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Speech - State Of The Nations Environment


25 MAY 2000

Thank-you for inviting me to deliver to you the second “State of the Nation’s Environment” address.
Lincoln is a most appropriate venue for this address. The original Lincoln College focused on living off the land, and now many of your students and staff play a lead role in resource management.

Last year in addressing you Dr Morgan Williams, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment gave a broad overview of his views of the state of our environment in an international and a national context. Among other things he noted that although New Zealand has been an environmental leader in the past, there was much at home that still needs to be done. He emphasised the need to “take environmental sustainability to heart”.

This year I propose to talk about some of the myths that surround how we view our environment and ourselves. And I will tie them to the theme of Agenda 21, sustainable development. (Agenda 21 is the programme of action for sustainable development produced by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992).

What I do not propose to do this evening is to give you a scientist's view on the state of our environment, nor am I going to just list what the government is doing or proposing to do in the environment area.

I am not going to tell you that New Zealand has a hugely diverse flatworm population by world standards, or that we have the world’s heaviest insect, the Giant Weta (in Maori the weta punga or “God of Ugly Things”) – all interesting stuff though!

What I would like to do this evening is share with you some personal reflections of common perceptions or myths about the real state of New Zealand’s environment - and explore how we can move towards closing the gaps between reality and perception – because only when people really understand the true state of our environment can we move toward sustainability.

It is not that I am unwilling to place a stake in the ground and make a definitive statement about the state of our environment. Rather it is because we are still not at the stage where we actually have enough information to be able to determine what the state of our environment actually is in many areas and we haven’t yet developed the comprehensive indicators to adequately track our progress toward sustainability.

We all know that the environment is one of New Zealand’s most important strategic assets. In fact, after our people, our environment is probably our most important asset. Overseas, we are perceived as a country that produces world-class food, wine and fibre from a clean and healthy environment and as a great place to visit. New Zealand businesses build on these perceptions in the way that they market their products overseas. Have you seen the 100% Pure New Zealand campaign? I’m not sure that 80% Pure New Zealand has the same ring to it!

As the Minister for the Environment, and as a citizen, it disturbs me greatly that we do not have a comprehensive, consistent way of tracking the performance of one of our most strategically important assets. You wouldn’t run a corner dairy without knowing your stock levels, so why run a country without regular stocktaking.

As New Zealanders we all have different perceptions about our environment and how we are connected to it. When I kayak on Lake Manapouri (and I have the sore elbow to prove it) I can easily agree to our 100 per cent purity, but when I walk to work through Wellington streets and breathe in the traffic fumes I know we don't. While I might swim at Piha, I most certainly would not swim in some of the North Shore beaches.

However, sometimes the way we see ourselves is not how others see us. For example, nearly all of us as New Zealanders identify ourselves as having rural roots and portray ourselves as a rural society. That’s the first myth. But we are really a bunch of townies. The fact is that New Zealand is one of the most urbanised societies in the world. Once we realise this we will place greater priority on what are predominantly urban issues such as waste disposal, transport or air quality – and the liveability of our cities. The urban environment theme I am keenly pursuing as Minister for the Environment.

New Zealand is a nation of water lovers. It is difficult to leave school in New Zealand without having learnt to swim. Almost without exception we all have great memories of holidays and summers spent at favourite beaches, rivers or lakes. I’ll even hazard a guess that 90% of the people here tonight “hit the water” at some point this past summer. And did you wonder whether the water you frolicked in was safe? Probably not, and that’s myth number two. The reality is that many of our urban beaches are unsafe to swim at, especially after rain, because of contamination from stormwater drains and sewage overflows. Indeed, some of our urban beaches are now unsafe for swimming at any time.

How many of us think of the impact on our local beaches when we turn our back lawn into a Mediterranean courtyard, let our dogs foul the footpath, wash our cars on the road, or rinse paintbrushes down the drain?

Air quality –New Zealand’s windy climate means that we do not have an air quality problem - that’s the third myth, although Christchurch is generally acknowledged as the exception – because most people know that. Christchurch is grappling with some serious air quality problems, particularly in winter. But the rest of New Zealand is okay – right? Unfortunately no – the reality is that traffic volumes in Auckland mean that some locations like Khyber Pass regularly exceed the recommended guidelines. Isolated, specific example you may say? But how many of you know that air pollution reaches problem levels in parts of Wellington and in many of our small provincial towns.

