Is environmental investment making a difference?


The Government spends over $2 billion each year on the environment – a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment explores how we are affecting the environment and whether the actions we are taking to improve it are working

The report completes a cycle of work the Commissioner has undertaken over five years. It has become clear that while there are links between the environmental information we collect, the research we undertake and the money we throw at environmental problems, they are often tenuous, lacking in transparency and governed by short-termism.

We need better environmental information to inform decision making. For example, without adequate freshwater monitoring, it is impossible to know whether our rivers are being sustainably managed and water flows are high enough to sustain the lifeforms within them.

Knowing more does not necessarily lead to doing more, nor does spending more money on a problem mean we are fixing it. What matters for environmental stewardship is how effectively any expenditure is supporting the health and resilience of the environment. Better information is one of the pillars that can support this.

Public accountability emerges as the principal theme of this report. Government decisions – and their consequences – need to be capable of scrutiny. And for there to be accountability, there has to be clarity and transparency about what it is we are trying to achieve.

The scale and complexity of environmental challenges is not well handled by our current system of public accountability, in part because it focuses on individual agencies. We need to know what is happening at the level of the government as a whole, in a way that is accessible and capable of scrutiny.

The recommendations in this report are designed to ensure that the actions of the Government are focused on the most important environmental outcomes, and that the effectiveness of those actions can be assessed.

This report draws on the learnings of three of the Commissioner’s prior reports and calls for:

  • foundational investments in environmental information
  • clarity about why we are prioritising certain environmental issues (and not others)
  • transparency about what environmental outcomes the Government is aiming for, what the Government plans to do to achieve them and how much it spends as part of that response
  • accountability for the results of that spending.

Read the full report
Read a summary of the report

The Auditor-General has written a blog on public accountability in conjunction with the release of this report.

Dr Andrea Byrom, Independent Environmental Consultant, comments: 

“This report by the PCE is the fourth and final in a series that has traversed firstly Aotearoa’s environmental reporting system; secondly the knowledge and research that underpins our understanding of the state of the environment; and thirdly how best to ‘centre’ the environment in all government budgeting and decision-making and link such decisions to the wellbeing of our people.

“This fourth report synthesises the findings of the three reports and brings their findings and recommendations together. It also makes some additional recommendations that have emerged with the benefit of four years of deep thinking about this topic. We would be wise not to ignore it.

“All four reports are extremely high quality and taken together they send strong and very clear signals to politicians of all flavours that we cannot continue to sideline the environment when it comes to decision-making.

“I was delighted to see a call for national environmental outcomes “that will endure across successive parliaments” – it is frankly a travesty that Aotearoa is behind other nations in clearly stating what we need to achieve to reverse our current trajectory of environmental degradation. Coupled with the call for national outcomes is the call for the government of the day to be transparent about which environmental outcomes it is prioritising and funding at any one time. We must do this with urgency so that we can hold our politicians to account.

“The report also reiterates the need to focus environmental research funding into priority areas – whether they be knowledge gaps that need to be filled before we can make a good decision, or whether it is because we need to strengthen information about a particular topic. The Commissioner is entirely right that there is no shortage of strategy documents and policies across government that outline priorities – but little evidence that research investment aligns with those signals. Coupled with this is a call for national leadership and a mandate for a single organisation to take responsibility for national coordination around the way in which we gather information (i.e. monitor) the state of our environment.

“Finally, I was heartened to see the Commissioner bite the bullet and much more explicitly acknowledge the hundreds of years of traditional knowledge we have in Aotearoa and the potential for mātauranga Māori to both understand and help address the environmental challenges we face. His point that “[engagement]will not happen if the sort of national-level leadership I am advocating fails to acknowledge the tino rangatiratanga of local hapū and the mātauranga they guard.” I would go further and say that without concerted efforts to re-connect mana whenua with their lands and waters, and to seek equity for Māori in governance and decision-making on environmental issues, we will miss our opportunity to steer a new path that will centre Te Taiao (the environment) in everything we do.

“Over the course of these four reports the PCE has given us and our politicians the clearest signals possible about what we need to do and how to do it. It’s up to us to implement them.”

Honorary Professor Troy Baisden, University of Auckland School of Environment, Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator, Motu Affiliate, and Co-President New Zealand Association of Scientists, comments: 

“Does the government allocate too much or too little funding to environmental protection? By the Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment’s (PCE’s) accounting, $2.6 billion was spent in 2020. Yet, how would we know if it is the right amount or if the intended outcomes are likely to be achieved?

“The PCE’s latest report on Environmental reporting, research and investment caps a series comprising three previous reports aimed at these important questions. The less-than-satisfying conclusion is that the PCE’s team has struggled through two years investigating these questions to find that in most cases, answers are not clear. Therefore our systems lack the clarity and transparency the public and members of parliament should expect.

