The need for urgency on environmental sustainability


New Zealand politicians dilly dallying at a time when there is clear evidence that the world has entered a critical phase for humanity, and for environmental sustainability is undoing our reputation as an environmentally responsible nation.

Although by default I tend to support centre-left ideology, I am finding the tendency for endless reviews, working groups, and the creation of agencies instead of reform or stream lining the existing ones frustrating. In the context of the environmental emergency, the Green Party announced a review of how we handle waste as a matter of priority, but 18 months after the Government took office there is no clear signal about what was the outcome.

This has me thinking whether we really needed a review and whether it is just hiding the possible fact that they have no immediate policy announcements to make on it.

Just last week, it was announced that West Coast had aborted a planned waste-to-energy plant that when operational would make the province self sufficient in electricity. The plant, which was the brain child of a Chinese company, was first mooted in 2016, but had stalled due to a lack of council support. The plant would have taken in waste from across West Coast and burned it at a site in Buller District.

Another area where the urgency of the rhetoric being spouted is not matching the actions being (or not being)taken, is on climate change. Despite the announced ending of oil and gas, there has been little done to identify, research and if possible, develop alternative sources of energy. Nor has there been much done to adapt existing technology to alternative sources.

A suggestion that people stop flying just about made me laugh out loud. Aside from the sheer impracticalities for the developed society, there are a host of other reasons why this is at least at this time, totally and utterly unrealistic:

  1. Many nations, such as New Zealand are simply not geographically structured for driving everywhere. It would take at 8 hours steady driving each day 3 days for someone to drive from Invercargill to Auckland.
  2. Road traffic would have to exponentially increase, and I thought we were supposed to be the number of cars on the road
  3. No evidence of any major aircraft manufacturer developing electric planes – one major problem is that the thrust in the engines needs to be strong enough for it to get airborne
  4. Flying is one of the safest modes of transport – millions of people around the world are airborne every day and how many of them die in a plane crash?

Far more realistic if we are even going to consider changing peoples flying habits would be to put a tax on corporate jets. And maybe support Air New Zealand’s one time investigation into whether planes could fly on biofuel.

It is not that I do not want a change in how we do things to a more sustainable manner. I desperately do, but some of the suggestions that are coming up lack any sense of realism. And politicians seem to think that action is having another review or an inquiry.

 

The ugly reality facing Franz Josef


Franz Josef is a picturesque town in Westland District. It is nestled against the lower flank of the Southern Alps, with the Waiho River immediately to the south of the township. The town and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are named after the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, by explorer and geologist Julius von Haast.

But for all of its mighty charm nestled in temperate rainforest, Franz Josef is caught between a rock and a hard place. In terms of geological and geomorphological hazards it is in a location that in the long term, and increasingly likely in the short term, untenable. This article takes a look at the danger facing Franz Josef.

Why?

New Zealand straddles the boundary of two tectonic plates. To the west is the Indo-Australian Plate and to the east is the Pacific Plate. The onshore boundary is denoted by the Alpine Fault, a large fault line with a repose period of 300-350 years and a tendency to only move in magnitude 8.0+ earthquakes. The last one was about 1717AD.This onshore boundary is where about 25-30mm of tectonic uplift occur per annum as well as a similar amount of erosion, which means there is a continuous supply of sediment waiting to enter the catchments of the West Coast and east coast rivers.

This relentless uplift creates a lovely mountain range with steep hydrology – from the summit of Mt Cook to the Tasman Sea is about 45 kilometres. Being in the prevailing westerly belt of winds that sailors call the “Roaring Forties” because of the latitude, moist westerly air comes off the Tasman Sea and empties its moisture content – often over 200 millimetres and up to 500 millimetres in a day – on the West Coast side. Unsurprisingly flooding becomes a major problem.

How does this affect Franz Josef?

Immediately after one crosses the Waiho River heading south, the road takes a hard right turn. In the corner is a hotel that sits behind a substantial stop bank. On the other side of that stop bank is a riverbed that is rising at a rate of about 300mm each year. The rise is because a large volume of sediment is continually entering the Waiho catchment. This poses an increasing flood risk on a river where water levels start responding to heavy rain in less than an hour.

