Climate explained: when Antarctica melts, will gravity changes lift up land and lower sea levels?


By Robert McLachlan

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to

I’ve heard the gravity changes when Antarctica melts will lower the seas around New Zealand. Will that save us from sea level rise?

The gravitational changes when Antarctica melts do indeed affect sea levels all over the world — but not enough to save New Zealand from rising seas.

The ice ages and their effects on sea level, geology, flora and fauna were topics of intense scientific and public interest all through the 19th century. Here’s how James Croll explained the “gravity effect” of melting ice in his 1875 book Climate and Time in their Geologic Relations:

Let us now consider the effect that this condition of things would have upon the level of the sea. It would evidently tend to produce an elevation of the sea-level on the northern hemisphere in two ways. First, the addition to the sea occasioned by the melting of the ice from off the Antarctic land would tend to raise the general level of the sea. Secondly, the removal of the ice would also tend to shift the earth’s centre of gravity to the north of its present position – and as the sea must shift along with the centre, a rise of the sea on the northern hemisphere would necessarily take place.

His back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested the effect on sea level from ice melting in Antarctica would be about a third bigger than average in the northern hemisphere and a third smaller in the south.

A more detailed mathematical study by Robert Woodward in 1888 has falling sea level as far as 2000km from Antarctica, but still rising by a third more than average in the north.

Sea-level fingerprints

Woodward’s method is the basis of determining what is now called the “sea-level fingerprint” of melting ice. Two other factors also come into play.

  1. The elasticity of the earth’s surface means the land will bounce up when it has less ice weighing it down. This pushes water away.
  2. If the ice is not at the pole, its melting shifts the south pole (the axis of rotation), redistributing water.

Combining these effects gives the sea-level fingerprints of one metre of sea-level rise from either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS), as shown here:

Red areas get more than the average sea level rise, blue areas get less.
Fingerprints of sea-level change following melting of ice from West Antartica (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS) equivalent to one metre of sea-level rise on average. Red areas get up to 40% more than the average sea-level rise, blue areas get less. Author provided, CC BY-SA

Woodward’s method from 1888 holds up pretty well – some locations in the northern hemisphere can get a third more than the average sea level rise. New Zealand gets a little bit below the average effect from Antarctica, and a little more than average from Greenland. Overall, New Zealand can expect slightly higher than average sea level rise.

Combining the sea-level fingerprints of all known sources of melting ice, together with other known changes of local land level such as subsidence and uplift, gives a good fit to the observed pattern of sea level rise around the world. For example, sea level has been falling near West Antarctica, due to the gravity effect.

Changes in sea level around the world, 1993-2019

Sea-level rise is accelerating, but the future rate is uncertain

The global average rise in sea level is 110mm for 1900-1993 and 100mm for 1993–2020. The recent acceleration is mostly due to increased thermal expansion of the top two kilometres of the oceans (warm water is less dense and expands) and increased melting of Greenland.

But the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite has revealed the melting of Antarctica has accelerated by a factor of five in recent decades. Future changes in Antarctica represent a major source of uncertainty when trying to forecast sea levels.

Much of West Antarctica lies below sea level and is potentially subject to an instability in which warming ocean water melts the ice front from below. This would cause the ice sheet to peel off the ocean floor, accelerating the flow of the glacier towards the sea.

In fact, this has been directly observed, both in the location of glacial “grounding lines”, some of which have retreated by tens of kilometres in recent decades, and most recently by the Icefin submersible robot which visited the grounding line of the Thwaites Glacier, 2000km east of Scott Base, and found the water temperature to be 2℃ above the local freezing point.

The big question is whether this instability has been irreversibly set into motion. Some glaciologists say it has, but the balance of opinion, summarised by the IPCC’s report on the cryosphere, is that

Observed grounding line retreat … is not definitive proof that Marine Ice Sheet Instability is underway. Whether unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat has begun or is imminent remains a critical uncertainty.

The IPCC special report on 1.5℃ concluded that “these instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5℃ to 2℃ of global warming”.

