The perverse effects of environmental policies

November 5, 2019 | Environment
Environment: not all green policies are eco-friendly | Photo: Shutterstock

Environmentalism is on the rise everywhere and has become a significant driver of public policy.

But only in New Zealand - and perhaps California - do environmental considerations generally take precedence over economics.

Sure, Norway is leading the charge to electric vehicles, but makes its money selling oil, and is currently expanding oil and gas exploration.

And Germany has chosen a no-nuclear power future and offers over-generous subsidies for wind and solar electricity while quietly expanding coal-fired generation and buying in nuclear-generated electricity from France.

And Canada has just (sort of) re-elected Justin Trudeau, who has climate change at the top of his agenda but also supports extending their Trans Mountain Pipeline to enable more oil production and distribution.

But here in New Zealand, road building has been discouraged for decades because ("roads just encourage cars, and cars are bad"), further exploration for gas and oil has been taken off the table, methane emissions from farmed animals are to be capped and taxed, nitrate levels in waterways are to be mandated at concentrations below pre-human levels in some cases (which will put a stop to many farming activities), and the presence of any endangered flora and fauna can shut down productive enterprises, no matter how economically significant.

The primacy of environmental concerns here is embodied in the Maori principle "Te Mana o te Wai," literally "the spirit of the water."

In its widest sense, this requires that the "mauri" (life force) of the natural world takes precedence over human concerns.

This is rather ironic, as Maori depended on the exploitation and extinction of so many indigenous species for their successful 14th-century colonization of Aotearoa (New Zealand).

It is said that no species of Moa (a giant flightless bird, now extinct) survived the presence of Maori in their vicinity for more than a generation or two.

Personally, I don't condemn them for this. They were just doing what was needed to survive and thrive in a dangerous and uncertain world.

But humankind has now become so numerous and dominant that responsible stewardship of the environment has become both necessary and sensible.

A Utopian Pristine Natural World

However, a significant number of mainly city-dwelling New Zealanders have gone much further, demanding a utopian pristine natural world they can enjoy at their leisure outside their cities - of course - and provided it doesn't cost them personally.

I suspect we are not yet at peak environmental zealotry and won't be until the costs and consequences impact believers directly.

That could take decades, seeing as many are in protected (often government) employment.

But to mitigate damage to the fabric of our society until sense prevails, I will highlight some of the perverse outcomes that "environment first" policies are causing here.

Logic and reason are unlikely to persuade those for whom environmentalism has become a religion, but illustrating how their choices often have effects that are the reverse of those intended may act as a brake.

Starting with the comparatively trivial concerns about carbon footprints and oceanic pollution that have recently led to New Zealand banning single-use plastic bags for many applications.

Unfortunately, multiple-use bags have a higher carbon footprint unless used an unrealistic number of times - like more than 20 times for a paper bag and more than 150 for cotton.

As for plastic in the oceans, the main offenders are Africa, Asia, and South America.

Just 2 percent comes from the US and Europe, and with similar per capita rates, any reduction in oceanic plastics resulting from New Zealand's bag ban will be immeasurably small.

Net Gain for the Planet

In an early success for our environmental movement, the 1975 Maruia Declaration bought an end to native timber logging.

This has preserved our remaining podocarp forests, but we now buy hardwood for railway ties, furniture, decking, etc., from rainforests in Asia and South America, where extraction processes are much more damaging than here.

Not a net gain for the planet - and especially perverse as even the compromise alternative of allowing sustainable logging of native species here was rejected.

From 1991, environmental regulations made it very difficult to get consents for new mining activities and raised the barrier for renewals of existing licenses to generally uneconomic levels.

Result: the same total amount of everything is still being extracted, just elsewhere instead of here, and generally in less environmentally responsible ways.

And then there are the extra emissions from shipping in what we need.

Many proposals for new hydro-electric schemes have also been rejected since our Conservation Minister gained veto rights in favor of "amenity values" and endangered species.

Canada: the country still supports extending their Trans Mountain Pipeline to enable more oil production and distribution | Photo: Shutterstock

Specialist international environmentalist hit squads now fly in and find endangered flora or fauna anywhere on demand.

The most recent case was just a few weeks ago on our South Island's West Coast.

As a direct consequence of this - and our de-facto mining ban - we are now importing coal for electricity generation from Indonesia.

Valuing the "natural" landscape over non-native trees (that find our conditions to their liking) is behind an expensive program to eradicate wilding pines.

Left alone, these self-seeding conifers would rapidly take over unproductive grasslands in our alpine area. Like rabbits, they don't get a look in where land is in productive use.

Stopping this eradication program would, within a few decades, afforest an extra perhaps 15 percent of New Zealand's landmass, making a huge contribution to the absorption of greenhouse gas emissions.

Perversely, maintaining the pristine view from our elite's country retreats takes precedence.

Nitrogen Levels, Health, Income and Life Expectancy

The latest proposal here is new standards for waterways and lakes, which are likely to pass into law early next year.

These standards set tight limits for sediment, E. coli, phosphorous and nitrates that are in many areas unachievable except by stopping the types of farming activities on which New Zealand's current prosperity is based - primary production generates 60 percent of NZ exports.

Proposed dissolved nitrogen levels for soft bottomed waterways are to be 1mg/liter, which in some cases is lower than concentrations in streams emerging from areas that are free of human influence and is very likely lower than the concentrations in some lakes and waterways pre-human.

The expressed rationale for this largely derives from an unproven expectation that dissolved nitrogen levels above this level are a cause of colorectal cancers - the World Health Organization (WHO) standard for safe drinking water is 11.7mg/liter.

Given the indisputable link between prosperity and health, any lives that may be saved if the level is set at 1mg/liter, instead of say 5mg/liter, (in the case that further studies do show a link) will be massively offset by a general loss of life expectancy as we become significantly poorer (the causal link is that around 8 percent of GDP/capita (income) change moves life expectancy by 1 percent).

My calculations suggest 32,000 full life equivalents lost per year.

I expect that even the increase in rural area suicides, which will inevitably accompany the introduction of these new standards, will offset any possible health and wellbeing gains for NZ that can accrue.

Madness.

Legislation that Makes Sense

Ending on a lighter note: recently, the very expensive "environmentally friendly" roof (a sandwich of straw and plywood topped with bituminous waterproofing) on Auckland's new $0.7 billion convention center caught fire, causing toxic smoke to engulf the Auckland CBD for three days - with toxic tide run-off now flooding into the harbor.

I strongly suspect this incident has just used up years, if not decades, of the gains from all such so-called "eco-friendly" constructions.

There are many more examples available of environmental policies that have perverse effects. In fact, they've been much easier to find than "green" policies that have worked as intended.

Maybe we can't reasonably expect that legislation promoted by environmental zealots will make economic sense. But they should at the least make ecological sense, and often they don't.

On this, at least they should be held to account right now.


Words by Peter Lynn | Founder of Peter Lynn Kites

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