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  • Since humans first arrived in New Zealand, we have had a significant impact on the environment – affecting and protecting the natural world around us. How have we left our mark on our land, our air and our water?

    Find out more about some of the impacts we have made on our environment in this timeline.

    13th century – Māori arrive in New Zealand

    Polynesian (who were to become the Māori) settle in New Zealand. They bring with them the kiore (pacific rat) and kurī (dog), which was to mark the beginning of a series of species extinctions. Burn-offs by Māori lead to the loss of 30% of New Zealand forests.

    1840 – Treaty of Waitangi signed

    50% of New Zealand covered by forest. The European settlers cleared the forest for farmland, logged those that were unsuitable for farming and drained wetlands, making the land vulnerable to erosion.

    Rights: A Taranaki dairy farm. McAllister, James, 1869-1952: Negatives of Stratford and Taranaki district. Ref: 1/1-007882-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    Early dairy farm

    Bush was cleared for farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bush was felled and burned, then oversown with clover and grasses.

    1858 – Population over 100,000

    Human population of New Zealand is 115,462.

    1880s – Mustelids, weasels, stoats and ferrets introduced

    Mustelids, weasels, stoats and ferrets are introduced to control rabbits. Unfortunately, they end up killing New Zealand birds instead.

    Rights: Image courtesy of Nga Manu Images

    Stoat hunting

    The stoat is a swift hunter and will scavenge empty or abandoned nests. They are also known to attack prey much larger than themselves and have had devastating effects on the kiwi population.

    1898 – First car in NZ

    First car imported into New Zealand.

    1901 – Population reaches 815,862

    Transport is dominated by steam, including steamships, trains and trams. Steam is produced by burning wood and coal.

    1930 – Widespread deforestation

    Large scale erosion and degradation of soils due to deforestation.

    1950 – Car numbers growing

    400,518 licensed motor vehicles on the road in New Zealand.

    1951 – Population nears 2 million

    Population of New Zealand reaches 1,939,472.

    1960 – Manukau Sewage Purification Works open in Auckland

    Wastewater is now treated in large oxidation ponds. Previously, 25 million litres of trade waste and 675,000 litres of raw sewage were discharged into the estuary every day.

    1975 – 1.5 million cars on the road

    1,589,827 licensed motor vehicles on the road in New Zealand.

    1985 – Hole in the ozone

    Announcement of discovery of a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

    Investigating the Antarctic ozone hole

    Dr Adrian McDonald tells us why his research on the interaction between atmospheric dynamics, chemistry and climate is important for the development of climate models.

    1987 – Unleaded petrol arrives

    Unleaded petrol introduced into New Zealand, made mandatory in 1996.

    1987 – Montreal Protocol

    New Zealand signs the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out CFCs.

    1988 – Pesticide bans

    The manufacture of the pesticide 2,4,5-T is stopped. The use of pentachlorophenol, a pesticide used to treat timber, is banned.

    1994 – PCBs banned

    The use of polychlorinated biphenols is stopped.

    1997 – Kyoto Protocol

    Concern that global warming is caused by human emission of greenhouse gases leads to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol designed to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases.

    2001 – Dioxin levels lowered

    Research conducted by the Ministry for the Environment reports that New Zealand’s levels of the toxin dioxin in our food are among the lowest recorded in the world. Steps are being undertaken to reduce this level even further.

    2003 – Energy demand increases

    Household energy demand increases by 40% in the previous 5 years. CO2 emissions increase by 60%. The demand for fossil fuel increases by 17%.

    2003 – Canterbury Clean Heat project launched

    The project is designed to encourage people to install insulation and less polluting heat sources into their homes.

    Rights: Larry McCombs

    Smoking chimney

    Heating the home by burning wood or coal is common in New Zealand. Many councils are encouraging people to heat their homes in other ways in order to reduce the levels of air pollution.

    2006 – Forest coverage declining

    Only 30% (8 million hectares) of New Zealand is now covered by forests.

    2014 – 4.5 million and counting

    Population of New Zealand is estimated to be 4,554,000. For a running total, see the Population clock on the Statistics New Zealand website.

    2018 – One Billion Trees programme

    The New Zealand Government sets a goal to plant one billion trees over ten years.

    2019 – 5 million and counting

    The population of Aotearoa passes 5,000,000 in September 2019.

    2021 – 4.4 million licensed vehicles

    New Zealand records an increase of licensed vehicles, up from 3.4 million in 2010. A Clean Car Discount offer from the Government sees a boost in electric car sales.

    2021 – Taumata Arowai

    Taumata Arowai becomes the water services regulator for Aotearoa. Its role is to ensure access to safe drinking water and protect the environment from the inputs of wastewater and stormwater.

    2022 – Our first Climate Adaptation Plan

    In August, the New Zealand Government released its plan to deal with rising seas, increasing heat and extreme weather: Urutau, ka taurikura: Kia tū pakari a Aotearoa i ngā huringa āhuarangi Adapt and thrive: Building a climate-resilient New Zealand – New Zealand's first national adaptation plan.

    2023 – Electric vehicles

    By mid 2023, New Zealand has over 58,000 fully electric vehicles and 23,000 plug-in hybrids.

      Published 18 June 2008, Updated 26 July 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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