What’s in store for New Zealand

Predictions for New Zealand range from a further 0.46 metres of sea-level rise by 2100 (under a low-emission scenario, with warming kept under 2℃) to 1.05 metres (under a high-emission scenario).

A continued rise in sea levels over future centuries may be inevitable — there are 66m of sea level rise locked up in ice at present — but the rate will depend on how fast we can reduce emissions.

A five-year, NZ$7m research project, NZ SeaRise, is now underway, seeking to improve predictions of sea-level rise out to 2100 and beyond and their implications for local planning.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My favourite Anzac biscuit recipe

By Mary Morgan-Richards

Every year, in the lead up to Anzac day (25th April) when Australians and New Zealanders remember all those who died at war, we bake and eat sweet biscuits associated with WWI.

After 100 years I wanted to calculate the impact of my biscuits on global warming. Each ingredient needs to be harvested, prepared and packaged before transporting to my local shop. What is the carbon footprint of these activities?  Because food is grown in different parts of the world, I wanted a New Zealand figure. I found a thesis by M.J. Drew from the University of Otago called “Healthy & Climate-friendly eating patterns for New Zealand” and it had all the information I wanted (Drew et al. 2020).


The Anzac biscuit has been described as a culinary icon embedded in the Australian and New Zealand intangible cultural heritage (Cobley 2016) – but it is also a sweet and crunchy treat. The name “ANZAC” first appeared in recipe books during the First World War and what is now known as the Anzac biscuit seems to have emerged independently in kitchens in New Zealand and Australia ~1918 using the same basic ingredients that were readily available at the time (Leach 2008).  

Method: Heat water in bowl in microwave on high (about 40sec at 800-1000 watts), add baking soda, honey, golden syrup, oil and stir. Add oats, flour, coconut, sugar and two good pinches of salt. Mix thoroughly. Dust baking try with flour. Place teaspoonfuls of mixture onto the tray. Bake 180oC for about 10 mins until biscuits have melted flat and are golden brown. Allow to cool slightly before removing from tray onto a rack. Eat with a hot cup of tea.

For each food item, farming and processing produces most of the greenhouse gasses (with a few exceptions; Figure 1). Other stages in what is called the “lifecycle” of the food such as packaging, transport, refrigeration all contribute a smaller proportion of emissions per item, but it adds up.

FIgure 1

For some ingredients and many recipes there are a range of possibilities; one could use butter or margarine, apples or oranges. If I use canola oil in my biscuits instead of butter, I make the biggest difference to the total footprint. Most canola oil on my supermarket shelf is from rapeseed plants that were not grown in New Zealand, but there are a few yellow fields of rapeseed (Brassica napus) grown, harvested and pressed for oil in this country (e.g. Pure oil NZ). Even though transport is a much bigger contributor to the total for the canola oil I used (about 50%; Figure 1), growing a plant (rapeseed) produces much less CO2 than dairy farming. Butter also needs refrigerating. But without butter I need to add a pinch of salt to my biscuits. Per kg salt has a fairly high emission level and I wonder if we could reduce how far salt needs to travel? – selecting locally produced brands would help (I didn’t need to use pink salt from the Himalayas to get the taste I wanted and I made sure to reduce my chance of suffering from goitre by using a salt with iodine added). 

I was surprised to discover that honey production has a lower footprint than either salt or sugar or golden syrup – although more CO2 is invested in packaging honey, the transport and production releases less CO2 in total. But honey is expensive, and it doesn’t easily convert into the same volume of sugar in a recipe. Here I have reduced the golden syrup and sugar a bit, and added honey, but traditional Anzac biscuit recipes (from 1920’s) all have golden syrup. In fact, I might be breaching the NZ law if I don’t have enough golden syrup, as the law here requires that the name ‘Anzac’ is only associated with the original basic recipe (and that they are never referred to as cookies). In addition, completely replacing sugar and golden syrup with honey risks ‘food waste’ by producing a softer biscuit that doesn’t get eaten, so I’ve tried to balance emission-reduction with taste.

