OECD environmental report: NZ reaching ecological limits

A New Zealand dairy farm (File)
A New Zealand dairy farm (File)

New Zealand's "very good environmental quality of life" is under threat from a lack of long-term planning, a new OECD report warns.

While New Zealand leads the way in research around greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution in agriculture, increased emissions, threats to biodiversity and freshwater contamination are problems that need addressing with long-term solutions, the report has found.

"New Zealand's growth model, largely based on exporting primary products, has started to show its environmental limits, with increased greenhouse gas emissions, diffuse freshwater pollution and threats to biodiversity," it reads.

The OECD Environmental Performance Review provides independent assessments of countries' progress in achieving environmental policy goals, as well as making policy recommendations.  

No long-term plan for the environment

The report highlights a lack of long-term environmental strategy and if we don't address that, we'll make unrecoverable environmental loses, says Dr Marie Brown, author of Last Line of Defence.

"The policy at the moment really makes it look as though we want to have our cake and eat it too, but we need to get very much better at identifying environmental bottom lines and environmental limits and understanding that we have to work within them or we're going to lose that clean, green edge that we have - or we had," Dr Brown told Newshub.

A history of "soft limits" and giving into commercial interests is taking its toll, Dr Brown said.

"That is reflecting in the state of our fresh water, reflecting in the state of our biodiversity, the state of our climate change emissions. That's the measure of the effectiveness of our environmental law and policy - whether it can curtail those activities and keep them within those environmental limits, and there's just not a lot of evidence we're doing that."

NZ is largest greenhouse gas emitter in the OECD 

The report says that with half of New Zealand's emissions coming from agriculture and four-fifth of power generation sourced from renewables, it will be particularly challenging for New Zealand to meet the Paris Agreement target.

Farmers and car-owners are singled out as potential areas for emission reductions.

The report recommends agriculture be targeted with pricing and regulation to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

As for cars, New Zealand has the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD, and the "fleet is old and inefficient", the report says. It says electric vehicles could "contribute to reducing emissions", as could stricter vehicle standards and fuel and vehicle taxes.

The report says the Emissions Trade Scheme needs strengthening to "unlock emission mitigation solutions" - which probably means increased penalties for greenhouse gas emissions.

Government too slow on freshwater, biodiversity, climate change

Both farms and urban stormwater systems are putting stress on the freshwater system, while increased irrigation is making water scarce in some regions.

"The dairy sector and government are stepping up, but we will have to do more as a country to protect our fresh waters. Nitrogen leaching into waterways is going to continue to be a big issue," Dr Andrea Byrom, director, Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, told Newshub.

Dr Byrom says the biggest issue raised in the report is the government's inability to protect native biodiversity on privately-owned land. 

Solve that and you help solve the freshwater problem, she said.

"Our ability to integrate native biodiversity protection on land has a direct impact on the flow and the quality of our water into fresh water ecosystem."

Dr Brown says while progress is being made on freshwater, "It's slow. Some would say it's glacial."

And she says other environmental policy is moving at the same pace.

"Climate change is the same. Biodiversity - there's very limited progress beyond what is largely, at the moment, a platitude regarding predator-free New Zealand. "

"Taking it seriously means taking real big steps that change behaviour on the ground."

There's no might behind regulation enforcement

While the report has "welcomed" New Zealand's reformed fresh water policy, it criticises the Government for being too slow-moving and not enforcing the policy.

"Insufficient human and technical capacity of local authorities, along with remaining regulatory gaps, generate implementation challenges," the report reads. 

Evidence insulation works - but "perverse" Govt is winding it down

The report commends New Zealand's insulation scheme, which provides funding for insulation, in order to bring homes up to a healthy standard.

Houses built before 2000 may be eligible for subsidies of between 30 percent and 100 percent. 

Warm Up New Zealand is identified by the report as a "flagship" programme for New Zealand, under which 15 percent of the housing stock was insulated. However, it points out that "30 percent of homes remain uninsulated, many of which are rental buildings".

"We are delighted the OECD has picked this up as an example of something New Zealand does extremely well," says Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director, New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, University of Otago.

"They see that it has many co-benefits - reducing carbon emissions, improving employment."

The Government plans to wind down the policy, but Prof Howden-Chapman says it's "highly-successful policy" and the politicians should weigh up the opportunity costs of ending it.

"This is policy where we could really link science with policy and institute better standards than we've got at the moment," she told Newshub.

The insulation scheme provides $6 of benefits for every $1 spent, according to research conducted by Motu Economics, a non-profit research institute. 

The study looked at that first 45,000 homes retrofitted with insulation under the scheme, and found one death was prevented for every 1000 homes insulated.