WWF Report assesses NZ’s enviromental record – experts respond

New Zealand’s performance over the 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit across a range of environmental commitments is rated in a new report — released today by conservation organisation WWF.

In 1992, government representatives from 172 countries participated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, to discuss environmental issues and chart a way forward for nations to act on issues such as climate change.

Now, 20 years on, the WWF has compiled a report examining the commitments New Zealand made at the conference, and the current reality.

The full report and a media release are available on the WWF website.

The SMC approached experts in biodiversity, greenhouse gases, fisheries, water quality and sustainability education for their comments on the report, and has received a wide range of responses.

Expert commentary is broken down by the chapters in the report, linked below.



Dr James Renwick, principal climate scientist, NIWA, comments:

“The report notes, quite rightly, that New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have climbed significantly since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. Like most nations on earth, we have talked the talk but we have yet to really walk the walk. Instead of tackling the problem, we have squandered the last 20 years and are now in a very difficult position, as a global community. To have any chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees (as promised in Copenhagen and elsewhere), developed countries need to achieve 50% reductions in emissions this decade, and 80-90% by 2050. New Zealand is more well-placed than most countries to achieve this, which represents a massive opportunity for New Zealand businesses and industry. Failure to act is likely to commit the globe to a climate not seen for millions of years, with grave consequences for global food production and economic stability.”

Euan Mason, Associate Professor, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The WWF has used a report from January 2009 to represent projections of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through to 2012, and suggests in the graph on page 9 that our net position is worse than in 1990. However, a new projection in April 2009 took New Zealand’s net position compared to 1990 from a deficit of 21.7 M tonnes of CO2e during 2008-2012 to a surplus of 9.6 M tonnes, and in April 2012 the surplus was projected to be 23.1 M tonnes of CO2e (see here). The chapter on GHG emissions focuses too strongly on gross emissions, and while it is true that our gross emissions have accelerated with our population, sequestration of CO2 by forests planted since 1989 has apparently enabled us to meet our Kyoto commitment to set our net emissions during 2008-2012 to 1990 levels.

“The WWF report is correct in suggesting that we may have a large deficit in net emissions compared to 1990 during the 2020s, but only if new tree planting remains modest (it has been at extremely low levels since 2000) and forests planted during the 1990s are harvested on schedule for wood production. Our emissions trading scheme (ETS) has resulted in less deforestation and a modest acceleration in tree planting, but afforestation rates need to be much higher or we shall have to find other ways to reduce our net GHG emissions to avoid the looming 2020s deficit. This is a serious environmental issue and potentially a large financial problem for New Zealand.

“In my opinion New Zealand could become GHG neutral for 60+ years by planting about 2.5 M hectares of our eroding lands in radiata pine (our total land area is 27 M hectares), and a focus on gross emissions misses this opportunity. If these carbon forests were not harvested, then they would mostly revert to native forest over the course of a couple of centuries. The ETS would have to be changed and people would have to be supportive for us to achieve it, but we would very likely be the first developed country to be fully GHG neutral. This status would make a major contribution towards solving the problem of climate change, setting an example for other nations to follow. It would also enhance our reputation and very likely our exports. The current ETS allows certified emission reduction (CER) credits, although some of the worst offenders, CFC and N2O hot air units, are to be forbidden soon. CER credits undermine our ETS by lowering the price of New Zealand emission units to the point where true sequestration solutions become unattractive to potential investors. All types of CER credits defy logic and should be outlawed completely.

“In addition, the bias towards certain sectors within the ETS is unhelpful. Farmers need to be convinced firstly that anthropogenic climate change is a real problem, and secondly that many of them would be the primary beneficiaries of a more rational ETS because they own the relatively unproductive farmland on which sequestration can occur. If citizens are unconvinced about climate change or believe the ETS to be irrational or corrupt then the scheme will fail. The afforestation suggestion offers just one, temporary solution, but it would buy us time during which a more rational ETS and a committed populace would generate other ways to reduce not just our net but also our gross GHG emissions.”


Dr Mike Joy, Director, Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modeling, Massey University, and Guest Author for WWF of this chapter, comments:

“Twenty years since Rio coincides with twenty years of the Resource Management Act.  Both promised so much for freshwater health in New Zealand the grim reality revealed in this snapshot report is that the achievement was a long way from the ideals expressed in both documents.  At its heart the failure to legislate the ‘polluter pays principle’ meant that economic gains were made by producing more stuff rather than better stuff.  Effectively a subsidy was given whereby freshwaters were sacrificed for short-term economic gains, and now the cost to society and our clean-green image is becoming obvious.”

