Changes will incentivise clean electricity, urban intensification and ecosystem restoration to reduce emissions, Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: Renewable energy generation, denser cities and wetland revitalisation to sequester carbon could all be advantaged in the new resource management system the Government is crafting.

A Ministry for the Environment briefing to Environment Minister David Parker and Climate Change Minister James Shaw, obtained under the Official Information Act, says resource management reform can incentivise emissions reductions in five critical areas. Those are renewable energy, low-emissions urban form, nature-based solutions, industrial emissions and future-proofing infrastructure so that it is flexible to the development of new, zero-carbon technologies.

The bulk of these changes would come in the Natural and Built Environments Act and the Strategic Planning Act.

The advice comes in the wake of recommendations from the Climate Change Commission that the Government “ensure that the reform of the resource management system enables low emissions transport, land use, infrastructure and building system”.

The commission warned “weak national direction and lack of prioritisation of different objectives can make it difficult for local governments to plan accordingly. This can also make it difficult to ensure accountability and joined up thinking around climate change outcomes, particularly when assessed against other social and economic outcomes”.

Shaw told Newsroom the Government’s final decisions in response to the briefing would be revealed with the Emissions Reduction Plan in May. A consultation document on the plan, released in October, also highlighted the importance of the planning system in reducing emissions.

Officials told Parker and Shaw that the current system “addresses climate mitigation in a piecemeal way”. The existing Resource Management Act was only recently amended to allow councils to consider the climate impacts of developments in granting resource consents and those changes still haven’t come into effect.

The current system has allowed the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure when climate change was excluded from consideration. New renewable energy developments have also been stymied by the complexity of the resource consent system. In its advice, the commission highlighted this as an issue.

“Many forms of renewable generation, especially hydropower, wind and geothermal, have the potential to come into conflict with the resource management system,” the commission noted.

This was echoed in the official briefing. “Significantly more renewable energy generation and delivery infrastructure is required to meet emissions reduction targets. Energy generators (both in the private sector and Crown-owned entities) have communicated to us that planning certainty is critical for delivering renewable energy at the pace and scale needed to decarbonise the economy.”

While specific options to address this were redacted from the document, Shaw said the Government was looking at streamlining the consents process for renewable energy.

“Making it easier to consent the things that we need to consent in order to decarbonise the economy is one of the options,” he said.

The briefing said urban development is closely tied to emissions from transport and buildings but the current planning system has failed to promote better urban form.

“Urban development decisions have not prioritised reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Well serviced, inner-city, high-density development has been constrained by barriers such as zoning rules, land-banking, and a multi-decade infrastructure deficit.”

Officials also focused on the importance of so-called nature-based solutions – protecting and restoring natural environments in a manner which reduces emissions or improves resilience to climate impacts alongside the main biodiversity benefits.

“Sequestering carbon dioxide through natural carbon sinks is a cost-effective way to reduce emissions in hard-to-abate industries and sectors,” the briefing said.

Shaw said that nature-based solutions “generally aren’t accounted for, ironically, in the resource management act at the moment. We know for example that wetlands work quite well for flood mitigation and flood defences and are often cheaper than hard infrastructure made of concrete. Incorporating those principles into the planning framework can bring down costs, increase resilience and helps us sequester more carbon.”

While the Natural and Built Environments Act and Strategic Planning Act will seek to incentivise emissions reduction, the third and final law in the RMA reform plan, the Climate Change Adaptation Act, will seek to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. Early ideas around this legislation are expected to be released for consultation on Tuesday.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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