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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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The State of the Nation

I don’t like thinking about the environment. I accept that climate change is happening; I accept that it is terrifying; I accept that we aren’t doing enough to stop it; but it just seems like too much to deal with. We only just passed marriage equality. Income inequality is getting worse. Women are still systematically and culturally oppressed. Chemical weapons are being unleashed on civilians in Syria. An issue that is usually represented by a polar bear on some ice can only draw so much attention, yeah?

I really should though. We all should. Hell, take climate change out of the picture and there are still screeds of other issues threatening our Warner Bros filming locations. Many of us rallied against mining in national parks, but that issue was pretty easy to understand. Twitter isn’t aflame about changes to the Crown Mineral Act that weaken the power of the Minister of Conservation to stop mining on national parks. John Key’s Facebook page isn’t full of complaints about how terribly we are implementing the Emissions Trading Scheme. There are no street marches against the ‘balancing’ of the Resource Management Act (RMA)—the modification of our signature environmental law into an economic one.

It’s not just me either. Whenever the mass media does decide to cover an economic issue, it needs ‘both sides of the story’, often giving equal weighting to the economic interests affected. Now, this is understandable—it is called ‘fairness bias’ after all—but it often muddies the issue, turning everything into “the environment versus the economy” when the reality is much less conflictual.

These issues aren’t the easiest to understand, so luckily we don’t have to do all the understanding ourselves. In 1986 the Environment Act established the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, “with the objective of maintaining and improving the quality of the
environment.” This independent commissioner is both a researcher and a watchdog, producing reports for Parliament on a wide range of environmental issues and reviewing legislation that concerns the environment. While ostensibly only answerable to Parliament, the Commissioner often makes public remarks, seeking to draw media attention to issues that concern them. Dr Jan Wright is our current commissioner, beginning her second five-year term this year. She has a degree in Physics, a Masters in Energy and Resources, and a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard. She heads a staff of 16.

Independent scientific advice isn’t necessarily soft. Dr Wright has often been critical of our current National government, particularly when it comes to the changes they are making to the RMA. The hype around other more espionage-related embarrassments has kept the public eye away from these changes, which is somewhat understandable. The RMA is somewhat of a lumbering beast, and it certainly doesn’t translate well into headlines. Created in 1991 by amalgamating several other laws, it polices the use of water, land and air, promoting sustainable development that respects the environment and local culture. Essentially, it protects the public and the environment from damage by any private interest. As you would imagine, the surveying and compliance process can be lengthy and expensive; an entire industry exists around RMA consultancy and litigation. National campaigned on reforming the RMA in 2008, and carried out part of their plan in 2009, “simplifying and streamlining” the legislation. This year, Minister for the Environment Amy Adams has released a much more dramatic discussion paper, proposing fundamental changes to the Act in the interest of “balance” with economic interests–introducing economic development measures into a law meant to combat them. Dr Wright wasn’t pleased, releasing a fiery press release asserting that the RMA “is not, and should not become, an economic development act.”

As bombastic as it was, press releases are terrible to write about, so on a Monday morning last week I met with Dr Wright at her offices on the Terrace. Equipped with an adhesively backed name tag and a cup of coffee I was too nervous to drink, I sat facing her in a small room facing the city, a silent PR manager completing our triangle.

 

[I set down my iPad – Jan looks at it strangely]

It records does it?

[Awkward chuckle] When did you first become interested in the environment?

Someone just asked me that last week! Probably when I was travelling through Africa in 1976. I was interested in what was happening there, but also the 1970s energy crisis, and that later broadened into the environment.

With degrees in both Public Policy and Science, you are certainly qualified for this job. Do you feel that Parliament adequately respects your advice and the advice of other scientific advisors?

My role is purely to make recommendations. In general I find the MPs—whether they be in government or not—give me a good hearing and are pretty respectful, though they’ll tell me if they don’t agree. Sometimes they do what I recommend and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Government do pick up on what I recommend, sometimes opposition parties do and it becomes part of their policy; it’s a long term thing.

Is the RMA an environmental-protection Act?

