An environment conference agrees the time for exploiting nature is over and we need to focus on putting things right, writes Rod Oram

A sense we’re making a change for the better in our environmental culture and practice here in New Zealand came through strongly this week in Christchurch. The occasion was a conference bringing together many of the players involved in how we use our abundant but rapidly degrading natural resources.

Farmers and activists, scientists and citizens, politicians and civil servants, they were participating in the annual conference of the Environmental Defence Society, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

For all the debate and discussion, one point was abundantly clear. No one from those diverse backgrounds argued we could carry on as we have for generations exploiting nature. Instead, the focus was on how we must use our resources wisely and begin to put right the damage we’ve long done, and are still doing.

Two keynote addresses forcefully reminded us what’s at stake. So intense are human pressures on the planet, we have to fundamentally change the way we run our economies, argued Robert Costanza, a global leader in ecological economics based at Australian National University.

Some 12 years ago, Costanza was one of the team at the Stockholm Resilience Centre which did the science to create the Planetary Boundaries Framework. Of the nine biological, geological and chemical limits they identified, humanity’s biggest breaches are, in order of magnitude, excessive phosphorous and nitrogen flows because of the use of artificial fertilisers in farming worldwide, biodiversity loss, land use changes and climate change.

The latest report on our boundary breaches, and how we can repair them, is presented in a new documentary on Netflix. It was devised and presented by Sir David Attenborough, the British natural historian, Johan Rockström, a Swedish earth systems scientist who led the Planetary Boundaries team, and a large cast of fellow scientists. You can watch the Breaking the Boundaries documentary here.  There is also a just-published book based on the film, and with the same title.

The second keynote was by Dr Simon Buckle, head of Climate, Biodiversity and Water at the OECD. He reminded the audience the latest UN assessment of biodiversity showed a “just astonishing rate” of decline, with some 25 percent of species already threatened with extinction.

Yet the biodiversity is “fundamental to human life on Earth. We haven’t woken up to the risk. Policy commitments are still catching up with the impact and the challenges of that decline.”

Given the co-crises of climate breakdown and ecosystem degradation, it was vital we tackled them in tandem. He referred to the UN’s stark, seminal report in 2019 on the immense challenge humanity faces to keep the rise in global temperatures to under 1.5c. Doing so requires rapid and steep cuts in emissions of all greenhouse gas emissions, including methane from farming. One of the drivers of the latter would be big changes in farming systems, he said, as the OECD had analysed in its Towards Sustainable Land Use paper, published last year. 

Three New Zealand presenters followed up with perspectives on our performance here.

“We are delusional about how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction” with the great damage to water quality caused by nitrates from farming systems, said Dr Mike Joy, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University of Wellington. “We are still subsidising bad farming practices. We haven’t begun to slow down the harm.”

Freshwater reforms will require certified plans for every farm. But “no farm plan is going to deal with that” because the root causes are so deeply buried in farming systems.

Examples of land use changes and shifts to integrated farming systems by some Māori landowners was offered by Dr Tanira Kingi, Research Leader Primary Sector, at Scion, the forestry Crown Research Institute.

And Corrigan Sowman, a Fonterra farmer-shareholder, a member of its sustainability advisory panel and a former Nuffield Scholar, gave a presentation on The Mindset to Farm within Planetary Limits.

The themes were picked up in the panel discussion that followed.

“Globally, we’ll see a shift of land use in a period of unprecedented change across all food and fibre sectors,” said Lain Jager, the former Zespri chief executive who chaired the Primary Sector Council’s Fit for a Better World strategy released in July 2020.

“We’re seeing an evolution in farming practices from an extractive mindset to an absolute commitment to regenerative practices.” One of the most powerful drivers of those, which help rebuild the health of land, water and ecosystems, is from consumers through, for example, changing their diets to less dairy and meat and more plant and other protein alternatives.

“But it’s messy. There are violent politics within the sector. The reality is, that in order to be effective, farming leaders know they need to bring farmers with them,” Jager added.

“We need to focus on planet and people-positive food systems,” added panellist Trish Kirkland-Smith, Head of Environmental Partnerships at Fonterra. Working with some of the co-op’s farmers who are switching to regenerative systems has shown that the practices reduce some of the stress on the farms and their farmers.

“It’s a transformation not a transition. The small steps we’ve been taking won’t get us there.”

However, policy and regulatory change will drive far deeper shifts, Gary Taylor, the chair of EDS, had said in opening the conference. “The environmental reform agenda the Labour Government is rolling out across multiple domains and systems is the greatest since the 1980s.”

He added that parts of the conference programme would rebut five of the seven demands made by the Groundswell coalition which had organised recent farmer protests around the country. Those demands called for the Government to drop much of its environmental programme.

In his speech at the end of the first day of the conference, David Parker, Minister for the Environment, said: “We’re providing the framework for the environment for decades to come. We’re changing course, and I think future generations will thank us for it. Successive governments have promised transformation change but failed to deliver.”

The biggest reform underway is of resource management. Submissions have just closed on the exposure draft of the proposed Natural and Built Environment Act, which will be the main replacement to the Resource Management.

The Government will table the full Bill early next year, with the new Spatial Planning Act which will set long-term environmental planning goals for each region of the country.

The new resource management system “will be simpler, more efficient and more coherent” than the current one, Parker said.

The next biggest reform is of freshwater regulation, which in its current form, has been underway since 2020 although the groundwork dates back many years.

An EDS pre-conference workshop on Wednesday showed there was widespread support across the environmental sector for water reforms. This includes many farming organisations which are actively engaged in developing the implementation of the complex new system. This requires all regional councils and unitary authorities to have plans in place to protect and restore waterways by 2026.The key regulatory body will be the newly created Office of the Freshwater Commissioner which will assess and approve their plans.

Other environmental reforms in train include further work under the Zero Carbon Act such as greenhouse gas emission reductions and climate change adaptation, a major overhaul of fisheries and oceans policies and regulations, and environmental reporting and waste streams.

“Doing all this will take time. The work touches on every aspect of our environment,” Parker said.

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