“After examining expenditures contributing to six environmental outcomes, the PCE found that only the best funded, reducing greenhouse gas emissions ($815 million in 2020), could clearly demonstrate funding leads to the intended outcome. In this case, the data and research findings accumulated over thirty years inform the emissions reductions underlying the Climate Change Commission’s Carbon Budgets.

“It is plausible that climate change emissions reductions form provides the exception in this report because it works within international frameworks and expectations, to achieve an outcome that is tracked globally rather than nationally. By contrast, $287 million was spent on freshwater outcomes and the PCE notes that there is a lack of nationally representative datasets linking land use drivers and freshwater outcomes.

“In addition, the PCE notes there considerable effort is being made to predict environmental outcomes when regulations and policies are considered, but few efforts to look back at whether past predictions have been accurate and supported good policy decisions. Fisheries provide the most notable exception. Given the PCE’s major investigation into Overseer and the additional gap in models that convert land use activity into expected pollution at catchment scales, New Zealand’s fraught relationship with models may deserve additional exploration to understand why expenditure toward environmental protection may be poorly linked to outcomes. It is comparable to the world monitoring greenhouse gas concentrations without ever having developed the earth system models that successfully use the concentrations to predict past and future climate.

“The PCE’s challenging findings point to an intriguing contrast between the report’s title and intent, to understand the case for investment in the environment, and the accounting for spending and expenditure at the heart of the report. The PCE makes it clear from the beginning that the difference between the two is accountability: the ability to trace the spending through outputs to outcomes with clarity and transparency.

“The PCE makes the important point that elected representatives, their staff and the public should expect better – and not accept an apparent fallacy that spending on environmental issues necessarily leads directly to fixing environmental problems. Funding high-quality data and research is a necessary but not sufficient step to addressing environmental problems.”

Dr Scott Larned, NIWA Chief Scientist – Freshwater, and Dr Clive Howard-Williams, NIWA Emeritus Scientist, comments: 

“The PCE’s new synthesis report describes inadequacies in the evidence base that underpins environmental management in Aotearoa, and makes general recommendations for improvement. We agree with the recommendations, but have some suggestions to make them more actionable.

“If we are going to prevent and reverse environmental degradation in Aotearoa, we need to do three things better than at present: 1) monitor the various pressures that cause environment degradation; 2) use monitoring data to rigorously link pressures to degradation, in order to target management actions; 3) predict the effects of pressures, management actions and policy options in advance.

“Environmental monitoring programmes tend to focus on symptoms of degradation such as decreased biodiversity, proliferations of algae in freshwater and coastal systems, and the establishment and spread of non-native pests. There is an urgent need to expand the range of monitoring to include the likely causes of environmental degradation, which include land use activities, wastewater discharge, water abstraction and diversion, commercial and recreational fishing, and many other human pressures.

“Regional councils have gradually increased their efforts to monitor pressures. For example, most councils are compiling land use and water use data. But progress is slow and impeded by proprietary data, methodological limitations, and funding shortages. This long-standing problem is noted in the PCE’s report, but only in the context of land use pressures that affect freshwater. Further, there is no provision in the New Zealand Environmental Reporting Act to monitor pressures. This omission could be corrected by amending the Act. The PCE’s 2019 report on environmental reporting recommends expanding the Act to include high-level drivers such as such as population or economic growth, but the need here is to monitor the localised pressures that directly affect our environment.

“After expanding environmental monitoring, the next task is to identify the specific pressures that cause different types of environmental degradation in different settings. This is also noted in passing in the new PCE report: “One of the key difficulties is that environmental problems often lack a simple link between cause and effect”. In the absence of reliable cause and effect knowledge, management actions are based on educated guesses, and there is a high risk that these actions will be ineffective. This point is based on a long history of misguided management actions that failed to achieve their objectives.

“Environmental management actions takes three general forms – reducing the pressures that cause degradation at their source, applying mitigations such as erosion control, and treating the symptoms of degradation directly. All of these actions are costly and involve conflicting values among stakeholders. Policy makers and environmental managers need to be confident that a chosen management action will be effective before investing in its implementation. Meeting this need requires predictive quantitative models, and sufficient capability and funding to develop them. The PCE’s 2020 report on environmental research priorities confirms our fundamental reliance on predictive modelling.

“Retrospective evaluation of policy effectiveness is the primary challenge set out in the new PCE report, and this is also a modelling problem. Given the inherent variability of natural systems, quantitative models are needed to assess environmental responses to management actions. Modelling is often viewed as an esoteric, academic exercise, but it is actually an essential step in evidence-based, cost-effective policymaking and evaluation.

“One last point: the effects of the environmental pressures discussed in the PCE report, including land and water use and pest invasions, are exacerbated by climate change. As a consequence, the problem-solving research that has traditionally focused on land use and other pressures now needs to incorporate climate change research. Capability and capacity shortages are going to impede this interdisciplinary research, unless upskilling and recruitment are funded as well as the research itself.”