For decades, scientists puzzled over the plastic ‘missing’ from our oceans – but now it’s been found


Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, CSIRO

You’ve probably heard that our oceans have become a plastic soup. But in fact, of all the plastic that enters Earth’s oceans each year, just 1% has been observed floating on the surface. So where is the rest of it?

This “missing” plastic has been a longstanding scientific question. To date, the search has focused on oceanic gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the water column (the part of the ocean between the surface and the sea bed), the bottom of the ocean, and the stomachs of marine wildlife.

But our new research suggests ocean plastic is being transported back onshore and pushed permanently onto land away from the water’s edge, where it often becomes trapped in vegetation.

Of course, plastic has been reported on beaches around the world for decades. But there has been little focus on why and how coastal environments are a sink for marine debris. Our findings have big implications for how we tackle ocean plastic.

New research shows a significant amount of plastic pollution from our oceans ends up back on land, where it gets trapped.

The hunt for marine pollution

Our separate, yet-to-be-published research has found around 90% of marine debris that enters the ocean remains in the “littoral zone” (the area of ocean within 8km of the coast). This new study set out to discover what happens to it.

We collected data on the amount and location of plastic pollution every 100 kilometres around the entire coast of Australia between 2011 and 2016. Debris was recorded at 188 locations along the Australian coastline. Of this, 56% was plastic, followed by glass (17%) and foam (10%).

Data was recorded approximately every 100 kilometres along the coast of Australia. Of the marine debris recorded, more than half was plastic.

The debris was a mix of litter from people and deposition from the ocean. The highest concentrations of plastic pollution were found along coastal backshores – areas towards the inland edge of the beach, where the vegetation begins. The further back from the water’s edge we went, the more debris we found.

The amount of marine debris, and where it ends up, is influenced by onshore wave activity and, to a lesser extent, wind activity. Densely populated areas and those where the coast was easily accessible were hotspots for trapped plastics.




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Think about what you see on your beach. Smaller debris is often found near the water’s edge, while larger items such as drink bottles, plastic bags and crisp packets are often found further back from the water, often trapped in vegetation.

We also found more debris near urban areas where rivers and creeks enter the ocean. It could be that our trash is being trapped by waterways before it gets to the sea. We’re finding similar patterns in other countries we’re surveying around the Asia Pacific and beyond.

This pollution kills and maims wildlife when they mistake it for food or get tangled in it. It can damage fragile marine ecosystems by smothering sensitive reefs and transporting invasive species and is potentially a threat to human health if toxins in plastics make their way through the food chain to humans.

It can also become an eyesore, damaging the economy of an area through reduced tourism revenue.

Onshore waves, wind and areas with denser human populations influences where and how much marine debris there is along our coastlines.
CSIRO

Talking rubbish

Our findings highlight the importance of studying the entire width of coastal areas to better understand how much, and where, debris gets trapped, to inform targeted approaches to managing all this waste.

Plastic pollution can be reduced through local changes such as water refill stations, rubbish bins, incentives and awareness campaigns. It can also be reduced through targeted waste management policies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. We found container deposit schemes to be a particularly effective incentive in reducing marine pollution.




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This discussion is particularly timely. The National Plastics Summit in Canberra last week brought together governments, industry and non-government organisations to identify new solutions to the plastic waste challenge, and discuss how to meet targets under the National Waste Policy Action Plan. Understanding that so much of our debris remains local, and trapped on land, provides real opportunities for successful management of our waste close to the source. This is particularly critical given the waste export ban starting July 1 at the latest.

Plastic in our oceans is increasing. It’s clear from our research that waste management strategies on land must accommodate much larger volumes of pollution than previously estimated. But the best way to keep plastic from our ocean and land is to stop putting it in.

Arianna Olivelli contributed to this article, and the research upon which it was based.




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The Conversation


Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO and Chris Wilcox, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it



Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem?
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Western Sydney University

Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America, and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.

As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency. The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous – spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.

Legal and policy frameworks – local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.

Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.
NEIL BENNETT/AAP

A short history of smoke

Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.

In Egypt and Peru, evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.

