Q&A: Is New Zealand really clean and green?

It's true that, by some indicators, New Zealand enjoys better environmental health than many other developed nations. Some of that performance is down to pioneering regulation, such as the fisheries Quota Management System and the Resource Management Act. However, much of it might also be described as a happy accident: New Zealand is, by global standards, sparsely populated, with an average of just 16.59 people per square kilometre in 2010 – less than half the OECD average and higher than only Australia, Iceland, Canada and Norway.

That means the human footprint is comparatively small here. That said, it’s sobering just how much impact humans have had on New Zealand’s environment, given that they’ve only been here since the 13th century.

What do you think?

Every two years, Lincoln University researchers ask New Zealanders how they feel about the state of their country’s environment. In 2010, respondents reinforced findings from earlier surveys, considering it to be in good health and well managed. They felt that air quality, along with coastal waters and beaches, were the best managed environmental assets.

They considered rivers and lakes, marine fisheries and wetlands the worst managed, but still rated them highly compared with other countries. They felt that most assets were being managed well – a significant jump from previous surveys – but still felt that groundwater, rivers and lakes, and marine fisheries were not managed well enough. Farm effluent and runoff continued to be perceived as the least well managed.

Water pollution and associated water issues were considered the most important environmental issue we face. A third of respondents felt that, globally, climate change is the most important environmental issue.

How do we rate globally?

Yale University’s annual Environmental Performance Index ranks countries according to indicators such as air and water quality, land use and resource management. In 2012, New Zealand came in 14th out of 132 countries, sandwiched between Iceland and Albania. In 2006, we were number one. The index also measures environmental trends by tracking progress over the past decade. Here, New Zealand managed just 50th, between Armenia and Slovenia.

A 2010 study by Australian, US and Singaporean researchers – Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries – compiled such indicators as habitat conversion, marine capture, carbon emissions and fertiliser use, and placed New Zealand in the 20 worst proportional environmental performers, shoulder to shoulder with China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Overall, we scored 47th worst in the world. The study’s methodology, however, came under critical review from some quarters.

Where do we need to improve?

Biodiversity

New Zealand’s record on biodiversity is one of the worst anywhere. We have one of the highest extinction rates, and we currently have more threatened species than any other nation on Earth. A 2007 biodiversity assessment found 2788 native species at risk. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature rates 37 per cent of our 215 native birds as threatened. Thirty-four per cent (797) of our plants are considered to be under some level of threat. Sixty-eight per cent of our freshwater fish are threatened (four of the five species in your whitebait fritter are on the endangered list), and the freshwater crayfish and mussel are also in danger.

Water quality

Last October, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) reported that New Zealand freshwater quality was either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ at just over half of 210 monitored river swimming sites around the country.

A 2010 report from MfE assessed water quality trends in 112 New Zealand lakes between 2005 and 2009. Over the study period, 12 per cent of lakes assessed had improved, while 28 per cent had worsened. It then extrapolated those findings across 4000 lakes smaller than a hectare, and found that 43 per cent were likely to have very good or excellent water quality – meaning very low nutrient levels – while 32 per cent were likely to have poor or very poor (nutrient-enriched) water quality.

Those assessed lakes surrounded by farmland fared worst: natural resources 44 per cent were eutrophic (meaning they carried excessive nutrient loads) or worse. When extrapolated, the study concluded that out of 3820 New Zealand lakes, more than a third would be eutrophic or worse. In 2010, NIWA reported that water quality in our major rivers had declined between 1989 and 2007. Over that period, nitrogen and phosphorus loadings had increased greatly at many sites. Nitrogen had increased by about 1.4 percent per annum over most of the country, and no sites recorded a drop. Upward trends for temperature, nitrogen and phosphorus had accelerated, commensurate with a surge in nitrogen fertiliser use – which has doubled since the mid-1990s – and dairy cow numbers. In the early 1990s, there were around 2.7 million dairy cows in New Zealand; by 2012 there were 4.6 million.

In 2007, New Zealanders were the second-most prolific users of water in the OECD. The Manapouri hydro station uses 41 per cent of the national weekly take.

Air quality

Last year’s Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand study found that 16 monitored airsheds met the National Environmental Standard for PM10 – tiny airborne particles. Of the remaining 27 airsheds monitored in 2011 – all required to meet the same PM10 standard by either 2016 or 2020 – 22 airsheds recorded pollution levels that would see them fail that standard. Nearly 20 per cent of New Zealanders live in those 22 airsheds. The study estimated that poor air quality causes around 1170 premature deaths in New Zealand each year. By contrast, 307 people died on New Zealand roads last year.

Car ownership

In 2006, New Zealanders owned more cars per head than almost anybody else in the OECD (with 70 cars for every 100 New Zealanders), topped only by Portugal (78) and the United States (76).

Greenhouse gas emissions

In 2005, out of 27 OECD countries, New Zealand had the fifth-highest greenhouse gas emissions per person, and we ranked 13th in the world. This is largely down to the fact that agriculture is responsible for practically half of all our emissions – mostly methane and nitrous oxide, which have a very strong, if relatively short-lived, warming effect. The Kyoto Protocol set us the task of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to 10 per cent below 1990 levels. In 2010, New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions were 71.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – 9.8 per cent higher than 1990 levels. The Government has pulled out of the Protocol, but if we were to try to meet our original 2020 obligations, every man, woman and child in New Zealand would now have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent.

Plastic fishing debris lines a Southland beach. Critics accuse New Zealand of running an environmental double-standard. [Hedgehog House]