The ongoing reports coming out of Australia of multiple bush fires that are regarded as the worst recorded and largely due to the ongoing drought and compounded by high temperatures, must be a poignant reminder and lesson of what the impact of climate change may look like - with the near 5,000 hectares fire in Middlemarch Otago a reminder that New Zealand is not immune.
Although, thankfully the rain does keep coming this side of the Tasman. Australia’s extremes, especially when it comes to heat and drought, can be considered as the early warning system for New Zealand and so shouldn’t be discounted as only affecting them and having no relationship to our climate.
To this end the latest report coming out from the office of the Commissioner for the Environment needs to be considered and the concerns raised taken seriously.
For the farming sector given how much policy that impacts on farming is driven by the attitudes of the public and politicians towards the environment this is even more important. Rather than writing on environmental issues, this time the Commissioner takes aim at the lack of good data.
The gist of what Commissioner Simon Upton is saying is that there is a lack of coherent information and that the data collected comes in a piece meal fashion often the result of being collected for other purposes. This makes it difficult to get a clear picture of our environmental conditions and whether they are getting better or worse. An example highlighted is: “The last survey of land cover in New Zealand was undertaken in the summer of 2012/2013. We are now almost in the summer of 2019/2020. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that investors or policymakers should take decisions on the basis of seven-year-old data – too much happens in seven years”.
The lack of independent comprehensive data has, in many cases, led to the ongoing arguments with the like of Fish and Game and Dr Mike Joy with farming sectors with all parties being somewhat selective in data and emphasis. Given the increasing importance everyone is putting on the environment the report makes recommendations to try and remedy this situation for future planning.
The Commissioner recommends:
- amending the Environmental Reporting Act 2015
- adjusting the roles of the Government Statistician and the Secretary for the Environment
- developing a comprehensive, nationally coordinated environmental monitoring system
- developing a mandated strategy to prioritise and incrementally fill data gaps
- determining the investment required to deliver the recommended improvements.
Falling out of these broad recommendations comes more specific actions for government to:
- add a clearer purpose (as to what ‘we’ want the environment to ‘look like’.)
- establish a standing science advisory panel (so data and recommendations can be science based)
- develop core environmental indicators to form the backbone of reporting
- focus the system on what matters – retaining state of the environment reports and replace domain reports with flexible, theme-based commentaries
- require a formal response from the Government to state of the environment reports.
With clearer science-based guidelines and general agreement upon what is practically desired and possible for our environment(s) it should lead to greater buy in and understanding from all parties. It should also lead to recognition and acceptance of what good things are happening and what further needs to be done.
While this may sound relatively simple and reasonable, the Commissioner highlights the fact that: “Despite attempts over more than two decades, no agreement has ever been reached on a set of core environmental indicators.” With political parties seeming to be moving closer together in their attitudes towards the environment a lasting agreement looks more likely now, as seen with the Zero Carbon Bill currently moving through parliament, providing the government sets its mind to the task.
Looking from the side-lines, one of the issues the current government has is moving ideals into action.
Setting goals and passing bills through parliament is one thing. But converting this into actions and results is something else. One of the criticisms that can be levelled at Government is despite being flush with cash little is being achieved with infrastructure and development.
Having a lack of trained people and the capacity throughout the country to lift our game above “business as usual” may be the weak link for this Government and ultimately may be their downfall as the populous gets tired of waiting for improvements to occur. This may impact upon support from both ends of the spectrum with the greener left wing discouraged with a lack of environmental results while business (right) tired of waiting for infrastructure projects and the like to get off the ground.