Oh it’s our main environmental-protection Act. That was its purpose. If you go back to what was said in Parliament when it was passed, this was about dealing with environmental externalities. The Act is the balance to the imperatives of the marketplace – you shouldn’t be trying to put balance inside it.

‘Balance’ is a word that comes up often when discussing the RMA. In one of your submissions concerning these changes you were quite concerned about the degree of quantification mandated—that economic factors can have dollar values besides them while environment and social factors are much harder to put within a framework—is there any good way to quantify environmental and cultural  impact, or is it too inherently subjective?

I don’t have a problem with quantification itself, I’m quite an advocate for it really. The concern with that submission was that when you’ve got a situation like that where some things can be reasonably easily quantified and some can’t, the ones that are easily quantified tend to be seen as more important. Even if the numbers you come up with are rubbish. [Laughs] It looks more serious, it looks more real, just because it has numbers attached.

I’m more concerned about the changes to the beginning of the Act.

The purpose yeah?

The purpose itself hasn’t technically changed, that’s section 5, but sections 6 and 7, which really explain the purpose, the changes there do in fact distort it.

Can you outline your issues with these sections?

There’s a very fundamental thing, and then there’s some other wording changes. The fundamental thing is that the purpose of the RMA is dealing with the environmental externalities of development of any kind. Basically what it says you can do your social, economic and indeed cultural development, but while you are doing it, you have to think about the environment. You have to avoid, remedy or mitigate the effects on the environment. It is our chief environmental law. Other countries don’t have RMAs – the RMA is this interesting combination of many laws. That is the chief purpose though, the environmental externalities. They are putting economic development objectives in there, worse than that, they are economic concerns of the day. One of them is really talking about Greenfields expansion in Auckland. It is fundamentally blurring, obscuring, making a mess of the RMA and its purpose. It’s not meant to be promoting particular kinds of economic development. There is already a mechanism in the RMA called the National Policy Statement, it says if the Government, any Government, wishes to promote particular types of development, without care for the environment, they are free to do that. This is building into the beginning of the RMA, into its very purpose. It’s very weird. Very weird.

[Nods]

It’s also ridiculous – one of the purposes of the reform is to reduce costs, but when you make a change as fundamental as that you are going to need to develop a whole new body of case law, which will be very expensive. The whole RMA industry—the raft of lawyers and consultants who make their living of the RMA—they’re gonna be gearing up, they’re going to make a lot of money.

The other thing, sorry, you can cut this down, are some of those descriptions, some subtle wording changes. They look harmless at first glance but really do diminish protection.

How did you feel about the ‘Simplifying and Streamlining’ of the RMA in 2009? Is there more of that in this package?

The time limits yeah yeah. In principle I have no problem with simplifying and streamlining, in getting things to move more swiftly with less costs. The irony is that some of these changes are probably going to inflict more costs. The section-32 requirement to quantify things and put dollar values on them, I mean, if I’m a consultant I’m going to be pretty happy about that.

I do think a lot of these things are very drawn out and cost too much money. I’m very supportive of the measures in this legislation to standardise things across the country, because everyone does their own thing, and there’s no value in that, there should be a template for this. It’s how you do it.

The National Government campaigned on reforming the RMA, and have been elected twice. Do they have a mandate for these changes?

You can ask that question about many things that governments do. Certainly there is frustration with the RMA, but I think that it has become somewhat of a whipping boy. When you ask people what their actual problem is, often its a building consent, which is the Building Act not the RMA, or it’s the Public Works Act, or even the way the RMA is applied by someone in an over-the-top manner. That can happen with any legislation. The fundamental philosophical change is difficult for people to understand, and kind of boring for most people. It’s a big change, but it isn’t a change that would be widely understood.

Some of these changes might have effects that people might not expect. The thing with the RMA is that its so all-encompassing that it becomes very difficult to see where these changes lead you.

What are some signification proposals or reports that you have put through that the Government have responded well to?

One thing that I am very pleased with was the report on 1080. I didn’t have any background in that, and it was a surprise, that I found myself coming out as very pro – we need to use more of it. It was something that was very controversial for a while, and it seems to have extracted a lot of the controversy out of it. A couple of elections ago, two parties had a moratorium on 1080 in their party manifestos, and now they don’t.