The Romans referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:

No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.




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Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock


Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died in the Great Smog of 1952.

In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon, outside human control.

Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia.
AFRIANTO SILALAHI

Where to point the finger?

Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.

Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year, winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.

In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.




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As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible – a slippery concept when climate change is involved.

The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.

Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.

Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Dan Peled/AAP

The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists and conservationists, for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.

There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.

The law has failed

The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017, from 60 to 1,260.

But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century – a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.




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This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.

Experts have argued that the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.

The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.

Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Looking ahead

Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.

As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.The Conversation

Eric Kerr, Lecturer, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers



After heavy rainfall, debris could wash into our waterways and threaten fish, water bugs, and other aquatic species.
Jarod Lyon, Author provided

Paul McInerney, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, CSIRO

When heavy rainfall eventually extinguishes the flames ravaging south-east Australia, another ecological threat will arise. Sediment, ash and debris washing into our waterways, particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin, may decimate aquatic life.

We’ve seen this before. Following 2003 bushfires in Victoria’s alpine region, water filled with sediment and debris (known as sediment slugs) flowed into rivers and lakes, heavily reducing fish populations. We’ll likely see it again after this season’s bushfire emergency.




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Large areas of northeast Victoria have been burnt. While this region accounts only for 2% of Murray-Darling Basin’s entire land area, water flowing in from northeast Victorian streams (also known as in-flow) contributes 38% of overall in-flows into the Murray-Darling Basin.

Fire debris flowing into Murray-Darling Basin will exacerbate the risk of fish and other aquatic life dying en masse as witnessed in previous years..

What will flow into waterways?

Generally, bushfire ash comprises organic carbon and inorganic elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous and metals such as copper, mercury and zinc.

Sediment rushing into waterways can also contain large amounts of soil, since fire has consumed the vegetation that once bound the soil together and prevented erosion.

And carcinogenic chemicals – found in soil and ash in higher amounts following bushfires – can contaminate streams and reservoirs over the first year after the fire.

A 2014 post-fire flood in a Californian stream.

How they harm aquatic life

Immediately following the bushfires, we expect to see an increase in streamflow when it rains, because burnt soil repels, not absorbs, water.

When vast amounts of carbon are present in a waterway, such as when carbon-loaded sediments and debris wash in, bacteria rapidly consumes the water’s oxygen. The remaining oxygen levels can fall below what most invertebrates and fish can tolerate.

These high sediment loads can also suffocate aquatic animals with a fine layer of silt which coats their gills and other breathing structures.

Habitats are also at risk. When sediment is suspended in the river and light can’t penetrate, suitable fish habitat is diminished. The murkier water also means there’s less opportunity for aquatic plants and algae to photosynthesise (turn sunshine to energy).




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What’s more, many of Australia’s waterbugs, the keystone of river food webs, need pools with litter and debris for cover. They rely on slime on the surface of rocks and snags that contain algae, fungi and bacteria for food.

But heavy rain following fire can lead to pools and the spaces between cobbles to fill with silt, causing the waterbugs to starve and lose their homes.

This is bad news for fish too. Any bug-eating fish that manage to avoid dying from a lack of oxygen can be faced with an immediate food shortage.

Many fish were killed in Ovens River after the 2003 bushfires from sediment slugs.
Arthur Rylah Institute, Author provided

We saw this in 2003 after the sediment slug penetrated the Ovens River in the north east Murray catchment. Researchers observed dead fish, stressed fish gulping at the water surface and freshwater crayfish walking out of the stream.

Long-term damage

Bushfires can increase the amount of nutrients in streams 100 fold. The effects can persist for several years before nutrient levels return to pre-fire conditions.

More nutrients in the water might sound like a good thing, but when there’s too much (especially nitrogen and phosphorous), coupled with warm temperatures, they can lead to excessive growth of blue-green algae. This algae can be toxic to both people and animals and often closes down recreational waters.




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Large parts of the upper Murray River catchment above Lake Hume has burnt, risking increases to nutrient loads within the lake and causing blue-green algae blooms which may flow downstream. This can impact communities from Albury all the way to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia.

