Amid the acronyms, a pre-election environment forum showed for the most part there’s cross party consensus on the direction of policies, if not the details
“If it wasn’t for Covid-19, these issues would have been front and centre of this election,” said Gary Taylor, the chairman and executive director of the Environmental Defence Society in his opening remarks to a late pre-election environmental forum.
The event, jointly hosted by the Environmental Defence Society and the Resource Management Law Association, was a rare “drill beneath the headlines” into the environmental policies of the parties.
The Environment Minister, David Parker represented Labour, Eugenie Sage the Greens, Scott Simpson for National, and ACT’s Simon Court, New Zealand First’s, David Wilson and John Tamihere from the Māori Party rounded out the panel.
Oceans, biodiversity, climate change, freshwater and the proposed overhaul of the Resource Management Act were on the agenda.
Acronyms such as RMA, NES, NPS, DRP, DIN bounced around and some of the time the discussion went into the weeds.
“Dissolved inorganic nitrogen levels are effectively controlled by the periphyton criterion,” said Labour’s Minister for the Environment David Parker.
With language like that you would be forgiven for not knowing he’s talking about one of the biggest freshwater controversies of the year, where a “cautious five” in a 19 strong Science and Technical Advisory Group stymied the introduction of a freshwater bottom line used elsewhere in the world.
Parker’s saying dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), which leaches into the ground, doesn’t need a bottom line because in gravel bottom rivers too much will grow periphyton – a tiny-weed-like sludge of algae, fungi, and bacteria which grows on the beds of rivers, lakes and streams. If you have a rule about how much periphyton is allowed, then you’re picking up a nutrient issue.
Muddy-bottomed rivers are a different kettle of fish, and Parker went into detail about these too.
The final decision, to push the freshwater reforms through without a limit for dissolved organic nitrogen but to review it in one year’s time, was a choice which hasn’t pleased everyone.
Parker was upset by the D- grade Forest & Bird Youth gave Labour for freshwater policy.
“It hurt, particularly since we’ve had grade inflation since I was at university,” he jokes.
The Greens’ Sage spoke of unfinished business. For freshwater reform she wants to see DIN reviewed and measures of quantity and flow added to environmental standards, as well more work to protect indigenous fish.
For Simpson, the impact of horticulture on freshwater was one reason for a catchment-by-catchment approach, rather than the current one-size-fits all approach.
“The geography, the topography, the landscape, the type of land use, and the soil types are different in different parts of the country … The fact the current government has had to make exceptions for those areas is, I think, an indication you can’t treat the whole of the country the whole way. ”
Simpson was talking about Pukekohe and Horowhenua, areas where vegetables are grown. Here, councils are permitted to maintain water quality below some national bottom lines.
Parker said the exceptions came about because, even by decreasing vegetable growing and dairying in Horowhenua by 40 percent, bottom lines couldn’t be reached.
“Do we need a NES for vegetable growing?”Taylor asked Parker.
“Yes, probably. We’ve said that’s the likely outcome.”
A NES is a National Environmental Standard, a regulation under the Resource Management Act which sets out specific, nationally-applicable rules. Several of these exist already for things like air quality, drinking water, plantation forestry and marine aquaculture.
Work on a National Policy Statement (NPS) for Indigenous Biodiversity started in 2007. It’s still not complete, although it’s supposed to be ready for ministerial sign off at the end of the year.
It allows for the protection of wildlife on private land.
“Would you approve it?” Taylor asked the panellists.
“Absolutely not,” replies ACT’s Simon Court. “The NPS for indigenous biodiversity is actually a huge infringement of private property rights. It shows you how morally bankrupt this current government is when it comes to conservation in the environment.”
His idea to help biodiversity on private land is to encourage landowners to conserve it.
Sage was unimpressed.
“People concerned about nature should be worried if ACT does as well as the polls show. It’s absolutely critical that we have the National Policy Statement for Biodiversity with a strong regulatory framework, because the voluntary approach hasn’t worked on private land. We continue to lose our habitats, riparian areas, shrublands and wetlands.”
All the other parties are in favour of the policy statement. Simpson noted people at home could take heart that not all politics was both sides of the house at loggerheads.
“I think that people watching this forum tonight could take some confidence from the fact that there is a reasonably broad consensus on the direction of travel.”
On the topic of climate change, ACT’s Court again bucked the direction of travel.
Taylor asked for a quick response to the question: “Is your party committed to the 2030 target?”
He gets a yes from all except Court, who launches into a speech. “ACT was the only party to oppose the Zero Carbon Bill.”
He’s quickly interrupted and reminded David Seymour missed the vote, and the bill passed unanimously. He gets interrupted a second time when he says ACT thinks the carbon price should be around the average of our top five trading partners.
Taylor tells him of our top five export trading partners only Japan has a price on carbon of around $4. The average would be $2 or $3. “What’s that going to achieve?”
Court said it signalled that New Zealand is a long way away from markets and suppliers and it signals New Zealand needs to take a realist approach.
“It’s all very well sitting here virtue signalling, as you’ve done for the last three years, as the mayor of Auckland Phil Goff did when 10,000 students marched into the Aotea Square and he declared a climate emergency.”