The 2016 survey, which remains the only long-running type of its kind in the world, assesses public perceptions of environmental pressures, the state of the environment, and the adequacy of resource management responses.
The authors of the 82-page survey report – Professors Ken Hughey, Geoff Kerr, and Ross Cullen –questioned the public about many aspects of the environment, such as air, native plants and animals, water, biodiversity, soils, beaches, and marine reserves.
New Zealanders thought air, native bush and forests were in the best condition, while rivers and lakes, wetlands and marine fisheries were in the worst state. This continues a long-held pattern of similar responses.
While the management of the environment was considered to be adequate to good (and better than in other developed countries), national parks rated most highly. The worst managed environments were perceived to be rivers, lakes, and groundwater, largely on account of very negative perceptions concerning the management of farm effluent and runoff. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of respondents deemed farming to be one of the three main causes of damage to freshwater, with the other two being sewage and stormwater, and industrial activities.
With this in mind, water-related issues were seen as the most important environmental problem, with respondents indicating an overall belief that growth in production and consumption, as well as an intensification of activities such as farming, urban development and forestry were putting increasing pressure on the environment. Worryingly, given the recent focus on tourism growth, tourism was rated second behind pests and weeds as a major cause of damage to national parks.
According to Professor Hughey, one big surprise was the continued disparity between the respondents’ perceptions of the state of New Zealand’s biodiversity and reality.
“Most respondents considered the condition of New Zealand’s native plants and animals to be adequate or good, yet past reports from organisations such as DOC and the Ministry for the Environment suggest otherwise, and significantly so,” says Professor Hughey.
“Also of interest within the survey were results suggesting that, while some environment-enhancing activities are widely adopted (such as recycling household waste), relatively few respondents appear to involve themselves with activities outside the home, such as restoration or replanting of the natural environment, or participation in environmental organisations, hearings or consent processes,” he said.
With government recognition that conservation gains are critically affected by community participation and partnerships, it will be interesting to see whether they can create change in participation outside the home, which will be detectable in future surveys.
Activities that might be linked to initiatives such as the Predator Free NZ 2050 goal might be a test of such changes.
The survey found continued differences in perceptions and behaviours relative to ethnicity. Of note, Māori have more negative perceptions of the state of the New Zealand environment and are far more likely to report participation in pro-environment behaviour than are NZ Europeans or those of other ethnicities.
Historically, the Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment survey has gone some way to guide policymakers. The 2016 survey concludes by emphasising the need to ensure that facts and perceptions are aligned to ensure sound policies are employed, environmental management actions are effective and have strong payoff.
The report, Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment: 2016
, can be accessed here