Ardern’s government and climate policy: despite a zero-carbon law, is New Zealand merely a follower rather than a leader?


David Hall, Auckland University of Technology

Back in pre-COVID times last year, when New Zealand passed the Zero Carbon Act, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern insisted “New Zealand will not be a slow follower” on climate change.

It struck a clear contrast with the previous National government’s approach, which the then prime minister, John Key, often described as being “a fast follower, not a leader”.

He had lifted this language from the New Zealand Institute’s 2007 report, which argued against “lofty rhetoric about saving the planet or being a world leader”. Instead, it counselled New Zealand to respond without “investing unnecessarily in leading the way”.

Key was eventually accused of failing to live up to even this unambitious ideal — New Zealand came to be known as a climate laggard.

With her hand on the nation’s rudder since 2017, has Ardern done any better?
Is New Zealand a climate leader, and not merely a symbolic leader on the international speaking circuit but a substantive leader that sets examples for other countries to follow?

Finally a fast follower

On my analysis of Ardern’s government, New Zealand is now, finally, a fast follower.

The government’s climate policy is best evaluated from three perspectives: the domestic, international and moral.




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From a domestic perspective, where a government is judged against the governments that preceded it, Ardern is entitled to declare (as she did when the Zero Carbon Act was passed) that:

We have done more in 24 months than any government in New Zealand has ever done on climate action.

But at the international level, where New Zealand is judged against the actions of other countries and its international commitments, it is more a fast follower than a leader, defined by policy uptake and international advocacy rather than innovation.

At the moral level, where New Zealand is judged against objectives such as the 1.5°C carbon budget, its actions remain inadequate. A recent report by Oxfam notes New Zealand is off-track for its international obligations.

The nation’s record looks even worse when we factor in historical responsibilities. From this perspective, New Zealand, like other countries in the global north, is acting with an immoral lack of haste. It is for the next government to go from being merely transitional to truly transformational.

Turning in the right direction

The formation of the Ardern government in 2017 inaugurated a phase of rapid policy development, drawing especially from UK and EU examples. But the evidence of substantive climate leadership is much less clear.

The government’s most prominent achievement is the Zero Carbon Act, which passed through parliament with cross-party support in November 2019. This establishes a regulatory architecture to support the low-emissions transition through five-yearly carbon budgets and a Climate Change Commission that provides independent advice.

Its other major achievement, less heralded and more disputed, was the suspension of offshore oil and gas permits. This supply-side intervention is surely Ardern’s riskiest manoeuvre as prime minister, not only on climate but on any policy issue.

It stands as an exception to her careful, incremental style. It signalled that the Crown’s historical indulgence of the oil and gas sector was coming to an end.

But both policies involve followership. The Zero Carbon Act is closely modelled on the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 and the leadership came from outside government. It was initially championed by the youth group Generation Zero. The independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment then picked it up.

Similarly, the offshore oil and gas ban builds upon longstanding activism from Māori organisations and activists. In 2012, Petrobras withdrew prematurely from a five-year exploration permit after resistance from East Cape iwi (tribe) Te Whānau-ā-Apanui. New Zealand was also only following in the footsteps of more comprehensive moratoriums elsewhere, such as Costa Rica in 2011 and France in 2017.

Towards climate leadership

There are many other climate-related policies, including:

Only the last policy is a world first. Even then, private companies throughout the world are already adopting this approach without a mandate from government.




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In all likelihood, New Zealand’s greatest claim to pioneering policy is its decision to split targets for carbon dioxide and methane in the Zero Carbon Act, which means agricultural methane is treated separately. If the science behind this decision eventually informs the international accounting of greenhouse gases, it will have major ramifications for developing countries whose economies also rely heavily on agriculture.

Not all proposed policies made it through the political brambles of coalition government. Most conspicuously, commitments to an emissions-free government vehicle fleet, the introduction of fuel-efficiency standards, and feebates for light vehicles were all thwarted.

This is symptomatic of this government’s major weakness on climate. Its emphasis on institutional reforms rather than specific projects will yield long-term impacts, but not produce the immediate emissions reductions to achieve New Zealand’s 2030 international target under the Paris Agreement. This is where a future government can make the rhetoric of climate leadership a reality.


This article is adapted from an upcoming book – Pioneers, Leaders and Followers in Multilevel and Polycentric Climate Governance.The Conversation

David Hall, Senior Researcher in Politics, Auckland University of Technology

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

New Zealand invests in growing its domestic recycling industry to create jobs and dump less rubbish at landfills



Shutterstock/corners74

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand’s government recently put more than NZ$160 million towards developing a domestic recycling sector to create jobs as part of its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes of materials each year, but 70% is currently exported. A recent NZ$36.7 million funding boost to upgrade recycling plants throughout the country followed a NZ$124 million injection into recycling infrastructure to grow processing capacity onshore. The investment signals a focus on supporting services that create employment and increase efficiency or reduce waste.

The potential for expansion in onshore processing of recyclable waste is enormous – and it could lead to 3.1 million tonnes of waste being diverted from landfills. But it will only work if it is part of a strategy with clear and measurable targets.

COVID-19 impacts

During New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown between March and May, general rubbish collection was classed as an essential service and continued to operate. But recycling was sporadic.

