Can we Develop Land and Improve the Environment?

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that 22ha of the Ruahine Forest Park couldn’t be destroyed for the Ruataniwha Dam. Forget the Dam itself – it was always a dud that needed putting out of its misery. If the true environmental costs had been taken into account – by charging irrigators for the water and the resulting pollution – it never would have happened anyway.


But now the Government is talking about legal change to allow such land swaps to continue to happen (according to the Minister they do a couple a year). Labour and the Greens oppose this, as you would expect from boring old establishment politics. But there might be a way forward that is good for the environment and the economy – if we can have a grown up conversation about it.


In theory offsets such as land swaps are a sound idea. The basic idea is this: you can get big economic benefits by developing a certain spot. An offset is using some of the economic benefits to improve the environment elsewhere, perhaps by increasing the conservation estate or investing in improving it. If the improvement you make elsewhere is greater than the loss where you are developing, then both the economy and environment wins. The development goes ahead, and our environment is improved.

The Left are cynical about such ideas, and rightly so given the Government’s record on environmental issues. But their position has drawbacks too. There is no way that the government will ever have enough money to run the conservation estate properly – no matter how much money Labour and the Greens throw at it. Offsets from developers are potentially a massive resource that could be used to truly preserve and improve our conservation estate. They should also apply to all developments, not just those that affect the conservation estate.

But the devil with these things is always in the detail. Given the Government’s poor record on the environment, what should it take for a rational person who cares about nature to be convinced? Here are three things The Opportunities Party (TOP) would want for assurances on if we were involved in this issue post election:

Proven Net Environmental Benefits

It isn’t enough to simply trade 22ha of forest for 170ha of farmland. Any offset needs to clearly demonstrate that the deal will lead to net environmental benefits. That means that the environmental loss from the development is less than the environmental benefits made elsewhere. Some land is far more important to nature than others. And we need to take into account the net damage that the development will do, and the net improvement to the environment that will be made elsewhere.

We need to get New Zealand's scientists together to work a coherent national policy that would show the true conservation value of different habitat so we know what we are losing and what we are gaining in any development. This should be put together into a guide for developers, so they know what kinds of projects are likely to proceed.  

If this were done well it could speed up resource development decisions and provide a massive source of funding for conservation. House builders in Auckland could be contributing to predator control in the Waitakere Ranges. Farmers in Southland could be contributing to cleanups in Waituna Lagoon. This could be a good project for the incoming Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton.

Independent Analysis

Sadly under this and previous administrations the public service is increasingly influenced by Ministers. The public no longer trusts Ministries and Departments to provide objective analysis on these issues. We either need to restore the integrity of the public service as TOP recommends in our Democracy Reset policy, or we need another respected, independent organisation to do the analysis. They can’t be paid by the developers either - that also leads to problems of undue influence as we see in other industries.

Precautionary Approach

Finally we need to know that any analysis will always err on the side of the environment. When in doubt, we should be cautious. This provides an incentive for developers to invest in more data rather than pushing ahead blind. If there are truly unique features in a site, it should not under any circumstances be traded away.

We should also take an adaptive management approach to any development. There need to be milestones in place to ensure the damage from the development is limited, and that the benefits from the offset are fully realised. These aspects need to be monitored, and if they don’t happen, the deal is off. 

With these three assurances, we think offsets can make a positive difference to our environment. 


Showing 6 reactions

  • Aalbert Rebergen
    commented 2017-07-09 10:58:31 +1200
    Having had some involvement with two of these irrigation schemes (Ruataniwha and Wairarapa) the biggest economical and environmental problem is the fact that all farmers with free water takes from the rivers (in the to be irrigated area) are not included in these schemes and will continue to take water for free. So, some farmers will pay premium prices for water, while others pay nothing!. That rules out any successful scheme.

    What is also usually overlooked is the fact that the free water takes these farmers are getting from the rivers has significantly increased the value of their land, further providing free economical benefits to these individuals.

    You raise another important point and that is the politicalisation of DOC. It is outrageous that DOC assists an irrigation scheme by swapping very valuable lowland riparian forest with a paddock. There is hardly any remaining lowland riparian forest left in the Hawkesbay, so it is unlikely that DOC’s technical staff would have supported such a swap and is thus pushed from the top down, by the government.