Some aquatic species are already teetering on the edge of their preferred temperature as stream temperatures rise from climate change. In places where bushfires have burnt all the way to the stream edge, decimating vegetation that provided shade, there’ll be less resistance to temperature changes, and fewer cold places for aquatic life to hide.

Cooler hide-outs are particularly important for popular angling species such as trout, which are highly sensitive to increased water temperature.

Ash blanketing the forest floor can end up in waterways when it rains.
Tarmo Raadik

But while we can expect an increase in stream flow from water-repellent burnt soil, we know from previous bushfires that, in the long-term, stream flow will drop.

This is because in the upper catchments, regenerating younger forests use more water than the older forests they replace from evapotranspiration (when plants release water vapour into the surrounding atmosphere, and evaporation from the surrounding land surface).

It’s particularly troubling for the Murray-Darling Basin, where large areas are already enduring ongoing drought. Bushfires may exacerbate existing dry conditions.

So what can we do?

We need to act as soon as possible. Understandably, priorities lie in removing the immediate and ongoing bushfire threat. But following that, we must improve sediment and erosion control to prevent debris being washed into water bodies in fire-affected areas.




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One of the first things we can do is to restore areas used for bushfire control lines and minimise the movement of soil along access tracks used for bushfire suppression. This can be achieved using sediment barriers and other erosion control measures in high risk areas.

Longer-term, we can re-establish vegetation along waterways to help buffer temperature extremes and sediment loads entering streams.

It’s also important to introduce strategic water quality monitoring programs that incorporate real-time sensing technology, providing an early warning system for poor water quality. This can help guide the management of our rivers and reservoirs in the years to come.

While our current focus is on putting the fires out, as it should be, it’s important to start thinking about the future and how to protect our waterways. Because inevitably, it will rain again.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, , CSIRO, and Klaus Joehnk, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock



Throughout history, Australian bushfires have spread smoke over our cities. But this time it’s different.
David Mariuz/AAP

Nancy Cushing, University of Newcastle

Smoke from this season’s bushfires has turned the sun red, the moon orange and the sky an insipid grey. It has obscured iconic views tourists flock to see. Far more than an aesthetic problem, it has forced business shutdowns, triggered health problems and kept children indoors for weeks.

City dwellers in southeast Australia have been forced to take a crash course in the finer points of air pollution. We’ve learned about the dangers of inhaling tiny PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or fewer in diameter). We’ve learned that only a close-fitting P2 mask will do much to protect us.

Still, we wear disposable paper masks and hold handkerchiefs to our faces, hoping any amount of filtering is helpful.

A police officer wears a mask while on duty at Parliament House in Canberra.
NARENDRA SHRESTHA/AAP

Even for an historian of air pollution like me, this situation is a shock. It is not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality is unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent.

Historically, air pollution from smoke was considered outside human control and not subject to regulation. But these bushfires are clearly linked to global warming, for which government, corporations and individuals are responsible. It’s time to rethink the way we protect air quality.

The history of smoke

In recent weeks, apps such as AirVisual have confirmed what we city dwellers can already see and smell: since the fires on the north coast of NSW began in late October, our air quality has plummeted.

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached a choking 5,185 at 8pm on New Year’s Day.

Bushfire smoke has affected the cities of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory in the past. In late January 1926, when Canberra was just emerging as a city, a thick haze of smoke sat over the site. Fires came within metres of Yarralumla, the residence which, the following year, would become home to the Governor-General.

In several years in the mid 1930s, bushfires burning to the north of Sydney left the city air thick with smoke. In October 1936, bushfire smoke forced a motor liner arriving from Hong Kong to warily enter the harbour sounding its siren, because it was invisible to signallers on South Head.

A New Zealand pilot, flying into Sydney from Longreach the following month, had to fly blind in “great clouds of dense smoke” covering much of NSW. In 1939, Canberra was covered by what visiting writer HG Wells described as a “streaming smoke curtain”.




