Environment of New Zealand

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New Zealand is located in the South Pacific Ocean east of Australia.

The environment of New Zealand is characterised by unique flora and fauna and a variety of landforms contained within a small island nation. Historically having an isolated and endemic ecosystem far into modernity, the arrival of Polynesians about 1280 and then later European settlers began to have significant impacts on this system, with the intentional and unintentional introduction of new species and plants which often overwhelmed their natural competitors, leading to a significant loss of native ecology and biodiversity, especially in areas such as bird life.

Today, most parts of New Zealand are heavily modified by the effects of logging, agriculture and general human settlement, though large areas have also been placed under protection, combined in many cases with efforts to protect or regenerate native ecosystems (aided by the fact that especially the South Island of New Zealand has only a very low population density).


A tuatara, an endangered reptile found only in New Zealand. Eighty percent of New Zealand's biota is endemic.

The biota of New Zealand is one of the most unusual on Earth, due to its long isolation from other continental landmasses. Its affinities are derived in part from Gondwana, from which it separated 82 million years ago, some modest affinities with New Caledonia and Lord Howe Island, both of which are part of the same continental plate as New Zealand and in part from Australia.

More recently a component has been introduced by humans. New Zealand's biodiversity exhibits high levels of endemism, both in its flora and fauna. Until recently the islands had no native terrestrial mammals except for bats (although terrestrial, "archaic" mammals did exist in New Zealand until 19 million years ago, in the form of the Saint Bathans mammal), the main component of the fauna being insects and birds. Its flora is dominated by Gondwanan plants, comprising historically of forests, most famously the giant kauri. New Zealand has developed a national Biodiversity Action Plan to address conservation of considerable numbers of threatened flora and fauna within New Zealand.


Main article: Fauna of New Zealand


Main article: Birds of New Zealand
Te Tuatahi a nui, a male kiwi on Maungatautari mountain. (North Island brown kiwi, Apteryx mantelli).

Conservationists recognised that threatened bird populations could be saved on offshore islands, where, once predators were exterminated, bird life flourished again. Around 30 species are listed as endangered. The kiwi, a national symbol, is also under threat. A curious bird, it cannot fly, has loose, hair-like feathers and long whiskers, and is largely nocturnal.


The only terrestrial mammals that were in New Zealand prior to human habitation were three species of bat. A number of marine mammals are found on the coast and waters of New Zealand. Maori and European settlers introduced a wide range of mammals some of which have become serious invasive species.


Main article: Flora of New Zealand

New Zealand has a richly varied flora of imported and native species, the indigenous varieties having developed quite significantly due to the geographic isolation of the country before human migration and plant imports became common. However, the combination of external factors such as climate change and invasive species, as well as increasing agricultural and other human land uses have led to widespread damage. New Zealand's forest ecosystems for example are being considered as the second most endangered of the world, with only 7% of the natural habitat remaining.[1]


The climate of New Zealand is mostly cool temperate in the south and warm temperate in the north, with the exception of the North Island Volcanic plateau. Rainfall varies from a low of 325 mm in central Otago to an average of 5-8,000 mm in Fiordland. Most lowland areas have ample rainfall for farming and habitation. In the South Island, the high Southern Alps, which run north–south, cause a marked difference between the west and east coast climates.


New Zealand countryside

For a small country the geography is extremely varied in both landforms and altitude. New Zealand's landscape ranges from the fjord-like sounds of the southwest to the tropical beaches of the far north. South Island is dominated by the Southern Alps, the highest peak of which is Aoraki/Mount Cook, at 3,724 metres (12,218 ft). The tallest peak on North Island is Mount Ruapehu (2,797 m), an active, cone-shaped volcano.

Smaller islands include Stewart Island, which lies south of South Island; Waiheke and Great Barrier islands, near the north end of North Island; and the Chatham Islands, more than 800 km east of South Island.

