Lord of the forest: New Zealand’s most sacred tree is under threat from disease, but response is slow



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Tāne Mahuta is New Zealand’s most sacred tree, but its days will be numbered if it is infected with kauri dieback disease.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Matthew Hall, Victoria University of Wellington

Tāne Mahuta is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest living being – but the 45m tall, 2,500-year-old kauri tree is under severe threat from a devastating disease.

Nearly a decade after the discovery of kauri dieback disease, it is continuing to spread largely unchecked through the northern part of the North Island. Thousands of kauri trees have likely been infected and are now dead or dying. The Waipoua forest, home of Tāne Mahuta and many other majestic kauri, is reported to be one of the worst affected areas.

For Māori, who trace their whakapapa (lineage) to the origins of the earth, Tāne Mahuta is kin. The threat of losing this tree should electrify the fight against kauri dieback.




Read more:
People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation


Call to close the forest

Named after Tāne, the son of Ranginui the sky father and Papatūanuku the earth mother, Tāne Mahuta is a highly revered taonga, or treasure. In Māori mythology, it was Tāne who brought trees and birds to earth.

The loss of this ancestor, with a presence that has been known to move some to tears, is incalculable.

Kauri dieback has been recorded metres from this ancient tree, despite the best efforts of a prevention programme that has been in place since 2009. Much of the focus of the programme has been on encouraging behaviour change by forest users (following paths, washing boots) and upgrading tracks (from mud to boardwalks). A new national pest management plan proposes more of the same.

As part of a prevention programme to limit the spread of kauri dieback, visitors to kauri forests are encouraged to spray their shoes with a disinfectant.
Eli Duke/WIkimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Signs remind visitors in the Waitākere Ranges about precautions against the spread of kauri dieback disease.
from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In my view, the most notable, and frustrating, aspect of this programme is the significant resistance to close kauri forest tracks to people, who, along with wild pigs, are one of the major vectors of the disease.

Te Kawerau ā Maki, a Māori tribal group with mana whenua (customary authority) over the land of the Waitākere forest in the Auckland region, have maintained a consistent stance that the only way to protect kauri forests is to close them to humans. In November 2017, they placed a rāhui (temporary closure) over the entire forest area, severely frustrated by the lack of effective action to control kauri dieback by Auckland Council.

A rāhui is not legally enforceable, and it was largely ignored by forest users who continued to enter and spread the disease. Eventually, six months later, Auckland Council voted to close the majority of tracks, but Te Kawerau ā Maki have viewed this as too little, and possibly too late.

Keeping the forest open

In a similar laggardly vein, the Department of Conservation has only just put forward a proposal to close or partially close 24 kauri forest tracks. This proposal is currently going through a consultation process, which seems inappropriate when dealing with an immediate biosecurity crisis.

The proposal does not include the Waipoua forest and the track that leads to Tāne Mahuta, or to other significant kauri such as Te Matua Ngahere. The department says:

the decision to propose track closures is not taken lightly, but has been considered in situations where there is high kauri dieback risk, low visitor use, high upgrade and ongoing maintenance costs, and a similar experience provided in the vicinity.

Tāne mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Waipoua forest area. This, combined with the fact that forest tracks are generally in good condition has led to the decision to keep the forest open. For now, the tangata whenua (local Māori with authority over land) support it.

Tāne Mahuta draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the kauri forests in the north of New Zealand.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Relinquishing our claims

Although we know that our human presence in kauri forests will lead to the certain death of the trees, many people still wish to venture into the forests, to walk or to hunt, regardless of the consequences.

Whether conscious or not, the value assessment here must be that the right of kauri trees to live and flourish is of lesser value than some fleeting recreation on a weekend afternoon. As people kept blindly tramping into the Waitākere forest, infection rates increased from 8% to 19% in just five years.

What I find most disturbing here is that government agencies tasked with preserving the “intrinsic values” of native species are prepared to let this happen for pragmatic and economic reasons. This is one of those situations where competing values can’t be balanced.

The life and flourishing of kauri must be prioritised above all else, whatever the economic or recreational hit. This means letting go of our claim to kauri trees as “natural and recreational resources” and acknowledging them for what they are – our living, spiritual, intelligent kin.

