Environment Aotearoa 2019: the state of our environment

By Fiona Stephenson

At the end of last month, the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ released a stocktake of the state of our environment. This report comes out once every three years and we’ve summarised it for you. Spoiler alert: it’s not in good shape.

The report paints a sobering picture. Despite all the evidence, it’s clear we aren’t taking nearly enough action. It behoves all of us to take heed of the state of our environment. Our environment and climate is changing, and the longer we wait to act, the more painful it will be – for people and for nature.

Environment Aotearoa 2019 identifies nine priority areas in need of urgent attention:

  1. Our native plants, animals and ecosystems are under threat.
    Our unique native biodiversity is under significant pressure from introduced species, pollution, changes to landscapes and harvesting of wild species. 90% of seabirds, 76% of freshwater fish and 84% of reptiles are threatened or at risk of extinction. The trend is worsening.
  2. Changes to vegetation are degrading the soil and water.
    Logging native forests, draining wetlands and clearing land are degrading waterways and accelerating soil loss. More than 70,000 hectares of native vegetation was lost between 1996 and 2012, and more than 1,200 hectares of wetlands lost between 2001 and 2016.
  3. Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity.
    Eighty six per cent of us now live in urban areas, and that figure is growing. Towns and cities tend to develop on versatile land with good quality soils and many agricultural uses. But land on the urban fringes is being taken up by lifestyle blocks which makes it unavailable for growing food. At the same time, our food system is under pressure to increase production.
  4. Waterways are polluted in farming areas.
    This pollution is caused by excess nutrients, pathogens and sediment. It threatens freshwater ecosystems and cultural values, and makes water unsafe for drinking and recreation. The main cause is the rapid growth in the national dairy herd, which increased by 70% between 1994 and 2017. We’re also using our farmland more intensively now than a few decades ago.
  5. The environment is polluted in urban areas.

Many of our towns and cities have polluted air, land and water. This comes from home heating, vehicle use, industry, and disposal of waste, wastewater and stormwater. This is affecting human health as well as ecosystem health.

  1. Taking water changes flows which affects our freshwater ecosystems.

Using water for hydroelectric generation, irrigation, and homes changes the water flows in rivers and aquifers. This affects freshwater ecosystems. Low river flows reduce the habitat for freshwater fish and other species, and can make them more susceptible to algal blooms. This makes waterways unfit for recreational and cultural uses.

  1. The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment.

Although the pressure of commercial fishing is letting up, 16% of routinely assessed fish stocks were overfished in 2016. Ten stocks have collapsed. Other pressures on the marine environment include sediment from rivers and urban pollution, including heavy metals and plastics.

  1. New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person.

Our rate of emissions per person is one of the highest in the industrialised world (higher than all but five of 43 industrialised countries). Agriculture is responsible for nearly half our emissions, followed by road transport. We have the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD. Our high rate of per-person emissions carries a reputational risk because trade and tourism are strongly linked to our environmental credentials.

  1. Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand.

Changes to our climate are already being felt in our land, freshwater and marine environments. This includes higher land and sea temperatures, sea level rise (14-22 cm in the last century), ocean acidification, melting glaciers (a loss of 25% of ice in the past 40 years), drier soils, and altered precipitation patterns. There is also a risk of more greater extreme events, like heat waves, droughts and storms.

It’s important to highlight these issues and report on the latest science and monitoring so we can see where we stand and track changes over time. But what we need more than ever are opportunities to take action to solve these issues.

Our Million Metres is one of the action partners in this report, along with our member CoGo. Million Metres works to support and accelerate community action for waterway restoration by providing fundraising, expertise, and other support that assists local projects to be successful. So far we’ve worked with over 40 community groups and landowners around the country and have helped raise the funds to restore more than 45 kilometres of waterways with 200,000 trees. Together, we’re aiming to restore a million metres of New Zealand’s rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands! You can help by donating to one of our projects now.

And if your business is already taking action, why not share your success story and get recognition for your achievements by entering the NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards? Entries for the 2019 Awards are now open.

Read Environment Aotearoa 2019 in full here: https://www.mfe.govt.nz/environment-aotearoa-2019