“All measures of the state of our freshwaters reveal worsening conditions.  While small gains have been made, the intensification of farming with increased external inputs has meant an overall net loss of freshwater ecosystem health.

“This report should act as a wake-up call for all New Zealanders and hopefully before it is too late public awareness will ensure some strong leadership so that we can halt the decline of biodiversity and ecosystem health and restore our crumbling clean-green image.”

Prof Jenny Webster-Brown, Director, Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, University of Canterbury/Lincoln University, comments:

“Dr Mike Joy’s chapter on water quality is a valid assessment of the freshwater situation for New Zealand, and is based on reliable, factual reviews of NZ river, lake and groundwater monitoring data by NIWA and GNS, as well as his own research on native fish abundance. Although he has interpreted the river water quality monitoring network data somewhat more negatively that did the authors, they too identified a relentless degradation of water quality with respect to some parameters (e.g., nitrogen) over the last 20 yrs. We have been unable to halt the decline in freshwater quality in this country, despite previous commitments and attempts to do so, and Dr Joy notes the health and environmental consequences of this. The prognosis for the future is bleak if we continue down this path, and he supports the development of nationally consistent limits for water take and quality, as recommended by the Land and Water Forum. These limits need to be based on a robust understanding of the systems at risk, and once set, need to be enforced, before we will make headway reducing the effects of excessive water use and diffuse contamination sources on our nation’s freshwater quality.”

Prof David Hamilton, Professor in Lake Restoration at Waikato University comments:

“In the New Zealand chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report ‘Beyond Rio: New Zealand’s Environmental Performance since the original Earth Summit [1992]’, the Chair of WWF-NZ, Dr Morgan Williams, describes the release of the report ‘as a wake up call for New Zealand’ and that ‘we cannot afford another 20 years of inaction’. It is now clear that NZ has to emerge from its slumber and rouse itself to the need to make important decisions that can lead us on a pathway to sustainability – for the sake of our children – and their children. Our track record of protecting indigenous biodiversity is patchy and rather than improving, the report demonstrates that the rate of decline of biodiversity in NZ has increased over the past 20 years. At Rio in 1992, NZ signed on to ‘the conservation of biological diversity’ and at the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation in 2002 it committed to ‘establishing effective legal frameworks’ to prevent water pollution. Neither has been achieved and almost every environmental performance indicator points to deterioration in the NZ environment, particularly in biodiversity across freshwater, marine and terrestrial systems.

“The report describes our native fish communities as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of freshwater ecosystems. Sixty-eight percent of native freshwater fish taxa are now considered to be threatened or at risk of extinction, increasing at a rate of about 2% per year. There is now a real danger that we will look back in 20 years’ time and have borne witness to the loss of at least the 8% of taxa that are already critically endangered, as well as several others. Not since the disappearance of the grayling in the 1920s has a native freshwater fish species become extinct.

“The National Policy Statement in Freshwater Management in 2011 was a useful starting point to work towards a limits-based approach to stop further deterioration of freshwater ecosystems across the country. But rather than the move with haste in its implementation, there is now real danger that momentum will be lost, particularly with its main advocate, Dr Nick Smith, no longer holding the portfolio of Minister for the Environment. ‘Beyond Rio’ leaves us with no doubt that NZ must urgently rectify its broken promises from the 1992 Earth Summit or else become a case study for some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss on the planet in recent times.

“Overall, this report provides a sobering summary of New Zealand’s environmental record over the last 20 years.

Dr Roger Young , Freshwater Ecologist, Cawthron Institute, comments:

“The water quality chapter convincingly portrays a sad picture of the current state and trends in New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystem integrity.

“There is a minor technical issue with one of the figures highlighted in the water quality chapter. My reading of the groundwater quality report that is referred to indicates that 13% of monitored sites show increases in groundwater nitrate levels, not the 39% that is mentioned. Evidence of human influence has, however, been found at 39% of the monitored sites.

“Despite this minor discrepancy, I agree with the general picture that is presented in the water quality chapter. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen increases in the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in many of our rivers, increasing the likelihood of algal and toxic cyanobacterial blooms. In some areas nitrate concentrations are nearing levels that are considered toxic for aquatic life. Faecal indicator bacterial levels are regularly high in many of our lowland rivers, making them unsafe for swimming. Many of our iconic native fish are threatened.

“While some progress has been made on cleaning up industrial and waste water discharges, these gains are being increasingly overshadowed by diffuse runoff from urban and pastoral catchments, which is much more difficult to control.