    In DOC during the late 1990s staff were told by management not to rock the boat in the couple of months prior to a national election. Fair enough. Now political influence is everywhere on a daily basis. It is sad to see DOC and Forest & Bird as opposing parties in arguments like the Ruataniwha dam and it proves that DOC no longer is the organization that will protect our biodiversity based on ecological values and scientific facts.
  • Theo Stephens
    commented 2017-07-08 12:30:10 +1200
    Sorry, but this position on biodiversity offsetting looks naïve and under-researched to me – and I think its silly to frame support/opposition as a left-right thing. But I do agree that we need a better way to fund proper management of public conservation land and that polluters should pony up for good part of that.

    So what’s the problem with biodiversity offsetting? In short, its next to impossible to achieve no-net-loss for biodiversity. That said, offsetting can work well for things that can be measured in simple commodity units – kg of nitrogen, cumecs of water, tonnes of greenhouse gas equivalents. Alas biodiversity cannot be measured in commodity units because its essence is all about diversity. So determining whether the no-net-loss threshold has been achieved depends on an inevitably unsatisfactory (and therefore contestable) measurement scheme. No committee of independent scientists can get around that.

    You identified the three levers for managing biodiversity offsetting – definition of no-net-loss, analysis quality, precautionary best-practice. Unfortunately all three are essentially subjective because biodiversity commodification issues are intractable – and none are immune to interference by development interests. But that aside, think about the transaction costs involved in doing all this. Its just not feasible except for really big developments.

    And what of international experiences? Well its pretty much a universal success for development and death by a thousand cuts for biodiversity. Consequently, even the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (an international NGO) has gone cold on biodiversity offsetting. And there are some real horror stories – one much touted offset project in British Columbia for a highway project caused the total extinction of two freshwater fish species and the Ambatovy mine (Madagascar) has a very carefully designed offset that nevertheless allows the global extinction of around 20 species of frog and fish. Both did lots of good environmental stuff but biodiversity was lost.

    So how do we fund conservation properly? Take the lead from the TOP CCI tax policy rationale – all forms of benefit should be taxed equally to minimize investment distortion. Everyone enjoys untaxed benefit from their environmental footprint. Because there is no tax on that benefit, there is investment bias in growing ones footprint – intensification. The size of that untaxed benefit probably dwarfs the $11 billion in owner-occupied accommodation benefit. I suggest the CCI should be levied on the basis of property owners’ environmental footprint as estimated from satellite imagery – not the capital value of equity. The CCI needs to cover all private benefits, and the untaxed accommodation benefit is quite probably not the largest part of the total untaxed benefit of land-based property ownership. Dedicate a portion of the environmental footprint tax revenue to management of public conservation land.

    Theo Stephens
    [email protected]
  • Oliver Krollmann
    followed this page 2017-07-07 22:21:14 +1200
  • Chris
    commented 2017-07-07 20:12:50 +1200
    Geoff, DOC already regularly processes exchanges of “stewardship” land using a nett-benefit offsets approach based on the 3 criteria you specify. If you actually read the Supreme Court decision at the link in your embedded RNZ page you will see how these were applied in this case. But that was not the real issue the Court was considering, which was whether the special protection status of Conservation Park (or an Ecological Area) could be uplifted by the Minister if the site still had the conservation values for which it was specially protected. The science said it did, therefore the Court found it had to remain Conservation Park, and therefore it could not be exchanged. Yes, you can refine the law, but you have to keep within constitutional limits, as Geoff Palmer has pointed out.
  • Brian Gillies
    commented 2017-07-07 17:29:31 +1200
    Yes great but I also think some ares should be totally excluded. e.g. the mono tail through Fiordland would not have been considered if the area is deemed untouchable saving time and money.
  • DenPaoa
    commented 2017-07-07 14:31:52 +1200
    Speaking of “Offsets”. Would the Pt England Development Enabling Bill be considered an “Offset” within these parameters? A (Dodgy) Treaty Settlement; Crown confiscates a public reserve from the Council, 44 hectares. Sells 12 Hectares to the iwi for “Commercial Redress” & decides what to do with the rest of the land under the guise of the Housing Crisis in NZ?

    [email protected]