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Science Alert: Experts Respond

State of the Environment report – Expert reaction

Posted in Science Alert: Experts Respond on October 21st, 2015.

The Government today launched a new environmental report – Environment Aotearoa 2015 – showing the overall state of our environment.

MfE ReportThe document, jointly released by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, is the first ‘State of the Environment’ report since 2007.

Environment Aotearoa 2015 focuses on five areas or ‘domains’– air, atmosphere and climate, fresh water, land, and marine — only including statistics that could be considered accurate and reliable.

The report highlighted some  areas of concern including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of farming on water and soil quality.

However, there were also areas of improvement, such as decreased carbon monoxide emissions from transport and a decline in overfishing and bycatch of protected species.

The full report and accompanying press information is available on the Statistics New Zealand website. The report is also accompanied by an interactive website allowing New Zealanders to explore the data behind the statistics.

Further media releases: Forest & Bird, Landcare Research, Parliamentary Commissioner for the EnvironmentConservation Minister Maggie Barry, Waikato Regional Council, Labour Party, Green Party, Sustainable Business Council & Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith and Statistics Minister Craig Foss.

The below infographic gives an at-a-glance summary of some of the data covered in the new report (click to enlarge)

new-zealands-environment-at-a-glance

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary on the report.

Dr April Bennett, Lecturer – Maori Environmental & Resource Planning, Massey University comments:

“I think if I were to say one thing about the report it would be that it acknowledges that tangata whenua are kaitiaki and then raises a number of red flags that will probably confirm for those kaitiaki that their environment is not in good shape and in some respects is getting worse.

“Having taken only a very quick look at the report, it seems there are 3 main areas of concern: 1) the threat of extinction across the marine environment and the increasing acidity of our oceans; 2) climate change, and the potential effects on Maori communities, including marae and land-based businesses; and 3) increasing nitrogen levels in rivers as a result of dairy farming expansion and intensification.

“The responsibility of kaitiaki is to safeguard the environment for future generations, to hand on a legacy that is the same, if not better than the one that current generations experience.  Notwithstanding the difficulties that kaitiaki face in exercising their duties beyond a local scale, the report sends a serious and worrying message that things are not good, and that we are very much in danger of failing to hand on the taonga that we have been entrusted to care for.”

Prof Martin Manning, Climate Change Research Institute, School of Geography Environment and Earth Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, comments on the Climate and Atmosphere section:

“I think that the section of the report covering climate change issues was quite limited in scope. While vulnerability to extreme events is being covered in the context of water and land, the increasing evidence for New Zealand’s coastal vulnerability to storm events is not covered. For example, recent storm damage has led to the Wellington – Lower Hutt railway line being taken out for several days and to coastal erosion in Island Bay now becoming a major issue for Wellington City Council to deal with.

“While a scientific attribution of such extreme events being caused by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations is still not clear, from a risk management perspective the apparent trends are important.”

Dr Ronlyn Duncan, Lecturer in Water Management, Department of Environmental Management, Lincoln University, comments:

“Although the report represents a picture of freshwater that is well known, the collation of long-term data and its analysis does provide some useful information to feed back into policy and management. For example, it would appear that interventions to better manage effluent and address bank erosion are slowing down phosphorus getting into rivers. However, I think more explanation beyond monitored river types is needed to explain why NIWA results show a worsening trend in this respect while regional council data shows an improvement.

“I would have expected more consistency with the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, for example, using all of the same units of measurement. Using milligrams per cubic metre as a measure for Nitrate-Nitrogen (in the SOE) rather than milligrams per litre (in the NPS) could lead to confusion.

“I would have liked to have seen more explanation about the frequency of sampling not just the number of sites as well as more disclosure about how data sets have been standardised across the many jurisdictions given how variable data collection methods and reporting can be. How have the many complex issues been overcome to build a national picture?

“Mentioned only twice in the entire report, drinking water is a gaping hole in the freshwater chapter. The chapter repeatedly states that freshwater is vital to the economy and sets out in detail how freshwater supports the economy, recreation, Maori well-being and identity, and aquatic biodiversity. Undoubtedly, but it is also vital for and supports human life. What does the analysis explicitly tell us about our drinking water? – very little.”

Dr Bethanna Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Victoria University, comments:

“Overall think the report is a good summary of the issues for the general public/non-scientists.

“I saw no surprises -and the statistics look OK – as useful as they could be expected to be given the underlying data is pretty sparse/aggregated and we don’t have much baseline information.  The report does a fairly good job of pointing out these shortcomings.