Electricity in New Zealand can be completely renewable and so I brought my electricity for baking my biscuits from ecotricity

In general, vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less climate-polluting (1.2−1.8 kgCO2e/kg) than animal-based foods (12−21 kgCO2e/kg). Potentially I could reduce my CO2 emissions by up to 42%, depending how much I reduce meat and dairy from my diet and continue to minimise food waste – I might even live longer!

Cobley, J. 2016. Should we safeguard ‘the idea of the Anzac biscuit recipe’? Women’s Studies Journal, 30 (1): 62-70. ISSN 1173-6615

Drew, M. J. 2017. Healthy & Climate-friendly eating patterns for New Zealand. University of Otago.

Drew, J. Cleghorn, C. Macmillan, A. Mizdrak, A. 2020. Healthy and climate-friendly eating patterns in the New Zealand context. Environmental Health Perspective 128(1)

Leach, H. 2008. The pavlova story: A slice of New Zealand’s culinary history. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Why did New Zealand’s CO2 emissions blow out so spectacularly in 2019?

By Robert McLachlan

Every year in April, the trees start changing colour, the clocks go back an hour, and the national greenhouse gas figures are released and promptly forgotten.

They take fifteen months to prepare, so by the time they come out it’s very easy for commentators to point out that they are out of date. Even now that the national media are running several new climate change stories every day, this one seems to pass us by. Not only are the figures out of date, they are also highly technical and hard to interpret: the year-to-year changes might be influenced by one-off factors like the weather, while the long-term trends have been subject to the changing winds of climate policy.

The Ministry for the Environment does an amazingly thorough job of reporting greenhouse gas emissions. The latest release includes a 633 page report accompanied by 100 MB of data – 300 spreadsheets in all. But as for interpreting the data, they don’t go very far:

Between 2018 and 2019, gross emissions increased by 2 per cent, which was largely attributed to an increase in emissions from the energy sector (by 5 per cent ot 1,711 kt CO2-e) drive mainly by an increase in emissions from manufacturing industries and construction, largely due to an increase in methanol production, and an increase in emissions from public electricity and heat production, primarily driven by an increase in natural gas-fired and coal-fired electricity generation in response to lower levels of hydro generation.

The “energy sector” is exactly the part we’re supposed to be focusing on. A 5% increase in one year, unless it’s some sort of one-off exception, is disastrous. We need to be cutting those energy emissions by at least 5% a year. The Ministry makes is sound like those increases just happened. But how can that be, when we’re in an emergency and climate politics is front and centre? What’s the relationship between emissions and climate policies?

CO2 emissions reach record highs

To try and get a grip on recent trends, I’m going to look at the changes from 2016 to 2019. Gross CO2 emissions did at first fall over the past decade, from 41.2 Mt in 2008 to 38.3 Mt in 2016, before rising again to 42.2 Mt in 2019. This turnaround is a worry and could indicate that climate policy over the period has failed. The three years 2017 to 2019 saw a massively increased focus on climate change: September 2017 saw Labour returned after a decade in a strikingly climate-led election. A Zero Carbon Bill (originating with the youth climate movement Generation Zero) was promised and extensively debated over 2018 and 2019, becoming law in November 2019.

Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg burst onto the world stage in late 2018, leading to massive School Strikes 4 Climate throughout New Zealand and the world in 2019. Climate emergencies were declared throughout the country, and eventually by Parliament itself.

Surely anyone even tangentially involved with fossil fuels would have realised that change was coming?

In fact, change had already been signalled before the 2017 election. The 2008 Emissions Trading Scheme, which had been weakened almost as soon as it was introduced, began to return to its original plan, with a 50% discount being removed during 2017 and 2018. Carbon prices rose, perhaps indicating that emitters expected to face more restrictions:

Carbon price (per tonne of CO2) in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme. Until 2019 only half a unit was needed for each tonne of emissions, effectively halving the price.

