An actual plan for dealing with climate change

The vision I have is a combination of reducing waste sources that are energy intensive or create significant carbon emissions, looking at environmentally sound alternative materials and applying some common sense law changes. I have opined and given these as examples in the past, but I have not tried to present an outline of how New Zealand might tackle the unsustainable manner in which we are living – until now. I write this to briefly examine some steps that New Zealand could be taking and the basis for those steps.

We use a wide range of minerals that appear on the Periodic Table of the Elements in manufacturing goods. Some are highly toxic and cannot be easily recycled or are being phased out. Others like aluminium however are growing considerably in both use and the amount being wasted. Aluminium stands out because it is hugely energy intensive to create one unit of it in a smelter – New Zealand’s Tiwai Point smelter for example has most of the output from Manapouri hydroelectric power station being directed to it. This is notable because recycling aluminium only requires a fraction of the power needed to manufacture a unit of it.

How much work would it take to re-establish a nation wide aluminium recycling programme at community level with drop off depots?

Many of the elements used in electronics and other everyday items are mined from countries that are quite politically unstable and have little regard for environmental law. As a result large tracts of forest are being wiped out with no rehabilitation, destroying vast tracts of the ecosystem and the habitats of flora and fauna. This destruction is releasing vast amounts of carbon based gas back into the atmosphere, whilst also affecting the native lands of indigenous peoples. Yet we wonder why there is conflict.

This is where e-waste recycling, known in the e-waste world as urban mining, has the potential to become very important. My research last year for Open Polytechnic of New Zealand found that 60 of the 118 elements of the Periodic Table were in use in electronic waste. 90,000 tons of e-waste is generated in New Zealand per annum, of which about 89,000 tons is not recycled. Yet the amount of copper, gold, silver and palladium that could be recovered is in commercial quantities and would go some way towards reducing the need for another ecology destroying mine – in New Zealand alone it is estimated that 600 kilogrammes of gold and 600 tons of copper could be recovered each year.

At the moment I am compiling responses from across New Zealand of city, district and regional councils to a set of questions I have e-mailed to them. When it is complete I will send the compiled document to the Minister for Environment to try to hasten a policy announcement on e-waste.

It is one of the most constructive materials ever conceived by man, but also one of the most damaging in terms of carbon based gas emissions. In 2015 about 4.20 billion tons of concrete was manufactured, compared with about 1.00 billion tons in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions per annum from concrete manufacture make up about 8% of total emissions. New Zealand’s contribution is fairly minor (0.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, compared to about 702 million tons from China). Roughly half of the carbon dioxide emissions in the manufacture of concrete come from the chemical conversion of limestone to calcium oxide – emissions that will be impossible to avoid as long as we continue relying on calcinating limestone.

Hemp concrete is a material that has been tested by various researchers and has been found by the British Department of Business Innovation and Skills to actually store carbon. I am not sure what work has been done with hemp concrete in New Zealand, and it might not have a major impact on our overall carbon emissions, but here exists scope for New Zealand researchers to investigate further.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a suggestion that people will have to stop flying, in order to reduce the emissions caused by large scale consumption by airlines of aviation fuel. At the time I mentioned that an Air New Zealand study had been undertaken to see how planes could handle a biofuel blend. In 2009 a test flight was done. It was successful and the Boeing 747-400 aircraft used managed to complete all tests without a problem. In 2016, with no obvious attempt by the Government to establish a biofuel programme or support industry in doing so, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia decided to collaborate on a biofuel project, to examine whether or not biofuel can be produced locally, thereby lowering production costs whilst also creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions.

Biofuel is, as I have long suspected, been a potential alternative various fossil fuels. This now appears to include to the Jet-A1 fuel. The challenge will be finding out whether the jatropha seeds experiment of 2009 can be made successful or an alternative found.


The problems facing science

How many of you have been to a scientific lecture about research that has been done or done a course in science at school or at university? Did you get to throw little chunks of sodium into water and wait for the explosion, or dissect a mouse to see what its interior looked like? What about going on field trips to look at fault lines or volcanoes; fossil beds with trilobites and cephalopods and so forth?

Did it inspire you to find out more? Did it completely turn you off and make you wish you were doing a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science?

I see recurring problems with how people receive science as a discipline. They range from teachers being frustrated at the restrictions on what and how they can impart it to their students; from people turning away from science degrees at Universities because they do not think it will justify itself in terms of their job prospects; members of the public – who might have never seriously engaged with any credible scientific papers, presentations or otherwise – criticizing scientists for altering predictions or theories. Among other issues.

But perhaps the worst is the fear that policy makers seem to have of it. Perhaps law makers do not realize they are giving off negative signals when they talk about it. Perhaps they are deliberately giving off bad vibes because the science on issues such as climate change goes against their beliefs. It is nevertheless shown in the lack of investment into research, science and technology with the percentage of our G.D.P. invested into it staying at about 1.0%, which is where it has been the last 20 years.

The range of issues where science has been controversial is diverse. Environmental science, technology, medicine, energy, natural hazards among others are just a few of the range that courts public controversy.

One example that has saddened me is the tendency of members of the public – not all, and possibly just a vocal few – who think that scientists are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives by doing things such as drilling into the Alpine Fault. The purpose of the drilling was to understand how geophysical conditions around the fault change with time. It sought to determine heat flow, the rate of underground movement of the fault and how the rock strata was deforming in response to the heat and pressure around it. The idea behind this is to build up a picture of stresses along the fault and hopefully eventually give an idea as to how long we have before it all comes unstuck at 20,000km/h.

It saddens me because this research is essential in a quake prone country like New Zealand where we are racing the fault to be as ready as we can for the eventual Alpine Fault rupture. This research is going to be the basis on which scientists make recommendations to policy makers who are then going to have to give legal effect to them. The moves around New Zealand to make the owners of buildings that are considered quake prone either bring them up to a building code standard where it will survive an earthquake and let the occupants out safely are for good reasons.

Definitely the most controversial is climate change. From out right denial by well known figures such as Donald Trump, to some believing that we only have a couple of decades left before the man made component becomes irreversible no matter what happens, science has its critics. There are energy companies believing for sake of profit margins and their corporate shareholders believing it is a hoax. And there is Greenpeace and other environmental organizations being certain that only a “carbon neutral” world can check the effects of human activity on the climate.

We will not fully know whether a 1°C or 2°C change in the planets temperature will have terminal consequences, major consequences or just mild consequences. Climate scientists have given compelling reasoning to believe it is the former. Yet by the same token the particles per million (P.P.M.) of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to 400+ for the first time in millions of years and the rate of increase suggests it is going to climb further yet. These changes will affect things such as ocean temperatures with flow on effects to marine life, those species that live of marine life and ultimately, humans.

But we will not know how or what unless we invest in the science. We will not know the impact on the ecosystem unless we invest in the science.

And the same goes for funding a credible cure for cancer. Unless we invest in the sciences and have a broad discussion about its purpose, its strengths and its weaknesses, we will not know what that cure is.

Political aversion to research, science and technology costing New Zealand

Sometime ago I wrote about a war on science being waged. I return to this subject inspired by the National Party’s commitment to dealing with climate change, an issue it and its A.C.T. Party ally have largely viewed – and at grass roots still do – as a socialist conspiracy based on what they call wonky science.

There seems to be a fear in some corners of science. Reading peoples comments underneath articles on Stuff, and on Facebook make me sad for the people who dedicate their professional careers to bettering our understanding of the world around us and designing new technology and research new ideas.

Whether it is a report on the work being done to understand the geophysical mechanics of the Alpine Fault in South Westland, the ignorance or lack of understanding displayed by many is disturbing. The spreading of untruths that a couple of drills boring into a fault system hundreds of kilometres long is going to somehow trigger a major earthquake is as alarming as it is wrong. The reasoning for the research is commendable: to find out how close the fault is to rupturing and whether any of the findings can be applied elsewhere.

