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Environment Aotearoa: Impact of declining environment on people and communities revealed


Climate change caused by humans cost New Zealand almost $1 billion in flood and drought damage alone over a 10-year period – and helped trigger a dozen extreme rainfall events during that time.

Those are among the findings of a major environmental report that outlines how human activities are damaging the quality of New Zealand’s land, air and water.

But it also reveals how dealing with climate change is having a profound impact on mental health, particularly among farmers, who have suffered from anxiety and depression.

Climate change contributed to 12 extreme rain events between 2007 and 2017, which resulted in $471 million in total insurance costs (file photo).

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Climate change contributed to 12 extreme rain events between 2007 and 2017, which resulted in $471 million in total insurance costs (file photo).

The Environment Aotearoa 2022 report, released on Thursday by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and Statistics NZ, shows that as the health of our environment declines, so too do human health and our economic prospects.

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The report – previously published every three years but from now to be every six years – provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of New Zealand’s environment.

While it previously focused mostly on human impacts on the environment, this report quantifies how declining environmental health will affect the wellbeing of people and communities.

Natasha Lewis, deputy secretary of MfE’s evidence, data and insights group, said the state of the environment overall was still getting worse across many key indicators.

“We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we can’t turn it around overnight,” Lewis said.

“This report does show a continuation of the decline we’ve been seeing … but it also highlights the potential for creating change.”

STUFF

In 2020, a part of New Zealand saw 61 days of drought in a row. For many, it was devastating.

Climate and atmosphere

“The impacts of climate change are felt in different ways every day across Aotearoa,” Lewis said.

In 2020, Aotearoa’s greenhouse gas emissions were 21 per cent higher than 1990 levels, but had stayed relatively stable over the last decade, the report said. Half of those emissions were from agriculture.

Greenhouse gases from New Zealand and the rest of the world emitted were creating a warming effect.

In Aotearoa, the annual average temperature increased by 1.13 degrees Celsius from 1909 to 2019.

Since 1998, New Zealand has had its five warmest years on record: 1998, 1999, 2016, 2018, and 2019.

Climate change is having a substantial impact on New Zealand’s weather, with droughts becoming more frequent in recent years – particularly around the northern and eastern parts of the South Island.

While climate impact on extreme rainfall trends is still unclear, the report found climate change contributed to 12 extreme rainfall events between 2007 and 2017.

In that same period, flood and drought damage cost New Zealand $5.2b, of which $940 million was directly attributed to the impact of human-caused climate change.

Climate change was also found to be having a profound impact on mental health.

New Zealand’s annual average temperature anomaly from 1909 to 2019. The baseline for temperature anomalies is the average annual temperature for the 30 years from 1961 to 1990.

New Zealand’s annual average temperature anomaly from 1909 to 2019. The baseline for temperature anomalies is the average annual temperature for the 30 years from 1961 to 1990.

Studies referenced in the report found farmers were particularly susceptible to the mental health risks after droughts, including anxiety and depression.

After the Bay of Plenty flooding in 2017, farmers reported suffering mental health issues, in some cases needing time off the farm.

Air quality was also found to affect physical health.

While air quality was slowly improving overall, there were still days each year when air pollution levels were above World Health Organisation guidelines.

The issue was more prominent during winter months, when wood is burnt for home heating. Other sources of pollution included vehicle emissions, and manufacturing.

Poor air quality contributed to a number of human health effects, the report said, including allergies and premature deaths. Respiratory diseases – like asthma – were also costing New Zealand $6.7b each year.

RNZ

Environment Minister David Parker told Morning Report there are no plans to “immediately reduce the New Zealand standard for nitrates in drinking water”. (First published February 23, 2021)

Water

Water quality overall was found to be poorer in human-modified catchments, the report found.

Many lakes and rivers had unnaturally high levels of nutrients like nitrate-nitrogen and phosphorous, likely from urban and agricultural run-off.

It estimated of the 3813 lakes in Aotearoa, 46 per cent rated poor or very poor in terms of nutrient enrichment, between 2016 and 2020.

Using macroinvertebrate – or small animals like insects and worms – numbers as a river health measurement (called an MCI score), 17 per cent of rivers were suffering severe nutrient pollution.

Only seven per cent of waterways had “pristine” MCI scores, and scores had worsened for 56 per cent of monitoring sites between 2001 and 2020.

Good water quality was especially important for drinking water, and recreational activities like swimming and kayaking, the report said.

Between 2018 and 2019, a quarter of New Zealanders on registered drinking water supplies did not have water that met all of New Zealand’s drinking water standards.

These standards set acceptable levels of illness-causing bacteria like Campylobacter and E. coli, contaminants like nitrates and heavy metals.

Using contaminated water for drinking or preparing food was linked to a range of negative health outcomes.

Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel says recent studies about potential harms of nitrates have been buried in the footnotes (file photo).

Supplied

Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel says recent studies about potential harms of nitrates have been buried in the footnotes (file photo).

Nitrate levels above 11.3 milligrams per litre in drinking water have been linked to blue baby syndrome.

Greenpeace senior campaigner Steve Abel said he was concerned the report buried a growing body of evidence that nitrates could contribute to other health issues.

“The state of the environment report acknowledges that excessive fertiliser use, dairy intensification and industrial irrigation are killing rivers, intensifying climate disasters and impacting people’s health, but fails to detail the risk of cancer and pre-term birth from nitrate contamination.”

