Make things better, not ‘less worse’

Opinion: New Zealand needs to be bold in making developers enhance the environment - not just limit its degradation, writes Stephen Knight-Lenihan.

The image shows construction workers building a bridge in a Westland landscape. First do no harm, then make the environment better: a new message for developers. Photo: iStock
First do no harm, then make the environment better: a new message for developers. Photo: iStock

All human activity should help restore the natural world. This is a concept that may resonate following the upheavals of 2020 and one which is beginning to appear in law.

Imagine the following examples: You chop a tree down and must plant three to compensate; or you clear land for development and must help improve the biological values of land elsewhere. Not only that, you must improve to a level greater than the impact of the development itself. You alter a stream and must prove the alteration improves water quality and flow. If not, you must compensate to a degree greater than the harm done.

These examples capture the basic idea: first, do no harm and, preferably, make things better.

We do some of this already. A recent example is the application of freshwater standards requiring land use changes. The idea is to halt and reverse ecological decline measured by such things as reduced water quality or biological diversity losses.

Last year, a Resource Management Review Panel (RMRP) recommended significant changes in law which include a move away from avoidance of making things worse and trying to improve the natural world, towards an expectation that human activity contributes to making things better.

Demonstrating how the natural world is measurably better off as a result of development is quite different from the usual approach of lessening harm. For example, I would need to show that building my subdivision or road or developing a farm would make biodiversity better than if I didn’t do these things.

This approach increases ‘ecological space’ or the room available for biological processes and overlaps with responding to climate change. Managing climate change means preparing for it while reducing the likelihood of it happening, as intended under the 2019 Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Act. For example, restoring ecosystems helps adaptation to climate change as well as sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon.

This all sounds wonderful. But there is a fundamental problem in aligning economic growth with enhancing ecosystems. Ecosystems are a function of diverse biological activity, and biodiversity is a function of ecosystem activity.

Globally, these systems are in decline, hence the value of development that doesn’t just halt this decline but improves things. However, the RMRP proposals require ecological restoration that contributes to human welfare. This means the measure of success remains human and not necessarily ecological. In effect, this leads to the requirement for continuing economic growth.

How the UK does it

It’s useful to compare the UK and New Zealand, as both have similar democratic systems and embrace neoliberal economics.

Local councils in England are required to pursue biodiversity gains when the opportunity arises. This can lead to larger companies or government agencies working with regulatory authorities to minimise harm from a development and contribute to ecological restoration elsewhere. This is a form of biodiversity offsetting commonly applied in many countries including Australia and the US.

The UK government has tabled an Environment Bill to make pursuit of these opportunities mandatory. This means new development in England would contribute to improving on-site habitat biodiversity value by at least 10 percent of predevelopment values and could include off-site biodiversity gains.

The proposed legislative change follows work begun almost a decade ago trialling offsetting as a means of allowing economic growth while improving the natural environment. Net gains for biodiversity are expected to also deliver benefits for developers such as reducing resource consent costs through the standardising of planning processes.

Political shorthand presented this as a guarantee of no overall biodiversity losses associated with development, a claim made by a previous British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson. But there is no way such a guarantee can be made.

Many projects using offsetting have not had time to demonstrate efficacy. Ecological restoration takes time. Varying application and assessment methodologies used internationally, and difficulties with independent auditing, makes it hard to know what has succeeded, and on what terms. In addition, there have been a significant number of projects quite simply failing.

Being more positive, offsetting can be used as a tool to help work out what developers should contribute proportional to the impact they are having – and then you add a little extra, in the case of England 10 percent. This approach has been summarised by researchers as a mechanism to price environmental impacts into a project while noting biodiversity itself is not a tradeable commodity.

The suspicion with all this is that it does not address the fundamental problem, that the economic system’s ‘‘conceptual framing, operating assumptions and de facto practices are pathologically incompatible with the very ecosystems that sustain it.’’ (William E. Rees, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, in 2019.)

In other words, global economics are predicated on ecological decline, and what the British term biodiversity net gain or BNG (which uses offsetting as a tool) from this viewpoint can only ever ameliorate harm.

What NZ should do

The reason this is relevant to New Zealand is that we use offsetting as well, but currently in an uncoordinated fashion. It is likely the tool will be given greater status as a result of the review panel recommendations as it meets the required neoliberal criteria which is, the commodification of nature to enable decision-making. The difference is the planned changes in New Zealand are less visionary and fall more toward trading off between ecological, social and economic values.

The British at least plan to embed the concept of net gain, even if it is difficult to guarantee success. And where the British approach looks to improve biodiversity values while improving economic performance, the RMRP puts things a bit differently. It says benefiting human well-being is the main goal but must be achieved within environmental limits. And the panel suggests environmental limits are the minimum required to avoid significant and irreversible damage to the natural environment.

The difficulty here is that various limits have already been exceeded globally and within New Zealand. In effect, avoiding significant and irreversible damage requires adopting a concept like the British BNG. However, for BNG to work, it needs to be independent of demonstrating benefits for development. The main measure of success should be ecological restoration within which human well-being can be protected or enhanced. However, this is not the approach recommended by the panel, nor is it likely to be the practice in England, given that BNG also needs to demonstrably benefit development.

One way effective ecological restoration could be realised is taking a landscape-level perspective prioritising ecologically-important parts of the environment. This has been promoted in England and already applies ad hoc in New Zealand. The idea is to identify restoration priorities or opportunities within an area, and then get developers to contribute. Such an approach has existed for decades in the US and more recently Australia but with modest success, for reasons noted earlier.

None of this will resolve the problem, but short of an economic revolution, adopting the concept of making things better rather than making things less worse is preferable. Currently, suggested changes to the resource management system will not deliver anything significantly different from the current trading-off regime, so a British-style approach should be considered.

But whatever legal changes are made, it must be questioned whether a significant shift toward improving ecological values can occur if the fundamental economic drivers remain. That is a topic for another column.

Dr Stephen Knight-Lenihan is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning, Faculty of Creative Arts and Industry.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Make things better, not ‘less worse’ 20 January 2021.

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