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Environmental legislation and governance

Environmental legislation

Management of natural resources in New Zealand is governed by a number of statutes. These include:

  • Resource Management Act 1991

  • Local Government Act 2002

  • Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996

  • Conservation Act 1987 (and its accompanying protected areas legislation)

  • Fisheries Act 1996.

Environmental management is also integrated in other statutes. These include:

  • Aquaculture Reform (Repeals and Transitional Provisions) Act 2004

  • Biosecurity Act 1993

  • Climate Change Response Act 2002

  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act 2000

  • Environment Act 1986

  • Fiordland (Te Moana o Atawhenua) Marine Management Act 2005

  • Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004

  • Land Transport Management Act 2003

  • Ozone Layer Protection Act 1996

  • Queen Elizabeth the Second National Trust Act 1977.

Resource Management Act 1991

The Resource Management Act 1991, which has been significantly amended twice in the past 10 years (2003 and 2005), has a single, overarching purpose: to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

The Act defines sustainable management as:

‘managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations’.

The Act also provides for the:

‘safeguarding of the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems’, and ‘avoiding, remedying, or mitigating the adverse effects of activities on the environment’.

The Act’s three central functions are to:

  • manage the environmental effects of activities on air, water, and land

  • manage the use of publicly owned or managed natural resources (water, geothermal resources, the surface of lakes and rivers, river beds, and the foreshore and seabed)

  • control the discharge of contaminants to land, air, and water.

Responsibility for decision-making and managing these functions is generally devolved to the community most closely affected by the use of the specific resource. This makes local government a critical part of environmental management in New Zealand, much more so than in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries with different regulatory regimes.

Central government has powers under the Resource Management Act to develop national policy statements on matters of national significance, national environmental standards, and water conservation orders. These statements, standards, and orders are binding on local authorities. For example, councils must give effect to national policy statements in their policy statements and district or regional plans, and national environmental standards must be followed.

The 1994 New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement is the only national policy statement in place under the Resource Management Act (Minister of Conservation, 1994). The statement sets out policies for managing the natural and physical resources in New Zealand’s coastal environment.

In 2004, the Government introduced 14 national environmental standards for air quality. Of these standards, seven are to prevent toxic emissions; five are to protect ambient (outdoor) air quality; one is a design standard for new wood burners to be installed in urban areas; and one requires landfills with more than 1 million tonnes of refuse to collect or destroy their greenhouse gas emissions or reuse them for energy generation. (See chapter 7, ‘Air’ for more information on these standards.)

Standards or national policy statements on water, flood management, electricity transmission, and telecommunications infrastructure are also being developed.

The Resource Management Act also gives the Minister for the Environment the power to establish heritage protection authorities and requiring authorities.

Local Government Act 2002

As well as having day-to-day responsibility for environmental management under the Resource Management Act, local government is also responsible for community well-being, including environmental well-being, under the Local Government Act 2002.

The Local Government Act is intended, among other things, to encourage communities to address all four aspects of sustainability: social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being, in the present and for the future. Communities identify the outcomes they desire in each area, and these form the content of a long-term council community plan. These plans integrate the vision and goals for councils and their communities to work towards.

A long-term council community plan does not override plans created under the Resource Management Act or other statutory documents. However, it is expected that all council activities, including those required under other Acts, will contribute to achieving community outcomes.

Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 regulates the importation and manufacture of hazardous substances such as explosives and flammable, corrosive, toxic, and eco-toxic substances. The Act also regulates the introduction of new organisms into New Zealand, including genetically modified plants, animals, and other living things.

The passing of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act in June 1996 represented one of the most significant reforms to environmental legislation since the Resource Management Act.

The Act’s implementation has been staged. Provisions relating to new organisms took effect in July 1998, followed by provisions for hazardous substances, which came into force in July 2001. A five-year transitional period for hazardous substances ended in July 2006.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act established the Environmental Risk Management Authority to make decisions about hazardous substances and new organisms. The Minister for the Environment appoints the Authority’s eight members.

The Authority considers applications to import, develop, or field-test new organisms, including genetically modified organisms. It also decides about the importation or manufacture of hazardous substances.

The Authority is supported and advised by:

  • Ngā Kaihautū Tikanga Taiao, a statutory committee that provides advice and assistance on policies, processes, and applications that have significant implications or interest for Māori

  • an Ethics Advisory Panel, which the Authority established to help it consider ethical and spiritual matters.

Conservation Act 1987

The Conservation Act 1987 was developed to promote the conservation of New Zealand’s natural and historic resources. It also established the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Some key functions of DOC under the Conservation Act are to:

  • manage land, and natural and physical resources, held under the Conservation Act

  • advocate the conservation of natural and physical resources

  • promote the benefits of conservation of natural and physical resources

  • preserve (as far as practicable) all indigenous freshwater fisheries, and protect recreational fisheries and freshwater habitats

  • foster recreation and allow tourism on conservation land, to the extent that use is not inconsistent with the conservation of any natural or historic resource.