“I thought overall the coverage of the nutrient and erosion issues in both the land and water was very competent and again very well described for a general audience while maintaining most key points.

“I was a bit concerned by the land section under-stressing the importance of irrigation and other managements practices leading to phosphorous, and even more importantly, nitrogen loss. It focused almost completely on nutrient input, and the key message seems that ‘we apply more nutrients to the land than grass and other plants can use’

“Simple is good, but I thought perhaps this is over-simplified, and a slightly dangerous message. Too much irrigation (or rain) to an appropriate amount of nutrients will cause leaching before the vegetation can take it up, for example. A lot of the issues around export of nitrogen and phosphorous to waterways are to do with how the water and sediment the nutrients are bound to move in the system, rather than just the input loads. On-farm management and policy around allowed nutrient losses from farms are often as or more concerned with managing to minimize loss or water and sediment rather than minimizing input.

“The information in the freshwater sections is “more correct” in my view, including discussion of the importance of the sediments and water movement as well as input to land – it’s just not in my opinion that well linked through to the land section. So the land section read as a standalone might give the over-simplified message. Minor issue, but just possible it might be picked up by someone and challenged, and/or lead to some readers going away with a misinterpretation.”

Previously gathered comment  on the report

On the overall report:

Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society, comments:

“We welcome Environment Aotearoa 2015, the first mandatory report on the state of the New Zealand environment. This reporting has been needed for many years and expectations will be high. Mandatory environmental reporting provides clear and consistent information on the state and trends related to environmental indicators to help inform policy and management. It brings New Zealand in line with all the other members of the OECD and provides a catalyst to improve monitoring and reporting on the environment, an area in which we have traditionally performed poorly.

“At 131 pages it is a lengthy offering and will take time to digest. EDS will publish its thoughts in due course after detailed consideration. Of key concern to EDS as previously signalled, will be the selection of indicators, whether appropriate data is available but not drawn on, how data gaps are identified and (most importantly) how those gaps are addressed over time.

“The report notes that it is purposely separate from policy development. This is sensible and appropriate. However, disconnect in practice would be disappointing. The real acid test of national environmental reporting is of course how effectively it is taken up into the policy space. From an initial review, it would seem that there are many useful nuggets of information that should prompt policy innovation.

“Ample justification in the figures exists for strong and effective environmental bottom lines for freshwater management, robustly addressing our carbon emissions, investing in the protection of indigenous biodiversity through protection, management and restoration. All of these rely on multi-stakeholder commitment, and Environment Aotearoa 2015 would be most effective if it strengthens resolve to kick these aims along and ensure they deliver for our environment.

“Earlier this year, we released Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. In it we noted that the power of private interests have effectively constrained environmental protection attempts. The results of this lost contest are clearly demonstrated in land, freshwater and marine data presented. In-progress policy moves such as the development of a strategic framework for marine protected areas, implementation of farming within limits and bolstering of environmental monitoring by regional councils and other agencies are all vital to turning this tide.

“Further work is needed in boosting the funding of the Department of Conservation and our environmental sciences in general, introducing clear and effective legislation to protect threatened species and ecosystems and in curtailing the still significant loss of habitat that is occurring across the landscape, such as the loss of tussock grasslands, lowland forest and wetlands. For much of our natural heritage, there’s little time to waste and mandatory environmental reporting has the potential to provide a strong platform to prompt necessary action.”

On the Fresh Water domain section:

Dr Joanne Clapcott, Freshwater Ecologist – River Health and Ecosystems, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“I will say that my involvement in the freshwater component of the MfE State of the Environment report has been very positive. I commend the ratification of the Environmental Reporting Bill and the subsequent Environmental Reporting process. In this instance, I think MfE have used the best available data and have analysed it appropriately.

“The message is not new but it is very clear – NZ rivers and streams continue to be negatively impacted by agricultural intensity.”

Dr Clapcott contributed to the Technical Advisory Group for this section

On the Atmosphere and Climate domain section:

Prof James Renwick, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“This report is a good contribution to publicly-available information on the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. As the Secretary said in the media release, this is a “candid view”, which I applaud. The atmosphere and climate domain statistics are not surprising but perhaps some are not well known in the wider community.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions have risen 42% since 1990, despite our clean green image and the claim that we are doing our “fair share” around emissions reductions. Temperatures have risen nearly a degree over New Zealand in the past century, our glaciers are melting away and local sea levels are rising steadily, in line with global changes.