Kauri or kiwifruit

Pragmatically, our assistance to kauri also necessitates that we re-assess the value we place on the survival of kauri from an economic perspective.

Funding of less than NZ$2 million per year for the kauri dieback programme pales in comparison to the magnitude of the response to recent agricultural biosecurity threats.

In 2010, a huge response to the incursion of a microbial pathogen (Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae, or Psa) in kiwifruit vines saw a NZ$50 million fund created to fight the disease.

In 2015, after a single Queensland fruit fly was caught in a trap in February, a large coordinated response, with local, restrictive biosecurity control orders in place, resulted in eradication in October, at a cost of NZ$13.6 million.

With such funds, it would be much easier to enforce the closure of kauri forests, until more long-term measures, such as improving genetic resistance, become possible.

At the end of last year, Minister for Forestry Shane Jones was quoted expressing a similar opinion, following the government’s announcement that it would attempt to eradicate the cow disease Mycoplasma bovis.

If it’s possible for us to move swiftly and cull diseased cows and stop the transport of potentially diseased cows off private farms, we need a similar level of vigour in safeguarding areas where our kauri are still strong.

The ConversationFor the survival of Tāne Mahuta, we should close off kauri forests immediately and boost funding for the implementation of the dieback management programme.

Matthew Hall, Associate Director, Research Services, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Plastic poses biggest threat to seabirds in New Zealand waters, where more breed than elsewhere


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The Northern Royal Albatross is one of many species of seabird that breed in New Zealand.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Stephanie B. Borrelle, Auckland University of Technology

Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.

Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.

Some 90% of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.




Read more:
An international plastics treaty could avert a ‘Silent Spring’ for our seas


Plastic – not so fantastic

Every week, another grotesque story illustrates the impact of plastic in the environment. A whale was recently found with 80 plastic bags in its stomach – it died, of course.

One-third of marine turtles have died or become ill due to plastic ingestion in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.

The Chatham Island albatross feeds in the Southern Ocean and breeds only on The Pyramid, a large rock stack in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.
Stephanie Borrelle, CC BY-SA

Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution

Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.

Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50% to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.

Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.

Toxic plastic soup

In Australia, up to 100% of flesh-footed shearwater fledglings contained plastic, the highest reported for any marine vertebrate. Fledglings with high levels of ingested plastic exhibited reduced body condition and increased contaminant loads.

The chemical structure of plastics means that they act as toxin sponges, attracting harmful contaminants from the surrounding seawater, including persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When an animal ingests plastic, there is the potential for those toxic chemicals to leach into its tissues.

Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.

Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been show to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.

Ocean health and human health

Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.

Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.

Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.

In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.

The ConversationGlobal production of plastics is doubling every 11 years. It is predicted to be an order of magnitude greater than current production levels by 2040. The time is ripe for the initiation of an international agreement to lessen plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and save our seabirds and marine wildlife.

Stephanie B. Borrelle, Conservation Ecologist, Auckland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Zealand’s zero carbon bill: much ado about methane



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New Zealand is considering whether or not agricultural greenhouse gases should be considered as part of the country’s transition to a low-emission economy.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

New Zealand could become the first country in the world to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Leading up to the 2017 election, the now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern famously described climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. The promised zero carbon bill is now underway, but in an unusual move, many provisions been thrown open to the public in a consultation exercise led by Minister for Climate Change James Shaw.

More than 4,000 submissions have already been made, with a week still to go, and the crunch point is whether or not agriculture should be part of the country’s transition to a low-emission economy.




Read more:
New Zealand’s productivity commission charts course to low-emission future


Zero carbon options

Many of the 16 questions in the consultation document concern the proposed climate change commission and how far its powers should extend. But the most contentious question refers to the definition of what “zero carbon” actually means.

