By Chris Allen, Federated Farmers environment spokesperson
OPINION: Have we got the smart environmental data we need to inform smart environmental investments? The short answer is no.
Federated Farmers has this week published analysis of the Government’s Our Freshwater 2020 (FW2020) report jointly published by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand. It’s a thorough, and in places quite disturbing, piece of work by Feds Wellington region Senior Policy Advisor Liz McGruddy. Last we sent copies to various Ministers and science/environment journalists.
Feds has a history of supporting legislation that is based on the Environment Aotearoa approach. However, as Liz reported, the underpinning data must be sound.
Liz acknowledges FW2020 was prepared under the pressure of the current environmental reporting timetable, but says in an executive summary that FW2020 “falls well short of being a robust and authoritative source of national statistics and apolitical interpretive analysis”. It includes headlines not supported by the evidence relied upon; highlights minority findings but not the majority findings; and presents selected and misleading statistics and graphics.
Some quick examples of misleading, confusing or inconclusive data:
• FW2020 states we’re losing wetlands, the NZ Greenhouse Gas Inventory tells us wetlands are increasing, StatsNZ commentary on the wetlands data table says no-one really knows.
• FW2020 states freshwater habitats are degraded but StatsNZ data tells us 80% of monitored sites had good or excellent habitat, and no sites were poor.
- FW2020 reports that “…freshwater species continue to decline”. But this statement is not supported by the data presented. In respect of freshwater fish, 50 of 51 specieis had no change in conservation status, one improved and none worsened. For invertebrates, 176 of 177 species had no change in conservation status and one worsened (tadpole shrimp).
• Macro-invertebrates are a key indicator of stream health. Depending on how you squint your eyes, the rate of improvement is either 4% or 26%, and the rate of decline either 9% (“high confidence”) or 38% (“low confidence”). Either way, do you remember any headlines or news articles noting the fact that the worst degrading trends were in waterways on land with native bush cover? Probably not.
Why does this matter? Again, from the executive summary: “The effect is to significantly distort public and political understanding of the national state and trends. The concomitant risk is ill-targeted and ineffective policy interventions and investments.”
It’s against this sort of public understanding of the state of our rivers and wetlands that the freshwater regulations were brought home.
Interesting that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment last week doubled down on advice he gave last year, with another report urging significant improvements to our environmental reporting. Like us, the PCE is very concerned that environmental policy in New Zealand is being based on incomplete and under-funded data collection.
We spend as much as $516 million a year on environmental research. And the ramifications of ill-targeted policy is even more costly. Greater effort is needed to get this right.