Among developed nations we are arguably the most dependent on our natural environment for earning our living. This reliance goes well beyond the primary sector on land and at sea to attracting tourists, students, immigrants and investors. Above all, our natural assets help define us as a nation. 

Yet, the two central pieces of legislation by which we manage our natural resources and fisheries are 30 years old. Though much amended over the years, they are comprehensively failing to ensure we create the maximum, deeply sustainable wealth from our land and sea.

Last year, the OECD’s once-a-decade review of our environmental performance concluded:

“New Zealand’s growth model … has started to show its environmental limits, with increased greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater contamination and threats to biodiversity.”

It urged us “to further explore the economic opportunities that more sustainable uses could yield. Developing a long-term vision for a transition towards a low-carbon, greener economy would help New Zealand defend the ‘green’ reputation it has acquired at an international level”.

That work is now underway at last with, for example, the Productivity Commission’s project on the transitions to a low carbon economy and the Government’s launch this week of public consultations on the Zero Carbon Act. The latter was backed by a letter of support from some 200 businesses, community groups and climate leaders.

As the Productivity Commission has noted “…the shift from the old economy to a new, low-emissions economy will be profound and widespread, transforming land use, the energy system, production methods and technology, regulatory frameworks and institutions, and business and political culture.”

So, if we’re going to have a Zero Carbon Act and Climate Commission to facilitate those deep changes to the economy, we’ll also need 21st century resource management and fisheries legislation too. While successive governments have kept tinkering with the current, late 20th century versions of those acts they have failed to grasp the nettle of fundamental reform.

The existing Quota Management System has prevented the over-fishing and subsequent collapse of species. But it only keeps them hovering above the point of terminal decline.

Fortunately, though, the Environmental Defence Society has. Founded in 1971 by a group of law students and scientists, it has developed a long, deep track record of bringing NGOs, businesses, academia, government and civil society together to progress environmental issues. It, for example, initiated the Land and Water Forum in 2009 which delivered a comprehensive new framework for freshwater regulation. However, while the Key and English governments implemented large parts of it, they did not implement all elements of it, which undercut the framework’s value.

The EDS’s RMA Reform Project is financially supported by The Law Foundation, Employers & Manufacturers Association, Property Council New Zealand, Infrastructure New Zealand and Watercare.

The first working paper in the project looked at ethics, principles and international experiences, while the second, just launched, focuses on how legislative frameworks are designed and how the system provides for public participation. More research and recommendations will follow during the project’s 18-month term. The overall goal is a complete redesign of the resource management system.

“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of change on a global and a national scale, and that’s only going to become more noticeable in the future,” says Raewyn Peart, EDS’s Policy Director.

“Our population, demographics and economy are shifting; we face growing infrastructure and visitor pressures; climate change is an ever present concern; and alongside all of it we have rapidly changing technologies – which present both threats and opportunities.”

My view is we need to shift from a narrow focus on economic development’s impact on local environments to an integrated approach to ecosystems. The cleaner our technology becomes in our drive to a low emissions economy, the greater opportunity we have to improve the health of ecosystems, which in turn will enable us to earn a greater, more sustainable living in the global economy.

This was the topic I choose last year when the Resource Management Law Association gave me the privilege of delivering the 2017 Salmon Lecture, named in honour of Peter Salmon, a former High Court judge and chair of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance.

Ecosystem management is also at the heart of the EDS’s reform work on fisheries. The existing Quota Management System has prevented the over-fishing and subsequent collapse of species. But it only keeps them hovering above the point of terminal decline. It does not enable their rebuilding levels to much bigger and more resilient levels which would allow larger catches. Worse, it is being weakened by inadequate compliance, with the latest evidence reported in this article about misreporting and dumping of hoki.

The problem is the current system manages individual species, not the complex ecosystems in which they live. Moreover we know remarkably little about our marine ecosystems, even close to shore let alone in our vast Exclusive Economic Zone, which is the fourth largest national oceanic resource in the world.

Last month, EDS published its Voices from the Sea study which identifies the success and failures of the current system and advocates reform of fisheries management in a far more comprehensive marine spatial planning process administered by a new Oceans Agency. It also called for an independent statutory inquiry to further the work.

“New Zealand is currently behind many other countries in adopting such approaches and needs to improve in this important area,” the study says. These and other issues were canvassed in a seminar that launched the report. An audio recording of the panel discussion with five fishing sector experts is available here

I believe the issue of how we treat and use our natural capital is absolutely critical to our future as a country, as regular readers of this column know from such recent pieces over the past eight months as: Farming’s bankrupt, time for Natural CapitalRevolutionary new foods challenge ‘natural’ farm products, and Fixing farming is our climate challenge.

Seeking fresh insights into such issues I’m heading overseas for six weeks, starting in Stockholm with the EAT Forum’s conference on redesigning the world’s food system, followed by some meetings at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

The Centre’s scientists are developing their Planetary Boundaries framework into a comprehensive system for tracking humankind’s impact on the ecosystems of the Earth. They also collect on their “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” website examples of effective remedial and regenerative actions around the world. The lone New Zealand one listed so far is our Predator Free by 2050 project.

My column will resume on July 27. Meanwhile, the video and slides of my recent University of Auckland presentation on Fonterra in China are now available on its North Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence website.

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