Marg comes into the kitchen and begins emptying rubbish from her pockets into the bin.
Tom: “Marg, what are you doing?”.
Marg: “What does it look like? I’m putting rubbish in the bin. We’ve run out of council bags, so I’m putting it here in the kitchen until I get more bags this afternoon.”
Tom: “I mean, where did you get all that rubbish?”
Marg: “I pick it up in the reserve when I walk the dog. It helps keep things tidy and I worry about all the plastic going into the soil and the river.”
Tom: “Isn’t that the council’s job?”
Marg: “Which would you rather? Have the council pay someone to pick it up and pay for it in our rates, or just pick it up ourselves while we’re out there?”
Tom: “OK, I see your point about the council. But, what are you worried about with plastic? I understand plastic litter is ugly but it doesn’t hurt anything.”
Marg: “I’ve read that scientists have now found bacteria that feed on plastic and break it down into other chemicals.”
Tom: “Well, there you go! Plastic pollution solved! Just let the bacteria eat it all up. What’s there to worry about?
Marg: “I’ve also read that they are beginning to find that some of those breakdown chemicals are toxic.”
Google Assistant: “Scientists have found that bacteria that digest the common plastic polyurethane produce toxic chemicals, such as 4,4-methylenedianiline and 2,4-toluene diamine, which are possible carcinogens and pose environmental risk to aquatic and terrestrial species.”
Tom: “Umm, that can’t be good. So we need to stop using, what was it? Poly-aeroplane?
Google Assistant: “Polyurethane. It is used in the manufacture of sports shoes, nappies, kitchen sponges, furniture and foam insulation. It’s in many products.”
Marg: “So Tom, what happens if some new bacteria pops up that can feed off all the other plastics used in agriculture but leaves behind toxic chemicals? The soils might become too toxic to grow anything. Plastic in the oceans might end up turning fish toxic, like when we had that scare about mercury in fish. So what would people eat?”
Tom: “Well, I suppose we could grow our food in glasshouses. Don’t know that I could give up fish, though.”
Marg: “And, that’s not to mention the damage it might do to wildlife and the natural world. We could be poisoning the planet for generations to come!”
Tom: “It all sounds pretty scary, Marg. What we can do about it? I suppose giving up plastic would be the answer, but plastic is such great stuff – lightweight, strong, waterproof, doesn’t rot and can be shaped into most anything.”
Google Assistant: “One solution being considered by the New Zealand government is called ‘product stewardship’, whereby manufactures take responsibility for plastics in their products, recycling them at the end of their useful lives. It is part of what is called a ‘circular economy’”
Marg: “I certainly hope we can do something like that, Google. Otherwise, we’re in a bit like a Faustian Bargain.”
Tom: “A ‘fast-tin’ bargain?”
Marg: “It comes from an old medieval tale. A man named Faust made a deal with the devil to gain wealth and power in exchange for his soul.”
Tom: “So, what happened?”
Marg: “Faust messed everything up, hurt innocent people and went to hell.”
Tom: “So, how is that like plastics?”
Marg: “Plastics are great stuff, as you say. They add to our society’s wealth and power. But there is a price to pay later on, by future generations, for all the plastic pollution left behind.”
Tom: “Oh, I see what you mean. But we didn’t know that plastics were going to be so dangerous.”
Marg: “But we always knew that they were made from chemicals that weren’t natural, and we knew that many of those chemicals were bad for us.”
Tom: “Yeah, I suppose we should have known, if we’d stopped to think about it.”
Marg: “It’s a bit like climate change; petroleum has given society great wealth and power but, unfortunately, future generations will have to pay the price in terms of an unstable climate.”
Marg: “But, I suppose, unlike Faust, we can stop and do something about it by keeping plastics out of our environment and cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Tom: “Well, Marg, from now on I’m all for recycling things made out of poly-aeroplane!”
The signs are that a new National government would do much less than the current government has pledged to do on climate and, as a result, may undermine the pursuit of our climate commitments.
With the polls showing that the National Party has a chance to lead the government after next year’s election, it is worth wondering what they would do to promote action on climate. At the moment, Christopher Luxon and his climate spokesperson Scott Simpson are making all the right noises about continuing the present government’s programs on reducing emissions and building the nation’s resilience.