The government has set a net zero carbon target for 2050, but in the consultation it is asking people to pick one of three options:

  1. net zero carbon dioxide – reducing net carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050

  2. net zero long-lived gases and stabilised short-lived gases – carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide to net zero by 2050, while stabilising methane

  3. net zero emissions – net zero emissions across all greenhouse gases by 2050

The three main gases of concern are carbon dioxide (long-lived, and mostly produced by burning fossil fuels), nitrous oxide (also long-lived, and mostly produced by synthetic fertilisers and animal manures) and methane (short-lived, and mostly produced by burping cows and sheep). New Zealand’s emissions of these gases in 2016 were 34 million tonnes (Mt), 9Mt, and 34Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e), respectively.

All three options refer to “net” emissions, which means that emissions can be offset by land use changes, primarily carbon stored in trees. In option 1, only carbon dioxide is offset. In option 2, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are offset and methane is stabilised. In option 3, all greenhouses gases are offset.

Gathering support

Opposition leader Simon Bridges has declared his support for the establishment of a climate change commission. DairyNZ, an industry body, has appointed 15 dairy farmers as “climate change ambassadors” and has been running a nationwide series of workshops on the role of agricultural emissions.

Earlier this month, Ardern and the Farming Leaders Group (representing most large farming bodies) published a joint statement that the farming sector and the government are committed to working together to achieve net zero emissions from agri-food production by 2050. Not long after, the Climate Leaders Coalition, representing 60 large corporations, announced their support for strong action to reduce emissions and for the zero carbon bill.

However, the devil is in the detail. While option 2 involves stabilising methane emissions, for example, it does not specify at what level or how this would be determined. Former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has argued that methane emissions need to be cut hard and fast, whereas farming groups would prefer to stabilise emissions at their present levels.




Read more:
Why methane should be treated differently compared to long-lived greenhouse gases


This would be a much less ambitious 2050 target than option 3, potentially leaving the full 34Mt of present methane emissions untouched. Under current international rules, this would amount to an overall reduction in emissions of about 50% on New Zealand’s 1990 levels and would likely be judged insufficient in terms of the Paris climate agreement. This may not be what people thought they were voting for in 2017.

Why we can’t ignore methane

To keep warming below 2℃ above pre-industrial global temperatures, CO₂ emissions will need to fall below zero (that is, into net removals) by the 2050s to 2070s, along with deep reductions of all other greenhouse gases. To stay close to 1.5℃, the more ambitious of the twin Paris goals, CO₂ emissions would need to reach net zero by the 2040s. If net removals cannot be achieved, global CO₂ emissions will need to reach zero sooner.

Therefore, global pressure to reduce agricultural emissions, especially from ruminants, is likely to increase. A recent study found that agriculture is responsible for 26% of human-caused greenhouse emissions, and that meat and dairy provide 18% of calories and 37% of protein, while producing 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gases.

A new report by Massey University’s Ralph Sims for the UN Global Environment Facility concludes that currently, the global food supply system is not sustainable, and that present policies will not cut agricultural emissions sufficiently to limit global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels.

Finding a way forward

Reducing agricultural emissions without reducing stock numbers significantly is difficult. Many options are being explored, from breeding low-emission animals and selecting low-emission feeds to housing animals off-pasture and methane inhibitors and vaccines.

But any of these will face a cost and it is unclear who should pay. Non-agricultural industries, including the fossil fuel sector, are already in New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and would like agriculture to pay for emissions created on the farm. Agricultural industries argue that they should not pay until cost-effective mitigation options are available and their international competitors face a similar cost.

The government has come up with a compromise. Its coalition agreement states that if agriculture were to be included in the ETS, only 5% would enter into the scheme, initially. The amount of money involved here is small – NZ$40 million a year – in an industry with annual export earnings of NZ$20 billion. It would add about 0.17% to the price of whole milk powder and 0.5% to the wholesale price of beef.

The ConversationHowever, it would set an important precedent. New Zealand would become the first country in the world to put a price agricultural emissions. Many people hope that the zero carbon bill will represent a turning point. It may even inspire other countries to follow suit.

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A bird’s eye view of New Zealand’s changing glaciers



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Small aircraft carry scientists high above the Southern Alps to survey glacier changes.
Hamish McCormick/NIWA, CC BY-SA

Andrew Lorrey, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research; Andrew Mackintosh, Victoria University of Wellington, and Brian Anderson, Victoria University of Wellington

Every March, glacier “watchers” take to the skies to photograph snow and ice clinging to high peaks along the length of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

This flight needs to happen on cloud-free and windless days at the end of summer before new snow paints the glaciers white, obscuring their surface features.

