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Changing our collision course: Conservation Week 2021 reflections

Posted by Gael Ogilvie on
We will need a big picture perspective to tackle the challenges ahead

It's Conservation Week (4th to the 12th September) and there are some excellent events to acknowledge, celebrate and allow you to participate in some of the wonderful mahi that is occurring across Aotearoa in the ongoing battle to protect and restore our precious natural environment. See Conservation Week events for a useful guide to what is happening. 

Sadly this mahi is largely a rearguard effort,  which will make a positive difference, but not be enough to change the overall path. We are currently on a collision course - destroying the natural ecosystems that our economy relies on. 

 Climate change is in an urgently-needed spotlight. But we also need to tackle  habitat destruction,  invasive pests,  pollution and poor land practices that compound climate change damage to our natural ecosystems.   These environmental challenges are all inextricably linked and require holistic non-siloed solutions.  If we do not act now, we risk our children’s and grandchildren’s future wellbeing and prosperity.

Global crisis  

Nature is declining at an unprecedented rate with nearly a  million species at risk of extinction because of human activity.  Earth’s rainforests, coral reefs and cold temperate forests are either already past or fast approaching irreversible tipping points.  

The consequences are just as alarming for business and humanity as they are for the environment. The first report of the World Economic Forum’s New Nature Economy series, Nature Risk Rising highlighted that $44 trillion dollars  (over half the world’s total GDP) is at risk from the decline in the health of our natural environment. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is ranked as one of the top five threats humanity will face in the next 10 years in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report.

New Zealand situation

In New Zealand an estimated 4,000 native plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.  We are on track to lose 80% of our native birds, reptiles and frogs, most of which are found nowhere else in the world.   Two thirds of our lakes and many of our rivers are polluted Freshwater 2020.  Each year approximately four hundred thousand dump-truck loads of soil erodes into our waterways.   Nearly half of the remaining soil is overly compacted which makes it less suitable for plant growth   Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research Soils Portal.

Our wellbeing, international standing and economic prosperity are inextricably linked to a healthy  environment.  Our national icon is our ancient flightless bird – the kiwi.  Our unique native ecosystems and landscapes are a key drawcard for tourists and our top export products (concentrated milk, meat, wood and butter) are all reliant on natural resources.

How did we get here?

In the 1920’s economists coined the term externalities or “spill over effects” to describe other consequences, such as environmental degradation, which are external to the company accounts.   In this setting habitat destruction, contaminant discharge to waters, land and the atmosphere, increased consumerism, products designed for obsolescence and a linear (take-make-dispose) economy have all prospered.  We have normalised environmentally damaging and wasteful use of the Earth’s natural resources.   

Keeping environmental damage to within acceptable  levels has been largely left to public sector regulatory mechanisms.  We now have compelling evidence that this regulatory protection has not been enough.   Positive  environmental change generally occurs over a long time frame  and may not be readily obvious over a single short-term election cycle.  To compound this problem, there is a  perception that too much environmental protection will hamper economic prosperity which will have stymied political support for more stringent regulatory controls.   

Over the past decade the destructive impacts of business, financial and consumer practices have accelerated.  Our climate and our natural ecosystems/resources are now at crisis point which poses a significant risk to business, social, cultural and personal wellbeing.

What happens next? 

Systemic change is needed and it is likely to be  messy and politically fraught.  This is not, however, good rationale for delay.  The Covid-19 situation has convincingly demonstrated that delaying a response to a nature-based threat make things worse.   New Zealand has a significant opportunity to prosper in a global economy that increasingly favours environmentally responsible goods and services.   We need to act quickly though.  On top of actions to incentivise nature and climate positive business we also need to develop future-proof products in response to the trend away from animal to plant-based protein in our key export markets.

 Tools for change

The recent Dasgupta Review (The economics of biodiversity) concluded that we already have the tools to allow  nature-positive businesses to flourish – we just need to use them.    The following 10 actions will require multiple stakeholders and should occur alongside action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

  1. Work in partnership with Māori recognising their role as kaitiakiti of our natural resources and their indigenous wisdom /practices based on humans as an integral part of, not separate to, nature.


  1. Change our national and business accounting frameworks to include nature as an asset and agree measures of success for protecting natural capital in addition to the current measures for financial and produced capital.


  1. Develop and introduce financial incentives for nature-positive businesses and disincentives for nature-negative businesses


  1. Identify and remove government subsidies for nature-destructive initiatives.


  1. Develop and embed standards that businesses can use to fully integrate nature into decision-making, evaluating risks/opportunities and reporting.


  1. Channel credit and investment towards projects that enhance rather than degrade natural capital.


  1. Improve efficiency of our extractions from nature and produce less waste (i.e., circular economy thinking).


  1. Where restoration, protection and mitigation are not possible, establish a consistent verifiable system for biodiversity offsetting (similar to that being used for carbon offsetting).


  1. Expand on our current initiatives to reduce the impact of pests on our native ecosystems with associated additional jobs.


  1. Raise awareness of the current crisis and how everyone can help to solve it.



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