Whether or not recycling services continued depended on storage space and the ability to separate recyclables under lockdown conditions. Facilities that relied on manual sorting could not meet those requirements and their recycling was sent to landfill. Only recycling plants with automated sorting could operate.

New Zealand’s reliance on international markets showed a lack of resilience in the waste management system. Any changes in international prices were duplicated in New Zealand and while exports could continue under tighter border controls, it was no longer economically viable to do so for certain recyclable materials.

International cardboard and paper markets collapsed and operators without sufficient storage space sent materials to landfill. Most plastics became uneconomic to recycle.

Recycling and rubbish bins
New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes each year.
Shutterstock/Josie Garner

In contrast, for materials processed in New Zealand — including glass, metals and some plastics — recycling remains viable. Many local authorities are now limiting their plastic collections to those types that have expanding onshore processing capacity.

Soft packaging plastics are also being collected again, but only in some places and in smaller quantities than at the height of the soft plastics recycling scheme, to be turned into fence posts and other farm materials.




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The investment in onshore processing facilities is part of a move towards a circular economy. The government provided the capital for plants to recycle PET plastics, used to make most drink bottles and food trays. PET plastics can be reprocessed several times.

This means items such as meat trays previously made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable from households, could be made from fully recyclable PET. Some of the most recent funding goes towards providing automatic optical sorters to allow recycling plants to keep operating under lockdown conditions.

Regulation changes

The government also announced an expansion of the landfill levy to cover more types of landfills and for those that accept household wastea progressive increase from NZ$10 to NZ$60 per tonne of waste.

This will provide more money for the Waste Minimisation Fund, which in turn funds projects that lead to more onshore processing and jobs.

Last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags took more than a billion bags out of circulation, which represents about 180 tonnes of plastic that is not landfilled. But this is a small portion of the 3.7 million tonnes of waste that go to landfill each year.

More substantial diversion schemes include mandatory product stewardship schemes currently being implemented for tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics and packaging.

An example of the potential gains for product stewardship schemes is e-waste. Currently New Zealand produces about 80,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, but recycles only about 2% (1,600 tonnes), most of which goes offshore for processing. Under the scheme, e-waste will be brought to collection depots and more will be processed onshore.

Landfilling New Zealand’s total annual e-waste provides about 50 jobs. Recycling it could create 200 jobs and reusing it is estimated to provide work for 6,400 people.




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But all these initiatives are not enough. We need a coordinated strategy with clear targets.

The current Waste Strategy has only two goals: to reduce the harmful effects of waste and improve resource use efficiency. Such vague goals have resulted in a 37% increase in waste disposal to landfill in the last decade.

An earlier 2002 strategy achieved significantly better progress. The challenge is clear. A government strategy with measurable targets for waste diversion from landfill can lead us to better resource use and more jobs.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.

How climate change made the melting of New Zealand’s glaciers 10 times more likely



Dave Allen, Author provided

Lauren Vargo, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Glaciers around the world are melting — and for the first time, we can now directly attribute annual ice loss to climate change.

We analysed two years in which glaciers in New Zealand melted the most in at least four decades: 2011 and 2018. Both years were characterised by warmer than average temperatures of the air and the surface of the ocean, especially during summer.

Our research, published today, shows climate change made the glacial melt that happened during the summer of 2018 at least ten times more likely.

A person taking an image of a glacier
Scientists have been monitoring glaciers in New Zealand for more than 40 years.
Dave Allen, Author provided

As the Earth continues to warm, we expect an even stronger human fingerprint on extreme glacier mass loss in the coming decades.




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


Extreme glacier melt

During the 2018 summer, the Tasman Sea marine heatwave resulted in the warmest sea surface temperatures around New Zealand on record — up to 2℃ above average.

Research shows these record sea surface temperatures were almost certainly due to the influence of climate change.

map of sea surface temperatures
Summer sea surface temperature anomalies (in °C, relative to mean temperatures between 1979 and 2009) for December 2010 to February 2011 (left) and December 2017 to February 2018 (right),
Author provided

The results of our work show climate change made the high melt in 2011 at least six times more likely, and in 2018, it was at least ten times more likely.

These likelihoods are changing because global average temperatures, including in New Zealand, are now about 1°C above pre-industrial levels, confirming a connection between greenhouse gas emissions and high annual ice loss.

Changing New Zealand glaciers

Glaciers in New Zealand's mountains
New Zealand’s glaciers lost more ice in 2011 and 2018 than in any other year in the last four decades.
Dave Allen, Author provided

We use several methods to track changes in New Zealand glaciers.

First, the end-of-summer snowline survey began in 1977. It involves taking photographs of over 50 glaciers in the Southern Alps every March.

From these images, we calculate the snowline elevation (the lowest elevation of snow on the glacier) to determine the glacier’s health. The less snow there is left on a glacier at the end of summer, the more ice the glacier has lost.

The second method is our annual measurement of a glacier’s mass balance — the total gain or loss of ice from a glacier over a year. These measurements require trips to the glacier each year to measure snow accumulation, and snow and ice melt. Mass balance is measured for only two glaciers in the Southern Alps, Brewster Glacier (since 2005) and Rolleston Glacier (since 2010).

Both methods show New Zealand glaciers lost more ice in 2011 and 2018 than during earlier years since the start of the snowline surveys in 1977.

