Who's paying for pollution?

Dairy farming in New Zealand is synonymous with environmental degradation. A lot of the time, the criticism farmers receive is warranted considering the sheer scale of the industry and the impact it has on our environment. However, they are not the only ones who should shoulder the blame. In terms of water quality, the worst damage is often concentrated in urban areas, far away from the pastures that support our biggest export industry. It’s a problem that exists across the board, and it is the tax payer who ends up fronting the bill for the environmental damage resulting from production. It’s now forestry’s turn to put the spot light over this massive gap that exists in our environmental regulation.

Over recent months we have seen several examples of forestry practices that have resulted in considerable damage to both private property and the environment. $28 million worth of private claims were made after a deluge of trees, logs and debris swept across Marahau in the Abel Tasman National Park as a direct result of forestry practices in the area. While that tab was picked up by insurance companies, it seems the tax payer is left to pay for any further damage to public land, and, the quality of our lakes and rivers takes another hit as tones of silt makes its way through the system.

Flooding in the Gisborne area has also resulted in around a million tons of debris sweeping through Tolaga Bay coming with it an estimated $10 million clean-up cost. This again was a direct result of forestry practices. The Gisborne District Council said just who would pay for the clean-up was yet to be worked out. One of the contractors identified as a contributor is supposedly “willing to assist in a small way”. This attitude sums up the level of accountability we have across our primary industries.

It’s no wonder that the quality of our lakes, rivers, flora and fauna continue to degrade as the true cost of production is ignored by industry. Externalities simply must be accounted for if we truly want to reverse this trend. The most efficient way for this to happen is simply that polluters should pay for the damage they cause, be it dairy, forestry, construction, et al.

It really seems like a no brainer. Why should the tax payer subsidise pollution by private industry? It’s simply false economics to consider the profitability of these firms without accounting for the externalities, yet this is too often the norm.

TOP’s environmental policy is to adopt a “polluter pays” mechanism for both urban and rural activities. Such an approach delivers significant benefits to best practice that imparts minimal environmental degradation. Correspondingly it will raise the costs faced by the most polluting of industrial or farming practices. The worst firms that rely on tax payer subsidised pollution would be forced to clean up their act, or go out of business.

Unfortunately, any significant change seems a long way off. While the Government has been making headway with proposed changes to the RMA it still seems we are at the whim of industry. Despite the abject failures of the agricultural industry to address water quality issues so far, their new action plan remains ‘voluntary’.  It’s a slap in the face for all those who actually care about leaving the environment for our descendants in a state that actually bears some resemblance to a ‘ clean green’ New Zealand.

 

Andrew Courtney

Andrewc@top.org.nz

 

 


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