The enthusiastic and rapid response of kiwis and many government agencies to the Rena shipwreck disaster was brilliant. A foreign owned vessel messing up our environment and wildlife provoked a deep sense of injustice and motivated many to get out and get involved in the clean-up. Even our normally reticent Minster for the Environment was outraged, calling it our worst ever maritime environmental disaster. But sadly this impressive response really just highlights our denial of the real environmental disaster we keep more desperately avoiding.
If only New Zealand’s real ‘worst ever’ environmental disaster was so well publicised, officially acknowledged and stimulated such immediate action. And If only our real disaster was so easily fixed and everyone could be involved its remediation.
Unfortunately, unlike the Rena disaster the true environmental and biodiversity catastrophe is so pervasive it cannot be cleaned up by teams of volunteers; rather its cure will involve a total rethink of what is accepted as being “good for the economy”.
At present any economic gain is considered a great thing regardless of the losses inflicted on the environment or society; neither of which are counted or even mentioned. To have a future economically or otherwise, we must grow-up as a nation and begin to take into account the losses inflicted on our natural capital.
Most kiwis perceive our country as clean and green, and this perception is shared by the rest of the world, although doubts are creeping in, here and abroad. Clean and green is what defines us; it is fundamental to differentiating New Zealand from geographically closer competitors in world markets. So, the perception and reality is essential to a secure economic future. We trash this image/reality at our peril. Unfortunately a hands-off approach by successive governments over the last few decades means we have slipped a long way towards the bottom of the heap.
When it comes to environmental reality, we are quite simply delusional. When New Zealanders (including our prime minister in BBC interview with Stephen Sackur) are asked how we compare environmentally with rest of the world, most say we are one of the cleanest greenest countries in the world.
But this view couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that we have laid waste to our environment so severely especially in the last few decades that our real position in comparison to the rest of the world will come as a bomb-shell to many New Zealanders. The painful fact is we are actually much much closer to the bottom of the heap on environmental performance than the top.
A recent peer-reviewed international study compared 189 countries using seven well accepted measures of a countries environmental performance. The report compared for each country their proportional loss of native vegetation, native habitat, the proportion of endangered species, as well as the amount of fertiliser used, marine captures, water quality and CO2 emissions. This comparison showed that per capita we are 18th worst with regard to environmental performance in the world (i.e. 171 countries ranked higher than NZ).
The closer you look at the figures the bad news just gets worse. For a start we have the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and if you take out our CO2 emissions and judge us on the other six measures then we are the 10th worst country in the world. This CO2 result may seem surprising but this is only because the comparison didn’t include methane emissions from agriculture, only our CO2 emissions which are relatively low.
Perhaps because of our delusion about how clean and green we are we smugly look down on countries like China as environmental destroyers. But, in reality we only rank one notch higher than China. Of course their overall impact ranking was much worse because their population is much higher; they ranked third worst behind Brazil and the USA. When it comes to this overall impact we ranked 47th worst in the world (i.e. 142 countries ranked as better than NZ).
Our smugness also extends to scorning other countries for trading in endangered species. Whether its rhino and elephant tusks in Africa or the almost universal condemnation of Japanese whaling, we vehemently condemn this destruction of indigenous biodiversity and in many cases expend large amounts of time, energy and money voicing our disapproval.
But wait a minute, in a delightful irony; here in 100%-pure-New Zealand we harvest, export and sell locally at least four endangered freshwater fish species.
Four of the five species in your whitebait fritter are listed as endangered, but you can buy them at any supermarket. And our amazing, endemic longfin eel is harvested and exported but is one of our threatened species. Sadly our Ministry of Fisheries is ‘managing’ them to extinction by allowing them to be harvested countrywide under the much lauded ‘quota management system’ that even they admit is failing longfin eels.
Then to add insult to injury most of these threatened eels are exported to countries where they are much coveted because they have driven their own eels to the verge of extinction.
It’s a ludicrous situation that gets worse, the reasons the Japanese, European and American eels are at the brink of extinction are the same causes as here namely habitat loss, pollution and over exploitation. So rather than learning from overseas experience we follow their proven recipe for disaster a market driven by their own failings.
This freshwater fish calamity is just one example of thousands of how we got be so low on world environmental rankings so quickly. The recent unprecedented totally unregulated boom in dairy farming has had enormous impacts on our rivers and lakes and their biodiversity. The extreme number of cows we have per hectare, made possible by fossil fuel derived and imported fertilisers and palm kernel is now more than twice the carrying capacity of our land and rivers. A recent environment court decision confirmed a limit of one cow for every 2 hectares to protect Lake Taupo this is about one third of the stocking rate for the rest of the country. In other words only Lake Taupo is worth saving, everywhere else it’s a free for all.
Just one clue of how far we have gone is the fact that two thirds of our fifty freshwater fish species are listed as threatened. These fish are our miner’s canaries’ and the impacts their high rate of loss portends are only just beginning to be seen there are lags, it will get worse even if we stop intensification now. But we are relentlessly told how important dairy is to the economy but of course the costs are never mentioned. Little wonder we are delusional.
It’s hard to imagine how it could be much worse. Already we officially have the world’s highest proportion of threatened species and 161 countries are cleaner and greener than us. This environmental devastation driving us to the bottom of world rankings is the result of a failure of successive governments to measure or even realise the true economic value of a healthy environment. It’s a bit like paying all the bills with a credit card and pretending all is well with the home budget.
Healthy rivers, lakes and soils are our natural capital we are running them down in a mad rush, ignoring the fact that we have long since exceeded the limits. Surely, this reality revealed in our world ranking will end our delusion and make Kiwis call for reporting of both sides of the ledger economic and environmental in future.
Our ecological capital credit card is maxed out and it’s past time for action. Its time our Minister for Environment stood up for the environment and not industry. Many New Zealanders are now painfully aware of the true implications of a lack of regulation.
Owners of leaky homes, residents of liquefaction zones or those hit by landslides are only too aware of the effect of the relaxation of regulation. These urban examples are well known but the same lack of regulation has led to environmental deterioration in the rest of the country. The losses are just less well known but are proof the lobbying power of industry the profit takers who are long gone when disaster strikes.