Week in Review

Holey data leaves us ‘flying blind’ on environment

How can a country solve its environmental issues if it doesn’t really know what they are? It can’t, says a bracing new report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

New Zealand knows far too little about whether its soil, water, air or native creature populations are getting better or worse, says a lacerating report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Simon Upton has called for the law to be changed so that next April’s Ministry for the Environment/Statistics NZ joint report on freshwater is the last to be done under our current, hole-ridden system.

Instead, he wants environmental and statistics staff taken off the “treadmill” of constant reporting that, in his view, doesn’t tell us much of what we need to know.

His report has been backed by several environmental scientists, including some involved in the monitoring process.

Patchy and inconsistent data make it impossible to construct a clear national picture, his report says, so policy-makers are “flying blind” - relying on outdated or under-funded information when they make crucial decisions. The system now “is really a passive harvest of the data we happen to have. You rapidly run out of things to say, once you’ve said it once,” he told Newsroom.

Upton’s report on New Zealand's environmental monitoring system says governments have for decades failed to seek out and pay for the information we badly need, despite a newish Environmental Reporting Act that aims to improve things. 

He contrasts our patchy environmental data with the screeds of long-running, high-quality data collected about the economy since World War II. Virtually the only environmental trends with any comparable long-term data are coastal sea level rise and the world-renowned atmospheric CO2 record from Wellington’s Baring Head, he says. “That’s the single worst thing about the system,” he told Newsroom. “We can’t say what’s happening over time.”

Even those important things that are measured - such as E.Coli levels in swimming water, or the number of native birds - are often gathered locally using such divergent methods that there is no decent national picture, the report found. 

Upton questioned how New Zealand was meant to make environmental management decisions when - for example - the last proper survey of our land use cover was undertaken in 2012. “You need to know what's in forest, what's in pasture," he told Newsroom. “This is a land-based economy, and we’re worried about carbon and land use change, so it should be regular (surveying)." Information on how land was actually used (as opposed to what it was covered in) was even scarcer, he said. "There is no unified way of measuring or recording that, and this is a land-based economy.”

Next steps

Reports like this can easily sink into oblivion.

But Upton is being particularly assertive about this one. He is calling for the next national report on water quality, due in April, to be the last one carried out under our current system.

He'd like to see some public commitment from the Government by Christmas, so Statistics NZ and the environment ministry can get money in the 2020 Budget to improve the situation. It will cost millions; how many is not clear. 

“For me it’s take it or leave it, you can’t do a little bit of this. I think this will fly. But you need to give the commitment to resource it and do it. You need to amend the Act,” says Upton.

By June 2020, he has suggested to ministers, there should be a bill in place to amend the Environmental Reporting Act.

By the end of 2020, he thinks New Zealand should have an independent science advisory panel to oversee improvements.

New core environmental indicators should be in place by the end of 2021, he suggests.

And in 2025, New Zealand could have a state of the environment report he believes would be much more meaningful.

But officials “can’t do that if they’re on a treadmill producing the current set of reports”, he says.

Statistics Minister James Shaw was busy getting the Zero Carbon Bill through its third reading yesterday, and didn't immediately react. Upton says he has spoken to ministers including Shaw and Parker, and had extensive talks with environmental officials and regional councils to make sure his recommendations are doable. 

What does he think his chances are? “That’s one thing I can’t do a research report on to tell me. I think the chances are good, provided the Government is prepared to give this (fiscal) priority.”

Scathing comments

The report is scathing of the system, though not of the people trying their best inside it.  

It hasn't been long since the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand released their first full report under New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Act 2015, called Environment Aotearoa 2019. The Act was supposed to improve the quality of environmental data.

However, Upton's report implies it was a major missed opportunity by Cabinet. “A conscious choice was made to make do with what there was ... For whatever reason, the system appears to have been designed to make do with whatever information happened to be available and makes no commitment to gather anything more,” he says.

While the report says Environment Aotearoa was a step up on previous reporting efforts, it also revealed glaring gaps. However, he stressed he was calling to improve the new system, not replace it. “People have done a very good job within the constraints, a better job than you might have expected, which tells you how dedicated they are,” he told Newsroom.

Some of the major monitoring gaps the report identifies include:

- Land cover: “New Zealand has no robust, comprehensive and nationally representative land use map, let alone one that is regularly updated,” says the report. “I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that investors or policymakers should take decisions on 
the basis of seven-year-old data – too much happens in seven years.”

- Air pollution: The report says New Zealand has limited data about concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5) despite the public health impacts of breathing it. 

- Soil and erosion: There is no national monitoring of soil erosion, making it hard to know if the way people are using land is depleting soil.

- Marine health: The focus on single-species management of commercial fisheries under the quota management system means “marine biodiversity is poorly understood, and we have only a limited understanding of the impact our various activities are having on our marine ecosystems.”

- Water quality: There is no consistent, long-term data on how much water people are taking from aquifers and rivers, making it hard to get a handle on the reasons for water quality trends.

Overall, the report says the system is beset by “huge gaps in environmental data and knowledge” and “inconsistencies in how data is collected and analysed”, which are being compounded by a “science funding system that does not properly recognise the importance of routine data collection". 

“Every year we delay the collection of data in an area identified as a significant gap, we commit New Zealand to flying blind in that area,” it says.

The report skewers a tendency by successive governments to make funding for environmental research short-term, contestable or reliant on a project demonstrating innovation or novelty.

Upton told Newsroom the focus on "crowd-pleasing" research and innovation comes at the expense of filling gaps in our understanding of environmental problems that we already know about, but don't have the full picture.

Ironically, Upton says, the kind of innovation the government wants to see from our environmental scientists is only possible if we understand the environment properly in the first place.

Positive reaction

Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said Upton’s review largely reinforced the Ministry for the Environment’s own thinking and changes it had already started making.

However, Upton stressed a law change was needed to implement his changes.

Among the changes he recommended were: a clear set of core environmental indicators, establishing longer-term, consistent monitoring of important trends, putting more emphasis on drivers of problems, such as population growth, and reacting quicker to emerging threats.

The reaction from environmental scientists - some of whom have been involved in the existing environmental reporting process - was almost universally positive.

Despite some quibbles about how Upton’s recommendations should be implemented, several gave the impression they had been waiting, and hoping, for someone to draw attention to the problem.

"It covers all the things I wanted to see and much more. I hope this report is a watershed moment for the way we monitor (and manage) the health of our environment,” said Andrea Byrom, co-director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

"We often take free access to good information for granted. The Parliamentary Commissioner ... has just analysed New Zealand’s environmental reporting system, and tells us that we simply can’t depend on it as it stands,” said Troy Baisden, a professor of lake and freshwater science at the University of Waikato.

“The report emphasises how our current environmental reporting system is largely reliant on ‘cobbling together what information we have at hand”, says Roger Young, a freshwater expert at the Cawthron Institute and Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.

“There are persistent shortages of environmental data ... and some shortages are quite severe. For example, approximately 150 of the thousands of lakes in New Zealand are currently monitored, and less than half of the 150 lakes had sufficient water quality data for state and trend analysis in the 2019 NIWA report. Extrapolating from such a small number of lakes to several thousand is fraught with uncertainty," said Scott Larned, the chief freshwater scientist at NIWA. 

The report also got endorsement from the umbrella group for regional councils - who carry out much of New Zealand's freshwater monitoring. “The lack of coherent national reporting has been a bugbear for councils over the years,” said Local Government New Zealand President Dave Cull in a statement. “New Zealand’s fragmented national environmental data landscape has made it difficult to respond to problems before they escalate into crises. It’s also provided a breeding ground for misinformation."

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