Each year, at the end of summer, scientists monitor glaciers along New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Summer of records

The summer of 2017-18 was New Zealand’s warmest on record and the Tasman Sea experienced a marine heat wave, with temperatures up to six degrees above normal for several weeks.

The loss of seasonal snow cover and older ice during this extreme summer brings the issue of human-induced climate change into tight focus. The annual flights have been taking place for four decades and the data on end-of-summer snowlines provide crucial evidence.

The disappearance of snow and ice for some of New Zealand’s glaciers is clear and irreversible, at least within our lifetimes. Many glaciers we survey now will simply vanish in the coming decades.

The Franz Josef glacier advanced during the 1980s and 1990s but is now retreating.
Andrew Lorrey/NIWA, CC BY-SA

Glaciers are a beautiful part of New Zealand’s landscape, and important to tourism, but they may not be as prominent in the future. This stored component of the freshwater resource makes contributions to rivers that are used for recreation and irrigation of farm land.

Meltwater flowing from glaciers around Aoraki/Mt Cook into the Mackenzie Basin feeds important national hydroelectricity power schemes. Seasonal meltwater from glaciers can partially mitigate the impacts of summer drought. This buffering capacity may become more crucial if the eastern side of New Zealand’s mountains become drier in a changing climate.

Pioneering glacier monitoring

When Trevor Chinn began studying New Zealand’s 3,000 or so glaciers in the 1960s, he realised monitoring all of them was impossible. He searched for cost-effective ways to learn as much as he could. This resulted in comprehensive glacier mapping and new snow and ice observations when similar work was dying out elsewhere. Mapping of all of the world’s glaciers – nearly 198,000 in total – was only completed in 2012, yet Trevor had already mapped New Zealand’s ice 30 years earlier.

Octogenarian Trevor Chinn still participates in the snowline flights every year to support younger scientists.
Dave Allen/NIWA, CC BY-SA

In addition, he wanted to understand how snow and ice changed from year to year. Trevor decided to do annual glacier photographic flights, looking for the end-of-summer snowlines – a feature about half way between the terminus and the top of a glacier where hard, blue, crevassed glacier ice usually gives way to the previous winter’s snow. The altitude of this transition is an indicator of the annual health of a glacier.

It was a visionary approach that provided a powerful and unique archive of climate variability and change in a remote South Pacific region, far removed from well-known European and North American glaciers. But what was hidden at the time was that New Zealand glaciers were about to undergo significant changes.

Trevor Chinn took part in this summer’s flight and said:

This year is the worst we’ve ever seen. There was so much melt over the summer that more than half the glaciers have lost all the snow they had gained last winter, plus some from the winter before, and there’s rocks sticking out everywhere. The melt-back is phenomenal.

New insights from old observations

The Southern Alps end-of-summer snowline photo archive, produced by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, is a remarkable long-term record. Our colleagues Lauren Vargo and Huw Horgan are leading the effort to harness this resource with photogrammetry to deliver precise (metre-scale) three-dimensional models of glacier changes since 1978, building directly on Trevor Chinn’s work.

Glaciers respond to natural variability and human-induced changes, and we suspect the latter has become more dominant for our region. During the 1980s and 1990s, while glaciers were largely retreating in other parts of the world, many in New Zealand were advancing. Our recent research shows this anomaly was caused by several concentrated cooler-than-average periods, with Southern Alps air temperature linked to Tasman Sea temperatures directly upwind.

The situation changed after the early 2000s, and we postulated whether more frequent high snowlines and acceleration of ice loss would occur. Since 2010, multiple high snowline years have been observed. In 2011, the iconic Fox Glacier (Te Moeka o Tuawe) and Franz Josef Glacier (Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere) started a dramatic retreat – losing all of the ground that they regained in the 1990s and more.

In a series of ice collapses, New Zealand’s Fox Glacier retreated by around 300 m between January 2014 and January 2015.

