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Farming, emissions and waste putting NZ's 'green' reputation at risk, OECD says

The Government should review its planned $400 million investment in irrigation schemes, the OECD says.

New Zealand's environment is under increasing stress due to an economy reliant on primary industries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says.

It appeared to be resulting in environmental trade-offs, which put the country's "green" reputation at risk, it said. 

In a just-released report, the OECD urged New Zealand to come up with a long-term vision to transition to a greener, low-carbon economy.

A polluted stream in Christchurch.

The OECD comprises 35 countries and aims to stimulate economic development. It releases a country-specific environmental performance report every 10 years.

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Its latest report found New Zealanders generally enjoy a healthy environment, but an economy dependent on natural resources was taking its toll.

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In particular, the continued expansion of dairy farming and increasing urbanisation were having detrimental environmental effects.

It said if economic growth accounted for the cost of pollution abatement, New Zealand's GDP would be declining, suggesting economic growth was coming at the expense of the environment.

"New Zealand's growth model has begun to show its environmental limits, with increased greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation, freshwater contamination and threats to biodiversity," the report said.

"This may indicate that New Zealand's strong growth has come partly at the expense of environmental quality, a dynamic that puts the country's 'green' reputation at risk."

It said that could impact New Zealand's global competitiveness, as investors were looking towards sustainability and strong environmental performance.

The report made 50 recommendations on a range of topics.

It detailed the environmental impact of farming intensification, and warned freshwater pollution would continue under current economic growth plans. 

New Zealand's nitrogen balance had worsened more than any other OECD country between 1998 and 2009, primarily due to farming intensification.

Increased nitrogen levels in waterways can result in nuisance algae growth, reducing habitat for fish and insect species.

"There is mounting tension between increasing the economic contribution of the primary production sector and improving environmental quality," the report said.

"Given the large proportion of land in pastoral farming (half of New Zealand's land mass), the link between pastoral intensification and declining water quality has been increasingly acknowledged."

While the Government had committed to improving water quality, its plans to double primary industry exports by 2025 appeared to be contradictory, the report said.

"It is unclear how the twin objectives of reducing environmental impacts and doubling primary industry exports in real terms will be achieved, and whether the Government assessed use of finite freshwater resources and impacts on water quality before setting such objectives." 

It said the Government's position that "no one owns water" meant economic instruments to control water allocation and pollution charges were not being explored, and doing so would be cost-efficient.

It also said the Government should review its planned $400 million investment in irrigation schemes, a process which "lacks systematic consideration of environmental and community costs".

"Even with current best practice mitigation of nitrogen losses from intensive farming, it is difficult to see how new large-scale irrigation schemes can avoid contributing to increased degradation of groundwater, river and lake ecosystems," the report said.

Biological emissions, which make up roughly half of all New Zealand's greenhouse gases, have been indefinitely excluded from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a decision the report said should be "reassessed".

A growing urban population, particularly in Auckland, was also having an environmental impact which could affect economic growth.

Housing supply had not kept up with demand and infrastructure had not kept up with population growth, resulting in stormwater overflows and the pollution of urban waterways.

While air quality was generally good, New Zealand had the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD, which was reflected in its high level of transport emissions.

The report highlighted the lack of a central body to manage urban planning, resulting in a system that had "responded poorly" to the challenges and opportunities of urban development.

Land use, transport and urban infrastructure were governed by separate laws, which the report said led to a "complex web" of planning documents which overlap and caused resource issues.

These issues were partly responsible for housing shortages in Auckland and increased environmental pressures caused by infrastructure problems.

The OECD report noted long-standing issues with biodiversity loss.

New Zealand's species extinction rate is among the highest in the world. More than half of amphibians and about a third of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles are threatened.

The report said New Zealand was a world leader in pest control and recovering species, but lower-priority species continued to decline.

Landowners had few incentives to maintain ecosystems on their land, and, despite limited data, it appeared biodiversity on private land was declining.

Protected areas were well above international targets though, with large areas protected under the most stringent international protection categories, the report said.

Prime minister Bill English said he did not agree that New Zealand's reputation was at risk.

"There's a very high degree of awareness in the farming community about the impact of farming on the environment, but also an increasing understanding of the impact of cities on our water quality.

"I think we've got a very good environmental reputation, and actually helped by the way we've really got to grips with the detail of how to improve our infrastructure, change our farming systems, how to measure progress. We're really dealing with the issues."

Labour party leader Andrew Little said the issues weren't new and needed to be addressed.

"It's no secret we have to have better farm practices to better manage the nutrients we're putting onto land.

"The Government and others have known about it for a long time. It's a question of getting onto practical stuff and actually fixing the problem. You've only got to look at the state of our waterways... to know this is still a major problem."

Labour party climate change spokeswoman Dr Megan Woods said one a key takeaway was that New Zealand needed to do more to reduce emissions.

"There's a clear message for New Zealand here - We are not on a path to meet our emission reduction targets," she said.

"We need to put in place plans to do that."

She said biological emissions need to be included in the Emissions Trading Scheme, as they make up roughly half of all emissions.

Dr Marie Brown, a policy analyst formerly at the Environmental Defence Society, said the report "accurately identified" pressing environmental challenges.

"A consistent theme of the report is that it highlights over and over the absence of long-term strategies to safeguard the environment – whether in respect of climate change, biodiversity loss or any other significant pressure,"she said. 

She said it focused on meaningful outcomes of policy, "rather than cheerleading for good intentions alone".

Dr Andrea Byrom, director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, said there was much to celebrate but also several red flags.

"If this was a report card, we'd probably get about a C+," she said.

"What this 'report card' points to is the need to take a much more integrated and future-focussed approach to environmental management. 

"Integrating biodiversity protection more strongly into current and future legislation and adoption of economic instruments to promote innovation are just two tools that could be used to ensure that our environment and our economy are more tightly interwoven in future."

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