Secretary for the Environment, Vicky Robertsons speech for Environment Aotearoa 2019


I want to briefly cover the headlines of the report and talk about what I think this means for us as a country. In this report, we deliberately focus on the biggest challenges we face - so by definition the story the report tells is a negative one. None of the challenges are new – what’s new is how this report identifies the significance and the urgency of each issue. 

Understanding the issues means we can choose what we do next. I am optimistic that together we can tackle these challenges. We know that when we work together and focus our efforts, we can make big changes. 

Let me briefly outline the headlines in the report and then talk about the way forward. Our native plants, animals and ecosystems are under threat. Almost 4,000 of our native species are currently threatened with, or at risk of extinction. The status has worsened for 86 species, and improved for 26, but more than half of those rely on active conservation help. 

Changes we make to our vegetation are degrading our soil and water
About two thirds of our native forest has been removed over time. About 90 percent of wetlands have been drained –with 1250 hectares lost in the last 15 years. And pasture is now the single biggest type of land cover in the country.

Removing native forests, draining wetlands and clearing land means we lose the benefits natural land cover provides – like regulating the flow of water in our rivers and streams, storing carbon, purifying water and providing habitats for native species. And it accelerates our naturally high rates of erosion and soil loss.

Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity. Our urban areas make up a small proportion of our total land area – less than 1% - but they house around 86 % of our population. We’ve built - and are still building - our cities and towns on some of our best highly productive, versatile land, which is in short supply. The way we heat our homes, the cars we drive, our urban industries, and disposal of waste, stormwater and wastewater are all sources of pollution in our towns and cities. 

Our urban waterways are the most polluted in the country. The report shows that 94% of river length in urban areas is not suitable for activities such as swimming. Rivers in farming areas are also polluted with nutrients, pathogens and sediment; at between two and 15 times higher than natural conditions. The report shows 82 % of river length in farmed areas is not suitable for swimming, while   71 % have nitrogen levels that impact on aquatic species. Farming is not the only source for these pollutants, but it is a major contributor. And the report notes the intensification of farming in the past three decades has increased the impact on our waterways.

Moving now to our oceans. The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment. We trawl around 40,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor each year, and although the size of area is declining, we don’t know how long it takes for the ocean to recover from the impacts of trawling. 
We are managing individual fish stocks within limits, but our quota management system doesn’t take into account the interaction between fish stocks or the health of the ecosystem in general.

Our oceans are feeling the brunt of compounding environmental pressures. Excess sediment, nutrients from our rivers, a warming ocean and plastic pollution – all add to the pressure from fishing, and we don’t know just how significant the combined effect of all these pressures be.
Our oceans feel the impact of our changing climate, and so does the rest of our environment. 

It’s warming up. Four of the past six years were among the warmest on record. 

Our glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. Warming temperatures mean drier soils, increased risk of drought, pests and diseases. Our oceans are acidifying, heating and expanding, causing damage to our coastal properties and attracting warm water species. Last week’s release of our Greenhouse Gas Inventory tells us that our emissions are still continuing to rise as a nation.  

What does this mean? 

I warned you this would not be a positive message. The report clearly shows that the way we live and make a living is having a negative effect on our environment. So if we want the kind of environment New Zealanders say we do, then we have some choices to make. And it is about choices.

Because we also want a strong economy, and thriving cities. We want to limit the risk and impact of floods and droughts. And our population will continue to grow.All of these things need to be considered as we choose our way forward. 

So do I think we can find the right balance and turn things around? The answer is - yes, I believe we can. And here is why. Over the three years since we started this series of environmental reports, we have seen a huge increase in momentum. More and more New Zealanders are taking and demanding action. 

There are hundreds of community groups up and down the country working to restore their local areas. 

The primary sector is stepping up – farming leaders are committed to improving the sector’s environmental performance and there are many great examples of on-farm changes. 

All sorts of businesses are recognising that their long term success depends on a strong and healthy environment.  For example, the dairy companies Synlait and Miraka are paying a premium to farmers who meet environmental standards.

As another example,  85 of New Zealand’s top businesses, making up about a quarter of our economy, that have signed up to the Climate Leaders Coalition and committed their organisations to take voluntary action on climate change. 

At an individual level, people are using re-usable bags, taking public transport, planting trees, and reducing their waste and pollution.

At a regional and local level, councils are investing millions in upgrading infrastructure, reducing sediment runoff and water pollution, and supporting community efforts.

Central government is focused on improving the environmental management system so it better delivers for future generations. My ministry is working with others on comprehensive reforms in almost every area we operate across – legislation and regulation to tackle climate change, clean up our freshwater, protect our indigenous biodiversity and reduce the amount of waste we produce.  

This year, we will be having a conversation with New Zealanders about the impact and timeframe for these reforms.  That will be an opportunity to weigh up what we value and the future we want. 

All of this work will make a difference, and more is needed. The choices we make from here matter. And it is up to every one of us. There is no one industry, no one sector to which we can point the finger and ask them to fix it alone. We can’t wait for someone else to do something. We need every one of us thinking about the environmental impact of every choice that we make every day, and doing what is within our power to make change – whether that is in a boardroom, in a Minister’s office, on a farm, or at home.

By working together we can turn things around and protect the land and water that sustains us. For us here now and for our tamariki and mokupuna. 
Thank you.