The critical environmental and sustainability issues of New Zealand:
- Native plants, animals and ecosystems under threat
The biodiversity in New Zealand has declined significantly. At least 75 animal and plant species have become extinct since humans arrived in New Zealand. Marine, freshwater, and land ecosystems all have species at risk: 90 percent of seabirds, 76 percent of freshwater fish, 84 percent of reptiles, and 46 percent of vascular plants are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction. This is because people have changed the landscape and introduced new species; farming and urban expansion have caused forests to be cleared and wetlands to be drained, which also causes pollution, such as excess nutrients and sediment, which can degrade ecosystems and harm organisms. Commercial fishing alters marine ecosystems and can accidentally kill threatened species. Introduced species threaten native species through competition, predation, and diseases. Climate change is already impacting some species by changing where they are found or creating conditions where invasive pests like wasps can live.
- Changes to the vegetation on land are degrading the soil and water
Native vegetation has been extensively cleared- so the native forests that once covered about 80 percent of the country, now only cover a little over one quarter of New Zealand. 10% of New Zealand was once covered by wetlands – 90% of these original wetlands have now been drained. The loss of native vegetation has continued in recent years, with more than 70,000 hectares lost between 1996 and 2012 through conversion to pasture, plantation forestry, and urban areas. Wetland areas have also continued to shrink, with at least 1,247 hectares lost between 2001and 2016. When native forests, shrublands, and wetlands are lost, we lose the wide range of benefits (ecosystem services) they provide like flow of water in rivers and streams, recreation, storing carbon etc. Loss of native vegetation has accelerated New Zealand’s naturally high rates of erosion and soil loss. A model of soil erosion shows that 44% of the soil that enters our rivers each year is likely to come from land covered in pasture. The economic losses associated with soil erosion and landslides are estimated to be at least $250–300 million a year.
- Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity
According to 2018 population estimates, 86% of the population live in urban areas. Most urban centres have developed on their best land – often fertile floodplains near the coast– with native forests being cut down and wetlands drained. A 2013 study found that 35% of Auckland’s versatile land was used as lifestyle blocks. Urban expansion is mostly driven by population growth. Between 2008 and 2018 the population increased by 14.7 %. The versatile land and high-class soils are gradually being lost to urban growth, making them unavailable for growing food. The loss of versatile land is happening at the same time as the food production system is under pressure to increase production without increasing its effect on the environment.
New Zealand house prices are among the most unaffordable in the world, with Auckland the seventh most expensive city to buy a home, and all three major cities considered “severely unaffordable” by the latest Demographia international housing affordability survey. The biggest city, Auckland, with a population of 1.65 million, is the focus of the housing bubble, with average prices over $900,000. Between 2013 and 2018 Auckland’s population expanded by 11 percent, while the number of private dwellings increased by just 6.5 percent. In 2017, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment put Auckland’s housing shortfall at 44,738 homes. The reason for this are asset rich shareholders, landlords and speculators who have exploited the crisis, and the government’s pro-business policies, for their own gain. The top 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of assets while the bottom 70 percent have only 10 percent. The bottom 30 percent of income earners have just 1 percent.
- Child Poverty
About one in six children (16% or 183,000) live below a before-housing-cost relative poverty measure, but that figure jumps to almost one in four (23% or 254,000) once housing costs are accounted for. And 13% (148,000) are living in households that experience material hardship – 6% in severe hardship. The four main reasons for this are income equality, lack of state support, inability to properly measure poverty and a simple lack of funds.