Looking ahead by examining the past

How New Zealand’s glaciers will respond to human-induced climate change is an important question, but the answer is complicated. A recent study suggests human-induced climate warming since about 1990 has been the largest factor driving global glacier decline. For New Zealand, which is significantly influenced by regional variability of the surrounding oceans and atmosphere, the picture is less clear.

To assess how human-induced climate influences and natural variability affect New Zealand glaciers requires the use of climate models, snowline observations and other datasets. Our research team, with support from international colleagues, are doing just that to see how Southern Alps ice will respond to a range of future scenarios.

The ConversationContinuing the snowline photograph work will allow us to better identify climate change tipping points and warning signs for our water resources – and therefore better prepare New Zealand for an uncertain future.

Andrew Lorrey, Principal Scientist & Programme Leader of Climate Observations and Processes, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research; Andrew Mackintosh, Professor & Director of Antarctic Research Centre, expert on glaciers and ice sheets, Victoria University of Wellington, and Brian Anderson, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New Zealand’s productivity commission charts course to low-emission future



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According to a recent report, New Zealand will need to increase renewable electricity generation, plant more trees and continue switching to electric transport more rapidly to achieve its zero carbon goal by 2050.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

New Zealand has set itself a target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

A recent report issued by the New Zealand Productivity Commission has found that this is an achievable goal, even under modest forecasts of technological progress and increases in carbon price.




Read more:
A fresh start for climate change mitigation in New Zealand


Rising emissions

New Zealand already had a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. That target had been in place since 2002, but emissions continued to rise through the 2000s.

An emissions trading scheme, which began operating in 2008, failed to stop the increase. A flood of imported cars increased New Zealand’s vehicle fleet and its emissions by 20% in just the past four years. A “wall of timber”, expected after 2020 as existing plantations are harvested, would further greatly increase net emissions under current carbon accounting rules.

Agriculture is responsible for an unusually large proportion — just under 50% — of New Zealand’s emissions. These emissions were rising too, especially long-lived nitrous oxides released by effluent and synthetic fertilisers.

A key part of New Zealand’s plan to meet global obligations had always been international carbon trading. However, in the Ukraine hot air scandal, low-integrity carbon credits were imported at rock-bottom prices. International trading was therefore suspended in 2015.

Aiming for zero

The Paris climate agreement made New Zealand’s “50 by 50” target — which the country wasn’t on track to meet — look distinctly weak. It has now become clear that only zero net emissions can stabilise temperatures, at any level, in the long run.




Read more:
A new approach to emissions trading in a post-Paris climate


It was in this context that New Zealand’s previous government asked the Productivity Commission to examine the “opportunities and challenges of a transition to a lower net emissions economy”. A few months into their work, the government changed and the new climate change minister, the Greens’ James Shaw, reinforced the urgency of the inquiry by asking the commission to consider the possibility of a net zero target for 2050.

The resulting 500-page report, now available in draft form, is a huge and comprehensive piece of work. From the very beginning, the commission knew what they were up against, writing that:

…the shift from the old economy to a new, low-emissions, economy will be profound and widespread, transforming land use, the energy system, production methods and technology, regulatory frameworks and institutions, and business and political culture.

The impact of widespread consultation, evidence and research is clear throughout. Although it is only advice, the report is a valuable resource for all future work on emissions reduction. It joins a chorus of similar (but much less detailed) studies issued recently.

Cost of carbon

The report finds that the carbon price required to get to zero net emissions in 2050 is fairly modest. In one model, it rises from its present price of NZ$21/tonne to NZ$55 in 2030 and NZ$157 in 2050 — within the NZ$100-250 range of global estimates consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2℃. In other words, New Zealand does not have an unusually difficult decarbonisation challenge.

Although the report covers all main aspects of society and economy, there are three big changes that stand out:

  • Transport must be electrified rapidly (in some models, nearly all light vehicles entering the fleet must be zero-emission by the early 2030s)

  • Huge numbers of trees – up to an extra 2.8 million hectares, tripling the current plantation estate – must be planted to absorb carbon dioxide. These trees have to go somewhere, probably on sheep and beef farms

  • A lot of new renewable electricity generation will be needed, nearly doubling the present capacity, which is already 85% renewable.

