Expert views on State of the Environment report

The Government has published a new environmental report – Environment Aotearoa 2015 – showing the overall state of New Zealand’s environment.

The report focuses on five areas or ‘domains’– air, atmosphere and climate, fresh water, land, and marine — and includes statistics only if they are considered accurate and reliable.

The document, jointly released by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, is the first ‘State of the Environment’ report since 2007.

Increased greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of agriculture on water quality are among areas of concern highlighted in the report but (as the Science Media Centre reports here) there were areas of improvement, such as decreased carbon monoxide emissions from transport and a decline in over-fishing and by-catch of protected species.

The full report and accompanying press information is available on the Statistics New Zealand website. The report is also accompanied by an interactive website allowing the data behind the statistics to be explored..

The Science Media Centre collected expert commentary on the separate domains covered in the report.

Full comments can be found on its website.

On the overall report:

Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society comments:

“This reporting has been needed for many years and expectations will be high.

“Mandatory environmental reporting provides clear and consistent information on the state and trends related to environmental indicators to help inform policy and management. It brings New Zealand in line with all the other members of the OECD and provides a catalyst to improve monitoring and reporting on the environment, an area in which we have traditionally performed poorly.

“The real acid test of national environmental reporting is of course how effectively it is taken up into the policy space. From an initial review, it would seem that there are many useful nuggets of information that should prompt policy innovation.

“Ample justification in the figures exists for strong and effective environmental bottom lines for freshwater management, robustly addressing our carbon emissions, investing in the protection of indigenous biodiversity through protection, management and restoration.

“For much of our natural heritage, there’s little time to waste and mandatory environmental reporting has the potential to provide a strong platform to prompt necessary action.”

On the Fresh Water domain section:

Dr Joanne Clapcott, Freshwater Ecologist – River Health and Ecosystems, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“I commend the ratification of the Environmental Reporting Bill and the subsequent Environmental Reporting process. In this instance, I think MfE have used the best available data and have analysed it appropriately.

“The message is not new but it is very clear – NZ rivers and streams continue to be negatively impacted by agricultural intensity.”

Dr Clapcott contributed to the Technical Advisory Group for this section

Dr Mike Joy, Senior Lecturer; Environmental Science/Ecology, Massey University comments:

“While it is great to finally see a state of the environment report, I am slightly disappointed to see that little has been learned from the past. Once again there is a clear lack of honest reporting and more gilding the lily, and more obfuscation although possibly less so than some of the recent Ministry for The Environment and Regional Council reports. I think that honest environmental reporting is a crucial part of democracy, and so having an organisation effectively reporting on its own performance inadvertently means that there is doubt.
“One of the issues this report highlights is that having Statistics NZ involved does not mean that analysis will be any more robust. This is because statisticians are not usually ecologists or freshwater scientists so can only analyse the numbers they are given. They have no way of knowing whether numbers they are presented with are meaningful or not. Some of the measures used reveal this lack of understanding.”
On the Atmosphere and Climate domain section:

Prof James Renwick, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“This report is a good contribution to publicly-available information on the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. As the Secretary said in the media release, this is a “candid view”, which I applaud. The atmosphere and climate domain statistics are not surprising but perhaps some are not well known in the wider community.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions have risen 42% since 1990, despite our clean green image and the claim that we are doing our “fair share” around emissions reductions. Temperatures have risen nearly a degree over New Zealand in the past century, our glaciers are melting away and local sea levels are rising steadily, in line with global changes.

“The report is also a timely reminder that skin cancer is a real risk in New Zealand, and although we have had years of public information campaigns we have yet to see a decreasing trend in occurrence.”

Prof Renwick contributed to the Technical Advisory Group for this section and acted as a peer-reviewer for the report.

Dr Nicolas Cullen, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Otago, comments:

“The statistics used in the Atmosphere and Climate section are useful from a national reporting standpoint and are not surprising.”

On the Air domain section:

Dr Guy Coulson, Air Quality Scientist, NIWA, comments:

“At first glance the air quality section looks OK. The numbers are reasonable.

“Because the Air Domain Report was published last year there is nothing unexpected. The “good news” message is much the same as last year and is largely accurate if perhaps a little overstated.”

Dr Coulson notes that his group was involved in producing many of the indicators being used for Air domain section.

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