Fisheries Act 1996

The Fisheries Act 1996 implements a system for ensuring sustainability of New Zealand's fishing resources. The Act aims to provide for the use, conservation, enhancement, and development of fisheries resources so people can provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being while:

  • ensuring the potential of those resources to meet the foreseeable needs of future generations is maintained

  • avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of fishing on the aquatic environment.

The Act therefore incorporates sustainability as its underlying principle. This means the long-term viability of stocks for each species, the biological diversity of the aquatic environment, and human interests in using fishing resources are all considerations under the management system. A Quota Management System provides for the sustainability of fisheries resources. Under this system, the Minister of Fisheries can put in place fishing quotas for specific stock.

Environmental governance

In New Zealand, environmental governance is shared between central and local government. It is also shaped by the participation of iwi authorities, industry groups, community interest groups, and non-government organisations.

Ministry for the Environment

The Ministry for the Environment provides advice, information, and leadership on New Zealand’s environment. It was established under the Environment Act 1986.

The Ministry oversees the administration of the Resource Management Act 1991, and has specific functions under this Act, as well as the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, Ozone Layer Protection Act 1996, and Climate Change Response Act 2002.

Department of Conservation

The Department of Conservation preserves and protects the natural and historic resources of national parks, reserves, and other protected areas in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments. The Department also manages protected native wildlife and non-commercial freshwater fisheries. It was established under the Conservation Act 1987.

Other government agencies and Crown entities

Other government agencies and Crown entities with responsibility for the environment include:

  • Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry

  • Biosecurity New Zealand

  • Ministry of Fisheries

  • Environmental Risk Management Authority

  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority

  • Ministry of Transport

  • Ministry of Health

  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • Ministry of Economic Development

  • Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is an independent officer who reports directly to Parliament.

The Commissioner’s functions under the Environment Act 1986 include:

  • reviewing the effectiveness of environmental management by central and local government

  • investigating and advising on any matter that may adversely affect the environment, as requested by Parliament or the public

  • disseminating information

  • encouraging actions to protect the environment.

Local government, regional councils, and territorial authorities

Local government oversees environmental management at a local level.

Regional councils as well as unitary authorities (councils that combine the functions of a territorial authority and a regional council) are responsible for developing regional plans and policy statements under the Resource Management Act. Their powers cover:

  • managing freshwater, groundwater, and coastal water

  • conserving the soil

  • allocating and managing geothermal energy

  • controlling the discharge of contaminants to air, land, and water

  • managing the foreshore, water column, and seabed, including implementing controls on aquaculture in coastal waters.

Under other legislation, regional councils are also responsible for:

  • regional land transport planning

  • regional parks

  • the biosecurity control of plant and animal pests

  • river management, flood control, and mitigation of erosion

  • environmental education

  • harbour navigation and safety, marine pollution, and oil spills

  • regional civil defence preparedness and response.

Territorial authorities and unitary authorities are responsible under the Resource Management Act for controlling the effects of land use, noise, and subdivision. They manage these functions through district plans.

Under the Local Government Act 2002, Land Transport Management Act 2003, Reserves Act 1977, Health Act 1956, and other related legislation, territorial authorities are also responsible for:

  • infrastructure (that is, roading and transport, sewerage, and water, including stormwater)

  • management of reserves

  • environmental education

  • community development

  • environmental health and safety.

Local authorities must recognise and provide for the relationship of Māori with the environment under the Resource Management Act. This includes having particular regard to kaitiakitanga and taking into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Local authorities must monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of their policies and plans in meeting these many functions, and report on this at least every five years.

Anyone can make a submission on a district or regional plan, a regional policy statement, or a long-term council community plan.

Phot of two officials looking over plans.

Source: Ministry for the Environment.

Kaitiaki groups

Kaitiaki groups have an important role in environmental management. Kaitiaki are closely involved in monitoring their local environments, which may include streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal areas, and wāhi tapu (sacred sites).

Over the last decade, tangata whenua and local and central government have built closer working relationships on matters of environmental governance. Iwi management plans, which incorporate iwi environmental goals, are one of the ways iwi become involved.

Sixty-one per cent of local authorities have formal and/or informal memoranda of understanding, protocols, joint management agreements, or service level agreements with local iwi (Ministry for the Environment, 2007).

The Treaty of Waitangi settlement process has also led to management partnerships being established that support the kaitiakitanga of iwi.

Community groups

Many New Zealand community groups work at the local level to clean up streams, revegetate riparian areas and coastal dunes, and promote practical community actions in areas such as waste minimisation, recycling, and energy efficiency. Many regions operate environment centres, which provide educational resources and meeting places for environmental community groups.

Local government processes also support the participation of local communities in environmental decision-making. Any member of the public can make a submission on a district or regional plan, a regional policy statement, or a long-term council community plan.

The participatory nature of the Resource Management Act and Local Government Act gives all New Zealanders an opportunity to help shape local policies for managing environmental impacts.

Business and industry groups

New Zealand businesses are increasingly taking the environment into account in their day-to-day activities. Business and industry groups also actively work with central and local government to improve the way they manage their activities to minimise their impacts on the environment. Examples of such partnerships between business and government include the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord and the New Zealand Packaging Accord.

In New Zealand, there are now a number of business groups and associations that have sustainability as their primary focus (for example, the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Business Network).