Protected areas[edit]

Evaluations of New Zealand's environmental performance[edit]

State of the Environment reporting[edit]

The Ministry for the Environment has produced two State of the Environment reports to date, one in 1997[2] and the other in 2007.[3]

OECD environmental performance review[edit]

In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducted an environmental performance review of New Zealand. Some of the main conclusions and recommendations were that:[4]

  • energy intensity is about equal to the OECD average
  • intensity of water, fertiliser, and pesticide use is low for OECD countries. However, the review period saw 'significant increases, with consequent growth in pressures on the environment'
  • New Zealand should strengthen national policy guidance (policy statements, national environmental standards)
  • New Zealand should further integrate environmental concerns into economic and sectoral decisions, particularly by using economic instruments to internalise environmental costs of economic activities
  • New Zealand should further develop international environmental cooperation.

Environmental Performance Index[edit]

New Zealand's scores in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.[5]

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a method of quantifying and numerically benchmarking the environmental performance of a country's policies. It results in a score out of 100. In 2016 New Zealand scored 88 out of 100, and ranked 11 out of 132 countries.[6] In 2010, in terms of ecosystem effects on water quality New Zealand scored 40.3 points out of 100 for ecosystem vitality for freshwater and was ranked 43rd out of 132 countries.[7][8]

year rank/total EPI
2006 1/133 88.0
2008 7/149 88.9
2010 15/163 73.4
2012 14/132 66.1
2014 16/178 76.4
2016 11/132 88.0

Environment and politics[edit]

The Values Party formed in 1973, the first ever national level environmental party. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand formed in 1991 which included some members from the defunct Values Party, and was initially in Parliament as part of the Alliance Party. They currently have nine MPs that put forward green political ideology.

The level of protection of the environment from the different political parties varies according to their position on the left-right political spectrum. The right wing ACT Party scores the lowest and the left wing Green Party scores the highest.

Level of environmental protection by political parties.[9]
(blank indicates that the party was in not in Parliament)
Party 2002 2005 2008
Alliance 56%
ACT Party 10% 10%
Green Party 97% 97% 97%
Labour Party 57% 61% 44%
Maori Party 83% 87%
National Party 27% 43% 27%
NZ First 59% 50% 78%
Progressive Party 76% 81% 60%
United Future 28% 48% 53%

Environmental law[edit]

The roots of New Zealand environmental law can be traced to the common law of Britain. The increasing environmental awareness of the 1960s led to a specific body of environmental law that developed in many Western countries including New Zealand. Environmental law became more integrated in the 1980s with the passing of the Environment Act 1986 and the Conservation Act 1987. These Acts set up the Ministry for the Environment, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

The most significant Act of Parliament concerning environmental law was the passing of Resource Management Act in 1991. Issues under the Act are adjudicated by the Environment Court of New Zealand.

Treaties and international agreements[edit]

New Zealand is a signatory to a number of treaties and international agreements:[10]

New Zealand is a depositary to the following environmental treaties:[11]

Environmental funding[edit]

There are a number of different sources for environmental funding in New Zealand.

The Nature Heritage Fund is a New Zealand Government funding body set up in 1990, and administered by the Department of Conservation, for the purchase of land which has significant ecological or landscape features.

To support community efforts, the Community Conservation Fund is available. Funding is for established community groups that have an ecological restoration project on public land that can be sustained after the two year funding period.

There are also Biodiversity Funds.[12][13]

Environmental issues[edit]

Water pollution due to dairy farming in the Wairarapa
Common brushtail possums, an invasive pest in New Zealand whose population is controlled with 1080

As with many other countries there are a number of environmental organizations that are working towards addressing various environmental issues in New Zealand.

The move to carry out genetic engineering in New Zealand is opposed by environmentalists on economic and environmental grounds and the release of genetically modified organisms now has a strict regulatory regime under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

Mining in New Zealand often encounters opposition from environmentalists. Coal mining in the West Coast Region is of concern and there are plans to start the Cypress Mine, the Escarpment Mine Project, the Mt William North Mining Project, as well as issues at the long established Stockton Mine. Lignite mining in the Southland Region is also encountering opposition.[14] Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is also of concern. A proposed soapstone mine in the Cobb Valley has also raised environmental concerns.[15]

Deforestation in New Zealand is now of negligible concern since logging indigenous forest on public land has ceased and it requires a permit to be carried out on privately owned land. In the past 800 years of human occupation New Zealand has lost 75% of its forests due to deliberately lit fires and land clearance.

