July 12, 2024

Name : Mr Nikolaos Anagnostakis, Environmental Attorney

Institutional Affiliation: Chair Of Environmental NGO “Green Justice”  

Date: 11/5/2017

Integrating the Principle of Sustainability into Environmental Law of New Zealand

New Zealand has been at the forefront on its attempts to ensure sustainability and recognizes this as an excellent practice in ensuring the improvement of the overall human life.  Efforts by the government to promote this practice have served to steer the country closer to its goals. The overall purpose of sustainability has been integrated into environmental laws of the continent to ensure all the issues concerning the environment and the ecological system as a whole have been addressed. New Zealand is unique in the manner in which it has incorporated this principle into the legislation of the country especially touching on the environmental law, in what it considers integrated environmental management (Grinlington, 1995). This paper aims to highlight the integration of the principle of sustainability into the overall decision-making process, legislation and the policy-making attributes on the environmental concerns in New Zealand.

Sustainable development is a core principle in determining the natural existence of the human race. New Zealand has been applauded for its take in the integration of this principle into environmental law: which arguably plays a major role in the sustainability of its people. New Zealand has a population of about 4.2 million people with an area size of averagely 270, 000 km2. The country is characterized by very high mountains, active volcanoes, and glaciers. In order to study how this integration has taken root, it is important to look into the governance of New Zealand, the laws and policies that have been adopted to curb thus issue. The legal institutions that have taken part and also the non-governmental organizations who are at the forefront of environmental sustainability ( Stanhope, 2000). Environmental law is a necessary legal framework in achieving sustainability of any given country.

Integrated decision-making forms a basis for sustainable development, where all the environmental aspects are put into place to make the necessary decisions that would affect the changes needed. The government of New Zealand has put on various reforms and regulations to aid in its decision making process on the matter.  All levels of the government have participated in the process although the legal rules and decisions arrived at the national level of government are distinct from those of the lower governments. Traditional environmental laws have either been discarded or modified to accommodate the rising concerns on environmental sustainability.

The levels of integrated management that have been adopted involve three stages: the integration of normative principles, that of the strategic policy making and the integration of operational management and planning. The normative principles are generally involved in the overall policy making and the setting of objectives for the sustainable management. The strategic level addresses the alternative objectives available including law reforms and the modification of the management structure to ensure the set objectives are adequately met.  The last level, i.e. the operational level is characterized by the allocation of responsibilities for the sustainable development to the local governments.

In the hope of integrating sustainability into the environmental laws, New Zealand has embarked on a journey of environmental reforms ever since the 80s which featured the legislative reforms for the management of natural resources. Through a governance structure that was guided by the goal to achieve sustainable development and also the restructuring and modification of the administrative governance as explained above. In order to track these reforms, it is necessary to focus on when these reforms started to occur.

The establishment of the environment Act in 1986 was the  major highlight of the central government restructuring. The environment Act was created by the Ministry for the environment. The term environment was given a broad term to include all the physical and natural resources, all the ecosystems and other parts and all the aspects of social, physical and cultural aspects that surround an area.  Around that same time, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment popularly referred to as the Environment Ombudsman to deal with all environmental issues including their management, the values that have been placed by people on the environmental matters, while at the same time conserving the rights, cultures and values of the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand e.g. the Maori (Environment Act 1986, Preamble).

The Department of Conservation was created by the Conservation Act of 1987 that were given the mandate to make rules and regulations with regards to conservation lands and national parks in the country. This Act has managed to create a sustainable environment for the wildlife in the country and also the conserved about 30{ee2a2ced2e83a70af3b12a5f5f4bc88f1c095ae1846c54ee750c7ec9c020c045} of the land from human encroachment and destruction.  A new set of land reforms and policies were created by the Minister for Environment in the late 1980s which aimed to incorporate the principle of sustainability into the natural resource management (Palmer, 1992).  A mechanism that evolved from these reforms was The Resource Management Act in 1991while aimed to integrate the many laws regarding the management of natural and physical resources into one statute that covered all the aspects that these laws highlighted.

