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2018 will be a big year for the environment

2018 will be a big year for the environment - Featured Image - LG Mag Jan 2018

Big changes in environmental management are coming fast. Business as usual is not on offer anymore. Gary Taylor, chief executive, Environmental Defence Society.

Who would have thought that a national election result in 2017 would turn on environmental issues? But that’s arguably what happened. In my long years as an environmental advocate I’ve never seen the like. Undoubtedly the real biggie was freshwater, but climate change and our natural heritage followed close behind.
As a consequence we’ve got a government that looks very progressive on environmental issues if it keeps its promises, and that will have big implications for the local government sector.
In 2017 we saw freshwater race up the priority list of public concerns. The National-led government responded, but at a key stage fumbled on the criteria for swimmability. It fixed that but only after the Land and Water Forum demanded to see actual drafts of the revised National Policy Statement (NPS). The 2017 version has been promulgated and regional councils are now on a timeline to give effect to it.
During 2018 we can expect another iteration of the NPS with mandatory land use consenting for intensification clipped onto the limits-making framework, as well as further refinement and expansion of the bottom lines.
Freshwater implementation is the big challenge for regional councils in 2018. As even a well-resourced council like Horizons has found, this is difficult stuff. It requires some big changes to land use in rural New Zealand and some substantial infrastructure investments for cities.
Public pressure to improve degraded water quality won’t abate and other policy areas will compound the need for change.
Climate change
One of those compounding policy areas is climate change. National was slow to embrace the need for commitments that bite but the new government is setting up a statutory Climate Commission. That is a very good approach. The commission will prepare a carbon budget to ensure we are on track to meet our international commitments. It will monitor and report, and governments will be held to account.
It really, really needs cross-Parliament support: National needs to get with the script so the commission will endure across successive Parliaments.
Carbon zero by 2050 is a big ask, and given that 50 percent of our emissions are from agriculture, it implies shifting land use towards lower emission models. This will prove disruptive for the sector and farmers will need to show real leadership.
The rest of us – including local government – will need to help farmers with the transition. Finding an equitable path forward won’t be easy especially when you add in the changes required for freshwater management. Business as usual is not on offer anymore.
Around 85 percent of us live in cities and Auckland is now home to nearly 1.5 million people. Last year saw a lot of orange cones in the city as major road and rail works progressed. Immigration numbers continued at record high levels and finding homes for Aucklanders proved unachievable.
This year will see a major home-building effort get underway led by central government. That will put pressure on the construction sector. It will also see debate re-engaged around urban limits, with the new Housing Minister expressing a desire to get rid of them. That’s a very bad idea and is the one policy commitment by the Labour-led government that really needs a rethink.
We can also expect much more emphasis on public transport. Light rail projects are proposed for Auckland, and rail freight and regional connectivity will get a big, but as yet undefined, boost.
And, who knows, the appallingly stupid decision by KiwiRail to buy new diesel rather than electric trains may be revisited in the light of our new emission reduction targets.
Last year saw the Predator Free New Zealand campaign gain further momentum. Philanthropic funders are well into this space and we need the new government to raise the level of investment in pest and weed management.
Progress was also made with the collaborative National Policy Statement on Biodiversity which should be ready by the end of 2018. That will give councils clear direction on how to ensure New Zealand’s unique biodiversity is maintained and protected.
We can also expect to see a significant boost in Department of Conservation (DoC) funding and a recommitment to its statutory advocacy function. That will help. So too, potentially, will the billion trees project.
The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has been working with Air New Zealand and Motu to conceive a new incentive package that recognises that planting native trees has multiple benefits: carbon sequestration, emissions reduction from land use change, habitat creation, soil management and landscape enhancement.
We need to ensure both permanent and plantation native trees make up the vast majority of the billion to be planted.
In 2017, the High Court confirmed that regional councils have legal responsibilities for managing the impacts of fishing on biodiversity. Our marine environment often comes at the end of the funding queue, but that’s about to change.
More resources for DoC, splitting the Ministry of Primary Industries and burgeoning public awareness about the negative impacts of inshore trawling and dredging, along with sediment discharge from the land, all herald big changes for the sector.
They might even match those occurring for the primary sector on land.
This year will also likely see a Commission of Inquiry into fisheries management. EDS is releasing a major report in February that reinforces the need for a review. The fishing industry is notoriously litigious and I predict real fireworks as pressure builds for transparency and honesty from the sector. I predict an inquiry will reveal serious issues with fisheries management.
Resource management
The National-led government passed a suite of changes to our environmental laws last year. Some of them gave new, extraordinary powers of intervention to ministers.
It will be interesting to see how new ministers view those powers, most of which they opposed, now they’re in office.
A repeal of many of National’s amendments can be expected. Additional changes might see some regional council functions handed over to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a reinstatement of a wider role for the Environment Court.
The question is: what’s to come after that?
It’s time for a fundamental review of the entire resource management system. It’s time to stop tinkering. EDS will continue to work with partners to promote that outcome.
We have a major project underway due for completion at the end of 2018 that will inform that debate.
The world has changed since the late 1980s which saw the creation of the resource management system we still have today. It’s high time for a first-principles rethink. As an integral part of the system, local government needs to be actively engaged in such conversations.
The world is speeding up. Change will disrupt the status quo in unprecedented ways: 2018 is going to be a big year for the environment.

This article was first published in the Perspectives 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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