“It must also be remembered that freshwater, and the contaminants that it contains, flow downstream to our estuaries and coasts. We are not doing a good job of meeting our Rio+10 pledge to ‘make every effort to protect the marine environment from land-based activities’. Only a few regional councils are monitoring the state of our coastal waters. The common perception that river runoff is a mere drop in a large ocean is flawed. We’ve recently found faecal bacteria sourced from cows in mussels collected 6 kilometres off the coast (Cornelisen et al. 2011: New Zealand Journal of Marine & Freshwater Research 45: 477-495).

“Dr Morgan Williams describes this report as a ‘wake up call for New Zealand’. Despite the somewhat pessimistic outlook presented in the report I believe that there has been some ‘waking up’ occurring over the last 5 years in relation to our water quality issues. Some examples of initiatives that give me optimism that things will be better in 20 years time include:

“Recent discussions on water quality, such as the Manawatu Leaders Accord, are becoming focussed on how to fix the problems, rather than if there is a problem and whose fault it is.

“Regional Councils have recently put together a coordinated website on freshwater quality at all their monitoring sites, so everyone now has the opportunity to find out about the health of their local river, or how river health is tracking at a regional or national level. See www.landandwater.co.nz

“In their recent 2nd report, the collaborative Land and Water Forum has emphasised the need for bottom lines/limits to protect the mana and ecological health of our rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and wetlands. They’ve also identified areas of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management that need to be strengthened. I strongly believe that collaborative initiatives like this have the best chance of making a difference.”


Dr Chris Eames, Senior Lecturer, University of Waikato, comments:

“The WWF-New Zealand report on progress in sustainability in this country since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit is a welcome summation of how New Zealand has delivered on promises made at the Summit. It paints an accurate and disappointing picture of the fragmented and inconsistent nature of that progress.

“Education for sustainability is typical of this fragmented and inconsistent progress. As documented in Chapter 3 of the report, at Rio education was seen as a key way forward in addressing sustainability issues. The last 20 years has seen various central and local government agencies draft and enact policies and processes which have enabled education for sustainability to gain some traction in both formal and community education.

“However, as the report states, at the tail end of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, and at a time when sustainability issues appear more urgent than ever, this traction is barely holding its ground. Whilst grass roots education for sustainability is being supported by local government (although this too is under threat from local government reforms), central government has seemed unable and unwilling to provide a consistent response to this area. Some promising initiatives have led to tremendous progress only for this progress to falter before durable changes have become embedded.

“Efforts in the past by agencies such as WWF-NZ and the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education to promote a whole of government response to this dilemma have foundered. In a swing of the pendulum, the recent announcement of a resumption of financial support for the very successful Enviroschools Programme marks an upturn and is very welcome. However, once again it represents the efforts of one sector and addresses part of the problem, rather than its entirety. Long term support for education for sustainability, beginning with teacher education through to all levels of schooling and tertiary learning and out into the community, is required to make a significant and sustainable difference to New Zealand’s future.

“As the WWF-NZ report suggests, support for education for sustainability is a priority for New Zealanders and i hope this report may help to persuade government that it should be a priority for them too.”


Assoc Prof John Craig, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“This WWF Report makes it abundantly clear that the message has not changed – there is a real problem of on-going declines in New Zealand’s native land biodiversity. It suggests there are a few positives such as increases in “protected” land area and an enhanced status of a few species, but as the report states “current approaches are failing”. This is a fair reflection of the situation & is supported by current science.

“The solutions offered in the Report include more of the current approach – more protected areas and more investment in controlling invasive species. No comment on who pays or where the extra investment comes from! The Report also suggests a broader landscape planning outside of protected areas, restoration of healthy ecosystems and integrating with peoples’ sustainable lifestyles. Unfortunately the report fails to say how to achieve this or even hint at the barriers to this occurring.

“What is the current approach that is failing? Land conservation has an underlying ideology that conservation is the role of government and that native biodiversity cannot be allowed to earn its own way. New Zealand’s policies condemn native land biodiversity to being welfare recipients. Tax laws reinforce this by not accepting conservation as a legitimate business expense.

“Who would invest in biodiversity conservation when free entry to government subsidised conservation is available across more than 30% of the landscape? Given this, how will the WWF Reports’ recommendation of broader planning outside protected areas & integration with peoples’ sustainable lifestyles going to happen? Perhaps government will invest in conservation on private lands as happens in some other countries?

“Protected area is a euphemism. Stopping human development was the key issue decades ago but for native land biodiversity just putting a jurisdiction onto land and then abandoning it is wanton neglect. Invasive species are the most important problem and hence conservation land needs active management, not just a categorization. More protected land rarely means better biodiversity outcomes so why is more of it better as suggested in this report?

