08 August 2013

Reporting on the state of our environment - Environmental Defence Society Conference

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.
I am really enjoying the conference.
And I imagine that the overall theme of Our Place: State of the Environment resonates with all of us in this room.

In this country we take great pride in our natural environment.
I've spent a decade living overseas.
And many times was asked the standard question: what's New Zealand like?
I always found myself describing awe-inspiring landscapes.
Talking about the uniqueness of our plants and animals – virtually no deciduous trees or land mammals – how strange is that?
I found myself talking about the quality of our southern light.
About the diverse beauty of our land uplifted high.
And I'm not alone in this.
In my experience that's what we kiwis do when we are offshore.

Our identity as New Zealanders is rooted in our natural environment.
No matter where we live we carry those images with us.
And as for our economy, our environment is our point of difference – our comparative advantage in a competitive world.

So how clean and green are we really?
And why does it matter?

In 1997, the Environment Minister at the time, Simon Upton said: "Our clean green image is under intense scrutiny both at home and overseas. We must be able to show that there is substance to this image."

Today that scrutiny is becoming more intense – today the world is joined up by the internet.

A question about the sustainability of our hoki fishery can end up quickly on the front page of the New York Times.
Not only can, but did.
Local concerns can quickly be amplified to the global level.
We are certainly seeing that with Fonterra at the moment.
Many people are increasingly sophisticated – they don't believe something just because it is on the news or the Government said it is so.
They want evidence.
Is it possible to reach a judgment on how clean and green how our country really is?
I am going to talk today about what a good report on the state of our environment would be like.
Regional councils produce such reports – for their regions.
But in 1996, the OECD said – New Zealand, you need to produce a state of the environment report – at the national level.
So the first one was produced the following year.
And a second 10 years later in 2007.
When the second one came out, there was – as some of you will recall – a bit of a fuss.

And there was a call for future state of the environment reports to be prepared independently.
Specifically, to be prepared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

This found its way into party policies and into a private member's bill.
In 2011, the Ministry for the Environment released a discussion paper on the subject.
The proposal that the Commissioner releases a report every 5 years on the state of the environment was strongly supported.
So it's not surprising that I've taken an active interest in the subject.
And we have spent quite a bit of time in my office thinking about the characteristics of a good state of the environment report.
Indeed it led to the release of this.

We were surprised to find that New Zealand is the only country in the OECD that does not have regular state of the environment reporting required through legislation.
And yet – ironically – we market ourselves abroad as the clean green country.
And indeed it would make a lot of sense to give the role to the Commissioner – whoever that may be.
Whoever is in the role is independent – answerable to Parliament.
My office is small.
But despite being small, we do cope with working across many different environmental issues.
Issues as varied as the use of 1080, the safety of fracking, the problems of solar water heating, the science of water quality, the status of the long fin eel.
Nonetheless even with extra resources, preparing such a report could incur an opportunity cost – there could potentially be less ability to undertake the investigations and provide the advice that is the fundamental work of the PCE.

So I want to set aside the question of who prepares a state of the environment report.
And move on to addressing the question –
What would a report on the state of our environment be like if it is to be truly useful?

Today we risk drowning in information.
And the environment is no exception.
There is no end of things to measure and ways to measure them.
A state of the environment report must be something much more than a collation of information.
How do we decide what information to select?
What might its purpose be?
When we are crystal clear about purpose – then we can begin to run a sieve over the plethora of data.
And that sieving is vitally important – it's so easy to spend lots of money collecting, analysing and presenting data.

Yesterday we heard about the Yale environmental performance index.
Its purpose is clear – to compare across countries.
So obviously it must rely on indicators that can be assembled reasonably easily in any country.
And it will not dwell on any aspect of the environment that is unique or particularly important for this country – or indeed any other country.
But its purpose is clear and thus it has value.

A collation of environmental data without a clear purpose risks being pointless.
It might improve people's understanding about different environmental issues.
But there are many and better ways of doing this.
And let's face it – because there are more of us all the time and each of us on average consumes more – we generally put more and more pressure on the environment.

When the last state of the environment report came out in 2007, I decided to search for something positive to say in a press release.
Things that seemed to indicate improvement.
I found a big increase in the number of QE 2 covenants, less lead in the air because petrol had been lead-free for more than a decade, but little else that was positive.
It must be rather depressing to put out a report that says just about everything is getting worse.
So what would a useful state of the environment report be like?
What would be its purpose?
What value would the information in it add?
Consider with me three perspectives on the value of information about the environment.
The perspective of scientists.
The perspective of statisticians.
The perspective of decision-makers.
I am going to caricature this a little – if that is a verb – to get my point across.
Scientists rightly value information for its ability to push out the frontiers of knowledge.
Becoming a scientist generally involves crawling out to the frontier of knowledge in your field, and generating new information – or finding a new way to analyse existing information.
Value is to be found in originality.
The evidence of high value is publication in high-ranked international journals.
This is not the kind of value that a state of the environment report should provide.

