New Zealand’s central government last month passed legislation that will rectify a yawning chasm in the nation’s environmental reporting. The Environmental Reporting Act 2015 commits the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics to publish a report every six months on one of five specified environmental domains – air, freshwater, land, marine, and atmosphere and climate. It will be the first comprehensive national data published since 2007.

According to NZ’s Environmental Defence Society there was scope to be “cautiously optimistic” about the move.

EDS senior policy analyst Dr Marie Brown said that while the country has long traded on its clean, green brand, there had been no legislated requirement to back the claims up with comprehensive data on the state of crucial environmental indicators.

It was actually the only OECD nation not undertaking such reporting on a mandatory basis, Dr Brown  told The Fifth Estate this week.

In the immediate future, Statistics NZ and the ministry will publish a pilot Environment Aotearoa 2015 based on the new framework on 21 October this year.

The cycle will then commence with a report on freshwater in mid-2016, and a synthesis report, with analysis of air, freshwater, land, marine, atmosphere and climate trends and interactions, will be published every three years.

“The new Environmental Reporting Act will back up our clean, green brand with authoritative and independent information on the state of our environment. It will tell us where we match up, where we don’t and give regular updates so that we can track long-term changes,” NZ environment minister Nick Smith said.

Reaction from the EDS

Dr Brown said the legislation was a welcomed move and signalled some optimism, especially in terms of the opportunity for better transparency.

“[We] have not been particularly good at monitoring or managing our environment, and those pigeons are now coming home to roost, in terms of our water quality for example,” she said.

Dr Brown said there were major issues with the 2007 report including a whole chapter that was “misplaced” because it “said some inconvenient things”.

She said public awareness of the 2007 report’s deficiencies and the political nature of its analysis has meant that quite aside from missing out on important data, “the public had a lack of trust in environmental reporting.”

“About the same time, the OECD got stuck into us and said everyone else does environmental reporting – you trade on a clean green image but there’s no legal requirement to back that up with data on a national scale,” she said.

The new framework where Statistics NZ manages the analysis and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has right of review on the reports, Dr Brown hopes will address the public trust issue.

She still has concerns about the quality of data that maybe available, and said there needs to be a clear commitment to ensuring critical gaps in monitoring and measurement are addressed over time.

“There has been very limited investment in data for all this time,” Dr Brown said.

“We are still in the situation of not having decent monitoring framework and resources directed to agencies to do it.

“The devil in environmental reporting is in the detail – what will we measure? How often will we measure it? And what will that tell us?”

Dr Brown said at this stage EDS was not aware of what the specific granular indicators will be for reporting on the key domains, nor what data will populate the initial analyses to be released this month.

“The [initial] synthesis report will come down to what data they can gather,” she said.

One environmental indicator that is not being specifically addressed is biodiversity. Dr Brown recently completed a book for EDS – Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. One of the recommendations she made in the book is that there be mandatory, high-level national reporting on the state of biodiversity.

Part of the problem was that many people did not know how bad things were. “It’s hard to care about things you don’t know about,” she said.

EDS will will be watching closely how data is reported, analysed and presented.

A major concern will be the way that biodiversity is handled.

How it will work

The new law reflected the increased importance New Zealanders placed on the country’s natural wealth, according to Statistics minister Craig Foss.

Statistics NZ will determine which statistics will meet the high quality standards required.

Government Statistician Liz MacPherson said a key feature of the new framework was the legal independence guaranteed by her role, and auditing and oversight by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright.

The  Environment Aotearoa 2015 report and the underpinning website Environmental indicators Te taiao Aotearoa will be the first  comprehensive national environmental overview since 2007.

Statistics New Zealand senior manager – customer policy & research, Michele Lloyd, said much of the data in this month’s report was already publicly available,  and was supplied by regional councils and crown agencies, such as the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the NZ Transport Agency. It has also involved academics as sources and peer reviewers, including the University of Otago with its  biodiversity data improvement initiatives.

The government said that each of the domain reports and the synthesis reports will be structured with a framework incorporating three main types of information:

  • Pressures – the human activities and natural factors that influence the environment.
  • States – the biophysical condition of the environment, what are the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of that domain and how have they varied over time?
  • Impacts – what the state and changes in the state means; what are the consequences of changes in the state for New Zealand’s environment, economy and society?

“The objective of this new Environmental Reporting Act is to reduce the debate over where New Zealand has environmental problems and to help focus the government, councils and communities on finding long-term, sustainable solutions,” Dr Smith said.

Ms Lloyd said the reports will provide an accurate picture of NZ’s environment to international visitors and export markets.

“The evidence in the report will help business and local government (and other sectors) identify how our activities affect the environment and help them make informed choices about how we manage or use our natural resources. For example, a report might highlight trends in an aspect of soil health, which could be addressed by changes in strategic planning for businesses or regional councils,” she said.

Dr Brown said EDS will be watching the source of the data reported upon closely, how it has been analysed and presented and whether identified gaps in availability and quality are addressed over time.

She said she hopes that biodiversity will be addressed within the analysis of each of the specified domains.

“We’ll see. We’ll look at the veracity of the analysis. It will be subject to a lot of hopefully constructive critique, because a lot of us have been waiting a long time for this,” Dr Brown said.

“The intentions will be obvious in the report.”

Ms Lloyd said Statistics NZ will working with data collectors and government funding agencies to help improve national environmental data for future reporting.

“We continue to work with organisations like regional councils to improve the information they already collect. More statistics reflecting te ao Maori (the Maori world view) will [also] be included in future reports,” Ms Lloyd said.

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