Likewise there is a matching distrust or similar fear of technology. Perhaps it is the loss of privacy that goes with having just a few mega companies providing the bulk of our information technology – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, Apple all possess incredibly smart technological brains to have achieved in just under two decades the revolution from dumb phones to smart phones; from small localized networks such Old Friends to Facebook. The ability to post a vast range of multimedia – music, videos, blogs, photos among others

But we should not let this fear of technology necessarily cripple us. During the same time it has become possible that even if no overall cure is found for cancer, some forms of it such as bowel cancer might be significantly reduced in terms of their potency. Perhaps with investment in medical science we can make that happen in New Zealand.

Is it the failure of politicians to keep up with research, science and technology that makes them distrustful of it? Then we need to put pressure on them to get up to speed. The explosion of drones for example requires some urgent legislation changes to require registration of drones, and to make sure that they cannot be used in ways that pose undue threats to privacy, aircraft around airports or in flight paths. Before a major commercial aviation disaster occurs this needs to be tackled.

Is it that toxic old “She’ll be right” attitude that has long cost New Zealand, whereby people assume that on a given day everything will be fine and we worry too much? More cause for getting rid of it then. More cause for the change in public attitudes that inspired me to establish this blog in the first place.

Is the cause possibly a fear of politicians that they will somehow run out of work if they make an obvious effort to address our numerous outstanding social, economic and environmental problems? If that is the case this is simply laughable because being humans like the rest of us even if they do tackle these ills in an honest way and try to do the job they were elected to do, enough mistakes are certain that no shortage of work is ever likely to exist.

Or, is there a conspiracy of some sort to keep New Zealanders wages down by not investing in higher education, the sciences and the trades so that we exhaust ourselves by working too hard? I initially thought that this was a crack pot theory conceived by some believer of alternative politics, but the failure of two successive three-term Governments to achieve meaningful wage rises makes the cynic in me wonder. But whatever the answer may be – whether it is one or more of the above ideas or something completely different – it is costing New Zealand badly. We could be so much richer both in terms of income per capita, environmental and economic performance. I really really cannot help but wonder if there is not some deliberate agenda to make science look devious and discourage the idea of abstract research.


Restoring science in New Zealand

There is a war on science. It is something that no one in an elected position will admit to being involved with, but because science is about abstract research that has no time for political conventions, there is a certain contempt in parts of the political spectrum for science and scientists.

New Zealand is no different and one glaring example of that is the harm being done to fresh water ecosystems by dairy farming. As a multi-billion dollar industry that in 2014 was worth N.Z.$14 billion and is one of New Zealand’s biggest export dollar earners, dairy is irrigation and land use intensive

Successive Governments have said New Zealand should be a “knowledge economy”, a country with a brighter future. All have had  different ideas about who and how science should be funded. And yet 16 years after Dr Michael Cullen, then Finance spokesperson for Labour said Labour would support a knowledge economy, precious little progress has been made. Yes, it is true that Labour choose biotechnology over information technology as a preferred field of research and it is true that genetic engineering crop trials were allowed to happen at Lincoln University. It is true that some emphasis also by Labour was placed on nanotechnology.

But for all the talk of revolutionizing New Zealand’s economy into a research and development driven one that employs our best and brightest, the job opportunities seem little better than they were when Dr Cullen mentioned the phrase “knowledge economy”. The percentage of the G.D.P. spent on research and development is virtually unchanged. The basic industries that prop up our economy are still the same. The Crown Research Institutes have not significantly grown in terms of their budget or staff and just recently AgResearch announced that it was actually cutting jobs.

