By Marie Brown 05/02/2016

Last week I demonstrated that despite a proud history of conservation and environmental management, New Zealand is still fast losing its natural heritage and, with it, our future prosperity.

Addressing that requires some reframing of what conservation is for New Zealand, and recognition that doing more of the same might slow ongoing loss but cannot reverse the trend.

The things usually seen as barriers to effective conservation and environmental management (e.g. inappropriate development, weak compliance with consent conditions, under-funded pest control and threatened species management) are actually symptoms of fundamental drivers that set up conflict between environmental and development interests and bring about the loss of nature.

The fundamental drivers are:

  1. Biodiversity is failed by markets, as its value (market and non-market, use and non-use) is generally excluded from transactions. We do not pay for harm to the environment caused by the way we use it in order to produce the goods and supply the services integral to the economy.
  2. Regulation – intended to address the problems arising from market failure – fails because those whose businesses’ profitability depends on extracting from nature at minimal cost are generally more powerful than those wanting to protect it. Private and corporate interests often act to constrain the effectiveness of agencies implementing law (‘agency capture’), which is not difficult because those agencies and their elected members are politically motivated to enable economic development and to weaken environmental protections to facilitate that.
  3. Governments at all levels are guided by immediate political priorities leading them to incur debt in order to get benefits now, thereby shifting costs onto future generations. Changing the policy status quo can affect re-election prospects and so incentivises governments to avoid controversial environmental reform, and instead allow costs to accumulate for future generations. Languid commitment to addressing climate change here and overseas is a stark example of this ‘discounting’.

These three drivers create multiple barriers to effective environmental management.  These barriers include:

  • Under-funding of conservation agents such as DOC, despite the phenomenal monetary wealth extracted from nature in New Zealand through tourism and agriculture
  • Ambiguous and disjointed regulation that favours development over the public interest in nature protection, particularly on private land
  • Weak compliance and lax enforcement further erode the potential for regulatory tools to influence outcomes, such as the administration of rules to protect freshwater ecosystems
  • Weak policy integration and poor alignment of institutions mean statutory roles may not best fit where they lie, such as in the case of the protection of marine species and ecosystems
  • Fragmented biodiversity information (e.g. Environment Aotearoa was unable to clearly report habitat loss) and inadequate monitoring and reporting of conservation performance mean that instances of and reasons for failure and success are difficult to figure out.

The three fundamental drivers underpin the barriers to effective environmental management faced every day in New Zealand and addressing them is the real conservation challenge. Over the next few instalments, I’ll explore these barriers across different contexts and describe how they arise and how they could be solved, beginning next week with the operations of our dedicated national agency: the Department of Conservation.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Hector’s dolphin, Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith.