The Commissioner has seven statutory functions under the Environment Act to investigate environmental issues, processes and public agencies. As an Officer of Parliament, the Commissioner has a unique opportunity to provide Parliament with independent advice in its consideration of any matters that may have an impact on the quality of the environment. The Commissioner also communicates her advice to a wider public audience.
Investigations may also result from suggestions or complaints from concerned citizens and groups.
The following is the list of priorities of work the Commissioner identified in the 2013 Annual Report.
There are numerous environmental issues that are worthy of investigation. However, mine is a relatively small office, and time and resources are limited. It is therefore important that future work is prioritised and planned, to ensure it is pertinent and ‘adds value’ for Parliamentarians and the public.
The first criterion for adding value is to avoid duplicating the work of others. Instead, I seek out areas where my independence can prompt progress on difficult or contested topics, and where I am likely to be able to make practical, effective recommendations.
Moreover, not all environmental problems are equally important, so I pay particular attention to environmental problems that are irreversible, cumulative, or accelerating. Climate change ticks all three boxes and therefore is, in my view, the greatest environmental challenge the world faces.
I also receive many complaints, information and suggestions from the public. While all the issues raised cannot be investigated, all are considered. Some of these letters and emails have led to investigations. This year, the investigations on fracking and on longfin eels were both undertaken in response to public concern.
A report on the type of conservation land known as ‘stewardship land’ was released in August 2013, and two further investigations will be completed in the next few months. The first looks at the effect of land use change on water quality and what the future might hold. [This report was released in November 2013.] And the second is the final report on fracking with a focus on the regulatory system. [This report will be released in the first half of 2014.]
Climate change, as the greatest environmental challenge, is an ongoing focus. I have been considering whether to investigate New Zealand’s preparedness to adapt to climate change, although this is now such an active area of research that I would need to clearly identify an opportunity to add value before deciding to proceed. More broadly however, fracking is of course partly a climate change issue, and my staff have built up expertise in analysing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy.
Resource management, and freshwater in particular, remain top priorities and great challenges for New Zealand. I will report soon on water quality and land use change, and I expect to make a submission on proposed changes to the Resource Management Act.
Conservation and biodiversity have also become a recurring theme. Two yearsago I announced an investigation into the commercial use of conservation land. This has evolved into a series of conservation related reports. The most recent, stewardship land, explored an issue uncovered in a 2012 report “Hydroelectricity or wild rivers: Climate change versus natural heritage”. And both of these built on knowledge gained through earlier investigations into 1080 and into mining on conservation land. The stewardship land investigation, in turn, uncovered a number of further issues to explore, including the concept of ‘net conservation benefit’.
Oceans and marine conservation is deserving of more investigation. Building on past work on the Exclusive Economic Zone and on longfin eels, there are potential avenues for investigation of fisheries management and marine conservation.
Environmental agencies and processes are a significant area of work across many topics. While most reports have a scientific element, virtually all the reports and advice examine in some way the institutions, laws and policies that determine how the environment is managed.