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In the summer of 1944, Sydney was again enveloped in a smoke haze, this time from fires in the Blue Mountains and (later Royal) National Park in November. Photographs published at the time show the Sydney Harbour Bridge barely visible through dust and smoke at midday. The ongoing fires were blamed for an increase in diseases of the ears, nose and throat, and for cases of influenza and pneumonia, leading to a shortage of hospital beds.

A satellite image showing fires burning on Australia’s east coast.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

In November 1951, all of NSW was said to be blacked out by bushfire smoke. In Sydney on the worst days, records show all four of the city’s airfields were closed because of “smoke-fog”.

A hazy legal framework

In each of these episodes, bushfire smoke disrupted transport, commerce, health and the enjoyment of the urban environment. But even as other forms of air pollution began to be regulated, smoke from bushfires escaped legislative attention.

What was understood as air pollution were the unwanted byproducts of industrial processes, whereas bushfire smoke was viewed as natural.




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In NSW in 1866, an act based on British legislation restricted smoke from mills, distilleries and gas works. Further limitations on smoke production in built-up areas were included in later acts governing public health (1902), motor traffic (1909) and local government (1919).

After World War II Newcastle, the site of the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, began to pay closer attention to managing air quality. This pioneering work was given added urgency after 4,000 people died in heavy London smog in 1952.

A woman seen wearing a face mask as smoke haze from bushfires blankets Sydney.
JOEL CARRETT/AAP

In 1958, a NSW parliamentary committee delivered a report into smoke abatement. It did not mention recent issues with bushfire smoke, and also dismissed the impact of domestically produced smoke. The subsequent 1961 Clean Air Act focused on air pollution from industry, transport and power generation.

Air pollution legislation continued to evolve in following decades, targeting motor vehicle emissions in the 1970s, backyard burning of waste in the 1980s, and wood fires used to heat homes in the 1990s.

These measures have been successful. A 2006 study found that between 1998 and 2003, on the limited occasions when standards for PM10 in six Australian cities were exceeded, the main sources were not industry or transport, but dust storms and bushfires (with the exception of Launceston, where heating fires were the main contributor).

A young man jumps from a rock in Sydney during smoke haze.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Looking ahead

Today, bushfire smoke is excluded from air quality regulations, despite its obvious role in pollution. It is still considered natural, and beyond human control.

However the link between the current fires and human-caused climate change, long predicted by climate scientists, suggests this exemption is no longer valid.




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As the Australian National University’s Tom Griffiths has written, the current fires in some ways repeat patterns of the past. But “the smoke is worse, more widespread and more enduring”.

When Australia begins the recovery from these fires, our business-as-usual approach requires a rethink. Measures to protect air quality should be a major part of this.

It is time that corporations, governments and societies which contribute to global heating be held to account for more frequent, intense and widespread bushfires, and the smoke which billows from them.The Conversation

Nancy Cushing, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: seven reasons to be wary of waste-to-energy proposals



Many developed countries already have significant waste-to-energy operations and therefore less material going to landfill.

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I was in Switzerland recently and discovered that they haven’t had any landfill since the early 2000s, because all of their waste is either recycled or incinerated to produce electricity. How “green” is it to incinerate waste in order to produce electricity? Is it something New Zealand should consider, so that 1) we have no more landfill, and 2) we can replace our fossil-fuel power stations with power stations that incinerate waste?

Burning rubbish to generate electricity or heat sounds great: you get rid of all your waste and also get seemingly “sustainable” energy. What could be better?

Many developed countries already have significant “waste-to-energy” incineration plants and therefore less material going to landfill (although the ash has to be landfilled). These plants often have recycling industries attached to them, so that only non-recyclables end up in the furnace. If it is this good, why the opposition?

Here are seven reasons why caution is needed when considering waste-to-energy incineration plants.




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Stifling innovation and waste reduction

  1. Waste-to-energy plants require a high-volume, guaranteed waste stream for about 25 years to make them economically viable. If waste-to-energy companies divert large amounts of waste away from landfills, they need to somehow get more waste to maintain their expensive plants. For example, Sweden imports its waste from the UK to feed its “beasts”.

