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.
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.
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.