Successive tinkering with the Resource Management Act has failed to keep it fit for our fast-changing world, but a new report sets out how the system could be reformed to enhance our economic and ecological well-being.

The Environmental Defence Society has launched an insightful, bold and practical roadmap for reforming our resource management system.

The culmination of a three-year project with leading business organisations, the proposals address challenges new and old. These range from the climate emergency and intergenerational equity to long-standing failures of the existing Resource Management Act.

The RMA was ground-breaking when it was enacted almost 30 years ago. It sought to balance competing economic and environmental interests. But those pressures have intensified significantly. Our human population has grown by 50 percent and our economy by far more. Consequently, we are failing to make the most of our economic opportunities yet many of our ecosystems are deteriorating, as the government’s Environment Aotearoa 2019 report showed us once again in April.

These days we talk of climate and ecological emergencies, of restoring existing ecological damage, of empowering younger generations to help them overcome their fear for their future, and of living up to our responsibilities as the developed country most dependent on its natural environment for earning its living.

Successive tinkering with the RMA has failed to keep it fit for this fast-changing world, let alone deal with its inherent short-comings. These include few and inadequate national policy statements and standards, and many inefficient and counter-productive processes. Worse, our efforts to improve it have rarely gone beyond re-litigating entrenched positions.

“We need to be thinking about a much wider range of laws, institutions, processes and financial and behavioural incentives,” says Gary Taylor, chairman of EDS. To those ends, the project advocates:

– keeping an integrated RMA as the core legislation but revising its purposes and principles, and improving its mechanisms;

– adding new legislation to reform oceans management, embed climate responses into the system, improve urban and infrastructure development and deploy strategic and spatial planning needed to respond well to urban growth pressures;

– strengthening institutional and funding arrangements (for example, a future system should embrace economic instruments, such as resource rentals, green taxes, and a more strategic use of subsidies);

– Placing more emphasis on helping people change their behaviour by, for example, making better use of the education system, public messaging, behavioural nudging, green certification and corporate disclosures – above all, far more robust monitoring, reporting and evaluation is essential; and

– creating an independent Futures Commission to provide foresight (so we can anticipate and prepare for new challenges rather than responding inadequately and piecemeal after they arrive) and to audit the performance of public authorities against criteria in the Future Generations Act.

The most important proposal of all is the Futures Commission.

As we’re seeing with similar independent climate commissions in a growing number of countries, such institutions are anchored in science, facts and analysis which in turn generate pathways, targets and timetables by which those countries can commit to ambitions and deliver on them.

Such a process lifts those complex, whole-of-society, long term challenges out of the swamp of short-term politicking driven by vested interests, sound bites and fake news up into the realms of progress.

As the report notes: “The challenges we face are long term ones, and require an injection of robust institutional independence that depoliticises issues. Regulation cannot be the only answer, and the system will need to engage deeply with economic and behavioural incentives to drive positive action.”

Under the Future Generations Act, a substantially revised RMA would lead and integrate with four new acts which would bring together and greatly improve existing legislation. The quartet would focus on Climate Change Response, Protected Areas and Species, Oceans, and Local Government and Infrastructure.

Another crucial element of the report is its work on ethics and principles. These would determine how well we rise to these enormous tasks in coming decades.

“We recognise that multiple worldviews or ethics will need to underpin the system. We are not adopting a particular theory or lens like ecocentrism, for example. This is not only because mediating between a melting pot of worldviews will be the political reality, but also because we see a plurality of ethics as a good thing. We can learn a lot from each other’s perspectives. Indeed, we are already seeing a positive convergence of thinking in this area with concepts like Te Mana o Te Wai. A future system will need to seek out similar nodes of agreement as well as mediate between legitimate tensions in people’s worldviews.

“Ultimately, there is growing acceptance and convergence among New Zealanders about the outcomes we need to see. If changes in ethics (e.g. seeing nature as having moral worth rather than just instrumental value) help us to achieve those, then that is a positive thing. In particular, while economic tools (e.g. natural capital valuation, taxes and resource rentals) will be important in driving change, we should not be attached to a narrow neo-liberal economic orthodoxy in how we manage our taonga and resources. There is a strong moral component to be considered here, too, over which experts and technicians have no particular claim.”

Moreover, “a narrow rationale based on remedying market failure or internalising externalities would be overly constraining, and that instead the system should have a role where either the public interest is at stake or where the interests of Māori as Treaty partners need to be addressed.”

As for the RMA itself, the report rejects scrapping the Act or splitting it into different parts such as environmental and urban issues. Instead, much would be achieved by changing Part 2 of the Act which defines its purpose and principles. Key elements the report proposes are:

– a clearer distinction between matters that require “true” bottom lines and those that involve balance between economic development and ecosystem health, as well as a stronger direction about the pre-eminence of bottom lines;

– a stronger recognition of the need to enhance the natural environment;

– recognition that climate change mitigation is imperative;

– language that is more responsive to ecosystem harm and more focused on positive outcomes and change, rather than the strong existing bias to trading off economic gain against damage to ecosystems, in which the former usually wins;

– subject to clear bottom lines, there needs to be greater recognition of the benefits of environmentally sustainable use of resources, including such factors as good urban design; and

– a stronger statement to give effect to the principles of the Treaty.

In addition, the Act needs changes to planning processes at national and local levels, and related institutional arrangements, and to devise new ways to allocate resources such as water, rather than the first come, first served method now.

These are only the highlights of this well researched report, and the project is promising more proposals next year on the likes of urban and built environments, oceans and nature conservation.

Led by Dr Greg Severinsen and Raewyn Peart, the work is supported by EDS, the New Zealand Law Foundation, the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation, the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern), Property Council New Zealand, Infrastructure New Zealand and Watercare.

All this work will be immensely helpful to the Resource Management Review Panel initiated by the Government in July. Its issues paper released last month lists 14 issues covering 44 topics. It is seeking submissions on them by February 3. The panel is due to report its recommendations to the government mid next year.

The panel is ably led by Tony Randerson QC, a retired Court of Appeal Judge for whom environmental issues have been central to his career for more than 30 years. Back in 1990, Simon Upton, then the Minister for the Environment, appointed him chair of a review group to finalise the RMA bill parliament considered and enacted in 1991. Meanwhile, Upton went on to have a long, distinguished career at the OECD, culminating in heading its environmental directorate. Currently, he is our Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Randerson, Upton and Taylor, chair of the EDS, and many more environmental experts are eagerly pushing for new ideas that will significantly improve our interdependent economic and ecological responsibilities and ambitions.

Let’s take our cue from them. Let’s make significant reforms that enhance our economic and ecological well-being.

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