After calm weather in Wellington (Wellington does have windless days) carbon monoxide levels in parts of the central city can exceed recommended guidelines.

And what about the bigger air picture, climate change.

The government has announced that New Zealand will ratify the Kyoto Protocol within the next two years. This commits New Zealand to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2012. Great news - but how many New Zealander’s are aware of how our current greenhouse emissions compare to 1990 levels (one of the few areas we do have good indicators). The latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that our emissions are still trending upwards, carbon dioxide emissions are currently about 14% higher than 1990 levels with the transport sector continuing to show growth. We have a big job if we are going to turn this trend around – a job that’s on the top of my agenda.

Waste, the fourth myth? Maybe this myth is a bit frayed at the edges because I am sure everyone in Canterbury is only too aware of the problems that we are facing with disposal of waste. But the reality is that we are creating the waste and sending more and more of it to landfills. We are a wasteful society. How many of us who don’t want to see more and more valleys turned into landfills have a compost bin at home, take our own bags to the supermarket, ask for excess packaging to be removed when we buy something new, get things repaired or refilled or reuse things rather than throwing them in the bin.

The Government is committed to waste minimisation, to reducing the volume of waste going to landfills. But it is not government policies alone that make the difference; it is on the ground actions done by real people.

Myth five is around our biodiversity. People often tell me we are lucky having so many national parks (and so we are!), but we know that they are deteriorating under the onslaught of pest and weeds. What people don’t generally recognise is that many species and habitats needing conservation are on private land – not in national parks. And that most of our biodiversity is in our oceans, which have little protection – that’s why we have recently released the Biodiversity Strategy and are determined to turn the tide on biodiversity.

Before we all start beating up ourselves because we are environmental failures – it’s not all bad news out there. The final and most destructive myth is that there is nothing we can do about it.

It is critical that where improvements in the health of our environment are made, especially when it is as a result of changes that we have made, that we remember to acknowledge our success, and tell people about it. The great kiwi knocking machine is quick to respond when performance is poor, but we are not always so good at congratulating ourselves on a job well done. Informing people when they are doing a good job helps to maintain enthusiasm and momentum.

For example, how many of you know that the ozone hole is predicted to begin repairing itself within the next few years, and that all other things being equal, that our children and grandchildren’s generation will live to see the ozone hole fully repaired sometime in the middle of this century.

We have largely removed lead from the air by taking it out of our petrol – thus avoiding a major threat to the health of our children.

We have some of the lowest dioxin levels in the world in our air and soil – and intend to keep it this way.

We have brought the Black Robin back from extinction, we have created pest free islands for our biodiversity, and are now creating “islands” on the mainland.

These things need to be reported too, because success reinforces success.

But I could go on myth-busting all night!

So far I have shared with you some of my own thoughts on some common perceptions, myths and realities; the good news and the bad news about how good New Zealand’s environmental performance really is. These are all the thoughts of a fifty-something politician. What about younger generations? What do they think?

Recently, a group of sixth formers from Wellington Girls College spent the morning at the Ministry for the Environment in Wellington as part of work choice day. While they were there they were asked for their thoughts on common myths and realities about the health of our environment and I want to share some of their comments.

On our image and how well we are doing:

New Zealand is clean, but it could be cleaner

GMO introduction would change our image, it would no longer be clean and green. There may be benefits, but it leaves our country looking pretty artificial.

And their thoughts on what we need to do better:

The public needs to be educated on resource management and care.

Measures need to put in place to ensure that natural resources are kept clean and safe.

We need to concentrate on improving our environment, eg less pollution even if we may have some of the lowest pollution levels in the world

It is up to all of us to pick up and clean up after ourselves

We need to educate people in the community more, and better explain environmental issues.
This last quote leads nicely into what I would like really to concentrate on this evening. Making the difference and getting the whole community to take responsibility for ensuring that we not only live up to our clean green image – but we move down the road to a more sustainable society.