The National Party voted unanimously to support the 2019 and 2020 amendments to the Climate Change Response Act (the Zero Carbon Act) which formed the program of five yearly emissions budgets, advised by a newly formed Climate Change Commission, and reformed the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). They seem committed to carry on the present government’s climate-focussed programs.
But cracks are appearing. Matt Burgess, newly appointed as economic advisor to the National caucus, has just released a paper titled, “Pretence of Necessity; Why further climate change action isn’t needed and won’t help”. The paper’s title sums up his position.
Burgess bases his conclusions on an expected boom in exotic forestry as the price of ETS carbon credits rises, which would then offset the nation’s future emissions. There is no need to reduce emissions of long lived greenhouse gases (i.e. carbon dioxide), he argues, all we need is more pine trees to suck that CO2 back into the land.
Burgess further argues that policy levers in the forthcoming emissions reduction plan, such as levies, subsidies, regulations and bans, will be an ineffective waste of money because net emissions are already capped by the ETS. The nation’s net emissions can’t rise above the amount specified in the cap, no matter what else is done.
From a climate perspective, there are serious problems with these arguments. For one, not everyone, least of all farmers, wants a major chunk of NZ farmland converted to pine forest to generate ETS emissions offsets. There are mouths to feed and native biodiversity to protect.
Another issue is that the ETS is still not working as it should. Because the “cost containment reserve” (i.e., the maximum price) of carbon credits has been reached in two recent government auctions, the number of credits offered for auction has gone beyond that set by the cap. When the auction price exceeds the maximum, it triggers a mechanism that releases more credits for auction. The emissions cap is being routinely exceeded.
Also, there is no time limit on the validity of credits, and companies with forestry credits aren’t selling them to offset emissions. The government has essentially guaranteed that they will increase in value with time so presumably these credits have become a lucrative investment security. When these carbon credit investors decide to sell, it would allow more emissions than planned in the emissions budgets. Trade in carbon credits was never intended to become a speculators’ market.
So, there is a push within the National Party to abandon emissions reductions beyond what falls out of the ETS. If this happens and history is any guide, it could be a disaster for New Zealand’s goal of achieving our climate commitments.
The Climate Change Response Act was originally passed by Parliament in 2002 in order to satisfy the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, an early international treaty on climate change, of which New Zealand is a signatory. The Emissions Trading Scheme was established by the then Labour government in September 2008 as a further step to satisfy our treaty obligations. Later that year, National won election and came to power.
In 2011, carbon credits traded at about $21/tonne CO2, but successive government moves to weaken the ETS resulted in the price of carbon credits dropping to just $2/tonne in 2013. Although changes were made subsequently to strengthen the ETS, by 2017, when the National government left office, the price had recovered to only $19/tonne. New Zealand lost nearly a decade of progress on emissions reductions due to mismanagement of the ETS, even as the then National government pledged to cut New Zealand’s net emissions by 30% by 2030 at the Paris Accords in 2015.
Given National’s past poor performance on climate action, it is important that we hold the Party accountable for their support of the Zero Carbon Act. We certainly can’t solely count on a flawed, limited and easily manipulated tool like the ETS to bring New Zealand’s emissions down, as Matt Burgess suggests. National needs to confirm its support for the emissions budgets established under the Zero Carbon Act and follow that with a programme of actions that will meet the legislated targets. We need to know they will not just rely on buying international credits and planting pines when there is so much else we can do.
Note: the article published in Stuff also contains a rebuttal statement from Scott Simpson, National's Climate Spokesperson.
Tom comes into the kitchen and casually drops a newspaper into the rubbish bin.
Tom: “Not much in the news yesterday. Has today’s paper arrived?”
Marg: “I haven’t checked the box. But wait a minute; did you just drop a newspaper into the rubbish? We are meant to recycle newspaper, you know.”
Tom: “It all goes to the same place anyway. What’s the use?”
Marg: “No it doesn’t. Last I read, nearly all our recycling actually goes to a recycling plant and gets recycled. Here, let’s ask Google. She’ll know.”
Tom: “Hey, when do we get to change back to the male voice? I’m feeling ganged up on lately.”
Marg: “I thought you said she sounded sexy. How about changing for your birthday?”
Tom: “OK, fair enough. Now, what were we talking about?”
Marg: “HEY GOOGLE, HOW MUCH OF OUR RECYCLING IS ACTUALLY RECYCLED?”