Franz Josef straddles the Alpine Fault, which runs right through the middle of the township. It crosses the Waiho River in the immediate vicinity of the Milton Hotel, which was flooded and suffered severe damage in a 2016 outbreak. Westland District Council published Plan Change 7 (P.C.7), which was meant to identify a zone through central Franz Josef, where there is high confidence of the Alpine Fault’s exact location, with a view to moving essential services and businesses out of the zone. However after considerable public opposition, P.C.7 was scrapped.

When?

Time is running out. The stop bank is about as tall as it can realistically get without massive supporting earth works. When the river tops it, it will start eroding away the stop bank and try to reclaim the riverbed that the stop bank was originally built over. This may claim several farms when it happens.

But there is a bigger problem. The Alpine Fault is now due for another earthquake. Should it rupture whilst Franz Josef is in its current location, the town will be subject to immediate and unmistakably violent shaking lasting up to 3 minutes. There will be between 8-10 metres lateral displacement to the right and up to 3 metres vertical displacement. Only the newest structures would probably be still standing.

Before then though, there may be another rain storm of similar magnitude to the one that occurred between 25-27 March. Should that happen, similar damage to what happened as a result of that storm should be expected. This has a high probability of including the bridge over the Waiho River, which was destroyed on Tuesday 26 March. The next rain fall event might not even need to be that big.

What is the solution?

In the absence of P.C. 7 existing, one option is to give up on the stop bank and let the Waiho River reclaim the riverbed. The problem here is that several farms and the air field would have to move. It also does not address the long term problem of the Alpine Fault. Perhaps the most feasible option is progressively relocate Franz Josef township’s population and amenities to neighbouring towns. Westland District Council and West Coast Regional Council have a duty of care to the residents and the tourists and other visitors to their District/Region to make sure that they are in no undue danger.

Where could the people go?

There are several nearby townships where the people of Franz Josef could be moved to. Ross and Whataroa are two, though these are quite near the Alpine Fault. Harihari is a third. All are on the same road, State Highway 6, as Franz Josef. It would be likely that West Coast Regional Council and Westland District Council would need to prepare a joint request for Government assistance purchasing land and working out appropriate resource management issues.

For their part the Government would most likely need to provide assistance. The West Coast is economically one of the poorer parts of New Zealand. It has a small rate payer base and this has a good chance, even if well planned and executed, of blowing whatever budget is set. And if the plan went ahead, it might have to be applied to Fox Glacier as well, as it too is very near the Alpine Fault.

 

 

Climate Strike: A New Zealander’s perspective


This was meant to publish on Saturday, but I concluded it was not appropriate in the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch to do so.

These are some thoughts on the Strike for Climate protests on Friday.

I am actually quite surprised that schools and principals are so aloof. Of all the people talking about children’s future, and having to prepare our youth for future challenges they do not seem to understand that this is a problem that those very children are going to have to face. Sure it is in school time, but is the media likely to pay nearly as much attention to a student strike outside of school time? NO.

My activist mates are understandably proud of what they see and hear today. For them it is the culmination of something that started when Greta Thunberg bravely stood before the politicians in Davos and told them what she thought. Except that it is not the culmination of something, rather a very impressive first Act. And from what I have seen it does seem quite well organized, which makes the offset of the schools and principals not being on board all the more stark.

The people who said that they will not achieve anything and should be in school are missing two key points. First, this was about making sure politicians understand that there is a real and abiding concern among students about what we are doing to the climate. Second, it is my generation that is having kids right now, some of whom would have been at protests today. When they have children 15-25 years from now it will be they who have to face whatever changes we have wrought on the planet through climate change.

There is a huge amount of disinformation out there. And the militant factions on both sides of the divide are actively contributing to it, which is just fuelling the division, encouraging the hardening of positions and the refusal to compromise. I respect the planners – present and former – caught in the middle, trying to make the best of two bitterly opposing groups and find some common ground.

For example, what do climate change activists envisage in terms of heating for houses – will it be L.P.G. gas cylinders like the one that powers the gas fire at my parents place, or will it be electricity. Having just said goodbye to my brothers in-laws who are starting the long journey back via Nelson to snow covered Minnesota, where the father-in-law is a builder, I am aware that the continental climate induces much harsher winters than what we get in maritime New Zealand.