Images taken during the end-of-summer snowline survey show how the amount of white snow at high elevations on Brewster Glacier decreases over time, compared to darker, bluer ice at lower elevations.




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Attributing extreme melt

Earlier research has quantified the human influence on extreme climate events such as heatwaves, extreme rainfall and droughts. We combined the established method of calculating the impact of climate change on extreme events with models of glacier mass balance. In this way, we could determine whether or not climate change has influenced extreme glacier melt.

This is the first study to attribute annual glacier melt to climate change, and only the second to directly link glacier melt to climate change. With multiple studies in agreement, we can be more confident there is a link between human activity and glacier melt.

Franz Josef is another iconic New Zealand glacier. This timelapse video shows it has retreated by 900 metres since 2012. Credit: Brian Anderson.

This confidence is especially important for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which use findings like ours to inform policymakers.

Recent research shows New Zealand glaciers will lose about 80% of area and volume between 2015 and the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates. Glaciers in New Zealand are important for tourism, alpine sports and as a water resource.

Glacial retreat is accelerating globally, especially in the past decade.
Research shows by 2090, the water runoff from glaciers will decrease by up to 10% in regions including central Asia and the Andes, raising major concerns over the sustainability of water resources where they are already limited.

The next step in our work is to calculate the influence of climate change on extreme melt for glaciers around the world. Ultimately, we hope this will contribute to evidence-based decisions on climate policy and convince people to take stronger action to curb climate change.The Conversation

Lauren Vargo, Research Fellow in the Antarctic Research Centre, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Sharks are thriving at the Kermadec Islands, but not the rest of New Zealand, amid global decline




Adam Smith, Massey University

A recent global assessment of shark populations at 371 coral reefs in 58 countries found no sharks at almost 20% of reefs and alarmingly low numbers at many others.

The study, which involved over 100 scientists under the Global FinPrint project, gave New Zealand a good score card. But because it focused on coral reefs, it included only one region — Rangitāhua (Kermadec Islands), a pristine subtropical archipelago surrounded by New Zealand’s largest marine reserve.

It is a different story around the main islands of New Zealand. Many coastal shark species may be in decline, and less than half a percent of territorial waters is protected by marine reserves.

The first global survey of reef sharks shows they are virtually absent in many areas.



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Sharks in Aotearoa

In New Zealand, there are more than a hundred species of sharks, rays and chimaeras. They belong to a group of fishes called chondrichthyans, which have skeletons of cartilage instead of bone.

Some 55% of New Zealand’s chondrichthyan species are listed as “not threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Not so encouraging is the 32% of species listed as “data deficient”, meaning we don’t know the status of their populations. Most species (77%) live in waters deeper than 200 metres.

Seven species are fully protected under the Wildlife Act 1953. They are mostly large, migratory species such as the giant manta ray. Some are threatened with extinction according to the IUCN, including great white sharks, basking sharks, whale sharks and oceanic white tip sharks.

Basking shark and snorkellers
Basking sharks were once common in some coastal areas in New Zealand.
Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock

Historically, basking sharks were caught as bycatch in New Zealand fisheries, and seen in their hundreds in some inshore areas. Sightings of these giant plankton-feeders suddenly dried up over a decade ago. We don’t know why.

Commercial shark fisheries

Eleven chondrichthyan species are fished commercially in New Zealand under the quota management system. Commercial fisheries for school shark, rig and elephant fish took off from the 1970s and now catch around 8,000 tonnes per year in total.

Finning of sharks has been illegal throughout New Zealand since 2014.

Most of New Zealand’s shark fisheries are considered sustainable. But a sustainable fishery can mean sustained at low levels, and we must tread carefully. School shark was recently added to the critically endangered list after the collapse of fisheries in Australia and elsewhere, and there’s a lot we don’t know about the New Zealand population.

We do know sharks were much more abundant in pre-European times. In Tīkapa Moana (Hauraki Gulf), sharks have since declined by an estimated 86%. An ongoing planning process provides some hope for the ecosystems of the gulf.

Protecting sharks

Not surprisingly, the global assessment found a ban on shark fishing to be the most effective intervention to protect sharks. Several countries have recently established large shark sanctuaries, sometimes covering entire exclusive economic zones.

These countries tend to have ecotourism industries that provide economic incentives for protection — live sharks can be more valuable than dead ones.

Other effective interventions are restrictions on fishing gear, such as longlines and set nets.

Waters within 12 nautical miles of the Kermadec Islands have been protected by a marine reserve since 1990. In 2015, the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary was announced but progress has stalled. The sanctuary would extend the boundaries to the exclusive economic zone, some 200 nautical miles offshore, and increase the protected area 83-fold.

A large population of Galapagos sharks, which prefer isolated islands surrounded by deep ocean, thrive around the Kermadec Islands but are found nowhere else in New Zealand. Great white sharks also visit en route to the tropics. Many other species are found only at the Kermadecs, including three sharks and a sex-changing giant limpet as big as a saucer.

Galapagos sharks
Galapagos sharks were recorded around Raoul Island in the Kermadec archipelago.
Author provided



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New technologies are revealing sharks’ secrets

What makes the Global FinPrint project so valuable is that it uses a standard survey method, allowing data to be compared across the globe. The method uses a video camera pointed at a canister of bait. This contraption is put on the seafloor for an hour, then we watch the videos and count the sharks.

