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Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton (Radio NZ)
Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton (Radio NZ)

ScienceNovember 7, 2019

Cheat sheet: NZ’s environmental reporting is falling short

Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton (Radio NZ)
Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton (Radio NZ)

The outspoken parliamentary commissioner for the environment has released a tough new report about the lack of good environmental data. So why does that matter? 

What’s all this then?

We don’t know what we don’t know, and when it comes to the environment, that’s a problem. So now the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Simon Upton has released a report about reports.

And what does the report about reports say? 

Basically it all comes back to the Environmental Reporting Act of 2015. It requires the publication of six-monthly reports from the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Statistics, across five environmental domains, and was designed to provide authoritative and independent information about the state of the environment. Ministers at the time Nick Smith and Craig Foss said it would strengthen New Zealand’s ‘clean, green brand’, and allowed New Zealand to join the rest of the OECD in having a statutory requirement for reporting on the state of the environment.

How has that gone since?

According to PCE Simon Upton, not well. There are “huge gaps in environmental data” which, in a rhetorical flourish on the FAQ page about the report, “bedevil our understanding” of how well things are going. He also criticised that the Environmental Reporting Act didn’t have a clear focus or purpose, and that the reporting system had been designed to “make do” with whatever data happened to be available, rather than proactively going out and getting necessary data.

What does this mean in practice?

The example given by Upton is around land use and land cover. The last nationwide survey was undertaken in 2012, which if you follow these things is a hell of a long time. For example in that space of time, there has been some evidence of towns and cities encroaching on rural land, and some evidence of farms being sold up for forestry. But how much has it happened in the last decade? We don’t know, because “New Zealand has no robust, comprehensive and nationally representative land use map, let alone one that is regularly updated. Current estimates have been cobbled together from a variety of sources and proxies.”

And what does Upton want done about it?

First of all, he wants the Environmental Reporting Act to be amended. Within that, Upton wants to see a permanent science advisory panel created to provide advice to the secretary for the environment and change the nature of some of the reports and commentaries that get produced. On a more substantive note for the report itself, he wants to see the process of gathering up data for environmental reports made proactive. Outside of those amendments, Upton wants to see a national strategy to go about actually filling in the current gaps in the data.

That doesn’t sound like the most difficult thing in the world to accomplish.

Getting the data properly should certainly be easier than figuring out what to do after that.

What are the experts saying?

Science commentators have welcomed the report. Dr Andrea Byron, the co-director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, said she hoped it would be a “watershed moment” for environmental monitoring. “Amongst the many excellent comments and recommendations made, there is a clear call for a set of core environmental indicators, and for a more flexible and adaptive reporting structure that focuses on emerging issues.”

Professor Richard McDowell, the chief scientist for Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, said expanding the reports to include drivers of change would better inform the public. “Current reports have highlighted issues but left people wondering what could be done or is being done to fix them, so I welcome the suggestion that the Minister for the Environment be required to respond to report findings.”

And NIWA’s chief freshwater scientist Dr Scott Larned gave a complicated response, specifically around the collection of data, though he opened by saying NIWA “generally agree with the recommendations in the report.” However, he suggested that the idea that there was insufficient environmental data was something of a truism because there could always be more and better data. On the question of using networks as representatives of wider pictures, he said: “new, fit-for-purpose monitoring networks would probably be prohibitively expensive to operate, so we need to get the best information possible from existing networks.”

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