Google Assistant: “According to the Marlborough District Council’s website, 100% of paper collected is recycled principally into packaging products both here in New Zealand and overseas. In the financial year 2020-2021, 75% was recycled domestically and the rest overseas. The only paper that can’t be recycled is wet paper, since it leads to an inferior recycled product.”
Tom: “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder how much the other things we send to recycling actually get recycled.”
Google: “100% of cardboard, plastic, metal cans and glass are recycled, mostly here in New Zealand. In 2020-2021 65% of plastic was still sent offshore for recycling.”
Tom: “Well, Marg, I stand corrected. You were right…” (and under his breath, “this time”.)
Marg: “You should really know better, Tom. Paper, cardboard, wood and other organic material should not go to landfill. It breaks down and creates methane that leaks out of the landfills and warms the planet.”
Tom: “Wait a minute, though. Wasn’t I reading something about this a few weeks ago? Doesn’t the landfill have a way to deal with the methane?”
Google: “The Bluegums landfill has an extensive methane capture and destruction system, with underground pipes and surface wells that pump landfill gas to the surface and burn it to turn the methane into carbon dioxide. The system is under evaluation right now to see if there is enough methane to power a small electricity generation plant.”
Tom: “Turning it into CO2? Isn’t CO2 a greenhouse gas too... the main one warming the planet?”
Google: “Yes, but methane has approximately 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. CO2 is the lesser of two bad gas emissions, so to speak.”
Tom: “OK, it guess it is better to burn it. Well, there you go. Problem solved.”
Google: “Not quite. According to a recent inventory of the Marlborough District Council’s greenhouse gas emissions, done by consultancy Carbon EES, the Bluegums landfill is modelled to capture only 51% of the methane generated by organic material buried in the landfill. The landfill accounts for around 75% of the Council’s emissions. The Council’s 2019-2020 total emissions were 45,442 tonnes CO2 equivalent. The Council is required to purchase and surrender emissions credits for its operations, including the escaped landfill methane.”
Tom: “Wow, 45 thousand odd tonnes! That seems like a big number. So, the Council has to buy carbon credits for those emissions? What’s the price of those credits these days?”
Google: “According to Carbon News, the spot market price for a New Zealand carbon credit on the secondary market as of 18 February 2022 was $85.00 per tonne CO2.”
Tom: “Crikey! Those are big numbers! I don’t even want to know how much our emission are costing the council!
Google: “I have no information on how much the Council spends on carbon credits. The Council recovers the cost of the emissions credits through the levy on waste disposal. In other words, you pay for it.”
Marg: “OK, Tom. Now you see why it is important to recycle that newspaper?”
Tom: “Right again, darling… (and under his breath, “I hope this doesn’t get to be a habit.”)
Google: “According to my statistics on your conversations over the last 12 months, Marg has been right 83.54 percent of the time. Does that count as a habit?”
Tom: “GOOGLE, YOU NEED TO STOP LISTENING IN ON OUR CONVERSATIONS!”
“Marg, this year I want us to have a real Christmas display! I want bright lights, dancing reindeer, Santa in a sleigh, the whole thing. It has been such a difficult year with Covid and such. We need to make this Christmas special.”
Marg looks up at Tom, perplexed, “Okay… I’d agreed that it would be nice to make this Christmas special, but do we need to put up a big light show to do that? You know, the South Island supplies electricity to the North Island through an undersea cable, so any power we use here is less power we can export to the North Island, and they are still burning coal at the Huntly Power Station up there. In a sense, the power we save here prevents coal being burned at Huntly, and we’ve simply got to stop burning coal for electricity! The country’s emissions this year are through the roof!”
Tom: “HEY Google, is that true? Can our electricity use here change what goes on in the North Island?”
Google Assistant: “The country’s electrical power generation and distribution system is complicated but cuts in our electricity consumption would ultimately decrease the demand to burn coal on the North Island. Electricity conservation nationwide would decrease the amount of fossil fuel burned and the greenhouse gas emissions that go with it.”
Marg: “And Tom, we might as well get used to using less energy. As we replace fossil fuels with electricity, there is going to be a lot less electricity to go around.”
Tom: “What do you mean? We’ve got plenty of electricity here on the South Island and nearly all of it is from renewable sources.”
Marg: “Yes, that’s true, but I’ve read that only about half the country’s energy use comes from electricity. The rest is from fossil fuel. There’s petrol for cars and trucks, coal and gas for industrial processes and heating buildings, diesel, aviation fuel, bunker oil for ships… What are we going to replace all that fossil fuel power with?”