On the other side, something that I felt very strongly about was the ignite development in Southland, and the carbon implications. The Government didn’t agree, wasn’t interested. Fortunately they seemed to have largely gone away for a while, given Solid Energy’s situation.

Things change out there for all kinds of reasons. There’s quite a few small ones we’ve had. Like, the EEZ legislation, there was this clause, clause 61, that was very, very bad. It said if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs then always give the consent. It was written in such a way that it swept away all other parts of the Bill, that became the one criterium. We made quite a fuss about that, and it got taken out. That was good.

Did the EEZ legislation need to be the “RMA of the Sea”?

I think that’s it purpose, and it’s not a bad way of describing it. Although there was a number of things I didn’t like about it, at least it was there – this legislation was a long time coming. The problem with that RMA interpretation is that the EEZ occurs outside of council boundaries, so you need to have the EPA enforcing it rather than the local councils.

Should environmental protections trump any economic benefits the Government sees in the EEZ?

When we were given this “sea”, by the UN, in which we could fish and so on, it was given on the condition that we look after it. I don’t think “trump” is quite the right word—it’s the same model as the RMA—you can do this development PROVIDED you look after the environment.

A provision, rather than a balance?

Yes exactly, I think ‘balance’ is quite a tricky word. One man’s balance is someone else’s imbalance.

On the topic of the sea, will deep-sea oil drilling [we already have some underwater oil drilling] ever be safe enough for New Zealand, or should we resist any move to become the ‘Texas of the south’ as one developer suggested?

Anything you do entails risks. Walking across the road entails risk. So it is a question of how much damage do you think could be done, and what you think the probability is. Judgements about that are very difficult. Oil of course does biodegrade.

When it comes to fossils fuels with me though, the issue is always climate change. That is the issue that ‘trumps’ everything else. It affects just about everything else. It’s really about our future and the future of many other things on this earth.

On climate change – is the Emissions Trading Scheme really the best solution?

Well, when it comes to market instruments for environmental results, you have two basic models. One of the them is ‘tax the bad thing’, like smoking or paying to dump your rubbish at the dump, all kinds of things. The other is to set a limit overall, and then allow trading, trading of the ‘right to pollute this much’. I do think a market based instrument of either kind is extremely important for dealing with carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is ubiquitous, it’ is everywhere. By taxing it through a price you can incorporate it into your economic system. When you use non-market solutions to deal with carbon dioxide, for instance the promotion of certain biofuels, you can end up with much worse outcomes, as the US have.

The problem we have in New Zealand is the implementation. We have the right framework. We now have a situation where the biggest carbon polluters pay only one-twentieth of their carbon costs. Carbon dioxide is always associated with energy consumption, and certain industries are clearly huge carbon emitters—cement and steel and things like that—they are only paying one-twentieth of it! Ihe implementation is so weak, and once you let people off the hook like that, it’s very hard to bring them back in.

So why do taxpayers subsidise these polluters, doesn’t that go against the whole point of the legislation?

Yup. In a word, yes. [Shrugs] Mind you, other countries have weakened theirs as well, but we do hold ourselves up as this clean green country.

Do you think our Government is responding in kind to climate change?

I think our response is very weak, and I think that’s very sad. It’s something that can damage our international reputation. I mean, we should be able to do very well on the environment here. We have a small population, and we haven’t been here very long, none of us. Not only does one of our biggest industries, tourism, rest entirely on our environmental credentials, it’s also our point of economic difference. I mean what else do we have? Oh yes we have ‘number 8 wire’ or whatever, but that can happen in any country – this is our point of difference. It’s our identity as New Zealanders.

The ‘mining on national parks’ issue has disappeared from the spotlight somewhat, should we still be worried?

Well we’ve just had a change to the Crown Minerals Act with relatively little attention. One of the things I said we shouldn’t change, in an earlier report, has now been changed – permission to mine on conservation land now being jointly given by the Minister of Conservation and the Minister of Energy and Resources. This achieves ‘balance’ somehow. For me, the Minister of Conservation is the ‘guardian’ of the conservation estate, on behalf of New Zealanders, and how can that Minister be held accountable when someone else is making the decisions too? Who has the upper hand? I hope that change will be reversed at some point.

