Environment New Zealand 2007 – Must Try Harder?

Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell reviews the Government’s recent 10-year progress report on the environment. He concludes that a more courageous approach would have served the environment better.

Up, Up, Up  

  • New Zealand’s population – up 11% (1996-2006)
  • Household consumption – up 39% (1997-2006)
  • Gross domestic product – up 30% (1997-2006)
  • New Zealand’s ecological footprint – up 15.4% (1998-2004)
  • Average number of vehicles per household – up 13% (from 1.6 per household to 1.8, 1998-2004)
  • Number of people using public transport – up 45% (1999-2006)
  • Number of people travelling to or from New Zealand (almost all by air) – up 83% (1995-2005)
  • Number of diesel-fuelled vehicles – up 39% (2001-2006)
  • Total consumer energy demand – up 21% (1995-2005)
  • Amount of energy supplied by coal – up 100% (1995-2005)
  • Number of wind farms – up from one (plus one turbine) in 1997 to eight in 2007
  • Total greenhouse gas emissions – up 25% (1990-2005)
  • CO2 emissions – up 41% (1990-2005)
  • CO2 removed from the atmosphere by forest sinks – up 29% (1990-2005)
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture – up 15% (1990-2005)
  • Land area developed as human settlements – up 3% (1997-2002)
  • Number of dairy cows – up 24% (1996-2006)
  • Amount of water allocated – up 50% (1999-2006)
  • Total area of land being irrigated – up 52% (1999-2006)
  • Value of fish in the quota management system – up 40% (1996-2006)
  • Number of marine species listed as acutely or chronically threatened or at risk – up 30 (2005)
  • Total area designated as marine reserve – up from 7602 square kilometres in 1997 to 12,764 square km in 2007 (but 99% of this is in two off-shore reserves)
  • Total area of public conservation land – up 4.56% (2004-2007)
  • Private land under legal protection – up 51% (2004-2006)
  • Area targeted for possum control by DOC – up 60% (2000-2006)

    Down, down, down

  • Range of kiwi – reduced about 20% (1970s-2007)
  • Range of kokako – reduced 90% (1970s-2007)
  • Solid waste disposed in landfills – down from 3.180 million tonnes in 1995 to 3.156 million tonnes in 2006
  • Number of landfills – down from 327 in 1995 to 60 in 2007
  • Native forest and vegetation – down 0.15% (1997-2002)
  • Erosion-prone hill country in use as pasture – down 3.09% (1997-2002)

    source – Environment New Zealand 2007 – Ministry for the Environment)

The Government’s major “State of the Environment” report issued earlier this year opens with the statement: “People who make decisions about the environment need accurate information.”

Indeed they do. Interesting, then, that the phonebook-sized report delivers little information that allows the public to understand exactly how our key environmental indicators have changed in the 10 years since the last report was published.

Are we doing better or worse than we were 10 years ago? Is our air any cleaner, our rivers any less polluted, our forests less infested by pests? Do we have more – or fewer – native birds in our forests or fish in our seas? How are our kiwi doing? Or our blue duck, our kakapo, our Maui’s dolphins? Are we looking after these natural treasures any better than we were a decade ago?

Reading the report’s 455 pages, it is not always easy to tell. Despite providing an enormous mountain of figures, in many places the report appears to go to an awful lot of trouble to avoid comparing the 2007 picture with the last report in 1997, where such comparisons would not look good. It did have plenty of excuses about why such comparisons are not possible for many key indicators. What was that about the need for accurate information again?

But even allowing for the lack of comparisons on which to measure progress, and dodging the many “fact boxes” containing feel-good stories applauding various Government initiatives, the report still makes disturbing reading.

For example, of the seven native species designated as “core national indicators” by which native biodiversity is measured (lesser short-tailed bat, kiwi, kaka, kokako, mohua, wrybill and dactylanthus or woodrose), all have experienced reduction in range since the 1970s.

“Both the North and South Island sub-species of Hector’s dolphin are acutely threatened,” the report states. Elsewhere it notes that “the largest single pressure on the marine environment in New Zealand is fishing.” Might these two points, by any chance, be connected?

Such a softly-spoken report shields the reader (if anyone actually made it to page 317) from the rather harsher reality that there are just 111 individuals remaining of the North Island sub-species, Maui’s dolphin, and it is listed as critically endangered, at immediate risk of extinction. The biggest threat to the dolphins is entanglement and drowning in set nets.

This somewhat timid approach, and reluctance to join the obvious dots, lest they lead to anyone actually being held accountable or forced to act, is not helping our environment. To set targets to improve performance we need benchmarks against which we can assess progress. If we don’t know if things are getting better or worse, how do we know whether or not we are doing the right thing – or whether we should try something different?

The report does not draw any conclusions, or make any recommendations for action. How can we do better? What should we improve on, and what is the best way to do it? On this the ministries and departments are silent.

The report could have been so much: a benchmark against which to measure future progress, and a signpost to show the way forward. Our environment
deserves nothing less.