Tom: “Well, we’ve got all that Manapouri power coming available when the Tiwai Point smelter closes down. That should boost our electricity supply.”
Marg: “But will it? There is lots of talk about using that power to make green hydrogen or running a big data centre. And, I’m sure the power company doesn’t want to send much of that power into the grid, because, in our deregulated electricity market, it would lower electricity prices. Good for us, but bad for them. We may never get that Manapouri power.
Google: “Manapouri power would represent 13% more power to the country’s electrical power grid. The Climate Commission has calculated that the country will need to increase its electricity generation capacity by approximately another 28% by 2035 if New Zealand is stay on target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”
Marg: “I wonder where all that additional electrical power is going to come from and at what price.” We’ll need a lot more wind farms and solar farms. And not everyone wants to live next to a windfarm.”
Tom: “I’ve read that there is huge potential for windfarms offshore Taranaki. You remember how windy it was last time we were in New Plymouth?”
Google: “Offshore wind generation costs approximately three times that of onshore wind generation.”
Tom: “I don’t like the sound of that. We pay quite a bit for electricity already.”
Marg: “Well, the best way to keep electricity prices low is to use less of it. That way, there is more to go around. Saving electricity is always cheaper than adding new power stations.”
Tom: “OK, well, maybe we can set up the light show in the front yard, but only run it for a few hours in the evening.”
Marg (with a sly smile): “But Tom, if we don’t run it late into the night, how will Santa know where to deliver your Christmas presents?”
Tom: “Hummm. You’ve got a point there, darling. Maybe we can…”
Google Assistant interrupts: “Data on my servers show that there is no Santa Claus.”
By Tom Powell and Budyong Hill
It is encouraging to see Marlborough businesses and government facilities converting their space and process heating from coal to renewable energy sources. They are to be commended.
The Wairau hospital and Woodbourne Air Base are considering alternatives to their boilers currently fired by coal and diesel. Talley’s has just received a $1m Government Investment in Decarbonising Industry (GIDI) grant to replace its coal and diesel boilers with one that burns wood pellets. Nelson Forests at the Kaituna Mill recently received a Cawthron award for halving its greenhouse gas emissions, largely by replacing waste oil with wood chip and sawdust for drying timber. The Kinzetts glass house farm, outside Blenheim, led the field, converting from coal to wood chip back in 2009.
This follows a trend observed by DETA Consulting of Christchurch, which recently conducted a survey of South Island businesses burning coal for process heat. Most were planning to convert from coal by 2030, ahead of the government’s deadline in 2037. And most of those were planning to convert from burning coal to burning biomass, such as wood chip and dried wood pellets.
The road to net zero carbon will be bumpy, however, and with a few wrong turns. One of those wrong turns may be too much reliance on biomass for process heat.
At the moment, biomass products designed for combustion are largely sourced from forest residue and mill waste. Wood chip is made from low grade wood and mill waste, which can be further dried and pressed to wood pellets. Forestry residue in slash piles can be ground up on site to make ‘hog’, the lowest grade biomass product due to its impurities, but still suitable for many furnaces.
While Marlborough appears to have plenty of biomass sources, many regions of the country do not. The DETA survey also found that, at least in a few regions, anticipated biomass demand will easily outstrip local supply. Some businesses in these regions are even contracting suppliers that would plant new biomass ‘farms’ to supply them.
So, here is the problem: Do we want to see farms converted to growing biomass, either production forest or some other biomass crop? Right now New Zealand’s forests supply wood for construction and paper products and for export, with a limited supply of forest and mill ‘waste’ available for making biomass fuel. If much of that forest estate instead goes to making just biomass fuel, we either need to plant more production forest or start chipping up logs that would otherwise go to making timber and paper or to export. How much of New Zealand do we want to see covered by production forest?
To add to the mix, the government’s proposed biofuels mandate is expected to increase uptake of biofuels for heavy freight, including for trucks, trains and ships, which would put more demand on agricultural land. How much farm land are we prepared to convert from food production to biofuel and biomass feed crops?
The other problem is that biomass isn’t exactly clean and renewable. Wood burning creates smoke which is harmful to our health and creates black carbon, which is a powerful greenhouse emission. From health and emissions perspectives, electrical power generated by wind, solar and hydro are much preferable.
