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The state of the environment in Aotearoa – Expert Reaction

A triennial report on the state of the environment has changed the way it reports its findings, drawing more on mātauranga Māori and exploring the link between the environment and our wellbeing.

This year’s Environment Aotearoa 2022 report says its indicators haven’t changed much since it last came out in 2019. What has changed, however, is its focus on putting environmental change in the context of our lives as individuals, whānau, and communities. Additionally, the nine stars of Matariki have been used as an organising structure for the report.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report.

Dr Dan Hikuroa, Senior Lecturer, Te Wānanga o Waipapa, Waipapa Taumata Rau (School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies, University of Auckland), comments:

“In Environment Aotearoa 2022, we view people as part of the environment. That approach is consistent with the holistic Māori worldview.

“The structure of the report around Te Kahui o Matariki, further reflects that worldview, and I believe is perhaps the first time an Environmental Report has genuinely woven together mātauranga and science, and the result is exceptional.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Hikuroa was part of the mātauranga advisory board that helped craft the report.

Professor Amanda Black, Director, Bioprotection Aotearoa, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, comments:

“The report is a very different look and feel from previous iterations. The swing to a more indigenous narrative with Mātauranga Māori as opposed to the usual reporting framework will engage with a different audience, and certainly demonstrates MfE’s commitment to being a responsive Te Tiriti Partner.

“The proof in the effectiveness of narrative framing will be in the improvement of our environment.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am on the Interim Mātauranga and Science Advisory Panel for MfE.

Dr Chris Daughney, Chief Science Advisor, Te Uru Kahika (Regional and Unitary Councils Aotearoa), comments:

“The release of Environment Aotearoa 2022 is an opportunity to reflect on the state of our natural environment and its connection with our cultural, social, and economic wellbeing. The findings in the report are not new to the regional sector, however the inclusion of Te Ao Māori adds strength to our collective understanding of the interconnectedness of our environments, and that as part of our environment, human wellbeing is intrinsically linked to environmental health. Environment Aotearoa 2022 finds while some aspects of our environment are in good condition, there are significant challenges and areas that need to be addressed, improved, and restored.

“New Zealand’s regional and unitary councils are charged with the integrated management of land, air, and water resources, supporting biodiversity and biosecurity, and building more resilient communities in the face of climate change and natural hazards. Environmental science and local knowledge underpins all that we do. The sector collectively employs hundreds of scientists and technicians who are delivering detailed local-scale knowledge on a range of environmental and ecosystem processes. We also work closely with other science organisations to add insights to the investigations that we conduct.

“Te Uru Kahika – Regional and Unitary Councils Aotearoa has contributed its high-quality environmental datasets that represent many years of monitoring so that EA2022 can report on the current state and long-term trends in biodiversity, soil health, air quality, the quality and quantity of rivers, lake waters, groundwaters and coastal water across the country. Regional and unitary councils also make their environmental data freely available through the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website and their individual council websites so that communities can better understand the state of their environment at a local level and how it is tracking over time.

“Many of the issues covered by Environment Aotearoa 2022 are complex and it will take time, in some cases decades, to see significant improvements in environmental outcomes resulting from the work going on now. As a regional sector, we’re working towards realising our vision for thriving environments and communities and welcome this report.”

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Daughney is also Chief Science Advisor at NIWA, however, Dr Daughney did not input to Environment Aotearoa 2022 in this capacity.

Dr Scott Larned, Chief Scientist – Freshwater and Estuaries, NIWA, comments:

“Environment Aotearoa 2022 is a complex report with two cultural knowledge streams interwoven. We have not seen this approach before, and a full analysis of the report will need some time. We have three initial points to make at this early stage.

“1. Environment Aotearoa (EA) 2022 is very different in structure and content than the previous EA 2019.

“Three yearly national synthesis reports are mandated by the Environmental Reporting Act of 2015. In our experience, three years is not an adequate time period for assessing and reporting trends in environmental conditions. This issue is well recognised by the science community and is confirmed in the foreword to EA 2022 by the Chief Executives of MfE and StatsNZ. ‘Just three years on from the previous state of the environment report, our environmental indicators do not register much change. But the way in which we have approached and compiled this report has changed.

“The foreword goes on to say: ‘We have pulled together a diverse set of evidence drawing on Māori knowledge (mātauranga Māori), environmental science, health science, and economics.‘ With this approach, EA 2022 is fundamentally different from previous synthesis reports. While NIWA welcomes ‘the interweaving of Māori worldview (te ao Māori) to illustrate national-level issues, connect environmental issues with place, and make reports relevant to a wider audience, including Māori‘, it raises some questions about consistency in environmental reporting. NIWA believes that a logical approach to state of environment reports is that each one should follow from the previous one with a consistent structure, so that over time, the public can see and understand changes in environmental conditions. Some assurance from the government that a consistent structure will be used in future reports is needed, particularly as the Environmental Reporting Act is likely to be amended.

“2. The difficulty of national-scale reporting

“Environment Aotearoa is a national-scale report. It is recognised in the report that ‘Our current monitoring system is fragmented, and reliant on monitoring systems designed at a regional level to support regional needs. A national monitoring network is needed to improve consistency while serving multiple users of environmental data.‘ This is an important statement. The data used to characterise the environmental indicators in the report come from regional and unitary councils and other sources. The councils are not legally required to produce data intended for national reporting, which poses many challenges for analysing, modelling and reporting. We welcome the commitment in this report on the implementation of a ‘fit-for-purpose environmental monitoring and reporting system that is adaptable to a rapidly changing future‘.

“There are, of course, considerable challenges to this. New environmental legislation over the past few decades – such as the new freshwater policies – requires new or increased expenditures on data generation, but provides no, or inadequate, funding to meet those costs. The costs of data generation (including field and laboratory activities, data processing and quality assurance, and data management, provision and custodianship) for the proposed environmental monitoring and reporting system will be high. We look forward to the government acting on this issue.

“The environmental indicators and reports that underpin EA 2022 are grouped into five domains: atmosphere and climate; air; fresh water; land and marine. These are all well referenced through EA 2022. However, we have some concerns that, if the format for this report is to continue into the future, and the domain reports are discontinued (in favour of cross-domain ‘theme’ reports as per advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment), it will be increasingly difficult for the public to perceive and understand changes in environmental conditions.

“3. The challenges of pressure-state relationships

“Pressures on the environment are covered in this report in a narrative sense, including in the chapter titled ‘Pohutukawa’. However, the links between pressures and environmental state and trends are only made in the most informal way. This lack of rigour makes specific management actions hard to impose and highly risky. Demonstration of causative, quantitative links between pressures and environmental conditions is difficult, but necessary, if they are to guide management actions and policy making and have a role in environmental reporting. The need for reliable, causal relationships has been acknowledged in recent domain and synthesis reports, but progress has been slow. This is a science area that requires immediate attention.”

No conflict of interest.