“New Zealand has a real biodiversity crisis as the Report states and as a country there is a need for serious debate about policies and mechanisms that leads to effective change if there is going to be a more positive WWF Report after the next Earth Summit.”

Assoc. Prof Dianne Brunton, Ecology & Conservation Group, Massey University, comments:

“The section “Biodiversity: Land” contained in the WWF-NZ report “Beyond Rio New Zealand’s Environmental Record since the Original Earth Summit” succinctly summarises progress and failures in attempts to halt the decline in New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity. This section is largely based on Department of Conservation and Ministry of Environment Reports but also incorporates results from a number of peer reviewed scientific papers. The overall message is very clear and supported by well established facts: the outlook for native biodiversity is not good especially within habitats without legal protection. In addition, invasive pests and predators remain an ever present threat to indigenous flora and fauna, particular to endemic species. The nature of these problems has not changed since the 1970’s.

“The report contains a balanced summary on land protection; it points out that land protection has improved, particularly land in private ownership, but that lowland and coastal habitats are severely underrepresented within protected areas. In contrast the report’s summary of the number of species threatened and at risk is somewhat misleading (figure, page 21). The Department of Conservation (DoC) 2011 annual report from which these findings originate states that “Most changes result from improved coverage of groups previously not assessed, and improved knowledge and changes in definitions of categories” the DoC report goes on to state that “57 species have declined sufficiently to trigger a change to a more severely threatened category, and 7 species have recovered under management sufficiently to move to a less severely threatened category. i.e. 50 worsened.”

“The “Biodiversity: Land “section emphasises the very real and disturbing distribution contractions that have occurred for our nationally threatened “indicator” species and for too many of our other bird and reptile species. These are important facts. Even so this section then goes on to compare only increases and decreases in bird species distributions. Given that our biodiversity strategy aims to “halt the decline in biodiversity loss” a better comparison would be the number of species that decreased in distribution against those that showed no change or increased (Table 12.9: Summary of observed changes in distribution of birds, 1985-2004. Ministry of Environment “Environment New Zealand 2007.”). These figures present a more positive outlook: important seed dispersers and pollinators have increased their distributions and 72% of our bird species have increased or remained unchanged in their distributions (63% endemic species) compared to the 1970’s . I also feel that this section does not sufficiently highlight the very real progress that has occurred in some areas. DOC are very good at controlling predators and pests when that have sufficient resources to do so and the trend for increasing land protection (private and public) is a significant step forward.

“The minor points I have raised here are not meant to discredit the report; the report clearly demonstrates the important point that New Zealand’s biodiversity continues to be at serious risk. Howver I feel it fails recognise that those engaged in regional and national conservation are making impressive progress. The final sentence of this section concludes that we need “a new approach to conservation and land management” – I cannot agree with this statement – in my opinion we need to expand and better resource the approaches and methods that DOC and other conservation managers already have in place (primarily land protection and pest control) and identify and target those habitats that are underrepresented.”


Dr Ashley Rowden, Principal Scientist, Aquatic Biodiversity and Biosecurity, Oceans, NIWA, comments:

“In general, the publication of WWF’s ‘Beyond Rio: New Zealand’s environmental record since the original earth summit’ should be welcomed. For in order to understand whether or not progress has been made towards achieving the goals set by New Zealand for sustainable development – a robust and transparent evaluation is required. Since the Rio Declaration, the government has published two ‘State of the Environment Reports’ (1997, 2007) which provide some assessment
of this kind. The WWF report provides a more focused assessment that covers the entire 20 year period since the Rio Declaration. Specifically, the report purports to provide an assessment of the actual commitments made by the government under six areas: Greenhouses Gases, Water Quality, Fisheries, Biodiversity (Marine and Land), and Education for Sustainability.

“WWF-New Zealand is a non-government organisation which advocates for conversation and sustainability measures. It has a small staff, most of whom have limited scientific training. As such any assessment that it produces is liable to have a bias, and may lack the scientific rigour typical of assessments produced by universities or research institutes. Unfortunately, there is no clear explanation of the method used to make the assessments presented. The report claims to have
been compiled by “experts”, however, the only obvious expert (properly defined in the report as a “leading authority”) is the author of the chapter on ‘Water Quality’. I believe, the general lack of expert input to the report compromises the validity of its assessments, and thus its authority. The chapter on ‘Biodiversity: Marine’, on which I was asked to comment, is a case in point.

