Amy Adams speech -Environmental Defence Society conference
Hon Amy Adams
Minister for the Environment
8 August 2013
Environmental Defence Society conference
Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here to talk to you on the second day of the EDS conference.
I would like to acknowledge Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who has just spoken to you about her perspectives on environmental reporting.
I would also like to acknowledge the many other distinguished speakers and environmental thought leaders that are among us today.
As the Minister for the Environment, the theme of this year’s conference is a topic which is extremely pertinent to my portfolio and relevant to what I plan to talk about today.
Over the past day I understand you have heard from a range of speakers about environmental performance, energy and climate change, and freshwater.
This morning I am going to talk to you about some of my environmental policy reforms, with a particular focus on New Zealand’s environmental reporting framework.
As I have said many times, in New Zealand our economy is dependent on our environment, and our environmental protection efforts rely on us having a strong economy.
Of course we all care about whether our popular swimming spots are clean enough to swim in, whether the air we breathe is free from pollution and we all want to look after our oceans and protect our rich biodiversity.
But at the same time we also want a high standard of living, affordable houses, power and food, and we want to see jobs created and the economy growing.
If we deny or discount any of those aspirations of New Zealanders, then we delude ourselves and risk a meaningless debate.
In order to protect our environment, while encouraging economic prosperity, we need to be able to have an honest debate about the interactions between the environment and the economy, have a clear picture of what the trade-offs and opportunities are and the impacts our choices are having.
Any argument that only seeks to present half the picture, does little to advance our understanding.
We need credible environmental information that paints an accurate picture so that the debate can be about the environmental issues themselves, not about whether the reporting is accurate, comparable or representative.
I don't know how many times I have heard speeches given citing the change in New Zealand's ranking from one year’s Yale report to the next as evidence of deterioration without highlighting that the change in what those reports analysed from the first year to the second meant that any side-by-side comparison was of little, if any, value.
Producing robust environmental information that the public can trust is a priority for the Government.
I am a firm believer in the principle that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
While much good work has happened to improve our data collection and reporting in recent years, we can do more.
The methods we use to collect data need to be credible and the data must be obtained from a range of trustworthy sources, such as local councils, central government and crown research institutes, using consistent methodology.
The public has to be able to rely on the integrity of the data. Environmental reporting should be transparent, unimpeachable and independent of the government of the day, and we need certainty that this information will be available regularly.
Perhaps most importantly, people need to understand environmental information, and it needs to be presented in ways that is useful to them.
The expected audience includes the wider public, policy makers, businesses, environmental managers and researchers. We need to provide New Zealanders with the big picture but we also need to provide access to the detail that underpins this story.
To help address this issue, several initiatives are already underway to make sure New Zealanders have access to the environmental information they need, and to enhance the quality of the data.
One key area we have particularly focussed on is freshwater.
This Government has made reforming the way we manage freshwater a priority; from the creation of the Land and Water Forum, the establishment of New Zealand's first NPS on freshwater, to the new collaboration planning options and national objectives frameworks now under development.
During our time in office we have had MfE working actively with regional councils and NIWA to improve the consistency of the methods used to measure river water quality and to account for water abstractions and nutrient inputs. We have also introduced water-metering regulations on all large water users.
This Government has also over the past five years expanded the number of Tier One environmental statistics from two to 12.
These statistics are the most important statistics for understanding how New Zealand is performing, and are already produced independently from government and provide long-term data continuity.
They ensure the statistical rigour and independence of key information sets in areas such as water quality, soil health, biodiversity and climate.
We are also taking measures to ensure consistency of environmental information through legislation.
In 2011, we released a discussion document on environmental reporting where we signalled that changes to the Resource Management Act were required to enable the Government to make regulations requiring local authorities and councils to monitor the environment according to specified priorities and methodologies.
That document highlighted that there was no requirement for local authorities to monitor the same aspects of the environment in a consistent way. This made it difficult to produce a satisfactory national picture of environment quality.
For example, currently regional water quality monitoring sites are not selected consistently across regions.
Regional councils have an obligation to provide information on high-use swimming sites and to keep the public safe. This means that some regional councils may monitor a high number of sites with poor water quality, while others monitor a high number of pristine sites.
The lack of consistency in site selection, the number of sites monitored per region, and annual changes in sites make any annual comparison difficult at a national level.
To help address this issue, changes to section 360 of the RMA to require consistent reporting site selection criteria and methodology are included in the Resource Management Reform Bill 2012, which is currently going through the final stages of the Parliamentary process.
These new powers would ensure that, where appropriate, consistent approaches are taken to environmental monitoring across New Zealand.
While these initiatives have been underway, the Ministry for the Environment has continued to release regular indicator reports across the five domains.
Indicator updates on river condition and suitability for swimming were released last week, but as I highlighted earlier, the debate around these indicators can often focus on how much the data really tells us about the position of New Zealand Inc, rather than painting a clear picture of where we are at.
But by making improvements to the quality and accessibility of data through robust, independent reporting, we can focus on the issues rather than the integrity of the data.
New Zealand is one of only a few countries without a legislative basis for national environmental reporting. In Australia, Canada and many other countries, regular national environmental reporting is required by law.
In my view New Zealand deserves the same.
Contrary to what you will often hear, there has never been a Cabinet mandate under this government nor any previous government to deliver five-yearly state of the environment reports. How and when such reporting should be produced needs to be legally mandated.