Grey reef, silver tip and hammerhead sharks circle a baited camera station set up near Walpole Island in the Southwest Pacific.

Baited cameras have been used in a few places in New Zealand but there are no systematic surveys at a national scale. We lack fundamental knowledge about the distribution and abundance of sharks in our coastal waters, and how they compare to the rest of the world.

Satellite tags are another technological boon for shark research. It is difficult to protect sharks without knowing where they go and what habitats they use. Electronic tags that transmit positional data via satellite can be attached to live sharks, revealing the details of their movements. Some have crossed oceans.

Sharks have patrolled the seas for more than 400 million years. In a few decades, demand for shark meat and fins has reduced their numbers by around 90%.

Sharks are generally more vulnerable to exploitation than other fishes. While a young bony fish can release tens of millions of eggs in a day, mature sharks lay a few eggs or give birth to a few live young. Females take many years to reach sexual maturity and, in some species, only reproduce once every two or three years.

These biological characteristics mean their populations are quick to collapse and slow to rebuild. They need careful management informed by science. It’s time New Zealand put more resources into understanding our oldest and most vulnerable fishes, and the far-flung subtropical waters in which they rule.The Conversation

Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer in Statistics, Massey University

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

New Zealand wants to build a 100% renewable electricity grid, but massive infrastructure is not the best option



Juergen_Wallstabe/Shutterstock

Janet Stephenson, University of Otago

A proposed multibillion-dollar project to build a pumped hydro storage plant could make New Zealand’s electricity grid 100% renewable, but expensive new infrastructure may not be the best way to achieve this.

New Zealand’s electricity generation is already around 80% renewable, with just over half of that provided by hydro power. The government is now putting NZ$30 million towards investigating pumped hydro storage, which uses cheap electricity to pump river or lake water into an artificial reservoir so that it can be released to generate electricity when needed, especially during dry years when hydro lakes are low.

The response to the announcement was mostly enthusiastic – not least because of the potential for local jobs. But whether it is the best solution needs careful evaluation.

There are many realisable changes to electricity demand, and New Zealand should consider other, potentially cheaper options that deliver more efficient use of electricity.




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Promise of a purely renewable grid

Electricity is mooted to play a major role in achieving New Zealand’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To support the government’s plan to accelerate the electrification of the transport and industrial heating sectors, generation will need to grow by around 70% by 2050, all from renewable sources.

Worldwide, pumped hydro energy storage is seen as a promising option to support cheap and secure 100% renewable electricity grids.

New Zealand’s analysis will mainly focus on one particular lake, Lake Onslow. If it stacks up, it would be the biggest infrastructure project since the “think big” era of the 1980s. But at an estimated NZ$4 billion, the cost would also be massive and the project would likely face opposition on ecological grounds.

Such a scheme would be a step towards the government’s target of 100% renewable electricity generation by 2035 and fit with the overall goal of New Zealand achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It would also solve the problem conventional hydropower plants face during dry years, when water storage runs low and fossil-fuelled power stations have to kick in to fill the gap.

But the possible closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter would free up around 13% of renewable electricity supply for flexible use. This alone raises the question whether a pumped storage development on this scale is necessary.




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Changing supply and demand

Getting to 100% renewables and achieving a 70% increase in supply in the next 30 years will mainly come from new wind and solar generation (both now the cheapest options for electricity generation) as well as some new geothermal. Major new hydro dams are unlikely because of their significant environmental impacts.

As a result, electricity supplies will become increasingly variable, dependent on the vagaries of sun, wind and river flows. This creates a growing challenge for matching supply with demand, especially if hydro lakes are low.

Last year, the Interim Climate Change Commission concluded New Zealand could get to 93% renewable generation by 2035 under current market conditions. But it warned the final few per cent would require significant overbuilding of renewable generation that would rarely be used.

It suggested the most cost-effective solution would be to retain some fossil-fuelled generation as a backup for the few occasions when demand overshoots supply. At the same time it recommended a detailed investigation into pumped storage as a potential solution for dry years.

A hydropower lake in New Zealand
New Zealand already has more than 100 conventional hydropower stations supplying renewable electricity.
Dmitry Pichugin/Shutterstock

Electricity demand — the collective consumption of all businesses, organisations and households — is also changing.

Households and businesses are switching to electric vehicles. Farm irrigation is becoming widespread and creates new demand peaks in rural areas. Heat pumps are increasingly used for both heating and cooling. These all create new patterns of demand.

And households aren’t just consuming power. More and more people are installing solar generation and feeding surplus back into the grid or storage batteries. Local community energy initiatives are starting to emerge.

New markets are developing where businesses can be paid to temporarily reduce their demand at times when supply is not keeping up. It is only a matter of time before such demand response mechanisms become commonplace for households, too. In the near future, housing collectives could become virtual power plants, and electric vehicles could feed into the grid when supply is stressed.

Cheaper options with added health benefits

So with more reliance on sun, wind and water, electricity supply will become more variable. At the same time, patterns of demand will become more complex, but will have more potential to be adjusted quickly to match supply, on time scales of minutes, hours or days.