Statisticians also rightly place high value on information that is accurate and consistent – that is the essence of their discipline.
The evidence of high value is high confidence in the accuracy of the data.
A good dollop of confidence in the data in a state of the environment report is needed if it is to contain, for instance, time series that represent real changes.
But accuracy cannot be the major factor influencing what goes into a state of the environment report.
Because there is often a great temptation to measure what can be measured rather than what should be measured.
It is better to have an imperfect measure of the right thing than an accurate measure of something completely irrelevant.
What are the right things to measure for a state of the environment report?
What is the right information to put in such a report?
This takes me to my third perspective on value – the perspective of the decision-maker.
Specifically, decision-makers who are trying to figure out how to be effective in protecting and improving the environment.
Be they politicians, those who advise them, businesses, community groups or individuals.
The value that a state of the environment report should provide is better decisions.
Better decisions about priorities.
Better decisions about what we put into our laws and regulations.
Or what we don't put in.
Better decisions about spending money.

A state of the environment report should fundamentally be a diagnosis of the health of our environment.
To help the people of New Zealand – and those who govern on their behalf.
Decide what they should worry about the most.
And what they should worry about the least.
So they can set better priorities.

Much environmental concern is reactive.
Reactive to the issues that are right in front of us.
Or things we know something about or have experienced.
And that is not only understandable – in many situations it's appropriate.

There's also an element of fashion – where we react to what are other people think is important.
And collectively, we may tire of an issue once it is no longer 'fashionable', so it may seem less important regardless of whether or not it has been adequately addressed.
For instance, a couple of decades ago New Zealanders worried a great deal about erosion and the loss of topsoil\, and about a monoculture of pinus radiata.
These issues haven't gone away by any means, but they are no longer top of mind.

A report on the state of our country's environment should lift us up.
So we can see the big picture.
And compare one environmental issue with another.
And not forget about things that still really matter even if they have gone out of fashion.

So we can see what matters the most.
And make such judgements from looking at the evidence – the data.

And so we can also see what really doesn't matter very much at all.
And showing how this too is backed up by data.

And the in-between – what matters somewhat.

This approach would allow us to prioritise environmental concerns.
Not everything is the end of the world.
And some things may well be both important and urgent.
We need to prioritise our actions – and our expenditure.

Data provides evidence, but data alone does not allow us to prioritise.
Whoever said "the data speaks for itself" was wrong.
It doesn't.
It's mute, it's inanimate.

Quoting from the American geographer Peter Gould:
"We always bring to bear some conceptual framework to the task of investigation, analysis, and interpretation."
That framework can be, as Gould says, "intuitive and ill-formed or tightly and formally structured".

We cannot make sense of data in a state of the environment report with an intuitive framework.
But we need a framework that is structured.
To get beyond perceptions and systematically compare one environmental issue with another.
To really diagnose the health of our environment.

So what might a framework for such comparison look like?
Here's some of my thinking.
I worry about an environmental problem more if it is irreversible.

That's why I investigated the status of the long fin eel – the largest and longest-lived freshwater eel in the world.
I concluded – from the data – that it was on a slow path to extinction unless we did something about it.
That's irreversible.

I worry about an environmental problem more if it is cumulative – if it builds up over time.
The loss of topsoil has been accumulating over many many years.
Clearing bush for pasture on steep slopes – taking fertility from the land and putting it into water where we don't want it.
I am told there are streams that once ran clear over stony beds that are now mired in layers of sediment.
I worry more about an environmental problem if it is large in scale or pervasive.
That's why I'm passionate about using more 1080.
Because it's the only way we have now to control – over large areas – the deadly triumverate of possums, rats and stoats that are having such a devastating effect on most of our conservation estate.
I worry more about an environmental problem if it is not only increasing\, but accelerating.
Wilding pines in the high country is one such.
Seed can travel on the wind as far as 25 kilometres.
Growing into dense dark green thickets of spindly trees over some of our iconic landscapes.

And finally, I worry more about an environmental problem if it can tip a system into another state.
A treasured lake becoming choked with weeds and covered in algae.
Some environmental problems have a number of these attributes – climate change, for instance, scores highly on all – for me it is the big one.

But equally we should seek to be open about what doesn't matter so much.
Personally I'm not often awake at night worrying about solid waste and landfills.
Nor about air pollution in Christchurch – the southerly blows it away.

But whatever the framework – whatever the criteria for prioritisation – should prioritise.
Whether or not we do it based on a state of the environment report.
All environmental issues are not equally important.
A state of the environment report can provide a basis for us to figure out where to put our collective environmental effort.

But it shouldn't try to do everything.
In particular, it shouldn't try to talk about solutions to environmental problems.
That's one reason why dissent broke out about the last state of the environment report.
Saying here's a problem, it's quite bad, but don't worry.
We're fixing it and this is how.
This doesn't fly for me.
It goes beyond what a state of the environment report should be.
If a state of the environment report does not have the potential to change the decisions that are made about the environment – decisions by Government, by councils, by businesses, by communities, and by individuals.
It will just be a compendium of data.
Certainly it will enable a state of the environment box to be ticked.
But that's not enough.

Why should we care about the state of our environment?
We should care for many reasons.
But fundamentally we should care because tomorrow matters.