Let's not lose sight of the wood for the trees
21 October 2021
Under current policy settings, Aotearoa will struggle to meet its commitment of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 - but there is an opportunity to fix that.
Decarbonising New Zealand's economy will require phasing out the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity, to run industrial processes, and in transporting people and goods. The transition away from fossil fuels in the transport sector will itself significantly increase demand for renewable electricity, potentially by over 50% of current demand by 2050. To keep pace with this change, experts predict that over 40 new renewable power generation projects will need to be connected to the national grid by 2035 - that is, as much generation will need to be built in the next 14 years as has been built in the last 40+ years.
As identified by the Climate Change Commission in its June report, Ināia tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa, there is much work to be done by the Government and participants in the electricity sector to deliver this outcome. One important piece of the puzzle will be how to ensure a reliable supply of electricity in dry years - the Government is 'thinking big' by exploring potential pumped hydro solutions, while others favour alternatives such as large scale green hydrogen production or distributed generation with smaller scale battery storage. Electricity pricing is another key piece of the puzzle.
Just as fundamental, however, is the question of how quickly the required renewable generation can be consented, funded, and built.
It is more challenging than ever to obtain resource consents for large scale infrastructure under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), with emerging environmental bottom lines and strong drivers to avoid adverse effects on wetlands, streams, and indigenous biodiversity.
So the need for many new wind farms or hydro schemes around the country will bring into sharp focus an environmental conundrum: is some level of impact on our native fish, birds, bats, lizards, and insects acceptable, in an effort to stave off the catastrophic effects on all species of anthropogenic climate change? And more broadly, should the RMA 'consenting scales' be tipped in favour of renewables, ahead of other factors such as landscape qualities, 'naturalness' of the environment, visual intrusion, noise, and other rights of adjoining property owners?
This vital question for our society (and others around the world) has been playing out in RMA contexts that are highly technical and focused, which carries a risk of people losing sight of the broader global perspective.
Currently, renewable generation does not benefit from a significant policy leg up, and many doubt whether current policy settings will enable New Zealand to meet its commitment of achieving net-zero emissions of long lived gases (and reducing biogenic methane emissions by between 24% to 47%) by 2050. As the Productivity Commission noted in its 2018 Low emissions Economy report, the key RMA national policy document intended to support renewables "has made no difference to the time, complexity and cost of obtaining consents for renewable electricity generation investments (particularly wind and hydro generation)." The Commission urged the Government to take steps "that will speed decision-making on renewable energy generation consents under the RMA. Reasons for some urgency exist."
Despite that urgency (and the Government agreeing with these recommendations), the policy changes have not eventuated; rather, the Government's focus has been on enhancing protections for freshwater bodies and indigenous biodiversity - that is, on setting environmental bottom lines rather than stretch targets for renewables. While these are valid aspirations, the policy measures have further increased consenting complexity and cost.
The climate opportunity afforded by reform
Meanwhile, the policy agenda has moved on, to the repeal and replacement of the entire RMA apparatus. This exercise gives a golden opportunity to reset national level environmental directives, to smooth a clear pathway through consenting processes for renewable energy developments.
While there are many important reasons to seek to protect and enhance New Zealand's waterways, forests, and native species, it is equally vital that our environmental laws and policies do not have the unintended consequence of inhibiting our country's efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and play our part in tackling climate change.
The exposure draft of the new Natural and Built Environments Act - one of three pieces of legislation to replace the RMA - has been released, and it incorporates various policy levers that could be pulled to give a preference for renewables.
One is that the draft identifies a number of environmental outcomes that must be promoted under the new system. Conspicuously absent is an expectation that people's 'amenity values' - things like views and quietness - will be preserved, which is positive for renewables. Also positive is that the listed outcomes include that "greenhouse gas emissions are reduced…" and "the ongoing provision of infrastructure services to support the wellbeing of people and communities, including by supporting… an increase in the generation… of renewable energy".
These are listed after numerous other outcomes requiring various environmental values to be "protected, restored, or improved", however submitters to the select committee have queried whether a hierarchy between these outcomes is intended. If there is to be a hierarchy, there must be a strong argument, based on the existential threat posed by climate change, for an increase in renewable generation to be at or near the top of the outcome rankings. The final wording of these outcomes will be critically important.
How those outcomes are to be realised (and competing outcomes reconciled) will be described in a new National Planning Framework, which will bring national-level planning instruments together into a combined set, and the new Natural and Built Environments Plan for each region. Long term Regional Spatial Strategies will also be developed, under a separate new Strategic Planning Act, to identify areas that are suitable for development and that need to be protected or improved.
Again, these new instruments present an opportunity to prioritise the urgent development of renewable energy projects. At the very least, they should provide for certain environmental 'bottom lines' to be flexible enough to allow a developer of renewables to implement positive ecological measures to offset or compensate for any unavoidable impact on ecological values.
Given the urgent drive to decarbonise New Zealand's economy, however, more radical measures may be merited.
One option could be to incentivise regions - and perhaps even private landowners - to maximise the areas tagged for new renewables or extensions to existing wind farms. Another option is to introduce fast tracked consenting processes for renewable projects, with limited grounds for refusing consent and limited rights of public participation, such as are currently available to specific listed 'shovel ready' projects to address the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Large swathes of Aotearoa are currently classified as 'outstanding natural landscapes', which garner special protection, so the way in which such landscapes are identified could also be revisited.
At a time when the RMA machinery is being redesigned, a failure to lower the barriers to consenting projects that will help decarbonise New Zealand's economy could literally amount to losing sight of the wood for the trees.