Emissions trading can work

The meat of the report is the policies and institutions required to support and drive the transition. Key among them is a revised emissions trading scheme. So far the scheme has failed to reduce domestic emissions because the price of carbon was too low. This was driven mainly by low international prices, sector exemptions (including agriculture), and policy uncertainty which left businesses and investors unclear about future rules and prices.

The commission’s key recommended fixes include the adoption of a falling cap on emissions (to drive up prices and guarantee emissions reductions); a rising price cap (to prevent shocks to the economy and political resistance from emitters); and a rising price floor (to provide confidence to investors in low-emission technologies). Indeed, California’s system includes all of these elements and is currently on track to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Besides the emissions trading scheme, the report argues that every sector needs its own strategy. For example, on transport, it recommends an emissions standard – something most other developed countries except Australia currently have. Without this, New Zealand risks becoming a dumping ground for high-emission vehicles that manufacturers cannot sell elsewhere. They also recommend a “feebate” scheme, in which vehicles entering the fleet either incur a fee (if they have above-average emissions) or receive a rebate.

Risks and opportunities

I see a few key risks. First, trade-exposed industries, such as agriculture and food and metal processing, need to get discounts on carbon prices to remain competitive. A future in which each global industry decarbonises in a coordinated way does not seem likely, but each industry in each country still needs an incentive to clean up. This aspect remains difficult to deal with. For example, the recommendation that agriculture should be fully phased into the ETS is far outside the political mainstream in New Zealand at the moment.

The falling cap on emissions is an absolutely vital component, but it remains a decision that could be subject to lobbying in the aftermath of some domestic or international crisis.

In none of the report’s scenarios do gross emissions fall by more than 43% by 2050. This is certainly achievable, and it is in line with what some countries are doing right now, but it means New Zealand is relying heavily on tree planting to get to net zero. This is not a long-term solution – eventually you run out of space to plant more trees.

Although the commission has cast its net wide, it does not encompass all views. Political scientist Bronwyn Hayward, perhaps influenced by Trumpism, sees a climate commission as just another panel of experts telling us what to do. Without a fundamental renewal of democracy, this risks a backlash. Naomi Klein goes even further and views neoliberalism as being in kahoots with the fossil fuel industry as the enemy, with the only hope being youth activism.

The ConversationShe might not be wrong. In New Zealand, the idea for a Zero Carbon Act did originate with a youth group, Generation Zero. Their campaign has led fairly directly to this detailed road map for a zero carbon future. The next step, a public consultation about the Zero Carbon Act itself, kicks off this month.

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Six ways to improve water quality in New Zealand’s lakes and rivers


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Lake Tarawera, seen from its outlet, has excellent but declining water quality.
Troy Baisden, CC BY-SA

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato

Two years ago, New Zealanders were shocked when contaminated drinking water sickened more than 5,000 people in the small town of Havelock North, with a population of 14,000. A government inquiry found that sheep faeces were the likely source of bacterial pathogens, which entered an aquifer when heavy rain flooded surrounding farmland.

A second phase of the inquiry identified six principles of international drinking water security that had been bypassed. Had they been followed, the drinking water contamination would have been prevented or greatly reduced.

Here, I ask if the approach recommended by the Havelock North inquiry to prevent drinking water contamination can be extended to reduce the impacts of nutrient contamination of freshwater ecosystems.




Read more:
We all live downstream – it’s time to restore our freshwater ecosystems


Freshwater degraded and in decline

Most measures of the ecological health and recreational value of New Zealand’s lowland rivers and lakes have been rated as degraded and still declining. Intensive agriculture often cops much of the blame, but primary industry exports remain the heart of New Zealand’s economy.

The challenge posed by this trade-off between the economy and the environment has been described as both enormous, and complex. Yet it is a challenge that New Zealand’s government aims to tackle, and continues to rate as a top public concern.

An important lesson from the Havelock North inquiry is that sometimes there is no recipe – no easy list of steps or rules we can take to work through a problem. Following existing rules resulted in a public health disaster. Instead, practitioners need to follow principles, and be mindful that rules can have exceptions.