So why is it that the average New Zealander is not well informed when it comes to the reality of the environmental issues we face. There is complacency out there – why bother when we perceive no major problem?

I am convinced that only when we have accessible information on the real state of our environment, and an educated public who can distinguish myth from reality, will we make major progress down the sustainability path.

I am sure all of you are familiar with the State of New Zealand’s Environment report that was published in 1997, but how many of you have read it or purchased a copy? I suggest to you that more than 600 pages with a price tag of $70 is not accessible to or digestible by the average New Zealander. Sure it’s well researched, well written and a very useful reference – but it’s still a doorstop! I haven't read all 600 pages!

For the last four years the Ministry for the Environment has been working on the Environmental Performance Indicators programme whose purpose is to develop and use indicators to measure and report how well we are looking after our environment. This is all good stuff – creating the basic building blocks - but I want to build on this to create a system of environmental reporting for New Zealand, rather than another report.

The picture I have of this reporting system is that it will:
 have sustainability at its core
 be a partnership with local government and iwi
 meet the ongoing information needs of a wide range of audiences
 raise awareness and be an education tool
 improve decision-making at the local, regional and national level
 be relevant to the urban areas will live in.

By sustainability I mean sustainable development – which is often referred to as a three-legged stool. A stool on which all the social, economic and environmental legs have to be strong before it will stand-up.

In terms of reporting, the environmental leg is currently very flimsy. The Ministry is building this leg, but I would like to see New Zealand able to report in terms of all three legs of sustainability – that is integrating reporting of all three legs. I see this as needing a cross-government approach – and the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand are now working toward this goal. They are currently working in partnership to align the socio-economic and environmental indicators and will shortly begin work on a trial set of environmental accounts for New Zealand.

This Government is genuine about working in partnership with local government and iwi – the development of environmental performance indicators by the Ministry is already a prime example of how I see local government, iwi and central government working together. But the proof of genuine partnership is making it work so it meets the needs of all the partners – this is my aim.

I envisage a system of monitoring and reporting that produces information relevant to school kids on the one hand and “policy works” in Wellington on the other. The Ministry has been working hard on a range of reporting formats designed to meet a range of needs [Note: MfE staff will have some examples with them.]– from the web to report cards, and comprehensive reports to benchmarking our clean green image for exporters – and even for the annual State of the Nation’s Environmental address.
And this reporting must be accessible to the local voter. Because although it is the Ministry that researches and establishes the indicators, it is local government that enacts most of the measures that determine how strong our environment is.

To that end, I am working on an exercise that will involve New Zealanders in their homes and communities, whereby they assess how well we have met the goals set by Agenda 21 in 1992. I want this to be done before the local government elections next year, so that voters understand the importance of local government and its responsibility for the state of the environment before voters are faced with long lists of names. Too often we assume that the state of our environment is managed only out of central government.
And without a way for local people to assess the health of their local environment, they will not be able to judge how well their representatives have guarded their interests.
But this sounds again as though the responsibility is all in the hands of politicians. Both local and central politicians know that the choices made are rarely for environmental reasons alone.
There is the choice between access to the renewable sources such as wind power and its potential blot on the landscape; there is the choice between salmon fishing and improved irrigation on the Canterbury Plains. And both sides have voters in support. We need therefore to educate all of us about the effects of our choices, the effects of our lobbying. We need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages around the kitchen table and not leave that 'weighing up' to our politicians.
Taking responsibility for sustainable development, for the three legs – social, environmental and economic – needs to be sheeted home to the citizen.
Taking responsibility is being aware of the different claims on the environment; taking responsibility is acting in a knowledgeable way for the whole community not just your sector group; and finally taking responsibility means becoming involved in local decision-making.
Principle 10 of Agenda 21 begins with the words "Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens at the relevant level."
RMA is a foundation stone of that process, but so are indicators and knowledge of the state of our environment. And the deciding factor is the willingness of communities to be wholly involved.
Only that way will we move forward in our search for sustainable development.
Finally, thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today. I hope in the future that this annual event can become at least as important as the annual State of the Nation’s Economy address given by the Minister of Finance.

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