But before they get back to Minnesota, they have to spend several hours in the air before they reach O’Hare airport in Chicago. Whilst in the air, the aircraft will be burning tons of aviation fuel. That raises another question – if carbon is as bad as it allegedly is, what sort of fuel is going to be the aviation fuel of the future? As New Zealanders, we love to travel a lot and many of us want to go places in the future, but planes cannot fly if they do not have fuel.

Unfortunately Greenpeace, Green Party N.I.M.B.Y.ism means that a lot of the best counter solutions are not able to proceed because people don’t want the infrastructure necessary to support those solutions in their backyard. People want wind power, but don’t like birds getting mangled by the turbine blades or there is noise or visual pollution. You cannot have it both ways and just as with the economic model that I am going to mention shortly, something has to give.

But also there are more fundamental problems. I am not saying capitalism is the answer, because it is not – greed and sustainability simply do not exist in the same sentence. The economic model is going to have to change. A lot of the deforestation and other environmentally destructive activities are in pursuit of two things: raw minerals or energy sources. The massive loss of biodiversity is caused by habitats being wiped out on a scale much larger than we can sustain.

Cows belching and the large scale burning of fossil fuels – oh, here we go some of you will be saying – make up significant sources of our gas emissions in New Zealand. Robert Muldoon might have been ahead of his time when he tried to get a biofuel plant established in Taranaki, but I think a more modest project could probably be established in south Auckland using material from the waste stream.

But I do not see either of the major political parties in New Zealand being terribly keen to enact changes that will make a meaningful impact. Labour and National are both beholden to the neoliberal economic model that has dominated New Zealand economics the last 40 years and seem quite happy tip toeing around the edges of major problems, such as waste recycling.

So what does all of this boil down to? The climate strike is really about a more sustainable future for the generations that are striking. They were not expecting to achieve that today, but any politician who thinks that this can be swept under the carpet has obviously not looked at the topography of the carpet in recent times. The impact on planet Earth is too much to ignore, and helps to contribute to the rise of the word “ANTHROPOCENE”. My geologically oriented mates might be the jury that is out on whether the Anthropocene is a thing, but to me the evidence is there and the real argument is when did the Anthropocene start?

The devils energy: Nuclear power in New Zealand


Today in the Sunday Star Times I saw that columnist Damien Grant was suggesting that if New Zealand is serious about climate change, then we examine nuclear power again.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s it looked like nuclear power might have a future in New Zealand. This however was before concerns about their impact on the environment became known – the emergencies at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all a decade or more away at this point.

Let us be honest here. Building a nuclear power plant faces huge technical, legal and environmental challenges to overcome. And even if they are overcome, the nuclear free reputation of New Zealand would be brought into question, the reputation that earned New Zealand a lot of respect in the 1980’s and 1990’s especially among small Pacific Island nations. These challenges are all going be examined in this article.

First, the political backlash from the left/centre-left would be ferocious. This is possibly worse than building another coal fired power station. There would be guaranteed protests on the streets, in any harbour any ship trying to bring fuel material into and along transportation corridors. Even the centre right are not hot on the idea. Only A.C.T. Leader David Seymour is remotely interested.

Second, the Resource Management Act has no specific provisions dealing with nuclear power, the potential environmental hazards of a spillage or leak of radioactive material – whether it is spent fuel or new fuel. A search of the words “nuclear” and “uranium” in the Act in the Government’s legislation website did not yield any results. “Radioactive” yielded results in Section 15C of the Act. Right here we have a major challenge. It is expressly prohibited to store, dump any radioactive material in the coastal marine area. A nuclear power station needs a significant cooling water supply for the reactors, which means unless a river of sufficient discharge is nearby, it would have to be built on the coast and thus breach the above provision of the Act.

