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?

Time to burn plastic?


The debate over whether to burn plastic in New Zealand has come to the surface again. The debate, whilst not new, comes back to light as the country tries to grapple with a plastic overload.

There are several potential reasons for doing so. It is a very cost effective way to dispose of waste and there are numerous instances of overseas countries, particularly in Scandinavia doing so. Another reason is that waste can be burnt to create energy, thereby potentially supplying heat to heat water as is done in Denmark or generate electricity.

In the first instance, no, I do not believe we should be burning plastic. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Plastics may release dioxins, which are potentially cancer causing into the atmosphere
  2. Plastics have recyclable uses such as being used as bitumen on roads, according to trials carried out in India
  3. Reducing the plastic in our lives should come down to the question of what purposes we really need it for and making all that we deem necessary to have recyclable

But just for a couple of minutes, let us suppose we did decide burning plastics was necessary. New Zealand has strong rules under the Resource Management Act 1991 around the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere.

A couple of potential issues exist around what kind of incinerator could be used. The first one concerns the use of incinerators. There are only three high powered incinerators (those that can burn material at temperatures above 800°C in New Zealand and the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (2004) forbids the construction of any more. Lower powered incinerators are known to exist, but would they be powerful enough to do the job?

The same N.E.S.A.Q. set limits on Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as these are significant contributors to air pollution. They have a range of potential health effects in large quantities.

The second concerns our international obligations including, but not limited to climate change. Would we be in breach of those obligations by having incinerators simply burning up plastic waste?

Various attempts to get such plans underway have been canned in the past. In one such case Olivine, , was attempting to recommission the mothballed Meremere coal fired power station as a waste to energy plant that among other waste, would have used plastics. That was in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is a combination of government policy, but also the fact that in the last few years the range of plastics that can be recycled in New Zealand has been significantly increased. When the recycling triangle scheme where a triangle with a number between 1-6 signifying its suitability for recycling first appeared on plastics, the range was quite poor with only Classes 1-2 being eligible – 3,4,5,6 had to wait. It has improved now – only to be replaced by a laissez faire attitude to recycling .

New Zealand needs to address these issues before it can make a decision on whether or not to burn plastic.

 

Some coastal suburbs in doubt


Concerns have been raised about the future of two coastal suburbs in Christchurch. Southshore and South New Brighton suffered heavily in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. But their recovery is being hampered by the sunken land that both sit on and its increased vulnerability to storms.

Perhaps the primary source of concern is how these communities will cope with rising sea levels, and increasingly volatile weather systems. New Brighton and South Shore have never been very high above sea level and occupy a narrow spit less than a kilometre wide, which has sand dunes on the coastal side and an estuarine environment on the other. And in recent years their vulnerability to the effects of flooding from storm surge have been shown.

Earthquakes are a second cause of concern. As a result of ground motion particularly on 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, land around the Avon-Heathcote estuary, the lower reaches of both rivers and the Brighton Spit slumped in some cases by up to 50 centimetres. Since then flooding can happen with brief rain or a large tide.

But there is a wider problem. Christchurch is not the only part of New Zealand with low lying housing. Coastal bays in Wellington, estuarine parts of Auckland and low lying land that might be protected by sea walls or sand dunes, but be at or close to sea level is also at risk. Good examples of the potential damage can be found in the winter storms of June 2013, and more recently Cyclones Fehi and Gita, which caused widespread storm damage along the West Coast and around Nelson

Whilst there are provisions in the Resource Management Act and statutory planning tools such as the Regional Coastal Policy Statements, councils have to trade off between environmental pressures and developmental pressures.

The last two years in New Zealand have been particularly stormy. During the summer of 2016-17, the Southern Oscillation Index was neutral, meaning weather came from all corners of the compass. For example a weather bomb – a rapidly deepening system of short duration, but quite intense in terms of rain and wind – passed over in January, dropping 300mm of rain in Arthurs Pass in a day in mid-January 2017. In June and July 2017 big southerly storms lashed Canterbury and large parts of the South Island’s east coast causing widespread flooding, and extensive coastal erosion. In February 2018, as mentioned earlier, two tropical cyclones passed over New Zealand just three weeks apart.

All of these storms caused millions of dollars in damage. In the case of Cyclones Fehi and Gita, they raised concerns about how coastal communities in less densely populated regions might fare in the long term. A low population region such as the West Coast does not have the financial resources to draw on from its ratepayer base that a region such as Canterbury or Auckland have. This makes coastal measures expensive, but have to be weighed up against moving and disrupting communities.

Even if the world went carbon neutral today, so much has been ejected that it would take several years or even decades for the effects of going carbon neutral to begin to be recognized. Even the 2ºC rise in temperature is limited to strictly that – some are saying even limiting global temperatures to a 1.5ºC rise might be too little too late – the subsequently increased volatility of our climate, going from intense droughts to severe rainstorm events; extreme cold to extreme heat would not be stoppable in our lifetime.