The big problem lies with winter peaks when demand is at its highest, and dry years when supply is at its lowest – especially when these coincide. At these times the potential mismatch between demand and supply can last for weeks.

The current solutions being mooted are to increase the security of supply, either with fossil-powered generation or pumped hydro storage. But there are options on the demand side New Zealand should consider.

New Zealand houses are typically cold because they are poorly insulated and waste a lot of heat. Despite relatively new insulation standards for new houses and subsidies for retrofitting older houses, our standards fall well below most developed countries.




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We can take inspiration from Europe where new buildings and retrofits are required to meet near-zero energy building standards. By investing in upgrading the national housing stock to something closer to European standards, we could achieve a significant drop in peak demand as well as additional benefits of lower household heating costs and better health.

Efficient lighting is another under-explored solution, with recent research suggesting a gradual uptake of energy-efficient lighting could reduce the winter evening peak demand (6pm to 8pm) by at least 9% by 2029, with the bonus of lower power bills for households.

Such solutions to the supply-demand mismatch could be much cheaper than a single think-big project, and they come with added benefits for health. Alongside the NZ$30 million being put into investigating pumped hydro storage, I suggest it is time to develop a business case for demand-side solutions.The Conversation

Janet Stephenson, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago

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

New Zealand’s White Island is likely to erupt violently again, but a new alert system could give hours of warning and save lives



Jorge Silva/Reuters

David Dempsey and Shane Cronin

Tourists visiting Whakaari/White Island on December 9 last year had no warning of its imminent violent eruption. The explosion of acidic steam and gases killed 21 people, and most survivors suffered critical injuries and severe burns.

The tragedy prompted us to develop an early alert system. Our research shows patterns of seismic activity before an eruption that make advance warning possible. Had our system been in place, it would have raised the alert 16 hours before the volcano’s deadly eruption.

Ash covers the ground after Mt Tongariro erupted overnight on August 7 2012.
NZ Police

We were also motivated by the fact that several other New Zealand volcanoes pose similar threats. Explosions and surges at the popular visitor destination Waimangu geothermal area killed three people in 1903, an eruption at Raoul Island in 2006 killed one person, ballistics at Mt Ruapehu in 2007 caused serious injuries and tourists narrowly escaped two eruptions on a popular day walk in the Tongariro national park in 2012.

Our automated warning system provides real-time hazard information and a much greater level of safety to protect tourists and help operators determine when it is safe to visit volcanoes.




Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning


This image of the 2019 eruption of Whakaari White Island eruption was taken by a visitor.
Michael Schade/AAP

A history of eruptions

New Zealand has a network of monitoring instruments that measure even the smallest earth movements continuously. This GeoNet network delivers high-rate data from volcanoes, including Whakaari, but it is not currently used as a real-time warning system for volcanic eruptions.

Although aligned with international best practice, GeoNet’s current Volcano Alert Level (VAL) system is updated too slowly, because it relies mainly on expert judgement and consensus. Nor does it estimate the probability of a future eruption — instead, it gives a backward view of the state of the volcano. All past eruptions at Whakaari occurred at alert levels 1 or 2 (unrest), and the level was then raised only after the event.

Our study uses machine learning algorithms and the past decade of continuous monitoring data. During this time there were five recorded eruptions at Whakaari, many similar to the 2019 event. Since 1826, there have been more than 30 eruptions at Whakaari. Not all were as violent as 2019, but because there is hot water and steam trapped in a hydrothermal area above a shallow layer of magma, we can expect destructive explosions every one to three years.

A memorial in Whakatane, following the White Island eruption in 2019.
Jorge Silva/Reuters

Last year’s eruption was preceded by 17 hours of seismic warning. This began with a strong four-hour burst of seismic activity, which we think was fresh magmatic fluid rising up to add pressure to the gas and water trapped in the rock above.

This led to its eventual bursting, like a pressure cooker lid being blasted off. A similar signal was recorded 30 hours before an eruption in August 2013, and it was present (although less obvious) in two other eruptions in 2012.

Building an early warning system

We used sophisticated machine-learning algorithms to analyse the seismic data for undiscovered patterns in the lead-up to eruptions. The four-hour energy burst proved a signal that often heralded an imminent eruption.

We then used these pre-eruption patterns to teach a computer model to raise an alert and tested whether it could anticipate other eruptions it had not learned from. This model will continue to “learn by experience”. Each successive event we use to teach it improves its ability to forecast the future.

We have also studied how best to optimise when alerts are issued to make the most effective warning system. The main trade-off is between a system that is highly sensitive and raises lots of alerts versus one that sets the bar quite high, but also misses some eruptions.

We settled on a threshold that generates an alert each time the likelihood of an eruption exceeds 8.5%. This means that when an alert is raised – each lasting about five days – there is about a 1-in-12 chance an eruption will happen.

This system would have raised an alert for four of the last five major eruptions at Whakaari. It would have provided a 16-hour warning for the 2019 eruption. But these evaluations have been made with the benefit of hindsight: forecasting systems can only prove their worth on future data.

We think there is a good chance eruptions like the 2019 event or larger will be detected. The trade-off is that the alerts, if acted upon, would keep the island off-limits to visitors for about one month each year.