The Resource Management Act had one main purpose and that was to ensure sustainable management of all the physical and natural resources in the country in a manner that enables the communities and people in general to be able to tend to their well-being while at the same time safeguarding and sustaining these resources.  While making decisions, the overall guide was to preserve the purpose that the Act was intended to achieve.  The Act served to increase public access to the planning and policy formulation that affected them in one way or another.  The indigenous people like the Maori also got a way to consult with the authorities and even participate in the decision making process. The RMA also hoped to establish a representative in Environmental Court. The system however, had some few drawbacks. For instance, there was no guidance provided by the central government and thus the system failed since they lacked a direction for their goals and objectives. Full public participation was restricted and the government took an upper hand in making its decisions while completely disregarding the role of public participation. The RMA also failed because the overall assessment carried out on the environment lacked the expertise required and also remained uncoordinated properly to meet the objectives of the Act. All the work was performed with the worst standards and that accounted for the overall failure of the purpose of the Act.

The enforcement of the Act by the authorities was very sluggish as they did not take full accountability on the gravity of the matter. After the Act was implemented, it basically marked the death of it. Little effort was made to ensure that the Act was in place and evaluations carried out as to whether the policies that arose from the act had been met accordingly. There was little follow-up and monitoring procedures carried out to fully enforce the Act and thus leading to its ultimate collapse. Lastly, the Maori people were not consulted on the various issues that affected them on implementation of this Act, which was contrary to provisions of the act on the purpose of sustainable development.

To address the problems that came with the Resource Management Act of 1991, other reforms were put in place in October 2009 which included the following: the local authorities were awarded more discretionary power in matters that involved sustainable management such that all the policies and regulations that it made would be taken into account. The rights of public participation were also reduced and costs of implementing the resources increased to ensure efficiency. EPA was also proposed to be created. Other reforms would include the creation of sound policies and regulations that could easily be achieved, the clear allocations of powers and functions between the central government and the local government, the decision making policy was to be integrated into the sustainable development in relation to the environmental laws of the Act, there would be an active involvement of all the members of the public in the decision making process and also the policy formulation process  and lastly the government formulated effective mechanisms for the proper and workable enforcement of the Act (Frieder, 1997).

Al these measures that had been put in place were aimed at improving the overall functioning of the Act and make sure that it achieved its intended purposes. The Amendments also aimed to improve the development of the plans an policies that had initially been set aside and improve the compliance of the Act and its implementation. Large developments could be easily tracked and ways to improve them would be suggested to promote the projects. Since the reform measures were put in place, the RMA has been effective in its functions and have projected a big improvement from that of 1991. However, the future is uncertain as the government has once again failed to respond to the great pressures that the environment poses.

Besides the public demands a lot of the government in relation to environmental sustainability which the government has since failed to fulfill. The future has remained bright for New Zealand even still. The calls for Green Growth, an initiative set by the Ministry of Economic Development has taken root in New Zealand. The initiative aims to create a path for economic development in the country by way of using natural resources to sustain the human living and at the same time preserving the physical and natural resources of the country. Green growth has implemented the aspects of green building with several banks even offering loans for the same as a way of promoting sustainability through the application of environmental laws, policies and regulations (Craig, 2004).

In conclusion, it is important to the environmental management procedures and policies that New Zealand have set are applaudable.  The government has managed to integrate the principle of sustainability into the Environmental Law in New Zealand through the creation of policies, reforms and the governance models that it has adopted. It is quite clear that sustainable management of both physical and natural resources can be effected by the state through law reforms and the governance structural changes. These reforms and policies have served to ensure overall sustainability of the human existence and at the same time protecting the natural resources that the country boasts of.  In many ways, New Zealand has managed to remain an eco-friendly country despite the failures of the Resource Management Act of 1991. All this could be attributed to the good coordination between the central and the local governments, the clear allocation of functions and roles between the two governments, the ability to integrate sustainability into the environmental laws and the impartiality that is exclusive of the New Zealand Government (Palmer, 1992).  The role of environmental law in its contribution towards sustainable development has been clearly proved and its integration into sustainability by the New Zealand government was a wise choice.


Craig, J. L. (2004). Science and sustainable development in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 34(1), 9-22.

Frieder, J. (1997). Approaching sustainability: integrated environmental management and New Zealand’s Resource Management Act. Ian Axford New Zealand Fellowship in Public Policy.

Grinlinton, D. Natural Resources Law Reform in New Zealand-Integrating Law, Policy and Sustainability”(1995). Australasian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy, 2, 1-at.

Palmer, Q. C. (1992). New ways to make international environmental law

Stanhope, R. (2000). A Vision for the Future-The Concept of Sustainable Development in the Netherlands and New Zealand. NZJ Envtl. L., 4, 147.


Environmental Act of 1986, New Zealand

Resource Management Act of 1991 of New Zealand

Mr Nikolaos Anagnostakis, Environmental Attorney
Chair Of Environmental NGO “Green Justice”