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National environmental reporting – our science behind the headline reports

The recent increase in environmental regulations in New Zealand, including the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2013, 2017, 2019) and the recent National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land, is increasing demand for monitoring and assessing the impacts of land use on our resources. The Environmental Reporting Act 2015 also requires the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) to report on the state of New Zealand’s environment once every 4 years, with domain reports for air, land, freshwater, marine and climate every 6 months.

Manaaki Whenua staff John Dymond and Anne-Gaelle Ausseil have worked closely with MfE as science leads for two major reports (Environment Aotearoa 2015 and Our Land 2018), and provided ongoing scientific advice through a Senior Science Mātauranga Team (SSMT) for Environment Aotearoa 2019, Our Freshwater 2020 and upcoming atmosphere and land domain reports. These reports combine the best environmental data and evidence from the scientific literature and mātauranga Māori (with added contributions in SSMT from Garth Harmsworth, Phil Lyver and Shaun Awatere) to reveal the state of, and trends in, our soils, native plants, animals, and ecosystems.

Our work has created foundational data sets for soil quality indicators, pre-human vegetation, soil erosion, biodiversity information including rare ecosystems, wetland mapping, and modelling of land-use pressures. Transparency, reproducibility, and traceability are the main principles required to produce indicators – all of which need robust supporting data.

Our wetland mapping has shown that New Zealand has lost 90% of its original wetland extent, providing a benchmark for the Environment Court. Our analysis of urbanisation and lifestyle block expansion showed that there is a risk of land being locked out of primary production for residential use, a finding that has led to the National Policy Statement on Highly Productive Land.

In partnership with MfE and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, we are providing a framework for measuring, reporting and monitoring of natural capital through indicators. This work is fundamental to Treasury’s wellbeing framework and will aid with investment and budget priorities to assess their impacts and dependencies on our natural resources.

Other projects with MfE have included an improvement of land-use change information in the Land Use and Carbon Analysis System (LUCAS). LUCAS is a project to measure and monitor the carbon stocks of New Zealand’s forests and soils. This information is required for New Zealand’s reporting requirements under the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and has helped to improve the accuracy of our greenhouse gas emissions reporting.

Manaaki Whenua has also facilitated the inclusion of land indicators as Tier 1 Statistics NZ indicators for environmental reporting, contributed to the National Environmental Monitoring Standards on Soil Health and Trace Elements, and supported the future development of Land, Air, Water, Aotearoa to include land data and analyses.