Another planning concern is the amount of sediment reaching the coast. Some parts of the world have a shortage of sand. This can at least in part be traced to rivers, which are the natural means of transport for sediment from the mountains to the sea, being dammed extensively. This thereby traps the sediment and little or no provision gets made for the need of long shore drift, which works the sediment along the coast enabling the replenishing of sand beaches after big storms. A failure to restore the balance somewhat would mean that coastal regions that are vulnerable would be more and more exposed to the sea, meaning properties would have to be abandoned.

Moving forward, one has to wonder what sort of future other coastal communities face. Maybe planners have a solution, but for the time being, councils and insurers alike are being faced with hard questions that no one really knows the answer to. And time might not be on their side.

Farmers burying toxic waste on their land?


It appears that large numbers of farmers may be inappropriately burying or otherwise disposing of toxic waste on their land.

According to a representative from Greater Wellington Regional Council, that the disposal of substances on farms is a permitted activity. The representative admitted that councils lack the resources to monitor permitted activities. That raises a question about the suitability of the “permitted” classification for such an activity. Six such classifications exist under the Resource Management Act:

  • Permitted. No resource consent or other permission required from a consenting authority
  • Controlled. An applicant must notify the council of a proposed activity, but the council must grant permission
  • Restricted discretionary. A consenting council shall restrict the exercising of its discretion to those aspects stated if it grants resource consent.
  • Discretionary. No restriction on the council’s ability to use its discretion.
  • Non-Complying. A council may only grant consent if it is satisfied that the effects of proposed activities will be minor or the activity is not contrary to the policies and objectives of any relevant plan.
  • Prohibited. A resource consent or other permission cannot sought, and nor can it be granted.

Due to the toxic nature of a lot of the items being dumped, I would have thought that it would have a discretionary or restricted discretionary classification as an activity.

I am surprised that after 25 years of the Resource Management Act that no specific requirements to minimise waste and purposefully encourage the management of waste to adhere to Section 5 of the Act. I am also surprised that despite growing public awareness of the problem, councils do not seem to be giving the dumping of waste and waste as a general issue the level of attention that one would expect in a country that prides itself on being clean and green.

It is media coverage like this that encourages me to not only push on with my petition to reduce waste in New Zealand but also to encourage a conversation to start about our overall sustainability. In a year where nations and their civil populations seem to be waking up to the damage that plastic causes it is high time we took our own waste management seriously.

A.C.T.’s grandiose housing policy


The other day A.C.T. released its housing policy.

I was initially quite dubious about what the policy would hold in terms of responsible housing for New Zealanders. However I decided to make a stern challenge of this – not to A.C.T., but to myself – to read through the policy and have an honest go at critiquing it.

The major tenets of the policy appear to be:

  1. Removing what A.C.T. considers to be red tape around building houses – it interprets this to be building codes, land use planning and labour laws
  2. It would build 600,000 houses
  3. It would require compulsory insurance for new buildings

The A.C.T. Party has never been a fan of the Resource Management Act 1991, and has variously said it will either repeal or completely rewrite the Act. It blames the land use planning rules provided for in the Act as having a choking effect on housing. The actual purpose of land use planning is because not all land zones will be appropriate for housing, and the local council in identifying and providing these different uses needs to have tools that enable – e.g. an asbestos dump covered over is not appropriate to have housing built on top and the base of it would need to be secure to stop contaminants leaking into the ground water.

A.C.T. proposes a policy that I am not aware of other parties having come up with, and that is the use of G.S.T. as a means of funding infrastructure such as roading, sewerage and electricity connections. All of this is infrastructure that councils are obligated to build when they let new construction go ahead. Although I am not sure how well the G.S.T. will work in this regard, I acknowledge A.C.T. has at least thought about how it is going to fund this.

600,000 houses will be built. That is a huge number of new houses for such a small country – and would far exceed what is probably needed. Even 300,000 would solve housing issues, assuming they were affordably priced. Would there actually even be market demand for such a huge number – which I assume would largely consist of dwellings with 1-4 bedrooms, bathroom and toilet/s, kitchen, laundry and maybe a double garage. We know nothing about the land they would sit on

A.C.T. says it would require compulsory insurance for new buildings. Here is something I agree with, though I thought that this might have been better suited to a wider construction policy than just for houses.

I still have credible concerns about the policy though. I am not sure where they will find enough tradespeople to do the work. New Zealand simply does not have a big enough population to provide these workers. As we have seen with the current construction environment in N.Z. cities, there is a risk of exploitation by industry cowboys who just want a fast dollar.

To process the necessary legalese (what can I call the planning phase when A.C.T. is taking this away from councils?), a substantial – and I find this quite ironic – bureaucratic machine will still be needed. A.C.T. cannot just walk away from the City/District/Regional Plans set down under the Resource Management Act, or Long Term Plans which area Local Government Act 2002 requirement would either have to be allowed to run out or substantially modified.

So, lets see how all of this turns out, but I think A.C.T. will find New Zealanders consider this a rather grandiose policy.