Photo by Pen Hsu.

Photo by Pen Hsu.

While The Lord of the Rings films have brought global attention to New Zealand’s breathtaking scenery and natural environment, a recent dairy contamination scandal by Fonterra – the largest dairy producer in the country – has blighted New Zealand’s image as “100% Pure.” Environmental issues are now at the forefront of the country’s policy debate, marked by concerns regarding the quality of information used to gauge New Zealand’s environmental performance. Contributing to this national debate is the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which in 2012 ranked New Zealand as No. 14 out of 132 countries on a range of environmental policy issues.

To make sense of the country’s “state of environment,” the Environmental Defense Society (EDS) – one of the major environmental non-profit organizations in New Zealand – hosted its annual conference in Auckland earlier this month to assess environmental conditions and discuss collaborative approaches for making improvements. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) was invited to discuss New Zealand’s environmental performance in a global context using the country’s most recent results on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

The general reaction from the attendees – a mix of representatives from civil society, government, business, and academia – was that the 2012 EPI’s No. 14 ranking for New Zealand is too high and doesn’t match the on-the-ground environmental challenges they perceive. While it is typical for citizens to complain that their country is not ranked highly enough, the conference attendees identified gaps in environmental monitoring and misalignments between what is measured and what should be measured to obtain a more accurate picture of environmental conditions.

“We need to start measuring the right things the right way. […] There’s an ecological bottom line we can’t ignore,” said Mike Joy, a freshwater ecology expert based at Massey University in New Zealand who has been an outspoken advocate for better data and measurement of the environment. In 2011, when New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key claimed the country had the world’s second best freshwater quality – according to an indicator taken from the 2010 EPI – Dr. Joy took aim at the problematic data source on which the EPI relied.

In trying to determine exactly how New Zealand’s environment compares to other countries, it has been challenging to understand whether the country is doing well, as politicians claim, or if performance is declining in some areas, as environmental advocates claim. In the first iteration of the EPI, in 2006, New Zealand ranked No. 1 out of 133 countries. Future iterations of the EPI saw New Zealand’s ranking “slip” from No. 1 to No. 7 in 2008 to No. 15 in 2010. However, each EPI undergoes various changes to its methods and data sources in order to incorporate the best available measures and latest scientific knowledge.  Because of these changes, rankings between versions of the EPI are not comparable. The lack of comparability between EPIs is the main motivation behind our inclusion of time series data in the 2012 EPI and “backcasted” scores and rankings to help countries understand whether they’ve improved or declined in environmental performance over the last decade.  New Zealand’s backcasted performance actually shows a slight improvement over the last decade – from a ranking of No. 24 in 2000 to No. 14 in 2012.

There is still a sense from New Zealand’s media and participants at the EDS conference that the country’s environmental performance is headed in the wrong direction. Headlines such as, “NZ drops to 43 in world environment report,” while misleading and inaccurate because of the differences in the water indicators used in the 2010 and 2012 EPIs, are popular narratives. Such narratives arise because New Zealanders feel they don’t know the real state of their environment. Environmental data are hard to come by and New Zealanders find it difficult to determine which numbers are credible, and whether they can trust official statistics.

Part of the controversy is embedded in a legacy that involved government interference in a 2007 State of Environment report. When an “uncleaned” version was leaked that shed light on government revisions to the report, citizens were left to question the objectivity of the data and analysis. Thereports were then abolished altogether in 2012 when the center-right National Party gained a majority in Parliament. A consistent theme at the EDS State of the Environment Conference was a need for stocktaking to understand the country’s baseline for key environmental concerns. Without a legal mandate for State of the Environment reporting, New Zealanders feel left in the dark about how they are actually performing in terms of environmental protection.

The EPI is also a sore spot for some New Zealanders, who feel that previously high rankings, particularly on freshwater quality, have led to complacency and in some cases, inaction. At the heart of this controversy was former Minister of Environment Nick Smith’s promotion of New Zealand’s No. 2 water quality ranking in the 2010 EPI.  We removed that water indicator from the 2012 EPI due to its questionable quality. Freshwater scientists in New Zealand were quick to reveal the indicator’s flaws and refute the government’s use of this EPI score to bolster a false “100% pure.”

New Zealand’s situation demonstrates that the available datasets for global comparisons of countries are often inadequate. Local, state, and regional data are more relevant and telling of on-the-ground environmental conditions than national indicators that, many times, are derived from national governments who lack legal mandates to report data in the first place. (Although New Zealand’s Minister of Environment Amy Adams did use the conference as an opportunity to announce a proposal to make environmental reporting mandatory).

But these data challenges do not mean the EPI’s scores and rankings are meaningless and out of touch with on-the-ground realities. We see the EPI as a flexible and transparent platform for countries to initiate change. The EPI is a starting point, rather than an ending point, for countries to have a conversation—similar to the one that is taking place in New Zealand—about what can be done to improve not only the state of environment in a country, but also the state of information.