State of the environment: reports urge NZ to act

‘Clean, green’ New Zealand is the only OECD country without an Act requiring environment health checks. What will we do about it, asks the Parliamentary Commissioner?

The Kiwi emperor has no green clothes.

In this earlier post here on Pundit, I challenged the Brash notion that GDP (colloquially expressed in terms of catching Australia by 2025) is a meaningful concept for measuring national well being. I reviewed key reasons why it had been discredited, and the alternative concept of ecological economics, given stellar recognition in the Sarkozy-Stiglitz Commission’s Report on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (September 2009).

My tongue might have been as resolutely lodged in cheek, as the taskforce mind was closed. But the whole world in fact knows what Don Brash seemingly does not: how very old fashioned and out of step New Zealand thinking is; how large the dissonance between our image of ourselves and the reality.

Because its not just Sarkozy-Stiglitz, as anyone who has read their literature review will know. Ecological economics which builds in other measures, such as environmental and social measures, to assess sustainability and true well being is the coming thing, and if we were taking the long view, we would open our arms wide now, ready to embrace it. It has been endorsed by everyone from the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Bank, on down.

It responds to a critical practical problem; this is no academic frolic. As the UK Sustainable Development Commission reported (in March 2009): The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100 … it has already been accompanied by the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems”.

Canada is already practising this new accounting (and accountability) method. The Canada Well-Being Measurement Act, federally adopted in 2003, established a committee to develop and publish an annual set of indicators of economic, social and environmental well being. A Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development reports annually to Parliament with an analysis and evaluation of this material, that assesses what the measures mean for the wellbeing of “people, communities and ecosystems in Canada”.

By contrast, we can boast some siloed bits of work at central government level, such as the New Zealand Centre for Ecological Economics (a joint Landcare Research-Massey University initiative), and the Statistics New Zealand report Measuring New Zealands Progress using a Sustainable Development Approach 2008, which the Green Party had a hand in. Back in 2000, they secured $730,000 budget funding to pilot work on sustainable national and business accounting; the report is the long-awaited result. It’s jam-packed with useful fascinating stats, and makes a worthy doorstop.

A couple of weeks ago, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) tabled a report urging systematic independent environment health measuring and reporting. This would be the base that New Zealand needs, to build a robust concept of ecological economics. The PCE referred to OECD environmental performance reviews, in which New Zealand has been criticised for its relative lack of progress.

It would be necessary for New Zealand to further integrate environmental concerns into economic decision-making, concluded the OECD in its latest assessment. Ecological economics would be the ultimate expression of this, but we first have to get the information, which is the reporting aspect the PCE was talking about.

The Ministry for the Environment has already developed a set of national environmental indicators such as air quality, atmospheric indicators, biodiversity, land use, energy, transport, fresh water and oceans, waste that feed into a national environmental reporting programme, and sporadic ‘state of the environment’ reports. Environment New Zealand 2007, the second such report, was released on January 31, 2008, a decade after its 1997 predecessor. The work seems to have proceeded on a parallel track to Statistics New Zealand’s, although it is quite similar. The PCE criticises it, for being government-owned (which in 2007 caused the withholding of some presumably unflattering conclusions), ad hoc, and challenged by other problems, such as problems with the quality and consistency of data.

She also lays out how poorly New Zealand is performing in this area, against other OECD countries. Almost all OECD countries are legally bound by a domestic or international requirement to measure and report on the state of their environment at a national level; and of the thirty countries which have reporting programmes, twenty of them are independent from the government. By way of an example of the priority given to this by some countries, Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency has 550 staff, with an annual budget of 37 million Euro.

The exception is New Zealand, the country that brands itself clean and green. New Zealand is the only country in the OECD without an ongoing statutory commitment to regularly reporting on the state of its environment,notes the PCE. She concludes that an Environment Reporting Act is needed, to give clear statutory guidance on the purpose of national environmental reporting and the roles and responsibilities of different government agencies, and ensure reporting is independent, and statutorily compelled.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has welcomed the report, and reiterated National’s 2008 election policy, which was similar (an Act requiring five-yearly reporting by the PCE). For the Greens, Kennedy Graham said in the House last week: “the Green Party strongly supports that recommendation from the Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment. I personally shall be exploring, I hope, in dialogue with the Government, ways in which the idea of sustainability indicators can be produced and integrated into Government legislation”.

So there is some convergent thinking, and we shall see what happens next. Will it, as seems likely, be a not unduly onerous Environment Reporting Act, as both the government and the PCE have suggested? Or might we see a more ambitious effort, giving true effect to ecological economics in New Zealand?

The Budget is coming up which in terms of the OECD recommendation above for better economic and environmental integration, is the annual highlight of economic decision-making, from which all else follows. Instead of considering solely fiscal measures, as the Public Finance Act requires at Budget time, maybe we might one day see another Act, requiring equal Budget priority to be given to environmental measures as well.