Studies linking nitrates in drinking water to increased risks of bowel cancer and pre-term birth appeared only as unlinked “ghost” endnotes, he said.

One of those studies, released last year, warned that 100 cases of colorectal cancer and 40 deaths per year in New Zealand could be attributable to nitrate in drinking water.

Wetland area in New Zealand in hectares, 1996–2018 (excluding Chatham Islands).

Wetland area in New Zealand in hectares, 1996–2018 (excluding Chatham Islands).

New Zealand was also found to be losing its precious wetland ecosystems, with 1498 hectares disappearing between 2012 and 2018.

The country has lost 90 per cent of its historical wetlands, which act as important wildlife habitats, mahinga kai sites, water filters, and carbon sinks.

But the report said there had been significant progress in wetland restoration.

A nationally-significant wetland set to be constructed from dairy farming land next to Lake Horowhenua was just one example.

“It’s fair to say the picture here is variable,” Lewis said.

It is estimated that 90 per cent of wetlands have been lost since pre-human settlement (file photo).

John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff

It is estimated that 90 per cent of wetlands have been lost since pre-human settlement (file photo).

“What this shows is where we do put consolidated efforts in, we can make a difference.”

Coastal and marine environments are also being affected by the cumulative effects of sediment, nutrient runoff, plastic waste, and climate change.

Fish populations, however, appeared to be in good health, with 82 per cent of stocks assessed under the quota management system in good condition as of 2020.

However, the report acknowledged there knowledge gaps and a lack of data on some species.

MfE principal scientist Anne-Gaelle Ausseil said using statistics from the quota management system meant the data was not looking at the whole ecosystem.

They did not have any information on how fish species interacted with each other, she said, or the impacts of fishing on the seafloor, or the cumulative impacts of things like climate change.

Soil had become increasingly compact on dairy farming sites, which could affect the soil’s productivity (file photo).

Dominico Zapata/Stuff

Soil had become increasingly compact on dairy farming sites, which could affect the soil’s productivity (file photo).

Land

There has been no overall improvement in New Zealand’s soil quality between 1994 and 2018.

Between 2014 and 2018, 80 per cent of monitoring sites across the country failed to meet at least one soil quality indicator – which included things like acidity, total nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus, and macroporosity (soil compaction).

Intensive farming could degrade soil health, and eventually its productivity. Using synthetic nitrogen fertilisers had been found to lower microorganism biodiversity in the ground, which could limit future land restoration.

Soil was too compacted at nearly half of all sites tested, which could also lower its productivity. Issues were especially notable on dairy sites, where 65 per cent failed to meet the ideal level, which allows water and air to flow through to plant roots.

Sites within target ranges of soil quality indicators by land use, 2014–2018.

Sites within target ranges of soil quality indicators by land use, 2014–2018.

Agriculture is a major player in New Zealand’s economy. In the year ending March 2020, it made up 4.3 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and agriculture and horticulture generated $40.7 billion in export revenue.

But the report found highly productive land was becoming less available, limiting options for the future.

The report concluded New Zealand was risking its current food production systems becoming unsustainable.

“The variety, quality, and amount of food we can grow could be limited, compromising the ability to access the food we need and reducing the economic benefits from our primary sector.”

IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF

Almost half of New Zealand’s bird species are extinct, and 80 per of those remaining are threatened. Can we reverse the decline? (Video first published in October 2021)

Wildlife

Much of New Zealand’s wildlife is still in trouble, thanks largely to habitat loss and introduced predators.

As of 2016, 74 per cent of land-dwelling birds were either threatened with extinction, or at risk of becoming threatened, with many taonga species like kererū becoming dependent on conservation work to survive.

For native reptiles, this proportion was far greater, with 94 per cent threatened or at risk as of 2021.

Introduced land mammals like stoats, possums, and rats were killing around 26.6 million native bird eggs and chicks every year.

Green Party environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage said the report was a sobering reminder of what was at stake if the Government did not take urgent action to protect native plants, wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

“Healthy nature is the basis of our collective wellbeing. To be able to look after each other, we need to look after and connect with Te Taiao (the environment) first.”

The environmental crisis was directly linked to New Zealand’s inequality crisis, Sage said.

“The report shows that low income people have less access to green space and their many wellbeing benefits. In fact … public green space in urban areas is low compared to Europe.

“For decades politicians have known that an environmental catastrophe was unfolding. Successive governments had the chance to stop it. But they didn’t. And so now it falls to this Government.”

Kevin Hague wants to see conservation outside of fenced sanctuaries.

Iain McGregor/Stuff

Kevin Hague wants to see conservation outside of fenced sanctuaries.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said the report showed all environments were critical to Kiwis’ wellbeing, but were struggling with the impacts of human activity in a warming world.

“It’s clear that much more needs to be done to protect nature so that it can continue to support and protect us.

“We rely on nature, yet it can only help us cope with the impacts of climate change and benefit our wellbeing if we take decisive action to restore and maintain its healthy state.”

Hague said it was time business and industries, including farming, acknowledged how vulnerable they were to climate change, and realise they needed to look after the climate to ensure their own future wellbeing.

Te Mana o te Taiao, the Government’s biodiversity strategy to protect and restore nature, was due to be released in the near future.

“It’s vital that the Government’s implementation plan for Te Mana o te Taiao has the breadth and ambition to turn around these statistics.”



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