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Call for clearer risk information for tourists following Whakaari/White Island tragedy


Where to from here

We have been operating the system for five months now, on a 24/7 basis, and are working with GNS Science on how best to integrate this to strengthen their existing protocols and provide more timely warnings at New Zealand volcanoes.

The Tongariro crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks and receives thousands of visitors each year.
EPA

We plan to develop the system for New Zealand’s other active volcanoes, including Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu, which receive tens of thousands of visitors each year. Eventually, this could be valuable for other volcanoes around the world, such as Mt Ontake in Japan, where a 2014 eruption killed 63 people.

Because of the immense public value of these kinds of early warning systems, we have made all our data and software available open-source.

Although most eruptions at Whakaari appear to be predictable, there are likely to be future events that defy warning. In 2016 there was an eruption that had no obvious seismic precursor and this would not have been anticipated by our warning system.

Eruptions at other volcanoes may be predictable using similar methods if there is enough data to train models. In any case, human operators, whether assisted or not by early warning systems, will continue to play an important role in safeguarding those living near or visiting volcanoes.The Conversation

David Dempsey, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Science and Shane Cronin, Professor of Earth Sciences

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

Planting non-native trees accelerates the release of carbon back into the atmosphere



native forest.

Lauren Waller and Warwick Allen, University of Canterbury

Large-scale reforestation projects such as New Zealand’s One Billion Trees programme are underway in many countries to help sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

But there is ongoing debate about whether to prioritise native or non-native plants to fight climate change. As our recent research shows, non-native plants often grow faster compared to native plants, but they also decompose faster and this helps to accelerate the release of 150% more carbon dioxide from the soil.

Our results highlight a challenging gap in our understanding of carbon cycling in newly planted or regenerating forests.

It is relatively easy to measure plant biomass (how quickly a plant grows) and to estimate how much carbon dioxide it has removed from the atmosphere. But measuring carbon release is more difficult because it involves complex interactions between the plant, plant-eating insects and soil microorganisms.

This lack of an integrated carbon cycling model that includes species interactions makes predictions for carbon budgeting exceedingly difficult.




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How non-native plants change the carbon cycle

There is uncertainty in our climate forecasting because we don’t fully understand how the factors that influence carbon cycling – the process in which carbon is both accumulated and lost by plants and soils – differ across ecosystems.

Carbon sequestration projects typically use fast-growing plant species that accumulate carbon in their tissues rapidly. Few projects focus on what goes on in the soil.

Non-native plants often accelerate carbon cycling. They usually have less dense tissues and can grow and incorporate carbon into their tissues faster than native plants. But they also decompose more readily, increasing carbon release back to the atmosphere.

Our research, recently published in the journal Science, shows that when non-native plants arrive in a new place, they establish new interactions with soil organisms. So far, research has mostly focused on how this resetting of interactions with soil microorganisms, herbivorous insects and other organisms helps exotic plants to invade a new place quickly, often overwhelming native species.

Invasive non-native plants have already become a major problem worldwide, and are changing the composition and function of entire ecosystems. But it is less clear how the interactions of invasive non-native plants with other organisms affect carbon cycling.




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Planting non-native trees releases more carbon

We established 160 experimental plant communities, with different combinations of native and non-native plants. We collected and reared herbivorous insects and created identical mixtures which we added to half of the plots.

We also cultured soil microorganisms to create two different soils that we split across the plant communities. One soil contained microorganisms familiar to the plants and another was unfamiliar.

Herbivorous insects and soil microorganisms feed on live and decaying plant tissue. Their ability to grow depends on the nutritional quality of that food. We found that non-native plants provided a better food source for herbivores compared with native plants – and that resulted in more plant-eating insects in communities dominated by non-native plants.

Similarly, exotic plants also raised the abundance of soil microorganisms involved in the rapid decomposition of plant material. This synergy of multiple organisms and interactions (fast-growing plants with less dense tissues, high herbivore abundance, and increased decomposition by soil microorganisms) means that more of the plant carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

In a practical sense, these soil treatments (soils with microorganisms familiar vs. unfamiliar to the plants) mimic the difference between reforestation (replanting an area) and afforestation (planting trees to create a new forest).

Reforested areas are typically replanted with native species that occurred there before, whereas afforested areas are planted with new species. Our results suggest planting non-native trees into soils with microorganisms they have never encountered (in other words, afforestation with non-native plants) may lead to more rapid release of carbon and undermine the effort to mitigate climate change.The Conversation

Lauren Waller, Postdoctoral Fellow and Warwick Allen, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Canterbury

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

Let’s fix Australia’s environment with any pandemic recovery aid – the Kiwis are doing it



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Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, University of Newcastle, and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant economic challenges for Australia. With April figures showing more than 800,000 people unemployed and last month 1.6 million on JobSeeker payments, a key focus will be job creation.




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Lessons should be learned from what’s happening in New Zealand, where the government is funding projects that revive the environment. Unfortunately, Australia seems to be going the other way.

New Zealand gets it

As part of New Zealand’s innovative Wellbeing Budget the government will invest NZ$50 billion in a direct COVID-19 recovery response.

Of that, NZ$1.1 billion will be spent on creating 11,000 “nature jobs” to combat unemployment and supplement pandemic-affected sectors.

This unique investment will be delivered in a number of targeted environmental programs.

