environment

Data gaps behind the environmental headlines

Today’s state of the environment report is a mixed marker of assessment and data deficiencies. David Williams reports.

In August 2011, the National-led government called for independent and nationally consistent reporting on the state of the environment.

“Clear environmental reports will avoid wasting energy in a debate over data and help focus everyone on addressing the problem,” then Environment Minister Nick Smith said in 2011. Smith pledged the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment would undertake this reporting, every five years.

The commissioner’s involvement was suggested by a Land and Water Forum report published in 2010; an attempt to get a consensus about a way forward for vexed water issues. It was also seen as a way to avoid political pressure. In the 2007 state of the environment report, the Ministry for the Environment binned its last chapter, which said pastoral land-use intensification was “arguably the largest pressure” on the environment.

Smith’s pledge wasn’t honoured. In 2013, the Nelson MP’s replacement, Cantabrian Amy Adams, announced the job of reporting on the state of the environment would be kept in-house. A bill was introduced mandating it be done more frequently – every three years – but by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand. The commissioner was sidelined, as an expert commentator and adviser.

In her press statement, Adams said: “I am a firm believer in the principle that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

The Environmental Reporting Act became law in 2015. The second state of the environment report compiled by MfE and Stats NZ is released today.

So measurements are happening. But it’s also clear that managing the complex and overlapping issues of the environment is made harder by the fact some information isn’t being collected or is out-of-date.

“We have a better evidence base now than we’ve ever had before.” – Dr Chris Daughney

The report, Environment Aotearoa 2019, reinforces already-known trends, such as declining native species and ecosystems, affected by well-established causes, like expanding cities, climate change, and agricultural conversion and intensification.

The last state of the environment report, published in 2015, was criticised by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, as hard to understand. It was broken down into “domains” – such as air, atmosphere and climate, and fresh water. As per the commissioner’s recommendation, the 2019 iteration highlights the country’s nine biggest environmental challenges in a more coherent narrative. This latest report also identifies the parts of the country that are the worst, and best, for certain indicators.

Like four years ago, the 2019 version is a synthesis report, very much in the mould of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, distilling and updating regular “domain” reports, on topics like fresh water and air pollution.

Datasets and methodologies have been updated. Like IPCC reports, it now has differing levels of confidence for trends – from very likely, to likely, and indeterminate.

Beyond the data collected from a variety of sources, the report has been bolstered by the findings of recent scientific studies. All this is overseen by an independent science panel and steering group.

MfE principal scientist Dr Chris Daughney said in a media briefing yesterday: “We have a better evidence base now than we’ve ever had before. But it also means that we can’t necessarily directly compare some of the findings from this report to the findings that we’ve published previously.”

It’s not clear from this latest report if concerning trends – such as increased nitrogen leaching into soils and the rivers most likely to have nitrogen-triggered slime and algae growth – have continued. (Links to environmental indicators weren’t live when this story was written.)

Rise of the knowledge gaps

There’s no overarching statement in Environment Aotearoa 2019 about whether the environment, overall, is better or worse since the legislation was passed in 2015.

High-level findings in the report include a worsening trend for native species, with just under 4000 threatened with, or at risk of, extinction, and an acceleration in the loss of native plants. Pressures on the environment interact and overlap – from introduced pests, to land-use and habitat destruction, the extraction of resources, pollution, and climate change.

The more you read the report, however, the more you are hit with the “knowledge gaps”.

That we don’t know enough about some ecosystems and species. That data limitations make it difficult to make accurate measurements – of actual erosion, for example. Or that the country’s Land Cover Database was last updated in 2012.

The report compares water quality in urban and rural areas and finds that urban waterways are, on average, in worse condition. But if farmers have undertaken practices to stop or limit water pollution, it’s not known where, when or what is happening. Even the causes of water quality trends are poorly understood, the report says.

The last “domain” report for fresh water, released in 2017, said that from November 2016 most water users would be required to provide continuous records of water takes each year. “In future reports we aim to provide a more complete national picture of how much water is actually used.”

However, this latest state of the environment report says there’s still inconsistent quality and completeness of data on actual water use – “so it is not possible to evaluate the actual metered water takes at a national scale”. (In terms of the area of irrigated agricultural land, that doubled between 2002 and 2017, with dairy farming accounting for 59 percent of that.)

Choices matter

Knowledge gaps will always be a part of science. As the previous Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright said after the 2015 report: “There will never be a perfect state of the environment report – the task is too wide-ranging and the available data sets will always be inadequate in some way. The challenge therefore is one of incremental improvement.”

Part of that improvement is in tone. Under law, these reports are forbidden from reporting on responses to issues. But Wright said information alone isn’t enough – the facts can’t speak for themselves.

An acknowledgement that the report goes beyond straight information, and sits in the laps of politicians and policymakers, came yesterday when Dr Daughney, the ministry’s principal scientist, was asked to summarise the report’s findings in a single sentence.

He said: “Choices matter. What we see in the environment today is a collection of the results of activities that have been undertaken in the past, not just in our generation but in previous generations. This report provides this evidence base – the data – that help us consider those choices.”

The report says that, at a national level, there is no overarching requirement to collect information. That means MfE and Stats NZ have to re-use and re-analyse data from various sources.

Scientific bodies should establish and agree a set of core environmental indicators – what is measured, when and where – and set priorities, the report suggests.

Dr Daughney says the ministry works closely with regional councils and other organisations that provide environmental information. “One of the pillars of that engagement is to identify and agree upon and harmonise the way that measurements are made.”

Yet Environment Aotearoa 2019 says some data collection practices are inconsistent, and not all datasets have enough representative sites, leading to holes in reporting.

Dr Ken Hughey, the Department of Conservation’s chief science adviser, acknowledges lack of data is an issue, with only about 20 percent of New Zealand’s species identified and documented. NIWA’s chief scientist for freshwater Dr Scott Larned says coastal water quality monitoring is a recent initiative for most councils and “data are scarce”.

As Amy Adams said in 2013, without agreement on what’s being measured, it’s hard to manage. Perhaps when agreement is reached, then, politicians and bureaucrats can focus on addressing the problem, as her predecessor Nick Smith pointed out.

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