  2. The waste materials that are easiest to source and have buyers for recycling – like paper and plastic – also produce most energy when burned.

  3. Waste-to-energy destroys innovation in the waste sector. As a result of China not accepting our mixed plastics, people are now combining plastics with asphalt to make roads last longer and are making fence posts that could be replacing treated pine posts (which emit copper, chrome and arsenic into the ground). If a convenient waste-to-energy plant had been available, none of this would have happened.

  4. Waste-to-energy reduces jobs. Every job created in the incineration industry removes six jobs in landfill, 36 jobs in recycling and 296 jobs in the reuse industry.

  5. Waste-to-energy works against a circular economy, which tries to keep goods in circulation. Instead, it perpetuates our current make-use-dispose mentality.

  6. Waste-to-energy only makes marginal sense in economies that produce coal-fired electricity – and then only as a stop-gap measure until cleaner energy is available. New Zealand has a green electricity generation system, with about 86% already coming from renewable sources and a target of 100% renewable by 2035, so waste-to-energy would make it a less renewable energy economy.

  7. Lastly, burning waste and contaminated plastics creates a greater environmental impact than burning the equivalent oil they are made from. These impacts include the release of harmful substances like dioxins and vinyl chloride as well as mixtures of many other harmful substances used in making plastics, which are not present in oil.




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Landfills as mines of the future

European countries were driven to waste-to-energy as a result of a 2007 directive that imposed heavy penalties for countries that did not divert waste from landfills. The easiest way for those countries to comply was to install waste-to-energy plants, which meant their landfill waste dropped dramatically.

New Zealand does not have these sorts of directives and is in a better position to work towards reducing, reusing and recycling end-of-life materials, rather than sending them to an incinerator to recover some of the energy used to make them.

Is New Zealand significantly worse than Europe in managing waste? About a decade ago, a delegation from Switzerland visited New Zealand Ministry for the Environment officials to compare progress in each of the waste streams. Both parties were surprised to learn that they had managed to divert roughly the same amount of waste from landfill through different routes.

This shows that it is important New Zealand doesn’t blindly follow the route other countries have used and hope for the same results. Such is the case for waste-to-energy.

There is also an argument to be made for current landfills. Modern, sanitary landfills seal hazardous materials and waste stored over the last 50 years presents future possibilities of landfill mining.

Many landfills have higher concentrations of precious metals, particularly gold, than mines and some are being mined for those metals. As resources become scarcer and prices increase, our landfills may become the mines of the future.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Zealand poised to introduce clean car standards and incentives to cut emissions



Australia and Russia could soon be the last remaining developed nations without fuel efficiency standards, with New Zealand proposing new rules and financial incentives to get more people driving cleaner cars.
http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The New Zealand government has proposed new fuel standards to cut greenhouse emissions, along with consumer rebates for cleaner cars – paid for by fees on high-polluting cars.

The long-awaited proposed changes would bring New Zealand in line with most other developed countries; apart from New Zealand, Russia and Australia are the last remaining OECD nations without fuel efficiency standards.

New Zealand’s long tradition of not regulating its car market, combined with substantial indirect subsidies for private cars, makes addressing emissions from the transport sector both challenging and highly significant.




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New Zealand’s second-rate car fleet

Land transport emissions – the single largest source of fossil carbon dioxide in New Zealand – grew 93% between 1990 and 2017. There are multiple causes. The population grew 44% during this period, mostly through immigration. The car ownership rate also grew rapidly, partly due to economic growth and deficiencies in public transport in the main cities. Car ownership in New Zealand is now the highest in the OECD and there are more motor vehicles than adults.

Fuel efficiency improved only slowly over this period, before stalling in recent years: at 180g CO₂/km, the emissions of newly imported vehicles in New Zealand are 50% higher than in Europe. Because of the lack of a fuel efficiency standard, importers provide less efficient versions of their bestsellers to the New Zealand market. Of the ten bestselling new vehicles, five are utes (which also benefit from a fringe benefit tax exemption, four are SUVs and one is a regular car.