These include NZ$433 million for regional environmental projects that will provide 4,000 jobs in conserving and managing waterways. This will help restore fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, rivers and catchments.

There’s NZ$315 million for weed and feral animal control, including possums, pigs, deer and wallabies. This will provide employment through partnerships between the community, Māori land managers and government departments.

New Zealanders hate possums as they’re an invasive pest.
Flickr/Geof Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND

A further NZ$200 million will deliver jobs on public conservation land through the Department of Conservation for various management actions. These include predator control, restoration, regenerative planting and maintenance of tracks, huts and other assets.

Some of these investments will not only provide jobs but also conserve New Zealand’s environment. They will maintain agricultural productivity and advance existing environmental initiatives such as Predator Free New Zealand.

They will also provide households with income that will in turn help stimulate local economies.

This is a win for New Zealand’s environment and wildlife, particularly native fish species and unique birds. It’s also a win for people and the economy.

Australia’s destructive COVID-19 recovery

In contrast, the Australian federal and some state governments have resorted to environmentally destructive projects and policies to stimulate economic activity and support employment.




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For example, the New South Wales government in March granted approval to extend coalmining under Sydney’s Woronora reservoir and in May approved the controversial Snowy Hydro 2.0 project.

Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute pristine Snowy Mountains rivers.
Schopier/Wikimedia

In Victoria, the government delayed key improvements to environmental protection laws and amended legislation to allow onshore gas extraction.

Federally, wider plans exist for an apparent fossil-fuel-led national recovery through gas expansion, fast-tracked by relaxing environmental regulations. This includes a proposed exemption from additional approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The relaxing of environmental legislation and protections (commonly referred to as cutting “green tape”) has been pushed by business and industry lobby groups and some quarters of the media.

Even politicians such as federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley see it as a way to promote economic recovery.

A better way to recovery

Nature groups, environmental scientists, economists and political parties such as the Greens are proposing an alternative approach.

Some state and territory departments, including in the ACT and the Northern Territory, recognise environmental management and protection as a source of high employment opportunity.

They all see investment in conservation and land management as a key feature of any economic recovery.

An opportunity for Australia

Economic stimulus through conservation and land management is not yet recognised as a way for Australia to respond to both the COVID-19 crisis and long-standing conservation needs.

Australian governments, if they invested similarly to New Zealand, could create jobs in the short term in any desired target region, based on economic and environmental need.

This flexibility would allow jobs to be created in regions with already fragile local economies, particularly those made worse by COVID-19. This includes regional areas that usually have high tourism, bushfire-affected communities, drought-affected regions, as well as Indigenous communities.




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Conservation and land management jobs could include dealing with feral pests, such as cats, foxes, rabbits, pigs, deer and horses.

It could feature restoration activities such as tree planting, weed removal, hazard-reduction burning, and wildlife restoration and monitoring.

This type of employment is hands-on, labour-intensive and has low overhead costs. Investment is likely to be cost-effective, with most of it going straight to the worker.

Let’s stimulate the economy and the environment

Projects can be up and running quickly, so the economic stimulus is immediate.

The benefits of direct household stimulus are well understood. This form of spending provides localised economic benefits as money is likely to stay in the local community.




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There is an opportunity to support the hard-hit university sector. It could get funds for research to design, monitor and assess the effectiveness of any interventions.

Such investment would have lasting and much-needed environmental benefits through the conservation of landscapes recently ravaged by bushfire that contain unique and declining wildlife species.

Could the much-hyped “new normal” be one where Australia’s environment and economy are not seen as incompatible?The Conversation

Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle & CEO FAUNA Research Alliance, University of Newcastle, and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

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

New Zealand government ignores expert advice in its plan to improve water quality in rivers and lakes



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Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand’s government has been praised for listening to health experts in its pandemic response, but when it comes to dealing with pollution of the country’s waterways, scientific advice seems less important.

Today, the government released a long-awaited NZ$700 million package to address freshwater pollution. The new rules include higher standards around cleanliness of swimming spots, set controls for some farming practices and how much synthetic fertiliser is used, and require mandatory and enforceable farm environment plans.

But the package is flawed. It does not include any measurable limits on key nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and the rules’ implementation is left to regional authorities. Over the 30 years they have been managing the environment, the health of lakes and rivers has continued to decline.

For full disclosure, I was part of the 18-person science technical advisory group that made the recommendations. Despite more than a year of consultation and evidence-based science, the government has deferred or ignored our advice on introducing measurable limits on nitrogen and phosphorus.




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Waterways in decline

The declining state of rivers, lakes and wetlands was the most important environmental issue for 80% of New Zealanders in a recent survey. It was also an election issue in 2017, so there was a clear mandate for significant change.

But despite years of work from government appointed expert panels, including the technical advisory group I was part of, the Māori freshwater forum Kahui Wai Māori and the Freshwater Leaders groups, crucial advice was ignored.

The technical advisory group, supported by research, was unequivocal that specific nitrogen and phosphorus limits are necessary to protect the quality of people’s drinking water and the ecological health of waterways.

The proposed nutrient limits were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world. For example, in China, the limit for nitrogen in rivers is 1 milligram per litre – the same limit as our technical advisory group recommended. In New Zealand, 85% of waterways in pasture catchments (which make up half of the country’s waterways, if measured by length) now exceed nitrate limit guidelines.