“In this chapter, four “specific pledges” were indicated for assessment. However, the assessment presented did not always directly and/or thoroughly address each of these topics. Rather, the author has presented an unorganised series of imbalanced observations, some of which were supported by references that only indirectly confirm the statements made.

“For the first topic of assessment (Maintaining the productivity and biodiversity of important and vulnerable marine and coastal areas) there was only a note of the estimated number of marine species for New Zealand rather than estimates of likely decline or otherwise, and even here the author did not refer to the most recent and extensive work of Dennis Gordon et al (2010). In contrast, information is provided in abundance on threat status to marine mammals and seabirds, and their population numbers (which reflects the interest of the chapter’s author), but no mention is made of invertebrates or algae. There is information available for the threat status of these two important components of biodiversity which could have been used (e.g. Freeman et al. 2010 which reported that “no taxa that had improved in threat status as a result of past or ongoing conservation management action, nor any taxa that had worsened in threat status…”).

“For the second topic (Elimination of destructive fishing practices and the establishment of marine protected area networks by 2012), no assessment is presented about the change in fishing practices that have been by made by the fishing industry to reduce impacts on bycatch species (e.g. on sealions and birds), nor whether they have had any effect (yet the information exists). Note is made of the change in the spatial area and type of protection offered to marine species and habitats, yet nothing is said about the lack of progress in establishing a network of protection or the apparent stagnation of MPA implementation plans issued by government agencies in 2008.

“The third topic (Making every effort to protect the marine environment from land-based activities) is not directly addressed at all in the assessment, although efforts have been made to reduce sewage and storm water runoff while sedimentation and nutrient runoff remains a serious issue for New Zealand’s estuaries and coasts.

“The fourth topic (Improving the scientific understanding and assessment of marine and coastal ecosystems) is also not assessed, yet at the very least there are data available on the number of scientific papers and reports published – which would provide a simple metric of how our understanding of New Zealand’s marine biodiversity and ecosystems may have improved before and since 1992.

“The last section of the chapter (Prospects in New Zealand: Beyond 2012) did contain some reasonable summary observations – particular the “lack of … co-ordination and clear strategy” and the “need for integrated management of New Zealand’s complex marine environment”, and the failure of the implementation of an Ocean’s Policy to achieve New Zealand’s goals regarding the protection and conservation of marine biodiversity (as stated not only in the Rio Declaration but more specifically in New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy). The concerns expressed about the EEZ bill are also relevant with regard the achievement of sustainable development (these were recently articulated by the Environment Defence Society, and for which the SMC provided a briefing).

“In summary, the idea of the WWF report was a good one, but on the evidence of the marine biodiversity chapter – it has not been well executed.”


Dr Don Robertson, retired Chief Scientist Biodiversity & Biosecurity, NIWA, comments:

“This Fisheries Chapter in the WWF report correctly emphasizes the global concerns about overfishing, fishing impact on the environment and NZ’s place in a global fisheries context, particularly NZ’s pioneering role of its fisheries Quota Management System. Also important is the report’s emphasis on the role of a “significant information deficit” limiting the effectiveness of the QMS.

“The Fisheries Chapter states ‘Although successive governments have responded to the issues…a systematic approach to managing the environmental effects of fishing has not been implemented.’ This is also an important point.

“While the NZ QMS comes in for some justified criticism in the report, in my opinion it remains in fact one of the sharpest fisheries management instruments worldwide, and creates many of the required incentives for responsible resource management. Where the QMS falls down – an aspect not addressed in the report- it is due in large part to the lobbying power and influence of bottom trawling quota holder associations minimizing or blocking initiatives such as management of the environmental and biodiversity effects of trawling on the seabed.

“The Chapter makes an important point when it states, ‘In response to concerns over bottom trawling, the Government closed 30 per cent of the EEZ to bottom fishing in 2007 through benthic protected areas (BPAs). While this may sound impressive, the areas chosen for ‘protection from trawling’ were largely not being fished anyway and they do not comprise a representative sample of sea floor habitats. Research has shown that better defined sea floor areas could deliver two and a half times the conservation benefit at a lower cost to fishers.’

“What the Chapter doesn’t mention is the way in which many of these BPAs which include large never-been-fished, never-likely-to-be-fished areas were proposed by fishing industry lobby groups, and adopted uncritically by government.

“Although the Chapter is critical of the QMS, I believe that many of the significant advances that have been made were a direct result of the QMS. If NZ is to achieve objectives such as those promised at the Rio Summit 20 years ago, they will be best achieved within the framework of the QMS.”