The carbon-neutral status of biomass is also questionable. Under current IPCC guidelines, the burning of biomass is considered ‘zero carbon’ because the carbon dioxide released to the air when woody material is burned has only recently been sequestered back from the air to grow the wood. No new carbon is added to the environment, in difference to the burning of fossil carbon (i.e., coal, oil & gas), which releases carbon which has been locked away underground for millions of years.
The steps needed to get biomass fuel to the furnace, however, result in a net increase in carbon emissions. Harvesting, grinding, drying and transporting biomass, as of now, are largely reliant on fossil fuels. These emissions can best be minimised by using heat from that same biomass to dry the product (as is now done at the Kaituna mill) and by keeping transport distance to a minimum but it will be a while before biomass burning is truly carbon neutral.
In conclusion, NZ needs to plan the whole biomass supply and demand process very carefully, otherwise we could easily find ourselves having expectations of biomass that can't be met or result in undesirable consequences. The ‘net zero’ future we are all hoping for should not be one where food production competes for farm land with fuel production.
Biomass should be thought of as a transitional fuel, where there is enough local forestry residue to supply it. Long term, renewable sources of electrical power are a better solution for process heat.
Tom Powell - Climate Karanga Marlborough
Tom comes into the kitchen where Marg is at the table sorting the post.
Tom: “Did my Austin Healey arrive today?”
Marg: “A car? You’ve bought a car?”
Tom: “No, it’s a miniature replica. It should have arrived by now. I ordered it more than a month ago”.
Marg: “Oh, you mean a toy car. No, nothing came…”
Tom: “IT’S NOT A TOY! IT IS A COLLECTABLE!”
Marg: “Oh, sorry. So, where is it coming from?”
Tom: “It should be coming from the States. They said it would be here in two to three weeks. I’ve got the display cabinet all ready.”
Marg: “Well, you know shipping is all messed up at the moment due to Covid.”
Tom: “Bloody pandemic. First it’s lockdowns and now shipping delays and prices going up. It is all a big mess!”
Marg: “Well, don’t count on it getting better any time soon.”
Tom: “Why is that? Things should go back to normal once the world gets vaccinated and borders open up again.”
Marg: “Things will probably get worse in the years ahead. I’ve just been reading about the likely impacts of climate change on shipping. Stormier seas will make shipping more hazardous. Sea level rise will increase damage to ports during storms. Floods will damage factories and roads.”
Tom: “But we’ve always had storms. How bad can it get?”
Marg: “According to the experts, pretty bad. Add to that droughts and heat waves causing crop failures."
Google Assistant: “The heat wave in the western US last summer all but destroyed the berry crop in Oregon and Washington.”
Tom: “Thank you for butting in, Google! But Marg, that’s just food. Other things will still be produced.”
Marg: “Yes, but it will be hard to focus on those other things when people don’t have enough food to eat. Who is going to load the ships?”
Tom: “OK, so there will be more disruptions due to storms and crop failures. I can see where they could have an effect.”
Marg: “Add to that the growing tensions between the US, Australia and China. We could easily get caught up in a trade war. The Foreign Minister has already warned us about this. Have you noticed how much of our stuff comes from China? Your toy car was probably made in China and shipped...”
Tom: “MARG, IT IS NOT A TOY! I’VE TOLD YOU – IT IS A COLLECTABLE AND THEY ARE QUITE VALUABLE!”
Marg: “OK, sorry, calm down. It’s a collectable and I’m sure it is quite valuable.”
Tom: “OK, so we’ve got storms, crop failures and trade wars. What else could go wrong?”
Marg: “Well, then there is the question of just what kind of energy is going to power cargo ships. Ships today run on oil but the world is trying to eliminate fossil fuel. What are the cargo ships of tomorrow going to run on? Wind? Batteries? Batteries might work for short trips but not for crossing the oceans.”
Tom: “What about hydrogen or biofuels? There’s lots of research going on. Everyone at work says they are the fuels of the future.”
Marg: “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. We were all supposed to have flying cars by now, if you read the old science magazines.”
Google Assistant chimes in: “Green hydrogen, made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity is inefficient and still relatively expensive. You get only about a quarter of energy used to make and transport green hydrogen back when you use it.”
Marg: “And Tom, biofuels are also a worry. How much of South East Asia do we want to turn into palm oil plantations to make bio-diesel? How much of New Zealand farm land do we want to convert from food production to fuel production? Food is surely more important than fuel!”
