Editorial: Meeting the challenges

In July this year, the UN Environment Programme released its fifth Global Environmental Outlook, a three-yearly review of the planet's health. As report cards go, it was a D-minus.

In July this year, the UN Environment Programme released its fifth Global Environmental Outlook, a three-yearly review of the planet's health. As report cards go, it was a D-minus: "If current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, "... governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation."

Read the Global Environmental Outlook 

Climate change, food and water shortages, overfishing, deforestation, biodiversity loss – all are chronic global maladies, but, said Steiner, the case for the cure: "a decisive and defining transition towards a low-carbon, resourceefficient, job-generating green economy ... is overwhelming".

New Zealand might seem well protected, even immune, from such global ailments, but a look through Ministry for the Environment (MfE) reports shows that we're part of the problem. Our greenhouse gas emissions, while falling overall, continue to mount over the country's farms: a consequence of continued intensification and rising nitrogen fertiliser use. Agriculture was the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2010, contributing 33.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 47.1 per cent of total emissions – an increase of 0.8 per cent on 2009.

In October, MfE reported that water quality was either poor or very poor at just over half of 210 monitored river swimming sites. A further 28 per cent got a "fair" grade, meaning you still risked illness by swimming there.

The Christchurch earthquakes reminded us that many of us live right beside a vast potential seismic energy: many more live beside an ocean tipped to rise by at least half a metre by century's end, and probably more. Driven by a more energetic climate, waves of change are coming our way.

So it was timely when, in early October, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce boarded RV Tangaroa in Auckland to announce the National Science Challenges research programme. 

Find out more about the National Science Challenges

The Challenges are a $60 million Government budget initiative to identify the paramount social and environmental problems facing New Zealand, and to secure solutions to them. The project rightly recognises that we are, above all, a ward of Nature: the country's economy stands or falls on the integrity of the environmental systems – water, energy, ecosystem services, nutrient and energy cycles – that sustain it. A more volatile climate will put still greater pressure on these systems (and on our economy – the 2007-08 drought cost around $2.8 billion in lost production), so it's vital that we strive to understand where that might lead.

As Minister Joyce said, "If we were able to talk about science more, there would be a lot more solutions coming forward, balancing science and the economy." Nowhere are they more urgently needed than in our pastures. The government's Economic Growth Agenda calls for export revenues to earn 40 per cent of GDP by 2025. That would require the sector to treble the real value of its exports in that time.

Find out more about the Economic Growth Agenda 

Feeding the world is a noble cause, but if it leaves our skies loaded with greenhouse gas emissions, and our waters full of nitrogen, it will have been a lost one.

The Government has signalled, too, that it expects our territorial sea to assist the nation's economic recovery. But before we can mobilise our marine resources sustainably, we have to know what they are, what ecosystems and webs they support, how much we might wisely choose to extract.

The long-term debt of getting it wrong will cancel out any short-term economic relief: as the Minister pointed out, "It's really important to have a science-based approach.''

Which comes down to accurate information, and innovative solutions. Monitoring has always been crucial to good resource management, but now that the rate of change threatens to outstrip the capacity of natural systems to adapt, we must be sensitive to any signals they might send.

In this issue, Something in the air reminds us of the value of vigilance: scientists at NIWA's Lauder Atmospheric Research Station have been measuring atmospheric elements for more than four decades, and their data suddenly became pivotal with the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985.

In Acid test, Marieke Hilhorst reports that, as the oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide, shell-building creatures – including, crucially, plankton – may struggle to survive in increasingly acid seawater. Just what that could mean for oceanic food webs, we don't yet know, but NIWA scientists are testing various hypotheses, because nobody wants another unpleasant surprise like the ozone hole. 

John Morgan

Chief Executive, NIWA 

John Morgan, NIWA Chief Executive