Instead, Minister for the Environment David Parker decided to postpone this discussion by another year – meaning New Zealand will continue to lag other nations in having clear, enforceable nutrient limits.

This delay will inevitably result in a continued decline of water quality, with a corresponding decline in a suite of ecological, cultural, social and economic values a healthy environment could support.




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The government’s package includes a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser.
Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Capping use of nitrogen fertiliser

The other main policy the expert panels pushed for was a cap on the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This was indeed part of the announcement, which is a positive and important step forward. But the cap is set at 190kg per hectare per year, which is too high. This is like telling someone they should reduce smoking from three to two and a half packets a day to be healthier.

I believe claims from the dairy industry that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery are exaggerated. They also ignore the fact clean water and a healthy environment provide the foundation for our current and future economic well-being.

And they fly in the face of modelling by the Ministry for the Environment, which shows implementation of freshwater reforms would save NZ$3.8 billion.

Excess nitrogen is not just an issue for ecosystem health. Nitrate (which forms when nitrogen combines with oxygen) in drinking water has been linked to colon cancer, which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand.

The New Zealand College of Public Health Medicine and the Hawkes Bay district health board both made submissions calling for a nitrate limit in rivers and aquifers to protect people’s health – at the same level the technical advisory group recommended to protect ecosystems.




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Our dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is unsustainable, and it is adding to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions. There is growing evidence farmers can make more profit by reducing their use of artificial fertilisers.

Continued use will only further degrade soils across productive landscapes and reduce the farming sector’s resilience in a changing climate.

The irony is that for a century, New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Instead, farmers grew clover which converts nitrogen from the air. If we want to strive for better water quality for future generations, we need to front up to the unsustainable use of artificial fertiliser and seek more regenerative farming practices.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Polluted, drained, and drying out: new warnings on New Zealand’s rivers and lakes



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Troy Baisden, University of Waikato

The latest environmental report on New Zealand’s lakes and rivers reiterates bleak news about the state of freshwater ecosystems, and warns that climate change will exacerbate existing threats.

Almost all New Zealand rivers running through urban and farming areas (95-99%) carry pollution above water quality guidelines, while most of the nation’s wetlands (90%) have been drained, and many freshwater fish species (76%) are threatened or at risk.

The most significant pressures on freshwater ecosystems fit into four issues:


Ministry for the Environment/Stats NZ, CC BY-SA

Climate change gets more attention than in earlier assessments, reflecting the fact that glaciers are already shrinking and soils are drying out.




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What whitebait tell us about freshwater fish under stress

The latest assessment is an update on a freshwater report in 2017 and the comprehensive Environment Aotearoa 2019. It reiterates issues we’ve seen before, but begins to implement recent recommendations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) calling for a stronger link between data and environmental management.

Biological impacts are at the forefront of this latest assessment. It shows that a wide range of freshwater organisms are at risk. The statistics for freshwater fish are the most concerning, with three quarters of the 51 native species already either threatened or at risk of extinction.

The report uses a particular group of native fish (īnanga, or galaxids) to connect the multiple impacts humans have, across a range of habitats at different life stages.

Īnanga are better known as whitebait, a delicacy that is a mix of juveniles from six different species caught as they migrate from the sea to rivers.

Whitebait is considered a delicacy in New Zealand.
Shutterstock

Īnanga of different ages and species live in different habitats, so they can be used to represent the issues facing a range of freshwater fish across ecosystems. The main stress factors include altered habitat, pollution and excess nutrients, water use for irrigation and climate change.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate existing stresses native organisms like īnanga face and protecting their habitat means understanding how much it will reduce water flows and create hotter and drier conditions.

Filling gaps in understanding

The use of organisms to assess environmental change, including climate change impacts, is an obvious but important step. It makes it possible to consider climate change in a way that meets the Environmental Reporting Act’s requirement to report on a “body of evidence”.

This latest report responds to the PCE’s concerns about gaps in our knowledge, which were raised in the Environment Aotearoa 2019 assessment. The new strategy for filling large holes in our knowledge has three priorities: knowing and monitoring what we have, what we may lose, and where or how we can make changes.




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The report highlights that mātauranga Māori, the process of using indigenous knowledge about the environment, can fill some gaps in data or add insights. Other methods and models, such as nutrient budget scenarios, also deserve consideration.

There is some good news as well. Some pollution concerns may be minor or limited to very small areas. This includes several so-called emerging contaminants, such as fire retardants, which have been discovered in groundwater around airfields but are now banned or restricted.

The second piece of good news is that new ways of studying the environment can help fill major gaps. For example, lakes may be more stable indicators of freshwater health than rivers and streams, but only 4% (about 150) of New Zealand’s 3,820 larger lakes are regularly monitored by regional councils.

For almost 300 lakes, the report includes an index of the plants that live in them, and for more than 3000 there is now an established method of estimating lake water quality. Further information is becoming available, using updated estimations, satellite data for the last 20 years and sediment cores to reconstruct environmental conditions over the last few hundred years.

Unfortunately, the data from lakes confirms the general trend of freshwater decline, but at least the multiple forms of complementary information should help us to manage New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems better.The Conversation

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

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