It’s still hard to discern where the National-led government is heading on environmental matters. Over recent months, it’s ranged from good to rather scary. So one year into its term, let’s have a considered look at its performance.

First, the good initiatives.

The government has backed the Land and Water Forum. This is an innovative exercise in collaborative governance. It involves bringing representatives of key stakeholder groups together in a year-long exercise to develop a better way of managing our water resources.

While we are water-abundant compared with most countries, in some regions demand for irrigation outstrips availability. In other regions, we have serious water quality issues, largely because of pollution from intensive land use.

It is to the government’s credit that the Ministers for the Environment and Agriculture have both prioritised developing this new approach to managing freshwater.

Another initiative by the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, has been the reform of the Resource Management Act. What can be said about that is that the outcome is not as bad as it might have been. To his credit, the Minister listened to concerns from business and from community and environmental groups and wound back some of the more radical recommendations from his Technical Advisory Group. A second phase of reform is now underway and we expect that the government will take more time and adopt a more consultative approach this time round. The Minister has promised that the underlying principles of the RMA will not be touched.

The creation of an Environmental Protection Authority is definitely a feather in the Environment Minister’s cap. The EPA will initially handle major infrastructure projects that are “called in” for priority consenting. However in the next phase of reform, we can expect the role of the EPA to be fleshed out further. Between a slimmed-down Ministry for the Environment (focusing on policy advice) and the EPA (focusing on providing national oversight of environmental administration), we can expect more central government leadership and direction-setting on environmental management.

An area that has been disappointing, however, is the emissions trading scheme. The good thing is that the government has stuck to an ETS as its foundation climate change policy and resisted pressure from its coalition partner to abandon it.

However as the amendment bill is presently drafted, it is a cap-and-trade scheme without a cap – and that won’t work. The whole point of an ETS is to give clear price signals to investors that low-carbon developments are favoured over high carbon ones. But by providing massive taxpayer subsidies to heavy polluters and agriculture through to 2050 and beyond, those price signals are weak and won’t change investment behaviour. And rather than achieving bipartisan support for the ETS, as they have managed to do for example in the United Kingdom, it looks like ETS will remain a political football for years to come with a resulting lack of certainty for business.

At the “scary” end of the spectrum are proposals led by the Minister of Energy, Gerry Brownlee. Mr Brownlee has kicked off a review of Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act which currently puts highly valued parts of the Conservation estate off-limits to mining. These areas include National Parks, Scientific and Ecological Reserves and Marine Reserves. The intention of the Minister appears to be to open some of these areas up for mining. This has the potential to turn into a major controversy for the government during 2010 and we have seen Prime Minister John Key intervene to hose down community concerns.

Coastal development is another issue where the jury is still out on government performance. As comprehensively argued in my recently published book Castles in the Sand: What’s happening to New Zealand’s coast? (Craig Potton Publishing, 2009), the coast remains under a great deal of pressure. Areas that should never be developed remain under threat and many developments that are approved are second-rate. The board of inquiry’s report on the revised National Coastal Policy Statement, the key document that could provide greater central government direction on coastal management, has been completed, but so far the Minister of Conservation has refused to release it, let alone indicate whether government will adopt it.

Beyond the coast lies our territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Taken together these cover 14 times the land area of New Zealand. It is an area extremely rich in biodiversity: many of our rarest birds and marine mammals are found there. Caring for them is something that we need to do better. The Minister of Conservation has so far been relatively silent on how to achieve that, but a review of the law is clearly required.

Important to the government’s environmental performance are the Bluegreens, a ginger group of National caucus members and party activists. The Bluegreens have articulated a positive ‘green’ vision for the future, which has largely found its way into National Party policy. However their influence with the full range of government ministers needs to grow and they need to do more thinking about how, for example, we can green our economy and improve our environmental performance. The Bluegreens need to drive a more consistent approach on environmental management across the whole of government.

So looking ahead into Year Two of this administration, it’s clear that there are even bigger reforms in prospect. These include the expansion of the role of the EPA, further changes to the RMA, the creation of an environmental management regime in our largely unregulated Exclusive Economic Zone (which will come under pressure from deep sea mining), and changes to the management of aquaculture. They will be examined in some detail at the Environmental Defence Society’s national conference in June 2010.

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