In addition, half of all vehicles are imported secondhand, mostly from Japan. They are cheap, but less efficient than newer models. Emissions, and congestion, are likely to continue rising as the national vehicle fleet is increasing by 110,000 vehicles a year.

One bright spot in the present situation is the emergence of an electric vehicle segment, mostly driven by the availability of cheap second-hand Nissan Leafs from Japan and the construction of a fast-charging network by a private company. Although sales have stalled in the past year at a market share of 2%, there are now 15,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand. (Australia has around 10,000 electric vehicles.)

New Zealand’s history of fuel taxes

New Zealand does not have a strong record of taxing “bads”. The only goods subject to excise taxes are tobacco, alcohol and fuel. The fuel tax is moderate by international standards. Over the past decade, the fuel tax has been fully allocated to road construction and maintenance.

New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The current carbon price of NZ$25/tonne of carbon dioxide adds five cents per litre to the price of fuel. Clearly, any likely increases in the carbon price are not going to be enough to change car buying decisions. Research shows that consumers tend to focus on upfront costs, while underestimating future fuel and maintenance costs.

Despite that, a special Auckland fuel tax of 10 cents per litre that co-funds public transport investment provoked a brief but intense backlash from the public. Plans to extend the scheme to other centres were canned.

A two-pronged plan

The proposed fuel efficiency standard would require car importers to either meet it or pay a fine. The suggested standard is 150gCO₂/km in 2021, falling to 105gCO₂/km in 2025, with further falls thereafter. There are more than 3000 car importers in New Zealand, so this could prompt a major shakeup, including possible price adjustments.

The standards are similar to those proposed by the Australian Coalition government in 2016, which have not yet been taken any further. Internationally, fuel efficiency standards cover 80% of the light vehicle market.




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But the second component of the proposal, the clean car discount, has attracted more attention. Cars emitting less than the current threshold would received a discount, initially up to NZ$1800 for an efficient petrol car, up to NZ$4800 for a hybrid and up to NZ$8000 for a battery electric car. Cars costing more than NZ$80,000 would not receive a discount.

Known as a “feebate scheme”, those rebates would be paid for by increased fees for high-polluting cars, of up to NZ$3000. The amounts are designed so that the entire scheme would be revenue neutral to the government. Modelling suggests that the proposed standard and discount combined would save motorists NZ$12,000 over the life of a vehicle.

International clean car schemes and testing

There is international experience with similar schemes, and they have been broadly effective. France has been operating a “feebate” scheme since 2008 with periodic adjustments. New Zealand’s proposed scheme is similar to the French and Swedish schemes.

But there is also room to get it wrong. Tinkering with electric vehicle incentives has led to wild sales fluctuations in the Netherlands and Denmark.

The spread between tested and real-world fuel use has widened, up from 9% in 2001 to 42%. The new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure testing cycle, currently being adopted by Japanese and European manufacturers, is believed to be more representative of real-world fuel use, as is the test already in use in the United States.

But overall, the New Zealand proposal has been received positively by car makers and across political parties.

One possible weakness is that it is entirely based on carbon dioxide. Other pollutants, including nitrous and sulphur oxides and particulate matter (soot), that are responsible for most of the immediate health impacts of vehicle pollution and are worse in diesel than in petrol vehicles, are not targeted. Nor are the underlying subsidies to the car-based transport system, which make a transition to active and public transport more difficult.

Any decisions made now will have impacts for decades to come. Switching the fleet to electric is different from just switching to more fuel-efficient cars. It involves new charging infrastructure and some behavioural changes from the public, and these challenges (rather than simply cost) are stumbling blocks worldwide to more rapid adoption.

These arguments have persuaded many countries to bring in electric vehicle incentives beyond simply targeting carbon dioxide. Norway is a famous example, where electric vehicles avoid purchase taxes and market share is already 60%. The UK has recently exempted electric company cars from fringe benefit tax.

As the global market share of electric vehicles still stands at only 2%, eight years after they became widely available, and the number of fossil-fueled vehicles is increasing by 48 million a year, stronger action on vehicle emissions is clearly needed worldwide.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.