Comment: How can we get past arguments about whether things are better, worse or broadly stable with environmental policies - if no-one has the data one way or the other? asks Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor, Elizabeth McGruddy.

The criticisms of the state of New Zealand's environmental information keep coming.

In September, the Auditor-General reported to Parliament his concern that there is not enough information on water quality at a national level to prioritise efforts: "…decision makers do not have the information they need to prepare a national approach or long term strategy".

His staff were unable to obtain a detailed national picture of state and trends, notwithstanding that the Ministry for the Environment and StatisticsNZ had published Environment Aotearoa 2019 just a few months before.

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Earlier this month the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) voiced similar concerns about the state of the underlying evidence base: "…the absence of comprehensive and authoritative environmental data stands in the way of making good links between the state of the environment and wellbeing".

He also said the "blind spots" in our environmental reporting system mean we are "flying blind", which could be "costing us dearly in terms of poorly designed policies"

Last week the Resource Management Review Panel joined the fray, bemoaning the insufficiency of information on the state of the environment and on the performance of the resource management system:

"This poor evidence base, and lack of use of the data that does exist, affects the ability to make robust decisions, and to improve the performance of the system".

This is damning commentary.

It comes at a time when central government is hell-bent on improving the environment.

But apparently without the evidence base to prioritise where improvements are needed and how best to achieve them.

In the absence of authoritative evidence, the default position is often to rely on slogans.

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The Essential Freshwater package was predicated on the belief that "freshwater quality has deteriorated seriously over recent decades".

The upcoming NZ Biodiversity Strategy is predicated on the belief that "biodiversity continues to decline".

The upcoming review of the RMA (Resource Management Act) proceeds from the assumption that "New Zealand's natural environment is now significantly more degraded than it was when the RMA was developed in 1991".

If these statements are true, they are also damning. But if everyone agrees on the paucity of evidence, what evidence do they rely on?

Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor, Elizabeth McGruddy. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor, Elizabeth McGruddy. Photo / Supplied

The answers are not to be found in the Essential Freshwater discussion document from MfE, nor in the Biodiversity Strategy discussion document from DOC, nor in the Issues and Options paper from the Resource Management Review Panel (RMRP). Instead they all start and stop with one-liners telling us everything is going backwards.

That seems to leave us in an impasse. How can we get past arguments about whether things are better, worse or broadly stable if no-one has the data one way or the other?

More importantly, how can we craft good policy and prioritise investments if we don't have that data?

Part of the answer lies in the PCE recommendation to prioritise the data gaps and put serious investment into bridging them.

And part of the answer comes from the Resource Management Review Panel, who point to lack of use of the data that does exist.

For example, a wealth of data can be found in the data tables behind Environment Aotearoa 2019.

On the biodiversity front, these data tables show that from just under 8000 native species whose conservation status is known, just under 99 per cent had no change in conservation status recorded in the most recent 15 year period, 0.3 per cent recorded improved status, and 1 per cent recorded worse status.

That 1 per cent should be to the forefront in the upcoming Biodiversity Strategy.

Other data tables show that from a total area in indigenous land cover in excess of 10 million hectares, the most recent data (2008-2012) showed a reduction of 0.2 per cent.

That 0.2 per cent should also be to the forefront in the upcoming Biodiversity Strategy.

Even better, let's not develop a Biodiversity Strategy based on data that is seven years old.

That would play straight to the PCE criticism of merely cobbling together what is handy, and not prioritising what is needed.

Our national ambitions and strategies should and must be based on a much higher level of authoritative data, not one-line slogans.

Otherwise the greatest risk to the Wellbeing Framework and Ministers aspirations for environmental improvements is not "out there", but much closer to home with those

Ministries and advisory groups who acknowledge the gaps, but then default to the slogans to justify the solutions.