Tom: “OK. So, you are saying my budding miniature car collection is doomed. Thanks, darling. You’ve ruined my day.”
Marg: “Oh, I’m sorry sweetheart! Maybe we can find someone here who makes miniature car ‘collectables’. You know, with all these problems with international shipping on the horizon, we need to start making things here in New Zealand again. And we should be supporting our businesses by buying local.”
“Let’s check the internet.”
“HEY Google, are there any New Zealand companies making toy cars?”
Tom: “MARG! IT IS NOT A TOY!”
Marg O’Brien – Climate Karanga Marlborough
Marg is at the kitchen table, glued to her laptop and surrounded by books and notes...
Tom, thinking about when dinner might be coming, bravely interrupts: “Studying up on climate stuff?”
Marg: “Yeah, but this time I’m interested in the people side of things… the growing inequality… how are we going to cope? More than ever, we need ‘Team New Zealand’ to fight Covid but will the Team stay with us for the climate extremes coming our way? Will we hang together if inequality keeps growing?”
“You know Tom, we so need to support the way we pull together. Look, like the way we worked together after the recent storms. We need to be a socially cohesive bunch… not have the rich getting richer and the poor poorer…”
Google Assistant: “Social cohesion and community resilience are important resources in the recovery after a disaster. Inequality contributes to disaster vulnerability. Investment in social cohesion and community resilience during peaceful and prosperous times is critical to strengthening and leveraging these resources during a crisis… “
Marg: “Spot on Google! Thanks for that!”
“You know Tom, our economic system is so crazy. If money goes to investors it’s seen as profit. If money comes to us, the workers who are labouring away, it is seen as a cost. No wonder business people want to bring in automation or shift most of their business overseas to get work done cheaply!”
Tom: “But doesn’t that mean we get cheaper goods back?”
Marg: “Yeah, but when people are employed here, they get job experience and learn, they pay taxes and spend money locally. The money circulates. Sending the jobs overseas means that only people rich enough to be in business get a good deal ̶ not the rest of us!”
Tom: “I guess we’re always hearing: Go out and support local businesses. Buy New Zealand made!”
Marg: “Yeah, and when we export our jobs we give all these good things away and our people end up displaced and unemployed instead”.
Tom: “But we’ve got friends who run businesses. They’re not all cut-throats… I know at work they are keen to have us all paid a living wage. And at the pub the other night they were talking about some of the wineries looking after wetlands and farmers getting tree planting going…”
Marg: “You’re right. I’ve been reading about ‘Corporates for Social Responsibility’ that are meant to consider people, communities and their environment… a wider purpose than just profit. There’s also now a whole lot of businesses called B corps – that’s businesses that are Beneficial!”
Tom: “Isn’t this just a lot of talk, though. Haven’t you been calling this “green washing”?
Google Assistant: “Tom, the B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of high quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater good...”
Tom: “Okay Google… that’s enough!”
Marg: “Tom, Google is only trying to help! What Google missed was that more and more B Corps are addressing the dual crises of climate change and social inequality!”
Marg: “Well, it’s an improvement! When companies first started doing this stuff, it was often a sort of an altruistic add-on, like helping with food parcels at Christmas or planting a few trees on the weekend. Now companies, like the B Corps are taking a step further so this wider purpose of people and planet as well as profit…”
Google Assistant: “…is incorporated into their business model and activities.”
Marg: “Yeah, that’s right Google! You know Tom we have over forty businesses that are B corps now! Like the Nelson business that you get your chia drinks from… that you just love after you’ve been cycling. And the Raglan firm that produces your coconut yogurt. They all care about the environment and keep well-paying jobs in our communities. Some have even declared a Climate Emergency!
Tom: “Okay… okay. I get it! But, thinking about the ‘people’ side of our own little home environment here… have you thought about dinner?
Marg: “Good idea Tom. Why don’t you cook tonight and do your great spinach omelets? And I can get a bit more of this people, planet and profit stuff into my head. I’d like to talk about it at my next garden club meeting!”
Tom: “Wait a minute! Wasn’t it your turn to cook tonight? I think we might need a bit more of that B Corp stuff here in this house!”
