Environment Commissioner Simon Upton called last week for concerted action to improve New Zealand’s stewardship of its environment, saying huge gaps in our data & knowledge were undermining it.
Mr Upton was a National MP for 20 years (1981-2001), Environment Minister for 9 years, completing the Resource Management Act’s path into law in 1991, was Health Minister for 2 years and was also Minister for Research, Science & Technology, responsible for establishing the Crown research institutes. He was appointed Environment Commissioner in November 2017.
In a 100-page report, Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand’s environmental reporting system, he has critiqued the approach to reporting set up under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015 and outlined steps he said the Government needed to take to improve the system.
He said data gaps, along with inconsistent data collection & analysis, made it hard to construct a clear national picture of the state of our environment, and whether it’s getting better or worse.
“Huge gaps in environmental data & knowledge bedevil our understanding. This is in stark contrast with our economy, where we are much more reliably informed. In addition, the entire system is fragmented – multiple pieces of legislation create a mosaic of requirements with unclear responsibilities across organisations.”
The commissioner has a statutory role to comment on the reports produced under the Environmental Reporting Act, and Mr Upton said completion of the first full cycle of reports in April provided a timely opportunity to review the entire system in detail and recommend improvements: “To say we have designed a national reporting system would be to overstate its coherence. Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what’s missing. In my judgment what there is, is clearly inadequate.
“New Zealand lacks consistent, authoritative time-series data & comprehensive spatial coverage. For example, the last national survey of land cover was taken in 2012 – how can policymakers make decisions using 7-year-old data?
“Every year we delay the collection of data identified as a significant gap, we commit New Zealand to flying blind in that area.”
Mr Upton said a lack of time series for some environmental pressure points could be costing us in the form of poorly designed policies or irreversible damage: “Further, the costs are not just environmental – they have real consequences for the economy, society & our wellbeing.
“We can’t make economically efficient or socially fair environmental rules if we can’t measure authoritatively what’s happening to the physical resource base on which our wellbeing ultimately depends.”
He congratulated the Ministry for the Environment & Statistics NZ, which produce the reports, for significant improvements to reporting since the act’s introduction. He said he was not calling for an overhaul of the system, rather, building on those efforts.
Specifically, he has made these recommendations to amend the Environmental Reporting Act:
- adding a clearer purpose
- establishing a standing science advisory panel
- developing core environmental indicators to form the backbone of reporting
- focusing the system on what matters – retaining state of the environment reports and replacing domain reports with flexible, theme-based commentaries
- requiring a formal response from the Government to state of the environment reports.
Mr Upton also recommended adjusting the roles of the Government Statistician & the Secretary for the Environment.
To improve the evidence base underpinning the environmental reporting system, he has recommended developing a comprehensive, nationally co-ordinated environmental monitoring system, and called for a mandated strategy to prioritise & incrementally fill data gaps.
Mr Upton said serious investment was required to improve data & knowledge gaps, but cautioned that investment must be focused on what matters most.
“Any efforts to prioritise require expertise – one of the reasons I recommend a standing science advisory panel. I recommend that the Ministers of Finance, Environment & Statistics determine the investment required to deliver the recommended improvements over a period of years.
“I am confident we can evolve from the current treadmill of reporting – based on the largely passive harvest of data we happen to have – to reports & commentaries that draw on comprehensive time-series data to identify meaningful trends and help focus our stewardship of the environment in the right places.”
7 November 2019: Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand’s environmental reporting system
Attribution: Commissioner’s release.