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Our contribution to environmental reporting for Aotearoa New Zealand – the story so far

Since 2015, research organisations across New Zealand have contributed to a growing national cache of environmental reporting data under the 2015 Environmental Reporting Act, which brought into existence the requirement for cyclic national environmental ‘domain’ reports. This means the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ need to report on the state of one aspect of our environment every 6 months, and on our environment as a whole every 3 years. There are five domains: air, atmosphere & climate, fresh water, land, and marine.

Scientists at Manaaki Whenua have acted as science leads for much of this work, offering expertise and strategic direction on the comprehensive Environment Aotearoa 2015 and 2019 reports, as well as individual domain reports including Our Land 2018, Our Freshwater 2020, and Our Atmosphere and Climate 2020.

During this time, the government’s Treasury has also been shaping a new and ambitious commitment – to prioritise public spending by accounting for its contribution to people’s well-being. Treasury’s Living Standards Framework aims to define well-being with reference to four future well-being capitals: financial, human, social, and natural – explicitly recognising that maintaining the natural environment is a key part of well-being.

In a 2019 commentary, Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand’s environmental reporting system, Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), assessed the success of the environmental reporting requirements under the 2015 Act. Supportive of the government commitment to well-being, nonetheless the PCE maintained that New Zealand cannot make economically efficient or socially fair environmental rules if we cannot measure authoritatively what’s happening to our physical resources, on which our well-being ultimately depends.

Work now being done across Manaaki Whenua covers the breadth and depth of environmental research required by the ambitions of the government. Released on 15 April this year, the latest interim report, Our Land 2021, drew heavily on Manaaki Whenua’s expertise and information, including that of Dr Nina Koele who was seconded to MfE to ‘hold the pen’ for the project, Dr Anne-Gaelle Ausseil and Garth Harmsworth of the senior science and mātauranga team, and Drs Bryan Stevenson and John Drewry who peer-reviewed the report.

The report is the first in the series to respond to the PCE’s recommendation to take a theme-based approach to state-of-the-environment reporting, and it also aligns with the ‘DPSIR’ model used for public policy overseas: Drivers of change, Pressures on the environment, State of the environment, Impacts of that state, and society’s Responses.

“The absence of comprehensive and authoritative environmental data stands in the way of making good links between the state of the environment and well-being" – Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, 2019.

As a result, Our Land 2021 focuses on dynamic land-use issues rather than static land indicators. It explores the pressures on land, the Māori perspective, the interaction with climate, links to public well-being, and wider aspects of the environment.

The report’s environmental indicators are at a formative stage in this new approach, but each is given a full explanation and trend analysis on the Statistics NZ website. As part of this work, Dr Sam Carrick and others at Manaaki Whenua updated and created new data for environmental indicators in soil quality and land fragmentation.

Land fragmentation is an increasing concern in New Zealand, driven by urban expansion onto rural land on the fringes of urban areas. The most highly productive land in the country is vulnerable to fragmentation for commercial, industrial, residential, and lifestyle block land uses, limiting in particular high-value horticultural use of the land. This indicator uses data from Manaaki Whenua’s New Zealand Land Cover and Land Use Capability databases, combined with LINZ topographic, land ownership and protected area data. Between 2002 and 2019, the area of highly productive land that had an urban or residential land use, hence unavailable or restricted from use as farmland, increased by 54 percent nationally, from 69,920 to 107,444 hectares.

For Our Land 2021, Manaaki Whenua scientists led by Dr Bryan Stevenson also collated site soil quality data covering the period 1996 to 2018 from Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, Horizons, Taranaki and Greater Wellington Regional Councils, Environment Canterbury, and Environment Southland; Marlborough and Tasman District Councils; Nelson City Council (2018 data only); and Auckland Regional Council. The data enabled nationwide reporting on seven soil properties across nine land uses: pH, Olsen phosphorus (measures of fertility), total carbon, total nitrogen, anaerobically mineralisable nitrogen (measures of organic status), and macroporosity and bulk density (measures of physical status).

The contribution of soil quality to wider environmental health was recognised, but further work is needed on the breadth of indicators, particularly measurements of soil biodiversity, as part of long-term soil quality monitoring.

Looking ahead, Manaaki Whenua’s scientists are aiming to contribute to the MfE’s Environment Aotearoa 2022, and are looking into the feasibility of new indicators that will be needed to assess impacts and meaningful linkages between the environment and human well-being. Fit-for-purpose indicators, which need to be transparent, reproducible, and traceable, all require robust supporting data.

Dr Ausseil is now leading work on identifying these indicators in conjunction with MfE, using a framework based on ecosystem services (ES) and Nature’s Contribution to People (NCP), an approach favoured by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Initial work has proposed that indicators are split into ‘supply’ indicators, which represent an ecosystem’s capacity to supply the service, and ‘benefit’ indicators, which refer to the service’s contribution to well-being. Next steps include wider discussion of this framework and building indicators with the participation of a larger group of stakeholders.

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