Tom Powell & Budyong Hill
Tom and Budyong are co-chairs of Climate Karanga Marlborough
At a recent speaking engagement in Ashburton, MP Stuart Smith, the National Party’s climate spokesperson, criticised the 2020 National Climate Change Risk Assessment report (NCCRA) prepared for the Minister of the Environment under the 2019 Zero Carbon Act. As documented by NZ Herald local democracy reporter Adam Burns in a 4 August article, MP Smith called the NCCRA “the science of bullshit”. This follows an opinion piece by MP Smith in the Marlborough Mid-Week, dated 29 July, stating that the NCCRA report was, “an expensive load of rubbish”.
Straightforward political posturing, you might say. But the basis for MP Smith’s criticism is a report by the Wellington consultancy Tailrisk, which some might remember as coming into significant criticism from public health officials in April last year after Tailrisk issued an analysis questioning the necessity of the Covid lockdowns. It is no surprise that the economists at Tailrisk were well over their heads when dabbling in public health issues.
The same might be said of Tailrisk’s critique of the NCCRA. The reports which make up the NCCRA were assembled over 9 months by professionals from industry (AECOM, Tonkin & Taylor), NIWA and academia. The report won an award for technical documentation from the Resource Management Law Association of New Zealand. Considering the report’s pedigree, an economist questioning the science behind the report is laughable at the very least.
The root of Tailrisk’s criticism is a misinterpretation of a basic hydrological parameter in an obscure 2019 NIWA report referenced by the NCCRA. The NIWA report is a survey of New Zealand rivers, where the authors calculate a statistical parameter called ‘mean annual flood’ (MAF). MAF is used in the calculation of flood severity (e.g., the size of one-in-one hundred year floods), so it is important to hydrologists, but it is not a proxy for flood severity, and the report cautions readers against misconstruing it as such.
Tailrisk nonetheless incorrectly interpreted MAF as a proxy for flood severity. Climate modelling reported in the NIWA report shows that MAF increases for a number of west coast rivers in the coming years (‘the wet get wetter’) but actually decreases in most Canterbury rivers. The decrease is due to predicted increasingly dry conditions in Canterbury. You can imagine that rivers might undergo a number of years of decreased flow due to drought, lowering their MAF, but still host increasingly severe floods every few years or decades.
Tailrisk thought they had found a serious contradiction to the conclusions of the NCCRA report that they could sink their teeth into and blasted the NCCRA as being unscientific. MP Smith echoed this misinterpretation in his comments at the Ashburton meeting.
It is disturbing that the National Party spokesperson would believe the rantings of a contrarian economist over the army of industry, government and academic specialists who prepared the NCCRA report. A simple phone call to a hydrologist or a climate scientist would have cleared up Tailrisk’s misinterpretation in an afternoon.
More disturbing is that MP Smith is noted as suggesting that climate change would not cause an increase in extreme flooding, counter to the consensus of NIWA and IPCC climate scientists.
His talk at Ashburton does a considerable disservice to the residents there, who had just suffered horrendous flooding in late May. The flows on the Upper Hinds and Ashburton/Hakatere Rivers were reported to be the highest on record. If the community is going to rebuild with enough reinforcement to withstand future floods, they need good scientific advice. Telling people that they shouldn’t expect increased flooding as climate change progresses is simply dangerous.
So, what is the National Party’s purpose in spreading misinformation about the NCCRA report and climate change-induced flood risk? Are they following the lead of the National Rifle Association in the US, which shows up in towns after mass shootings to rally the faithful against new gun control laws? Do they think that telling rural folks that climate science predictions are wrong will win them votes?
We’ve seen conservative political parties overseas turn against science when it suited them. We saw the Republican Party in the US turn against the teaching of evolution in schools as a way to attract the conservative Christian vote. In the last decades, we have seen the Republicans turn against climate science at the behest of their fossil fuel industry patrons. Their latest attack has been against public health measures to address the Covid pandemic – resisting lockdowns, masks and vaccination. And, we’ve all seen how poorly the last US administration responded to the pandemic. It has been grimly surprising to see one of the world’s wealthiest nations tally up the world’s highest number of Covid fatalities.
In contrast, New Zealand followed the advice of public health officials and is one of the few countries to have eliminated the virus and kept it out. We are the envy of the world for this accomplishment. Needless to say, listening to scientists is good public policy.
Let us hope that the National Party does not follow down the road of the US Republicans. Climate change, like the pandemic, is too serious an issue for political point making at the expense of overwhelming scientific consensus.
These are a collection of opinion articles principally written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim. Some articles have been written by other CKM members, and their names appear with those articles.