New Zealand’s Environment Is In Serious Trouble

New government report shows just how bad things have gotten in recent years.

When I first moved to New Zealand 2.5 years ago, I was struck by a few things. For one, the wider public seem to know – and care – a lot about the environment. The people I met could tell me the names of every tree and bird, and many seemed to spend their weekends exploring the great outdoors. Secondly, the grid here is incredibly ‘green’ – a huge proportion (81%) of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable resources. Comparing that to the UK, which currently generates 33% of its power from renewables, and having lived in London for more than a decade without learning anything about the region’s native flora and fauna, it was easy to buy into the narrative that NZ was a clean, pristine, environmentally-friendly paradise.

But I started to notice other things, including an over-reliance on fossil-fuel vehicles. In urban areas, roads and car parks are consistently busy, and if you look around in peak-time traffic, you’ll usually be surrounded by sole-occupancy vehicles. While it’s true that an underinvestment in public transport has contributed to this, my impression is that the kiwi love of the car is partly cultural. Fit, able-bodied people regularly choose to drive very short journeys – I once waved to a neighbor as they got into their car, only to meet them 10 mins later on the beach, which I’d walked to.

My other major realization came later, and it was around the importance of farming to the NZ economy. Its sheep population (in Jan 2017, sheep outnumbered humans six to one) has been the butt of jokes for years, but it was only when I started looking into land cover statistics that I truly realized how much of the country is reserved for agriculture – in fact, it dwarfs all other land uses. I may not be an ecologist, but that stat certainly set my ecology / environment alarm bells ringing.

There’s a conflict between these two things – the perception that NZ’s environment is healthy and thriving, and the activities that are undertaken by humans to continuously shape (and damage) the landscape. And if the response to a new report, Environment Aotearoa 2019, is anything to go by, it seems that I’m not alone in worrying about this paradox.

Environment Aotearoa 2019 (EA2019) was released jointly by two government bodies – the Ministry for the Environment and StatsNZ– on 18th April 2019. It follows on from a previous report (published in 2015), and aims to paint a picture of the overall state of NZ’s environment. As such, the report is extensive (you can download the PDF for free), and it has been compiled from data collected by environmental organizations over many years. If the 128-page version of the report feels a bit much, there is a top-level summary of it here, though it doesn’t quite cover everything. In addition, StatsNZ have released all of the data referred to in the report – on their site, you can find updated graphs and tables, as well as a huge collection of interactive maps that allow you to visualize the data.

EA2019 identifies nine priority areas, highlighting the impact of human activity on everything from biodiversity to water pollution. Rather than attempt to badly cover all nine, I thought I’d highlight some of the findings that are most relevant to this column – namely those related to urban land use, food production, and greenhouses gases.

First off is the fact that, despite what you might think, New Zealand’s population is overwhelmingly urban. Just over 86 % of us live in towns and cities. But NZ’s urban areas cover less than 1 % of the country’s total land area. Population growth has led to an expansion of cities in recent years, though, and while this might not seem like a problem – after all, there’s plenty of available land – the issue is that this expansion is happening on some of the country’s best, most versatile soils.

There’s also been a significant increase in the number of people moving out to the suburbs, on the search for more land to call their own. The combination of urban growth and land fragmentation has led to a loss of ‘high-class’ soil, pushing food producers out to less productive land, which requires more inputs (e.g. fertilizers).

And that brings us onto farming, and more particularly, the nitrogen crisis facing NZ farms. Nitrogen is not inherently evil, of course – it’s a vital nutrient, and makes up 78 % of the air we breathe. The problem is that we apply huge quantities of it to the soil, via fertilizers, to improve crop yield. In addition, animals like cows and sheep also pee all over farmland, increasing the nitrogen input further. When more nutrients are applied to the soil than plants can absorb, the excess enters waterways, and they become pollutants.

Since 1990, the amount of nitrogen applied to NZ soils has increased more than six-fold. There’s also been a shift in the type of farming that dominates the agricultural landscape. According to EA2019, pasture is now the biggest single type of land cover in New Zealand, covering nearly 40 % of the country (that’s in the region of 10.6 million hectares). On that land, we’re also seeing more dairy cows – the national herd increased by 70 % between 1994 and 2017, while numbers of sheep and beef cattle declined. This shift is important because cows produce more urine than sheep, and cow urine also contains a higher concentration of nitrogen. Cows are also heavier than sheep, so they tend to trample down vegetation, which allows even more nitrogen to run-off into nearby rivers and lakes.

In terms of urban pollutants, EA2019 largely focuses on air quality, mainly related to the health-harming particulate matter (PM) that I’ve covered before. In NZ, it mainly comes from two sources – home heating based on the burning of coal and wood, and road vehicles. In 2015, domestic home heating accounted for 25 % of the PM10 (particles smaller than 10 micrometers) and 33 % of the PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers) found in urban air.

Petrol and diesel-powered vehicles also produce a whole host of polluting gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. I’ve written about NZ’s car fleet previously – the country has the highest car ownership rates of any OECD country – but the main takeaway for me from this report is that between 1990 and 2013, New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 42 %.

These findings represent just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other headline stats from EA2019 include:

  • At least 75 animal and plant species have become extinct since humans arrived in NZ. And in the past 15 years, the extinction risk has worsened for 86 species.
  • More than 70,000 hectares of native vegetation was lost between 1996 and 2012 through conversion to pasture, plantation forestry, and urban areas.
  • NZ’s water take per person is more than 2 million litres per year, the second highest in the OECD.
  • Since 1977, New Zealand’s glaciers are estimated to have lost around one quarter of their ice – that’s enough ice to fill Wellington harbor 12 times.

The report also points out that, layered over all of this is climate change. It will not only have an impact on all of the issues identified in EA2019, but it adds uncertainties to already complex systems, making it harder to plan for the future. So, all in all, EA2019 makes for bleak reading. Kevin Hague, the chief executive of leading conservation organization, Forest & Bird, summed it up pretty well when he said, “We’ve spent too many years in denial about how our actions – from rampant dairy conversions to destructive seabed trawling – are irreversibly harming our natural world. This report confirms things are very bad. We need an economy that nurtures and restores our environment, not one that trashes it.”

I’m not trying to say that NZ is all bad – it’s a wonderful place, and I love living here. But there’s no doubt that the mask is slipping on its environmentally-friendly reputation. If the government wants to avoid disaster, it’ll have to do much more than simply talk about it.