National climate emergency? Not at this rate.


On Thursday Environment Canterbury declared a Climate Change Emergency. Just hours later on the same day, Nelson City Council followed suit. Widespread applause followed.

On the surface, the councillors gathered around respective tables in Nelson and Christchurch can say that they have done something positive for the climate, but on the other hand, despite being able to make an educated guess as to what it means, I wonder if anyone has a clue what it would mean on paper.

Granted Minister for Climate Change, James Shaw says it has no legal standing, the time for words is passed.

I am concerned though that all it will end up being is another layer of symbolism on top of a wad of earlier actions that were symbolic but lacking in substance. Under Prime Minister Helen Clark there was a move to reduce exhaust fumes, without really understanding that most exhaust fumes are invisible and that in effect the measure being introduced was just window dressing. For real progress on vehicle emissions there would had to have been steps taken to address the state of the New Zealand car market or a maximum age a car could become before it is permanently removed from the roads.

As mentioned in earlier columns there are a host of steps that New Zealand could be taking right now which we appear reluctant to do so. For example an energy audit done by the Green Party done a decade ago found that New Zealand could reduce its household energy use on average by 10-15%. If that were coupled with more recent ideas such recycling all aluminium, which would significantly reduce reliance on electricity from Manapouri power station.

For all of successive governments talking about having a strong knowledge based economy, even 20 years since the then Labour Deputy Leader Dr Michael Cullen promised a “knowledge economy”, New Zealanders still seem rather averse to higher levels of investment by both the public and private sector in science, technology and research. Compared to the O.C.E.D. average of 2.4% in 2017, New Zealand spent about 1.3% of its G.D.P. on science. These results may be linked to a general lack of investment in schools in science and mathematics – my two bogeyman subjects at high school, but ultimately two very important ones that everyone needs to know a bit about. Labour has committed to increasing the percentage of G.D.P. spent to 2.0%, but how this will be spent and and on what, remains to be seen.

Following on from this, it needs to be noted that a report has come out suggesting that cutting back the methane from farm animals is not on its own, despite being the largest portion of New Zealand’s green house gases, going to significantly reduce the impact of emissions. Which raises a quandary, because New Zealand’s climate change focus has been on this and will now have to be reviewed just as the Government starts to look at ways of ramping up its response. Does that mean we have the science all wrong?

What we need in terms of climate planning is a clear set of objectives that we are to achieve. For that we need policies that give effect to those objectives and rules to enforce the policies. But we also need to be realistic about the potential change of pace – on one hand we need to move reasonably quickly because the window is closing on how long the world has before some of the natural changes become irreversible. On the other hand, simply going in and laying down a whole wad of rules without thinking about who will be affected by them and how, is a sure fire recipe for trouble.

So, in summary, it is all very well for Canterbury and Nelson to declare a climate emergency, but unless there is a clear idea of what it is meant to achieve, how and when, it is really just another layer of symbolism.

 

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.

 

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?

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.

What will a carbon neutral economy look like?


As 2019 nears the starting line, one of the issues that I have spent time wrestling with, and I am sure others have to is how will New Zealand make the transition from oil and gas to a carbon neutral state by 2050. Can we even do it?

This article examines the commentary of an opinion column by Neil Holdom on Stuff on how, or indeed whether, New Zealand can make the transition.

My responses to individual parts of the article are below:

“Unless we make decisions today that will essentially take effect in 30 or more years’ time, we run the risk of acting too late and causing abrupt shocks to communities and our country,” she said.

Okay, so your government might have made the decision to ban oil and gas by 2050. But there was not a plan in place – if you had said at the start of your Government, that a major decision on oil and gas might be a few years away, but that it would be backed by a substantial plan, I would have applauded you; National would have been left scrambling and your planning credentials as well as your green ones would have had a major boost.

But since then little has been written about what a net carbon zero 2050 Aotearoa will actually look like.

Correct.

What is really surprising is the lack of attention being paid to some very obvious first steps, such as introducing a nation wide recycling scheme for all aluminium. This is a pretty simple, relatively easy thing to do and it would potentially have a near immediate impact if successful.

Another one would be acknowledging and assisting the growth of hybrid vehicles. Yes they might be users of petroleum, but this is a 30+ year project and filling the gap between the old gas guzzling fleet and a bunch of electric cars that among other things still have perception issues around plugging in.

New Zealand produces around 80 million tonnes of carbon annually and our forestry sector absorbs around 20 million tonnes, leaving a balance of 60 millions tonnes to be dealt with.

The article acknowledges the forestry sector and the announcement by Minister for Regional Development, Shane Jones (N.Z. First)that 1 billion trees will be planted and that steps are underway to make this happen.

Whales are also good carbon traps. A sperm whale can account for a similar level of carbon as 690 acres of forest. Protecting and encouraging whales to visit our shores could have a positive contribution to reducing carbon emissions as well as prop up the whale watch industry.

But as yet no one has talked about how to tackle the dairy sector which produces much of New Zealand’s carbon emissions. Through the biological processes of their two stomachs, cows belching put out about. In 2009 a litre of milk manufactured by Fonterra created about 940 grams of carbon dioxide, which would have made the then carbon cost of the then 15 billion litres per annum of milk, about 15 million tonnes.

Ten years later having had an explosion of dairying and becoming a $13.4 billion industry by 2017, with 21.0 billion litres of milk manufacturing 1.8 billion kilogrammes of milk solids, the growth in carbon emissions would be significant.

I find it interesting that little evidence of a co-ordinated approach exists to climate change. I do not see an effort to get the various economic sectors, Ministries of the Crown engaged. There are substantial opportunities to get a healthy green technology sector established here, but I do not see anyone having a clue of how to get started.

So, as the first full year of this Labour-Green-New Zealand First coalition comes to an end, it would appear that New Zealand First is the only party that has seriously given any thought to an increasingly urgent problem.