For freshwater, New Zealand has a similar problem with a lack of clear actionable rules, and I’ve mapped a direct link between the six principles of drinking water security and corresponding principles for managing nutrient impacts in freshwater.

Six principles for freshwater

Of the six principles of drinking water safety, the first is perhaps the most obvious: drinking water safety deserves a “high standard of care”. Similarly, freshwater nutrient impact management should reflect a duty of care that mirrors the scale of impacts. Our most pristine freshwater, like Lake Taupo, and water on the verge of tipping into nearly irreversible degradation, deserve the greatest effort and care.

Second, drinking water safety follows a clear logic from the starting point: “protecting the integrity of source water is paramount”. For nutrient impact management in freshwater, we must reverse this and focus on a more forensic analysis along flowpaths to the source of excess nutrients entering water. Our current approach of using estimates of sources is not convincing when tracers could point to sources in the same way DNA can help identify who was at a crime scene. We must link impacts to sources.

Third, drinking water safety demands “multiple barriers to contamination”. For freshwater, we’re better off taking a similar but different approach – maximising sequential reductions of contamination. There are at least three main opportunities, including farm management, improving drains and riparian vegetation, and enhancing and restoring wetlands. If each is 50% effective at reducing contaminants reaching waterways, the three are as good as a single barrier that reduces contamination by 90%. The 50% reductions are likely to be much more achievable and cost effective.

Managing hot spots and hot moments

The fourth principle of drinking water safety was perhaps the most dramatic failure in the Havelock North drinking water crisis: “change precedes contamination”. Despite a storm and flood reaching areas of known risk for contaminating the water supply, there were no steps in place to detect changing conditions that breached the water supply’s classification as “secure” and therefore safe.

A similar, but inverted principle can keep nutrients on farm, where we want them, and keep them out of our water. Almost all processes that lead to nutrient excess and mobilisation, as well as its subsequent removal, occur in hot spots and hot moments.

This concept means that when we look, we find that roughly 90% of excess nutrients come from less than 10% of the land area, or events that represent less than 10% of time. We can identify these hot spots and hot moments, and classify them into a system of control points that are managed to limit nutrient contamination of freshwater.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake, has a nitrogen cap and trade programme in place, which allocates farmers individual nitrogen discharge allowances.
from Shutterstock, CC BY-SA

Establishing clear ownership

A fifth principle for drinking water seems obvious: “suppliers must own the safety of drinking water”. Clear ownership results in clear responsibility.

Two world-leading cap-and-trade schemes created clear ownership of nutrient contaminants reaching iconic water bodies. One is fully in place in the Lake Taupo catchment, and another is still under appeal in the Lake Rotorua catchment.

These schemes involved government investment of between NZ$70 million and NZ$80 million to “buy out” a proportion of nutrients reaching the lakes. This cost seems unworkable across the entire nation. Will farmers or taxpayers own this cost, or is there any way to pass it on to investors in new, higher-value land use that reduces nutrient loss to freshwater? A successful example of shifting to higher value has been conversions from sheep and beef farming to vineyards.

As yet, the ownership of water has made headlines, but remains largely unclear outside Taupo and Rotorua when it comes to nutrient contaminants. Consideration of taxing the use of our best water could be much more sensible with a clearer framework of ownership for both water and the impacts of contaminants.

The final principle of drinking water safety is to “apply preventative risk management”. This is a scaled approach that involves thinking ahead of problems to assess risks that can be mitigated at each barrier to contamination.

For nutrient management in water, a principled approach has to start with the basic fact that water flows and must be managed within catchments. From this standpoint, New Zealand has a good case for leading internationally, because regional councils govern the environment based on catchment boundaries.

Within catchments we still have a great deal of work to do. This involves understanding how lag effects can lead to a legacy of excess nutrients. We need to manage whole catchments by understanding, monitoring and managing current and future impacts in the entire interconnected system.

The ConversationIf we can focus on these principles, government, industry, researchers, NGOs and the concerned public can build understanding and consensus together, enabling progress towards halting and reversing the declining health and quality of our rivers and lakes.

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.