Third, nuclear power stations are very resource intensive. To build one in New Zealand we would need:

  1. A supply of uranium ore – that would have to come from Australia, as we do not have any uranium deposit in New Zealand large enough or accessible to use
  2. We would need a reactor designed to New Zealand building code, a tough ask for a seismically active area and would have to most probably come from the U.S.A. or Japan
  3. The transportation of radioactive material would pose a challenge – whether by truck or by train, there would be security and spill risks that might not meet the mitigatory requirements of the R.M.A.
  4. An enrichment facility here or overseas would be needed

Fourth, the cost of such a venture is going to be high. My estimate would be N.Z.$2 billion, which could easily fund research into developing a tidal power station or a waste to energy plant. All expertise, most construction material, the design and construction of the reactor would have to come in from overseas. Putting together a consortium to manage this would be a politically charged process and would be fraught with as many delays as protestors and activists could get away with.

Fifth, the shutdown phase is time and money consuming. One cannot simply turn off a nuclear reactor and walk away from it in the same way that a hydroelectric power station can be taken off line. The cleaning up of the facility, and the dismantling can take over a decade even if there is no accident.

Finally, New Zealand is simply too seismically active. The entire South Island can be ruled out point blank, as well as all of the North Island as far north as Waikato. Large tracts of the east coast of both islands are at high risk from inundation in a tsunami, particularly if the Hikurangi Trench ruptures, which is expected to happen possibly in my life time and would generate a magnitude 8.5-8.8 earthquake and significant tsunami.

The only place thought to be viable was in Northland, on the Kaipara Harbour coast. Whilst Northland might be the least seismically active part of New Zealand, there are a host of other significant challenges that would go with having a nuclear power station in that province. I expect that Ngapuhi would have huge cross party support resisting something that would potentially threaten their ancestral lands. Land owners would be militant and even if the prospect of a jobs bonanza was there, the environmental and social costs would wipe out any gains.

Just by coincidence – I didn’t realize until I had finished typing the article – this will publish on the 8th anniversary of the Japan earthquake 2011, which caused the Fukushima disaster. Lest we forget.

Strike 4 Climate student protest not a joke


When Swedish school girl activist Greta Thunberg faced down politicians of all stripes at Davos, Switzerland at their annual economic forum, many politicians thought she was just a lone student gone rogue. They thought that high school students were disinterested in the world around them, disinterested in politics. A lesson is coming for them.

Now we are seeing the birth pangs of the next generation of activists. And what birth pangs they are. On 15 March 2019, a world first will happen. School students all around the world will go on strike by refusing to attend school, arguing what the point is when catastrophic climate change threatens to leave them without a future in which they could use their education. Two decades ago organizing a world wide student protest would have been impossible and principals would have shut it down before any cohesion could be gained. A decade ago when the Fifth Labour Government was in office and teachers went on strike, the strikes lasted long enough that students were able to co-ordinate a limited counter strike to protest the continuing disruption to their education.

But this is quite different, and an order of magnitude more impressive, as well as concerning – and encouraging. In terms of being different, this about students lives after they leave high schools and the future of the planet we all live on. This is a global emergency they claim and politicians are not doing enough to respond.

And there is a ground swell of support across the education sector, ranging from researchers, to teachers, principals, lecturers and more who have all signed a petition to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Not all are in support of this action. National and A.C.T. Members of Parliament think they should wait until the teachers strike on 03 April – which I think is their way of wanting the coverage likely to be generated to be buried by a bigger news item. Many of the same Members of Parliament claim it is a serious issue, yet none have offered alternative ideas about how to deal with this and it kind of puts a question mark on their sense of urgency.

Labour and Green Party Members of Parliament like the idea behind the protest, but are reluctant to be seen endorsing massive student strike action that involves disruption to learning. But as youth are beginning to realise that it is this Government or the next which must try to make serious policy in roads into tackling climate change, it is important to note that they cannot afford to be seen as too distant either.

I am not sure where New Zealand First sit on this. It is an issue that the party did not seem to know which direction it wanted to go in, whilst I was a member. Many members are from rural backgrounds or are socially conservative and would frown upon this action. However in order to maintain a connection that it has been trying to build up for years with youth, I cannot imagine it condemning it in the way National and A.C.T. are.

And how many schools will participate? Some schools might be quite happy in controlled circumstances to permit a strike to go ahead and use it as an educational opportunity. There will be some schools that are there in spirit, but which insist on students attending classes in return for assisting with actions on school grounds such as letter writing, or petitions or perhaps showing The Day After Tomorrow. And then there will be a few schools that do not want a bar of it, and will make their students have a normal Friday of classes.