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National environmental monitoring too passive, needs funding - PCE

Thursday 7th November 2019

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Some form of shared funding will likely be required to fill gaps in the country’s environmental monitoring and provide a coherent national overview, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment says.

The current system, created by legislation in 2015 by then Environment Minister Amy Adams, is too passive and relies too much on the data that was being gathered at the time, commissioner Simon Upton says.

He says a core set of national environmental indicators need to be agreed and then ways found to gather that data in a consistent way nationally. Rather than simply passively gathering data, the system needs to become more proactive – both in gathering data and its interpretation.

“We can’t make economically efficient or socially fair environmental rules if we can’t measure authoritatively what’s happening to the physical resource base on which our wellbeing ultimately depends.”

Much of the country’s environmental data is gathered by local and regional councils, government agencies, universities and Crown research institutes. Because it is being gathered for different purposes, much of it can’t be readily combined to provide a national picture.

Upton cautioned against thinking the problem can be solved simply by “throwing” money at it.

“Serious investment” will be required, but he said it was important that efforts to fill monitoring gaps were prioritised and that the system builds on what is already in place.

Councils and other agencies have reasons for gathering the data they have. But Upton said it is currently hard to know whether performance in some regions differs for bio-physical reasons or because of other local priorities.

If changes are to be made, central government will have to meet part of that cost.

“If we are going to be talking about getting this all aligned, and getting it calibrated so it can be used for a national purpose, I think that investment is a perfectly legitimate charge on the state,” he told officials and journalists.

“Let’s be honest, on water quality data the national number is not terribly useful. No one swims in an average river, or bathes in an average coastal environment, or drinks an average glass of water.

“You do actually have to have this stuff – bottom-up - being gathered.”

The current regime is overseen by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ.

Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said the commissioner’s independent review largely reinforces the ministry’s own thinking and changes it has already made.

Federated Farmers, currently pushing back against aspects of the government’s freshwater reforms, welcomed Upton’s report.

Environment spokesperson Chris Allen said big policy swings are currently underway, yet are not based on robust, consistent and reliable national data.

"Not having perfect data is not a reason for doing nothing,” he says. "But the inconsistent and incomplete data that the commissioner likened to ‘flying blind’ and warned could be ‘costing us dearly in terms of poorly designed policy’, is not a sound footing.”

Among the changes proposed, Upton says a set of core environmental indicators need to be agreed. Much work has been on that and they could be agreed within six to eight months, he said.

The current three-yearly ‘state of the environment’ reports would become six-yearly, and a standing panel of science advisers would be charged with reporting on priority themes or emerging issues in the intervening years. That would replace a system of six-monthly reports that are currently made across five ‘domains’ – air, atmosphere and climate, freshwater, land and marine.

The panel would also be tasked with advising the Secretary for the Environment on further research, monitoring and data needs.

Upton said that if legislation was passed next year, the first of the thematic reports could be published in 2021.


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