“The report is also a timely reminder that skin cancer is a real risk in New Zealand, and although we have had years of public information campaigns we have yet to see a decreasing trend in occurrence.”

Prof Renwick contributed to the Technical Advisory Group for this section and acted as a peer-reviewer for the report.

Dr Nicolas Cullen, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, University of Otago, comments:

“The statistics used in the Atmosphere and Climate section are useful from a national reporting standpoint and are not surprising.

“A few other points to note:

1.       The definition of climate on pg. 39 is not consistent with definitions used by agencies such as the IPCC.  Defining climate as “the pattern in variables” could lead to confusion.

2.       The explanation as to why UV levels in NZ are 40 percent greater than comparable latitudes in Europe is not very strong (pg. 43), especially as it is pointed out that average ozone over New Zealand is higher than the global average (pg. 47).  It is noted that “ozone concentrations over New Zealand are similar to other places around the world at similar latitudes” (pg. 47).  The explanation for high UV is given as “this is partly due to Earth’s orbit bringing the Southern Hemisphere closer to the sun in summer. Air clarity or the effects of cloud also affect our UV levels” (pg. 43).  Given the emphasis on UV in this chapter, a more detailed explanation for the high UV levels in NZ would have been of interest to readers.”

On the Fresh Water domain section:

Dr Mike Joy, Senior Lecturer; Environmental Science/Ecology, Massey University comments:

“I have only had time for a cursory look at the freshwater section of the report, and while it is great to finally see a state of the environment report I am slightly disappointed to see that little has been learned from the past. Once again there is a clear lack of honest reporting and more gilding the lily, and more obfuscation although possibly less so than some of the recent Ministry for The Environment and Regional Council reports. I think that honest environmental reporting is a crucial part of democracy, and so having an organisation effectively reporting on its own performance inadvertently means that there is doubt.

“One of the issues this report highlights is that having Statistics NZ involved does not mean that analysis will be any more robust. This is because statisticians are not usually ecologists or freshwater scientists so can only analyse the numbers they are given. They have no way of knowing whether numbers they are presented with are meaningful or not. Some of the measures used reveal this lack of understanding.

“In the past I have continually brought up the issue of combining control and impact site data but once again this basic error was made which nullifies most of the freshwater trend results presented.

“I have highlighted some initial observations below:

“Averaging results over control and impact sites:

  • Most of the data presented come from the National River Water Quality Network (NRWQN) consisting of data from 77 sites on 35 rivers around New Zealand.   The crucial point here is that there are roughly equal numbers of control and impact sites. From the NIWA web page – “On most rivers there are two or more sites representing an upstream ‘Baseline’ site (lightly impacted) and a downstream ‘Impact’ site (reflecting the impacts of humans on water quality).” Thus, not separating out these control and impact sites when reporting on the state of the environment makes no sense, and means the important association between landuse/management and water quality is obscured.
  • The control and impact or baseline and impact sites should be reported separately, for example when 60% of sites show a significant increase in Nitrate-nitrogen, is this 100% of the impact sites and a 10% of control sites? Without knowing this it is impossible to make meaningful conclusions.
  • By combining control and impact sites the claimed improvement in phosphorus disguises the fact that phosphorus is improving at control sites as well so there is no real improvement at impact (downstream) sites

Irrelevant/ unsuitable measures

  • Water clarity is a proxy for sediment effects on waterways, but the much more significant impact ecologically and geomorphologically is deposited sediment.   Once monthly samples of water clarity miss this completely. We all know that when it rains and rivers rise clarity goes down so if the day after the sample it rains it will be missed making this measure very random and because it misses the crucial build-up of sediment on rivers beds.
  • Ammonia is associated with point source mostly wastewater treatment plant discharges and if the sample site is not downstream close by then this is not relevant. Thus this is not a suitable measure to use with NRWQN, it should be used only with sites related to point source discharges.
  • Nitrogen toxicity in the report it – “less than 1% of monitored river sites have nitrogen levels high enough to affect fish” This refers to nitrogen toxicity but this measure is irrelevant in the real world. These nitrogen toxicity limits are obtained in laboratories where all other parameters like oxygen and were held at safe and constant levels while nitrogen was added. In reality as waterways become more nutrient rich oxygen levels become more variable as the plants respire, so at levels of nitrogen way lower than toxic levels the fish are harmed by low oxygen. Thus, the toxicity levels are a red herring except in extreme cases where there is no light or temperatures are too cold for algae to proliferate and should not be referred to as they make water quality issues seem less than what they actually are.”
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