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Nick Smith: EDS Navigating Our Future conference

Nick Smith

7 AUGUST, 2014

Address to the Environmental Defence Society Navigating Our Future conference

Kia ora hei hui tātou katoa.

Can I acknowledge Gary Taylor and the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) for the first class discussion and engagement that goes with these annual EDS conferences.

A historic weakness in New Zealand is that our environmental discussions occur in one room and the economic discussions in another. EDS does a better job of bringing those important debates together than any other organisation and that makes these annual discussions important. We, more than any other developed country, need to work out how we pull together economic and environmental policy that support our most important wealth-producing industries and that protect our quality of life and stunning natural environment. I also acknowledge the many participants from the environmental sector and from industry that add to the success of these conferences.

This morning I want to give an overview of National’s thinking and priorities, note some of the core issues on where we have made progress during our past six years as Government, make a couple of further announcements and to outline to you some of our priorities should we be privileged to lead the Government for a further three years.

It is important to recite National’s Bluegreens principles that underpin our approach. We are a Government committed to both growing the economy so we can deliver more jobs and better-paying jobs, as well as improving the environment. You cannot have a strong economy if you have trashed the very resources on which the economy depends. But equally so, high environmental standards go with strong successful economies. We take pride in our record over the past six years, in which we have got the economy growing at nearly four per cent per year that we have balanced the books and that unemployment is tracking down and at a five year low. We have made choices to decline economic opportunities where the environmental costs are too high, like in Fiordland with the tunnel and monorail. We have made significant environmental gains and our approach is about getting the balance right.

The second is our view that New Zealand can make more progress on our environmental challenges if we take a more collaborative approach to resolving environmental issues. That is why we picked up on the 2008 EDS conference initiative to establish the Land and Water Forum. Another product of these collaborative processes that we champion is the whale sanctuary, fur seal sanctuary and Hikurangi Marine Reserve that I opened yesterday in Kaikoura.

The third key Bluegreen principle is that good environmental decision-making depends on quality science. That is why I have been such a strong supporter of the Department of Conservation's response to the 2014 beech mast event, branded as 'Battle for Our Birds.' The politics of 1080 is difficult, but as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has made plain, it is the best tool we have available to us if we are serious about ensuring the survival of the species that define our country.

The fourth Bluegreen principle is that people respond best to change when engaged and given incentives. A good example is the waste levy that we successfully introduced in 2009, which has enabled us to provide over $100 million of incentives to reduce waste and improve recycling. In the same theme, the increased funding we have provided this year for the Queen Elizabeth II Trust has paid a handsome dividend in the huge 53,000-hectare covenant over Mutt Lange's four stations between Wanaka and Arrowtown, announced on Tuesday. Through this public private partnership we have protected an area greater than the combined area of the Paparoa and Able Tasman National Parks.

Our fifth and final Bluegreen principle is that New Zealanders have a unique birthright to access and enjoy our special places. We have opened up 10 new campgrounds, developed a national network of cycleways, and this week entered into a new community partnership with tramping, deerstalking and mountain biking clubs for upgrading hut and track facilities.

I want to take a moment to reflect on some of our significant conservation and environmental achievements over our six years in office. I can’t help but start in the marine space, having yesterday joined with the Kaikoura community on the opening of the new protections coming from the Te Korowai process. It will be one of 10 new marine reserves established this year – an all-time record.

However, the most significant gain in improving management of our ocean environment has been the Government's passage of the Exclusive Economic Zone Environmental Effects Act. While I know there was considerable argy bargy over the detail of this new law, no one can question that it is a huge step forward from the complete lack of environmental regulation in this huge area nearly 20 times the size of our land mass. Those critics that said that it was a rubber stamp need to reflect on the Environmental Protection Agency's board decision to decline the application by Trans-Tasman Resources for iron sand mining off the North Island west coast. This legislation has also enabled us to introduce compulsory regulations for activities like seismic surveying that previously were not regulated.

I am also proud of our decision to ban shark finning, an action that will take effect on 1 October. It acknowledged the growing international and local awareness that sharks are an important part of our marine ecosystem and while not as cute as species like whales or dolphins, we also need to ensure their survival. I am also proud of the role New Zealand played in supporting Australia’s case to the International Court of Justice on bringing an end to so-called scientific whaling. Our Attorney-General Chris Finlayson's presentation in The Hague was a substantial contribution to the positive ruling.