In any such reporting, independence is a key requirement, as illustrated by the controversy in 2007 over concerns the previous Government’s state of the environment report had been subject to political interference.
The root cause of the problem is that, because there is no legislative requirement specifying the scope, timing and nature of environmental reporting, there is potentially a lack of public confidence that reporting will occur and a view that the nature of any environmental reporting is open to change from government-to-government.
It is critical that environmental reporting is a robust, factual assessment.
Today, I am pleased to announce that this Government is committed to implementing strong measures to improve environmental reporting, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
Later this year, it is my intention to introduce an Environmental Reporting Bill to Parliament. This Bill will legislate comprehensive, mandatory and regular environmental reporting to keep the New Zealand public informed about the state of our environment.
The Bill will provide New Zealanders with a guarantee of robust, relevant information about their environment on a regular basis, independent from political interference.
The proposed environmental reporting system will monitor and report on five key environmental domains - air, climate and atmosphere, freshwater, marine and land, with biodiversity as a cross cutting theme across all domains.
One environmental domain report will be released every six months on a cyclical basis.
In addition, a comprehensive synthesis State of the Environment report covering all domains will be released every three years.
In each domain report the state of that domain will be comprehensively recorded across a wide number of indicators and trends in environmental conditions will be identified.
The reports will go beyond the programme of individual indicator updates that the Ministry for the Environment has produced in recent years.
This will be both in terms of providing a more comprehensive, balanced set of measures, and by providing the platform for analysis of what those measures mean, what is driving any changes in environmental condition and why it matters.
This will be instrumental in allowing us to understand what is changing in our environment and to identify what changes may be required.
The Ministry will also work with the data producers – crown research institutes and regional councils - to ensure that up-to-date environmental data is available to the public as it becomes available.
With five domain reports to be published, this will ensure that each domain is robustly reported over the three-year cycle.
While many environmental systems are susceptible to short-term fluctuations, meaningful trends are often only apparent over longer timeframes.
So, in addition, the comprehensive synthesis state of the environment report covering all the environmental domains will also be released every three years.
The synthesis report will provide wider analysis of issues and trends across the environment. It would, for example, pick up the relationships between land use and water quality, providing a picture of our ecosystems and biodiversity.
It will also consider the various pressures impacting each of the domains, be they climatic, anthropogenic or otherwise occurring.
To deliver the respected and robust framework we need, the Bill will provide that the Secretary for the Environment and the Government Statistician be mandated to produce these reports, at arm’s length from the government of the day.
This builds on the respective strengths of these two agencies. The Ministry for the Environment has an overview of the environmental system including Resource Management Act performance and can provide the interpretation and analysis of environmental information.
The Government Statistician brings expertise in providing robust data to New Zealanders, as well as the assurance of an independent environmental reporting system.
The role of the Government Statistician will give the public assurance that the information they receive is independent, accurate, and free from political bias.
This independence is mandated under the Statistics Act and is well utilised in our approach to economic reporting. The Economic Development Indicators are currently produced on this basis and are respected as authoritative and trusted.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will also have an important role to play in the proposed environmental reporting regime, as the independent advisor to parliament.
It is my intention that the Commissioner will have a legislative mandate to provide expert commentary and independent opinion on the quality of the underlying data and robustness of the analysis, as well as the substance of the synthesis state of the environment report and any concerns it may raise.
An important dimension of the Commissioner’s role is that the scope and focus of their work should not be constrained.
By not subjecting the Commissioner to the regulatory constraints of what must be produced, we ensure that that office retains the ability to focus on any area it considers important.
The Commissioner has a crucial role to play in assuring the public of the performance of the environmental management system as a whole, including the quality and balance of environmental reporting.
Independent commentary by the Commissioner can serve to identify areas for improvement in both the reporting and the response. Indeed, the Commissioner’s comments on the 2007 state of the environment report were formative in this Government’s thinking on the future of environmental reporting in New Zealand.
The changes I am announcing today address many of the issues the Commissioner raised in 2007.
It is the Government’s intention that the resources for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s office be increased, to ensure there is additional capacity to carry out this work.
The proposed Bill has significant benefits for the New Zealand public, businesses, researchers and policy makers.
The proposed changes will make environmental information available to the public in a way that is easy to understand, accessible and relevant.
People from across New Zealand will be able to compare environmental trends over time.
The Bill will give environmental groups, businesses and the primary production sector, among others, an understanding of the impact activities are having.
For example, farmers will be able to see how their collective efforts to improve the environment, such as fencing waterways, are improving water quality.
Researchers and scientists will have access to consistent data that is updated regularly to help guide their work. They will be able to see changes to our environment over time and the impacts these changes are having on the values New Zealanders care about.
Reliable data will also provide a platform for government to build policy to protect our environment while encouraging economic growth.
This environmental reporting system will let us track how we are performing compared to our trading partners and will facilitate international benchmarking and comparability. Where possible we will align our system with international reporting, such as the OECD Green Growth indicators.
The next steps to further progress the Environmental Reporting Bill are now underway.
The Bill is currently being drafted and, as I previously mentioned, it is my intention that it will be introduced to the House before the end of the year.
The proposed Bill that I have discussed today will be a significant step forward in the way we monitor our environment. It will ensure we have robust and reliable environmental information so we can have an informed discussion about the environmental issues that affect New Zealanders and the way we respond to them.
It will allow us to work together to make targeted improvements to protect our environment while supporting economic growth.