I believe it is partially a funding issue, but also a simply lack of political willpower, caused by a – hopefully not terminal – bout of “she’ll be right” thinking in the corridors of power, where problems are simply willed away by thinking that everything will sort itself out in due course. We have the power to change both and so we should.\

Recently in the TIME magazine I was reading about the progress being made in the field of fusion research and how some of the fundamental doubts about its suitability as an energy source might be finally getting answered. As I read I wondered briefly what it would take to set up a small fusion facility for research in New Zealand, with a view that the research might run on two parallel strands – one of actually conducting hard fusion research and another strand looking at potential alternative research ideas born out of failed testing in the lab.

I have also wondered about the possibility of New Zealand having its own small space programme so that we can launch our own satellites instead of relying on other countries to conduct environmental research among other things. I have also wondered if perhaps there might be scope for looking at how dead satellites and other space junk can be recovered, recycled insofar as possible and reused.

Before then though, some basic things need to happen:

  1. New Zealand needs to simplify the research grants programme and their areas of focus, from many little areas into say three or four areas of focus with most available money being directed towards them
  2. A sustained increase in the investment by Government – I view spending in the research and development as an investment rather than expenditure, because in time it will help pay for itself and provide other opportunities
  3. Science is compulsory until Year 11, at which point it stops – I believe in making it compulsory up to Year 12

New Zealand has the means to become a true pioneer nation in sciences. We have a good education system, but we are not doing nearly enough to encourage students to become physicists, chemists, biologists and so forth and that is not good for the country in the long term.

Government gets a surplus: The cost

So, the Treasurer Bill English has his surplus. Seven years after he promised to return New Zealand back to the black, he has done so. It is true to say that doing so was not without numerous challenges – some man made and others caused by acts of nature.

However, there is also a cost to getting a surplus, which in the case of this Government, was rightfully or wrongfully Mr English’s top priority. It was a priority that he dogmatically pursued from day one, and even in the worst days of the Canterbury earthquakes when no one really knew what the final total of the damage and insurance bills would be, there was still talk of it being achieved in 2015. It has been achieved at significant cost to a broad tract of policy areas where progress has either stagnated or started running in reverse; where agencies delivering critical services have been

The major areas where services have been cut include, but are not limited to:

  • Primary and Secondary education
  • Science
  • The police
  • Social services
  • Health
  • Corrections

Privatization has been a central theme of every National led Government. However this particular one has delved into the privatization of services that even some National supporters have reservations about taking out of the public sector. The Government preference for market led management of the housing situation in Auckland and Christchurch, particularly the latter where a post earthquake housing shortage has inflamed the market to the point that many people simply do not have the means to be in it.

A good example is the privatization of the prisons and their operation, which has led to a bit of a backlash over the handling of prisoner violence at Mt Eden Prison. Despite anger over the mismanagement of the prisons, the Minister has not resigned and Serco still have contracts to manage the corrections system.

Another example is the loss of social services for people in need of help, notably people recovering from gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, but also from violent crime. In Christchurch the Government defunded the Rape Crisis centre, saying that the $30,000 or so needed per annum to keep it operating would be better used in other services, thus depriving victims in their most vulnerable state of a service that has saved lives.

The Government says that it still funds Research and Development programmes to the same extent that it did when it came to office in 2008. However the reality once factors such as inflation have been accounted for is quite different. Like Labour under Prime Minister Helen Clark, and Treasurer Dr Michael Cullen, this Government has in actual fact, done nothing to increase the available funding and has shown a suspicion towards environmental science that has bordered on hostile.

These are just a few examples. They are by no means the only ones. Due to the slow yet steady chipping away at services, much as we often fail to note the creeping shadows in the late afternoon, we fail to note the gradually failing services and the causes of them doing so. And aside from the fact that he made a promise to return New Zealand to a surplus in 2014-15, can we be sure given the influence of background issues such as the Trans Pacific Partnership that Mr English did not have other reasons for doing so?

Was it worth that cost? You be the judge, but I think not.

Could it have been done some other way? Yes, but that is another issue altogether.