Policymakers 'flying blind' with huge data gaps - environment commissioner

9:55 pm on 7 November 2019

The government's watchdog has warned of alarming gaps in data, which could be leading to poor policy and irreversible environmental damage.

Simon Upton

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton. Photo: [https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/35725837402flickr]

In a scathing report released this afternoon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, identified significant shortfalls in the Environmental Reporting Act, which introduced mandatory reporting in 2015.

The overall picture painted by the review was of a centralised system collating data - but that data is coming from different organisations, that are collecting different types of data at different times, using different variables and looking for different things.

As such, it was fragmented data being cobbled together, leaving huge gaps, both geographically and categorically.

Mr Upton said there were real-life implications that stemmed from having bad data because it meant policymakers are essentially "flying blind".

"There are real legal consequences if a debate about the environmental limit setting, or about something under the RMA [Resource Management Act], comes down to the data and the data can be shown to be questionable, then you're in real trouble," he said.

"We need to be able to rely on what we're doing, across the country and for the national level, and that's what I'm really focussed on."

A nationally consistent level of data collection

One of the practical solutions recommended in the review was around the development of a core set of indicators to form the backbone of reporting.

In other words: a consistent outline for data-collecting agencies to utilise, in terms of a reference point. It would provide information on what to look out for, when to do it, and how to do it.

As it is, there are significant issues when it comes to data collection. A number of different entities - Crown entities, government ministries, outsourced organisations, and local governments - are all involved in the data collection.

"Just take regional councils as an example," chief scientist at Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, Professor Richard McDowell said.

"You have 16 different variations of what could be a design of a network - it's not 100 percent optimised."

Professor McDowell said what he wanted was "a nationally consistent view on this - i.e. where those data should be collected, and the purpose they should be collected for".

He said as a result "we're not optimising our possibility to pick up or detect changes, be they good changes or bad changes".

This is where another recommendation would come in.

Mr Upton said he wanted to see a comprehensive, nationally coordinated environmental monitoring system that would be established in five to ten years.

Lack of investment due to 'unsexiness' of data collection

The sticking point with all this is the amount upgrading data collection will all cost, and Mr Upton conceded it will require serious investment.

Chief freshwater scientist and the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, Dr Scott Larned, said the problem was straightforward.

"We're actually relatively clear about the kind of data we're missing - both on the state of our water bodies and soil side, and on the pressure side. How to fund the collection and analysis of that data is something else."

Professor McDowell concurred.

"There's a significant lag between what we indicate, and the investment going into it. At the moment there is not a great deal of resources going into what I call the unsexy side of data collection and it's very important."

But Dr Larned said he was concerned the longer investment into improving data collection was put off, the greater the consequences it could have.

It could have particular consequences on policy, which Dr Larned said "was being developed on the basis of the data that we have, which is limited and some times it can be biased.

"It could be biased regionally, or it can be biased by the kind of lakes that are monitored - relatively few lakes are monitored in the DOC (Department of Conservation) estate that are very high quality, so we might have a biased view about what the average lake condition is in New Zealand."

Accompanied with the concerns raised by Mr Upton around legal action, Federated Farmers have immediately questioned government policies that they said have now been proven to be based on bad data.

Board member and environment spokesperson, Chris Allen said the inconsistent data talked about in the review was "not a sound footing for some of the policy swings underway that farmers are so concerned about".

In particular the Freshwater Policy, released in September, was questioned. Mr Allen said "decision-makers do not have the information the need to prepare a national approach or long-term strategy".

'Forward thinking' and solutions praised

What was met with particular approval from a number of academics was the review's emphasis on solutions.

Included in the recommendations were:

  • The establishment of a science advisory panel which would help shape the indicators for data collection, as well as determine a shape and categorisation of the reporting
  • Data collection to include Mātauranga Māori to make best use of their accumulated knowledge
  • Altering the Environmental Reporting Act to include a clearer purpose
  • Operative changes, which would see the rigidity of reports relaxed - it would create a more fluid system of reporting, based on issues rather than perjorative categories
  • Double the length of time for the State of the Environment reports, from every three years to every six years
  • Requirement for governments to respond to the reports - outlining what they have done and what they will do based on the data presented to them

Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, Dr Andrea Byrom, said such proposals made her excited.

"What I liked about this report is it is future focussed, it's about saying 'We know we're not in a good space now, we know we need to do better, and here's some tangible ways we can do better'," she said.

Senior research associate at Victoria University's Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Dr Murray Petrie, said: "The recommendation to require each government to respond to the environmental report saying what it has been doing what it will do could be the most important.

"You can imagine - and this happens in some countries - that impressive-looking environmental reports are published, but nothing happens - they're shelved and they disappear into a vacuum."

The review as a whole has been welcomed by a range of involved government entities, including the Ministry for Environment, Stats NZ, and Local Government NZ.

Mr Upton said he hoped the government would act on his recommendations and get new legislation before parliament next year.

He added there would be a further report that would in greater detail outline the linkage between wellbeing and better data collection in mid-2020.

Local Government New Zealand vice president Stuart Crosby said the current process was piecemeal at best.

"Unless you have clear and consistent data that can be interpreted only one way, then there will be people that will interpret it in different ways, and form different opinions and breed misinformation. That can happen and in fact does happen," he said.

With the lack of data, he said, it was hard for the government to make good policy decisions that could improve overall environment outcomes.

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