The biggest threat to the conservation estate is not mining however, it’s pests. On most of the conservation estate there is no control of pests. Our ecosystem is very vulnerable. These pests are not going to leave the country on their own accord.

Does the conversation need to move towards pests then? Mining certainly stirred some anger.

I would like it too. Actually at a recent presentation we did a little photoshopping of that [anti-mining] march down Queen St, making the signs say “death to stoats”. I would be very happy with that – stoats are such a big threat. People think its all about possums, and there are fewer possums than there used to be, but the less possums you have the more food you have for the rats.

Are there any other environmental issues you feel are not being talked about?

I think generally what happens with the environment, is like everything else, there are fashions. People get interested in something and then more people get interested and it becomes an issue. This is normal. If we go back a few years ago to when I was younger, soil erosion was a huge problem. Now we have a big interest in water quality, and we blame the cows, but half the problem is the phosphorus coming from the soil. We go from one to the other – this consciousness about fresh water is great. The thing that I worry about is they way our cities are expanding. With Auckland and the rebuild in Christchurch, we’re losing a lot of fertile soil. Fertile soil is pretty precious. Things about the environment can be surprising. For example – one of the reports we put out from our office was about solar water heating, and how it wasn’t an especially good idea, there were better stuff you could do. Things get viewed as ‘the green thing to do’ but you can’t simply assume that. You need to dig under them and look at the science.

That’s probably enough grilling you, thanks so much for your time.

Thank you.

 

——

Death by a Thousand Discussion-Paper Cuts

 

RMA changes – The Resource Management Act governs how we use our natural resources, aiming to protect ecological and cultural environments from reckless development. As you can imagine, negotiating it can be costly and lengthy, but that’s kind of the point. National “simplified and streamlined” the RMA in 2009, and have now released a discussion paper proposing further changes. These changes seek to ‘balance’ the RMA, giving economic concerns much more influence. The role of central government is also greatly increased, allowing ministers to promote pet projects with more ease, despite provisions that give power to the central government already existing within the Act.

EEZ/ECS legislation – The Exclusive Economic Zone is the large oceanic area surrounding New Zealand which we have the right to exploit economically. It is roughly 15 times the size of the country itself. New Zealand was granted control over this EEZ in 1994, so legislation governing it was quite a long time coming. When the legislation did come, however, it didn’t make the safety of the environment a requirement for development – reducing it to simply a factor to consider. After the assertion from Dr Wright that this in fact violated the terms of international law with which we were granted the EEZ, the Government backtracked, and the legislation that passed was much friendlier to environmental concerns. Minister for Energy and Resources Simon Bridges has recently proposed a change to the Crown Minerals Act which severely hinders the right of New Zealanders to protest in the EEZ.

Shoddy implementation of the ETS – Labour brought in the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2008, seeking to reduce carbon emissions. Under an ETS, polluters have a finite amount of ‘carbon credits’ they can spend on emitting carbon, or sell to other polluters on an international market. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. National blunted the scheme considerably when they came into power, foregoing any absolute limit on emissions in New Zealand, postponing the requirement for agricultural industry to join indefinitely, and heavily subsidising other industries’ carbon credits, at the taxpayers’ expense. It is increasingly unlikely that New Zealand will reach its Kyoto obligations.

Mining on the conservation estate – You probably remember the hubbub around mining in national parks in 2009, when National announced plans to “stocktake” the mineral wealth in areas covered by Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act. Schedule 4 protects about one-third of the conservation estate from mining, even if the Minister of Conservation grants permission. After much public opposition, National backed down on this specific plan. This year they quietly amended the CMA, splitting the permission-giving power for mining the other two-thirds of the conservation estate between the Minister of Conservation and the Minister of Energy and Resources.

Cutting DoC staff  The Department of Conservation maintains our conservation estate, and is the main go-to for tourists wishing to explore our vast natural heritage. 140 jobs were going to be lost in a restructure, but some extra funding has reduced this number to 80.

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