What sectors that impact the environment can expect in 2020

These are our predictions for 2020 in the environment space.

  • The general election will halt development of environmental policy.
  • We will see the development of New Zealand’s climate change response continue and technical debate about the way the emissions trading scheme should operate.
  • We expect a push for transparency about emissions and environmental footprints and increasing litigation about climate change obligations.
  • The public’s appetite for central influence on urban development will be tested and water quality will remain a focus.
  • The Resource Management Review Panel’s report may cause some easy wins to be taken up by the Government and ‘stop this madness’ calls from opposition parties.
  • A focus on compliance, monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws will remain.

The General Election will halt development of environmental policy

The last possible date for the next general election to be held is Saturday, 21 November 2020.

We can expect the election to be increasingly front-of-mind for politicians as the year progresses and for government officials to become increasingly reticent after we enter the official 3-month pre-election period (probably in August).

This means that most changes to laws will be finalised or abandoned by the end of Q2.

Development of New Zealand’s climate change response to continue

This year we have seen Parliament set targets to reduce New Zealand’s emissions through the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act (Zero Carbon Act).  The Act is a direct response to the Paris Agreement and sets ambitious targets for New Zealand to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, aside from biogenic methane, to net zero by 2050.

Debate on New Zealand’s climate change response will continue in 2020 as action is taken to give effect to the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Reform) Amendment Bill (ETS Bill) makes its way through the Select Committee process and various readings in Parliament.

Technical debate about the way emissions trading scheme should operate

As outlined in a previous News Alert, the ETS Bill already proposes extensive changes to the ETS and we expect more, particularly regarding the process for pricing agricultural livestock emissions and fertiliser emissions from 2025.  The Government is also consulting on proposals for the technical rules for how auctions will be run as part of the Emissions Trading Scheme once the ETS Bill becomes law.

Push for transparency about environmental impacts

We predict there will be a greater push for transparency about emissions and environmental footprints generally within both the public and private sectors.

We raised transparency in our November News Alert.  The Zero Carbon Act includes reporting requirements for government departments.  The ETS Bill also intends to clearly identify those emitters who are caught by the ETS and the extent of those emissions.  These are just the first two steps towards increased transparency on these issues.  Further steps may include the requirement for climate related financial disclosures or for all companies listed on New Zealand’s stock exchange to report on climate change disclosures.   However, the scope of any mandatory disclosures / reporting will likely depend on the outcome of the election.

Increasing litigation about climate change obligations

Climate change litigation is continuing to expand across jurisdictions as a climate action tool to influence policy outcomes and corporate behaviour.  We’re expecting this trend to continue in New Zealand.  Climate-change related claims are being pursued by investors, shareholders, non-governmental organisations, individuals, cities and states.  Many defendants are governments, but some claims target big emitters. A number of claims are based in human rights whereas others target companies for failing to incorporate climate risk into their decision-making or failing to disclose climate risk to beneficiaries.

The public’s appetite for central influence on urban development will be tested

We will have debate about the extent to which central government is delivering on housing and urban development.

The two draft national policy statements that were released for feedback this year on urban development and highly productive land (discussed here) are likely to come into force, with some amendments by Q2.  Some of the changes will have immediate impact; some aspects will require further plan changes by councils.

The Urban Development Bill (Bill) is imminent and submissions on it are likely to be in the first half of next year.  As discussed in our article here, the Bill will enable Kāinga Ora to undertake or facilitate large-scale urban development.  As people appreciate how the Bill could be applied in projects near them, there may be some reaction to the approach taken in the Bill.  Given both the National Party and the Labour Party support the concept of a fully empowered urban development authority, we expect to see the legislation progress in advance of the election.

Water quality will remain in focus

Over 17,000 submissions were lodged on the Government’s Action for Healthy Waterways proposals relating to freshwater quality in 2019.  That does not include the submissions on the Resource Management (RM) Amendment Bill, which proposes a special process to change regional plans to implement the proposed national direction.  This is a topic that the public is highly engaged in.

Minister for the Environment, David Parker, campaigned on improvements to freshwater quality and wants to deliver on those promises.  The freshwater package took a long time to assemble.  It includes a replacement National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, a new National Environment Statement for Freshwater as well as contemplating National Environmental Standards for Drinking Water and Waste Water Discharges and Overflows.  They introduce more stringent nutrient bottom lines, increase the controls on farming and seek to strengthen Māori values.

It will be difficult for the Minister’s advisers to distil submission points into appropriate changes along the timeline he originally considered (which anticipates that regional plans that give effect to the national direction will be notified by the end of 2023).  Delivering this package will require continued support of NZ First and could become politically difficult.  However, Minister Parker will want to point to results on freshwater quality before the election, even if it is only enabling a fast-track process for future changes through the RMA.

The Resource Management Review Panel’s report – some easy wins being taken up and ‘stop this madness’ calls from opposition parties?

In our article here, we set out the current approach contemplated by the Government-appointed Resource Management Review Panel.   That view is still being formed and they welcome submissions on their paper by Monday, 3 February 2020.

The Panel’s final report about the future of the RMA is due to the Minister for the Environment at the end of May 2020.

This reporting date does not leave much time for detailed policy work before the General Election.

Some quick wins may be taken up and implemented in legislation before or after the election.  For example, specific references to decision-makers being able to take non-statutory spatial plans into account and strengthening the mandate of the Ministry for the Environment (or another central government agency) to undertake monitoring.

We may also see the Government stopping or re-focusing existing policy workstreams that don’t fully align with the Panel’s recommendations.

Like the Zero Carbon Act, this is a topic that would benefit from cross party support.  However, we will probably see the more contentious report recommendations being the subject of cautious statements by the Government and doomsday predictions from opposition parties.

More focus on compliance, monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws

The RM Amendment Bill will pass in the new year.  Apart from smaller proposals to change provisions and fast-tracking freshwater changes, that Bill contemplates a centralised enforcement agency, through the EPA.  If the Bill passes, EPA will be able to undertake investigations, enforcement action and take subsequent action in relation to an incident, either in conjunction or instead of those currently responsible for enforcement of the RMA.

This fits with the public’s demand for increased compliance, monitoring and enforcement of environmental roles.

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