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9 Top Environmental Issues in New Zealand

From polluted air and water to climate change and wildfires, There are a good number of environmental issues in New Zealand, most of which might threaten not just New Zealand but the entire world.

New Zealand’s environmental issues are problems faced by the environment or surroundings. These issues bring about a decline in New Zealand’s environment, including both the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors. They occur mainly as a result of the activities of humans within the environment. This is why we should be cautious about what we do to the natural world.

This article would focus on these environmental issues in New Zealand and the three main factors that cause them. But before that, let’s find out a little about New Zealand. 

New Zealand: An Island Country

Located southwest of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is an Island country that consists primarily of Northern and Southern islands as well as clusters of over 700 smaller islands. It was firstly inhabited by the Māori arriving within 1250–1300 CE.

Thereafter, Europeans began to settle hundreds of years later in the 18th-19th century thus, increasing the population of New Zealand from a few hundred to approximately 5.1 million as of 2021.

As a result of this significant increase in the preponderance of New Zealand’s inhabitants, there has also been an increase in human activities such as farming, industrial operations, mining, etc. All of which has led to environmental issues in New Zealand. 

Environmental Issues in New Zealand Outlined By New Zealand’s Ministry For Environment

A report by New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment and Stats called Environment Aotearoa 2019, outlines nine priority environmental issues in New Zealand requiring attention. They include:

  • Our native plants, animals, and ecosystems are under threat

  • Changes to the vegetation on our land are degrading the soil and water

  • Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity

  • Our waterways are polluted in farming areas

  • Our environment is polluted in urban areas

  • Taking water changes flows, which affects our freshwater ecosystems

  • The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment

  • New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person

  • Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand.

These nine priority environmental issues in New Zealand will be discussed under three prime headings viz: deforestation, pollution and greenhouse emissions/climate change.

Deforestation

One primary reason for the threat to the indigenous plant and animal species as stated in the report is deforestation which is traceable to the very onset of human settlement in New Zealand.

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New Zealand, at the time of Māori arrival, was covered in forests. And like every human community, the Māori had a need for food, shelter, and other things to make life amenable.

The Māori people set about turning these large forests into farms, cutting down trees for woodwork, creating living spaces, etc.  By the time European settlement began and the treaty of Waitanga was reached in 1840, some 6.7 million hectares of forest had already been destroyed and replaced by short grassland, shrubland, and fern lands thereby kick-starting the process of deforestation. 

With European settlement, the rate of deforestation only increased as more needs arose and industrialization set in. New Zealand’s agricultural sector stands to be its largest economic sector and source of foreign exchange. As of 2021, agriculture alone produced revenue of NZ $46.4 billion and it continues to thrive.

This necessity to thrive has led to more conversion of forests for agriculture by the continued cutting and burning of trees which is detrimental to New Zealand’s environment. The burning precludes the growth of certain flora because it upsets the soil composition and chemistry. The felling of trees occurs at a rate that exceeds the growth of the felled trees. 

In the past 800 years of human occupation, New Zealand has lost about 75% of its forests due to deliberately lit fires and land clearance.

The sawmill industry seems to be in cahoots with agriculture when it comes to deforestation in New Zealand. The rate at which the sawmill industry has grown also correlates with the rate of deforestation. As of 1843, there were only four saw Mills, in 1847 they became twelve, fifteen in 1855, and ninety-three in 1868.

Many saw-milling settlements were in turn supported by being turned into railroad stops and this lead to more clearance and job availability. With time, the mills produced more than they initially did. These factors created an exponential rate of deforestation across New Zealand.

So it is safe to say that even more than the Māori settlers, the activities of modern inhabitants of New Zealand have contributed greatly to deforestation.

The effect of deforestation includes the extinction of native species, negative impact on the health of the ocean, build of greenhouse gases, the destruction of ecosystems and the list goes on. 