Another marine issue that we have put a lot of work into is in respect of Maui’s dolphin protection. The science makes plain that the vast bulk of the risk to Maui's is set netting and that is why our Government doubled the set net ban area. There are those pushing for further extension. So let me make the Government’s position plain: we see set netting as incompatible in areas where Maui’s dolphins reside. We extended the area to include all those where there were reliable sightings. There has not been an incident since. We also are funding 100 per cent observer coverage on all vessels beyond the set net ban. In 900 fishing trips, there have been no observations of Maui's. Our position is that if there are sightings beyond the protected area then we will review the boundaries. We do recognise that we do need to take a cautious approach to the Maui's, with their population being so small, but believe that our response has been responsible and logical.

Another key priority has been improving New Zealand’s freshwater management. The lack of central government direction on freshwater management has been one of the most serious environmental failings of the Resource Management Act (RMA) framework since its inception in 1991. That is why we made such a high priority of advancing the National Policy Statement for Freshwater. We have also passed national regulations requiring metering of 98 per cent of water takes. This is an important step forward as you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We also doubled the penalties under the RMA for noncompliance and resource consent breaches and have supported far more robust enforcement of water quality controls by regional councils.

I am proud of the progress that we have made on freshwater clean-up programmes. The successful intervention at Lake Rotoiti means that this lake is cleaner than it has been in decades. The cap and trade regime in Taupō is another success story. Despite the tight fiscal environment we have increased by fivefold, the level of funding to freshwater clean-ups.

There are also dozens of local initiatives underway to restore waterways. There has also been huge progress on farms with thousands of kilometres of fencing, riparian planting and much improved farm effluent systems. The latest steps have been the National Objectives Frameworks for freshwater announced last month by Environment Minister Amy Adams.

It is also true that National sees significant economic opportunities from New Zealand further developing and utilising its freshwater resources. We do not see this as being incompatible with an ambition for improved freshwater management and quality. We believe that it is possible, with well-designed water storage schemes, to lift summer minimum flows. We also believe that there are benefits in shifting irrigation pressure away from aquifers and our low land river systems. We also believe that with careful nutrient management we can better manage the environmental effects. This is not a recipe for carte blanche approval for all proposed schemes, but a view that with a robust framework we can enjoy the economic benefits of improved agricultural production without compromising water quality.

A third very challenging environmental issue is the global challenge of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. National’s consistent position is that this is a real issue that needs to be taken seriously and that New Zealand should ensure that it’s doing its fair share towards a global solution. We introduced in 2010 our modified emissions trading scheme (ETS) in line with our policy. We are the only country outside of Europe to put a price on carbon emissions. I openly concede that with the low international price, this scheme is not putting huge financial pressure on sectors to reduce emissions. The low price simply reflects the lack of action been taken internationally on climate change. The reason we support this mechanism is that when the world takes the issue more seriously, the price in New Zealand will naturally correct and New Zealand’s contribution to constraining emissions will correct in line with international efforts.

The ETS has contributed to the Government’s success in improving New Zealand’s proportion of renewable energy. Whereas under the previous Government there was a constant downward trend in renewable electricity as a proportion of New Zealand’s total, that trend has been reversed and the proportion has improved from 65 per cent to 75 per cent. We remain committed and on track for achieving 90 per cent renewables by 2025. We are also pleased with the progress we have achieved on home insulation. We have topped 300,000 homes that have been insulated with Government support. A further significant achievement is the billion dollar investment in Auckland rail electrification and the $60 million investment in the Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium.

There are two areas this morning in which I want to make fresh announcements. The first is a piece of work we began five years ago on the contentious area of biodiversity offsetting. There are many areas of environmental work where New Zealand’s thinking and policy is world-leading. But around the issue of biodiversity offsetting, I think we are behind as a country in the use of this tool for helping resolve tensions between economic development and impacts on nature.

It is consistent with National’s Bluegreen view that biodiversity offsetting is an appropriate tool that can be used under the Resource Management Act, the Crown Minerals Act and the Conservation Act. However, we also acknowledge that without good practice, biodiversity offsetting can fall into greenwash. It is for this reason that we asked officials across the natural sector involving Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Land Information New Zealand and Local Government New Zealand to look at biodiversity offsetting.

