In many respects New Zealand is a picture postcard country. Lest we forget it, the nation is awash with coffee table books, calendars and evocative television advertisements that showcase our spectacular scenery. The images, photographed through crisp, clean air, are of green and productive farmland, dazzling white mountain peaks, blue glacial lakes, swift mountain streams, yacht-bespeckled bays and harbours, tall pine plantations, and remote native forest tracks. These images show the environment as it really is in many parts of New Zealand, and most of us take considerable pride in that fact.
But, of course, they are not the full story. To focus exclusively on the pretty pictures is to be lulled into a false sense of security about our environment. This first comprehensive report on the state of New Zealand's environment adds to the pictures with words and figures and identifies the environmental problems we face and our remedial actions. In some cases (e.g. air, soil and water contamination) the problems appear to be less severe than in more densely populated parts of the world, but they are still serious enough to merit our concern and they have the potential to worsen if we are complacent. In other cases (e.g. habitat decline and threatened species) the problems are severe and widespread and appear to be getting worse, even as our wildlife documentaries prosper on world television.
Evidence of our environmental impacts is not hard to find. Because humans have been here for only 700-800 years, our first impacts are still detectable in sediment layers that show past erosion, buried charcoal, the pollen of incinerated plants, and the bones of more than 30 extinct birds. The more recent impacts are all around us: in our still declining populations of native animals, plants and fungi; in the pests and pastures that have displaced them; in localised instances of flash floods, erosion, pollution and other soil and water problems; in the haze of car fumes and chimney smoke that forms in some urban areas; and in the burning February sunlight that intensifies as the thinning ozone layer reaches its annual low point.
The fundamental source of most of these problems is the dramatic ecological change that occurred when a land of forests and shade was turned into a land of open pastures and towns. This big change reduced, fragmented and destabilised ancient ecosystems, altered water tables and run-off patterns, accelerated erosion in some areas, and set the scene for a raft of human activities that have sometimes led to air and water pollution, soil contamination and an influx of exotic pests and weeds.
While there are some exceptions, most of today's large environmental problems are either the legacy of past changes still taking their toll (e.g. flooding, habitat and species decline, contaminated sites), or the combined effect of many small impacts that are not quite in balance with the environment's ability to absorb them (e.g. water pollution from diffuse sources and local air pollution from motor vehicle emissions and household chimneys). Cumulatively, over time these small impacts can add up to much larger impacts on the environment and on our quality of life.
Using the information in previous chapters, we can now draw some conclusions about the state of New Zealand's environment, as far as present data allow us. We will do this by considering what they tell us about some of the important environmental issues facing New Zealand. The Government's Environment 2010 Strategy identifies eleven priority issues that need to be addressed over the next decade (see Chapter 4). Six of these issues are concerned with sustaining valued aspects of the environment (i.e. biodiversity, fisheries, soil, water resources, air quality and the ozone layer). Five are concerned with controlling pressures on the environment from various sources (i.e. pests and weeds, waste and hazardous substances, energy use, transport, and greenhouse gas emissions). Although the issues are listed as if they are independent, they are, in fact, all interconnected to some degree (Ministry for the Environment, 1995). For example, water quality is affected by, among other things, land use, pests and weeds, and pollution from wastes and transport leaks and residues.
Atmospheric and air quality are also affected by land use, transport, and other forms of energy use. Soil quality is affected by land use, pests and weeds and waste disposal. And biodiversity is affected, to some extent, by all of these things.
So, rather than see the issues as separate, it is more accurate to think of them as facets of the same picture or interconnected strands in a web. Some strands are relatively short and connected to only a few others. Some are long and connected to many others. In all cases, none can be changed independently without affecting some of the other strands. Addressing the issues effectively, then, requires an integrated approach to environmental management, such as that envisaged in the Resource Management Act.
It also requires something else-good information. One of the key goals of the Environment 2010 Strategy is for New Zealand to develop a sound information base through well coordinated research and a nationally standardised approach to monitoring. The OECD's 1996 performance review of New Zealand considered our current information base to be very limited and stressed the need for better environmental information (OECD, 1996). This lack of good environmental information and data is not confined to the public sector. In a recent survey of company environmental reporting in thirteen countries, New Zealand companies came bottom, with only 39 percent of those surveyed mentioning the environment in their annual reports and none producing a separate environmental report (Wennberg and Larsson, 1996).
The need for better environmental information is highlighted by the chapters of this report. While they show that New Zealand has a lot of environmental information and some very good analysis, they also show that much of this is too limited in place, time or topic to depict national trends or even provide a national snapshot (see Table 10.1). To ensure that environmental management is well focused, we need to have a coherent, consistent picture-and this picture should help integrate our responses to issues. Our first, and strongest, conclusion then is that New Zealand's environmental information, including the collection and integration of data, needs to be improved. Many of the other conclusions in this chapter should be read with the caveat that they are often based on limited information.