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The extinction risk, as determined in the report “Environment Aotearoa 2019”, has increased for 86 species and just 26 species records improvement in their conservation status in the past 10 years. Kevin Hague from the conservation group Forest sums it all up thus; “New Zealand is losing species and ecosystems faster than nearly any other country,” he said. “Four thousand of our native species are in trouble … from rampant dairy conversions to destructive seabed trawling – [we] are irreversibly harming our natural world.”

Pollution

Pollution is one of the environmental issues in New Zealand. It is an issue to be dealt with. It involves the contamination of the natural environment with wastes and toxic materials.  A performance review by the OECD carried out in  2017 says: “New Zealand’s growth model is approaching its environmental limits. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. Pollution of freshwater is spreading over a wider area. And the country’s biodiversity is under threat.”

What is more, is that air pollution is responsible for approximately 3,300 untimely death and accrues social costs of $15.6 billion annually

Conversely, water pollution in New  Zealand, mainly caused by dairy farming, has increased since the amount of nitrogen applied to land has increased by 629 percent from 62,000 to 452,000 tonnes. 

Cattle urine and fertilizer both contain nitrogen. This means the ground is supplied with nitrogen from several sources. Due to intensive dairy farming, there are a lot of cattle, meaning more nitrogen than usual and what is more, fertilizers are still being applied to cause the growth of pasture.

The nitrogen is more than the grass can use, leaches into groundwater, and becomes excess in underground water which is a source of drinking water. This is not good because excessive nitrogen in the body causes a rare but fatal blue baby syndrome. 

If however, the nitrogen gets into rivers and then the ocean, it will promote plant and agal growth leading to reduced oxygen levels and reduced light. This is known as eutrophication.

Also, excessive nitrogen in water is harmful to fish. Three-quarters of New Zealand’s fish species are at risk of extinction, and in the words of Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Mike Joy it is “higher than I can find for any country in the world”.

Succinctly on pollution, the Environment Aortearoa 2019 has found that groundwater failed standards at 59% of wells due to the presence of E coli. 13% of the wells owing to nitrates. Some 57% of monitored lakes registered poor water quality, and 76% of native freshwater fish are at risk of or threatened with extinction. 

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Greenhouse gas emission/ Climate Change

Greenhouse gas emission is one of the environmental issues in New Zealand. New Zealand, once lush with green forests that curbed greenhouse emissions now produces greenhouse gases at an exponential rate. New Zealand’s greenhouse inventory issued by the Ministry of Environment shows New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 78.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It also shows that the gross greenhouse gas emissions increased by 21 percent from 1990 to 2020

According to New Zealand’s ministry of environment statistics, this makes New Zealand a significant emitter of greenhouse gases and the sixth highest emitter amongst what is called the Annex I countries on a per capita or individual basis and ranked 24th highest emitter on a gross basis.

This increase in gross emissions since 1990 is mostly traceable to the increase in the dairy cattle population and road transportation. Dairy cattle produce methane emissions whereas carbon dioxide from road transport is due to traffic growth.

The gross emissions in the aforementioned years were 43.7 percent carbon dioxide, 43.5 percent methane, 10.7 percent nitrous oxide, and 2.0 percent fluorinated gases (Gross emissions include emissions from all sectors except LULUCF).

The effects of these emissions are not just localized because greenhouse gases are to be held responsible for the rise in global temperature. This rise in the global temperature, global warming, then leads to climate change.

The polar ice caps and glaciers, including New Zealand’s over 3000 glaciers, would gradually melt leading to increasing ocean levels, causing coastal erosion and flooding, which will damage homes and infrastructure like pipes and roads. Increased rainfall will pose a challenge to people and they may be wildfires. 

The increased temperature would affect native species such as the Tuatara whose eggs are heat-sensitive, the kiwi because the warm temperatures will cause plenteous food for the breeding of animals (such as mice) against it, and for seabirds like the “hoiho”.

Humans are not left out in the cataclysm of climate change as the weather will become harsher, hotter and unfavorable leading to dehydration, increased rainfall that may affect health, heat stress and the list goes on. Do you have suggestions about these environmental issues in New Zealand? Please leave a comment below.

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