Today I am formally launching the good practice guidance for biodiversity offsetting. It is closely aligned with the internationally developed business and offsets programme and includes the most up-to-date methods and learning. It includes biodiversity offsetting definitions, principles, key concepts the appropriate application in New Zealand and key steps necessary to demonstrate good practice.

I do not want to present biodiversity offsetting as the solution to all problems in this space. There are limits to offsets; in some cases where the biodiversity affected is so vulnerable or irreplaceable that no amount of offsetting will replace it. Nor does biodiversity offsetting remove the obligation to minimise and avoid impacts wherever possible. However, these new guidelines that will be publicly available on the DOC website today are a step forward in providing a more simplified approach to such issues. I want to stress that are these guidelines are not regulations nor is the Government saying that this is the last word in what represents best practice. We do however want to get these guidelines out, get them used and start building better practical experience so that they can be further refined.

The second Government release I am making today is on behalf of my colleague the Hon Tim Groser on climate change. The bulk of the public debate in climate change policy has been on mitigation and steps to reduce emissions. We need to be realistic that New Zealand’s emissions account for only 0.14 per cent of the global total and that our efforts will have negligible impacts on how our climate system evolves over the course of the century. A number of commentators have been calling on Government to provide greater guidance of climate change adaptation. Today we are releasing a booklet on New Zealand’s framework for adapting to climate change. The booklet details the four areas around which New Zealand’s adaptation framework is built: information – what risks and opportunities there are as a result of climate change; responsibilities – whose role it is to manage adaptation, investment where we’re investing to support adaptation; action – what Government, councils and others are doing to adapt.

We need to be open about the uncertainties that remain over how New Zealand’s climate will change over the course of the coming century. This adaptation will need to be regularly reviewed alongside the regularly the five year IPCC assessment reports. I wish to make plain that that the Government sees this adaptation as complementary and not an alternative to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealand is going to have to both constrain its emissions as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change.

I want to conclude my speech by giving some sense of priorities should National be privileged to lead the Government again after the election on 20 September. We will be releasing our environment policies closer to polling day, but let me give some steers today on direction.

An important early priority will be completing the work and legislation for establishing robust environmental reporting. It has been well acknowledged that the lack of a statutory framework for environmental reporting is a weakness in New Zealand’s environmental systems. We put enormous energy and resourcing into carefully managing New Zealand’s financial capital – but too little into the measurement and management of our natural capital. We see robust regular, and transparent environmental reporting as an important way forward for improving New Zealand’s management of freshwater, air quality, our biodiversity and our oceans.

A second important priority will be advancing reform of our marine reserve legislation. While we are proud of the progress we have made in delivering more marine reserves, the framework is clumsy and outdated and in urgent need of reform. A good deal of work has been done with officials on a new marine protected areas approach that would bring New Zealand back up to world's best practice in this area.

An important priority for National will also be further reform of the Resource Management Act. I know that the debate on section 6 and 7 has caused some angst in the environmental community, but reform is overdue. There is strong recognition that the lack of mention of natural hazards in part two needs to be addressed. So too does the challenges around housing and the recognition of the importance of well-designed and planned infrastructure. We need to keep the dialogue on-going on how we can address these issues without compromising the environmental protection of the Act.

An important conservation priority for me will be the review of the status of stewardship land. There are some significant and highly valued areas of New Zealand that are inappropriately included in this lowest category of conservation land. Our Government recently moved to reclassify the stewardship land on Great Barrier Island and created the new Aotea Conservation Park. We will also be looking at other areas around New Zealand where this needs to occur.

A further initiative is around the status of rivers in many of our highly valued national and conservation parks. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recently highlighted the anomaly that these areas are not currently included in those parks. I am also aware of the management difficulties that occur as a result of this for DOC. Officials are exploring legislative solutions for providing increased protection for these huge tracts of our wild rivers.

A further conservation issue that we are keen to advance is the proposed national park in Northland kauri forests at Waipoua. I received the New Zealand Conservation Authority recommendation earlier this year and I am currently engaged with Te Roroa on how this might be achieved.

Thank you again for the invitation to address your conference. I miss not having as much time as a Minister to engage in your forums. Albeit I confess it is not my ambition to have more time on my hands next year. Whatever voters might decide on 20 September, it has been an enormous privilege engaging with New Zealanders as Conservation Minister and helping ensure our children get to enjoy what makes this country special.

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