a great practical example of this is the recent decision on the location of the America’s Cup bases on Auckland’s waterfront.

We achieved a lower financial cost outcome with a much smaller intrusion into the harbour, substantially reducing the environmental impact over earlier proposals. We saved an intrusion equivalent to 40 sections the size of 400 square metres each, which in Auckland, even if they weren’t seafront, would be worth more than a million dollars each. Properly valued on current values, the environmental saving is worth over 40 million dollars, on top of the tens of millions of dollars of cash savings.

It’s a great example of how, if you try, you can generally find solutions which are economically feasible and environmentally better.

Our goal is to improve the well-being and living standards of all New Zealanders.  We want to do that through productive, sustainable and inclusive growth within environmental limits.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.