The management of waste in New Zealand has become more regulated to reduce associated environmental issues.

Water pollution in New Zealand is an ongoing issue. A 2009 study tested 300 rivers and streams around the Western world and found the Manawatu River was loaded with the highest gross primary production (GPP).[16] High GPP rates are an indication of poor ecological health and can lead to various environmental issues. Fish and Game, a statutory government body, started a dirty dairying campaign to highlight water pollution due to dairy farming. It led to the creation in 2003 of the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, a voluntary agreement between Fonterra, Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and regional councils.

in 2011 the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment claimed the use of 1080, a pesticide using sodium fluoroacetate, was "effective and safe".[17] The government and Federated Farmers maintain it is an effective tool for controlling possums over large areas.[18][19] However it's use remains contentious, with debate between conservationists and livestock farmers on one side and hunters and animal rights activists on the other.[20] Concerns are also raised about security of potable water supplies in areas where 1080 is applied.[21]

Biodiversity of New Zealand is rich and diverse but in serious decline.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "NZ's forests second most endangered in world". The New Zealand Herald. 4 February 2011. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  2. ^ "The State of New Zealand's Environment 1997". Ministry for the Environment. 1997. Retrieved 3 September 2008. 
  3. ^ "Environment New Zealand 2007". Ministry for the Environment. December 2007. Retrieved 3 September 2008. 
  4. ^ OECD (2007). Conclusions and Recommendations: OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: New Zealand. OECD, Paris
  5. ^ http://epi.yale.edu/Countries/NewZealand
  6. ^ "Data | Environmental Performance Index - New Zealand". Yale. 2016. 
  7. ^ Sage, Eugenie (30 May 2012). "NZ drops to 43 in Government's favoured water report Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand". Green Party. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "Country Profiles; New Zealand". Yale Environmental Performance Index. 2012. Retrieved 7 June 2012. 
  9. ^ Vote for the Environment. Environmentvote.org.nz. Retrieved on 19 August 2011.
  10. ^ Multilateral Environmental Agreements | Ministry for the Environment. Mfe.govt.nz (5 November 2010). Retrieved on 19 August 2011.
  11. ^ Treaties and International Law – Treaties for which New Zealand is the depositary – NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (13 May 2011). Retrieved on 19 August 2011.
  12. ^ http://feeds.beehive.govt.nz/release/important+ecosystems+receive+support+nationwide
  13. ^ http://feeds.beehive.govt.nz/release/important+ecosystems+receive+support+nationwide+0
  14. ^ Fensome, Alex (2012-01-23). "Crowd gathers to protest lignite mining". Stuff.co.nz. Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  15. ^ Arnold, Niomi (4 February 2013). "Quarry worry". Nelson Mail. Retrieved 24 February 2013. 
  16. ^ Young, Roger. "Ecosystem metabolism in the Manawatu River" (PDF). Cawthron Institute. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  17. ^ Evaluating the use of 1080: Predators, poisons and silent forests (Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, June 2011): http://www.pce.parliament.nz/assets/Uploads/PCE-1080.pdf
  18. ^ 1080 an effective tool to protect native wildlife (Office of the Minister of Conservation, 2008): http://www.doc.govt.nz/about-doc/news/media-releases/2008/1080-an-effective-tool-to-protect-native-wildlife/
  19. ^ Call for reason in 1080 debate (Federated Farmers, 14 August 2008): http://www.fedfarm.org.nz/n628,10.html
  20. ^ Example include:
  21. ^ Beasley, Michael (August 2002). "Guidelines for the safe use of sodium fluoroacetate (1080)" (PDF). New Zealand Occupational Safety & Health Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 February 2013. Retrieved 17 December 2007. 
  22. ^ "Current state of New Zealand's biodiversity". Retrieved 24 June 2013. 

The New Zealand environment in film[edit]

  • Wild South series
  • He Ao Wera – a documentary by Mike Smith and Hinekaa Mako about the effects of climate change on communities in Aotearoa.
  • Earth Whisperers/Papatuanuku – this Kathleen Gallagher film was shot around New Zealand by cameramen Alun Bollinger and Mike Single. It focuses on 10 visionary New Zealanders out to prove that a shift in consciousness can heal our environment.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]