Although on the surface it looks like carbon prices tripled during 2017-2019, it is difficult or impossible to know how much emitters actually paid. Several years worth of credits have been banked ahead of time, many bought when prices were much lower, and many imported from Russia and Ukraine in dodgy deals: as the “low integrity” of these carbon credits became known, New Zealand companies were left as the only buyers, leading to very, very low prices (and an end to international carbon trading). In addition, many large emitters get 60% or 90% discounts, to protect them from international competition. The only large sectors that are fully exposed to the ETS are domestic transport and electricity.

Emissions up 10% in three years

CO2 emissions (kilotonnes)20162019ChangeFully in ETS?
Road transport1346214560+1098+8%Yes
International aviation32743856+582+18%
Food processing (dairy)26893237+548+20%
Metal industry (70% steel, 30% aluminium)22512236-15-1%
Chemicals (mostly methanol)19991875-123-6%
Agricultural industry, forestry, and fishing13701430+60+4%
Fugitive fossil fuel emissions12391021-218-18%Yes
Agriculture (50% lime, 50% urea)1089111728+3%
Mining & other industry10221194+172+17%
Commercial buildings9951130+135+14%Yes
International shipping9431009+66+7%
Domestic aviation9191015+97+11%Yes
Oil refining847882+34+4%Yes
Non-metallic minerals: energy (cement, lime, glass)727618-109-15%
Residential buildings585628+44+8%Yes
Non-metallic minerals: industrial processes466596+130+28%
Pulp, paper, and print381421+40+10%
Manufacture of solid fuel291354+63+22%Yes
Domestic shipping270329+59+22%Yes
Chemical industry (hydrogen, ammonia)191183-8-4%
Iron and steel industries176190+14+8%
Rail transport129126-3-2%Yes
Total CO23834342180+3836+10%
New Zealand’s CO2 emissions (kilotonnes) in 2016 and 2019, compared.

Let’s look at the big four.

Road transport (up 1098 kt CO2) is in the ETS, but a carbon price is a terrible way to reduce emissions in this sector. Even $50/tonne only adds 10 cents per litre to the price of fuel, which itself is only weakly linked to people’s transport decisions. The main causes of the rise in emissions are the almost exclusively car-focussed transport system, which has left us with the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD, and a lack of fuel efficiency standards. These had been on the way in 2008 but were cancelled by the incoming National government, then stalled in 2019 by Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First. (They’re supposed to be introduced in 2021.) Since 2016 there has been a large increase in road building, with further massive plans announced in February 2020. Despite the phrase “mode shift” being seen more and more frequently, there is not a lot of it about yet. Electric car sales got off to a good start in 2017, but have stalled since 2018. The total EV fleet is preventing about 50 kt a year or 0.3% of road transport emissions. Conclusion: transport policy was a failure in 2017–2019 and there are still major forces pushing emissions higher, while big battles over mode shift lie ahead.

International aviation (up 582 kt) is not in the ETS and it is also exempt from GST and fuel excise tax. Together these have contributed to make it one of our largest emission sectors. Covid has wiped it out, reducing emissions by 90%, but there are no measures in place to prevent it returning in full.

Electricity (up 1142 kt) is in the ETS and is very sensitive to the price of carbon. A carbon price of $25 adds 2.5 cents per kWh to the price of electricity. There are cheap alternatives to fossil fuels and higher renewable energy targets have been in place for many years. So why have emissions blown out? The Ministry for the Environment blame the weather (“lower levels of hydro generation”). But that isn’t the whole story.

It’s true that hydro generation does fluctuate. But looking at the long-term trends, new renewable energy construction came to a complete stop in 2016. If it hadn’t, emissions would have fallen significantly. Wholesale electricity prices were low in 2016 (6c/kWh), but by 2019 they were at record highs (13c/kWh) and companies started to plan new renewable power stations. (A bit late: in 2021 prices are over 20c and we are facing electricity shortages.) A possible conclusion is that despite what they say, electricity generators don’t really care about emissions at all.

Food processing (up 548 kt) is not fully in the ETS. Most of these emissions are from burning coal and natural gas to dry milk into milk powder. In these three years new plants and boilers were being built and operated at a great rate. A 2017 presentation from a Fonterra representative did not mention that their company was the largest consumer of coal in New Zealand. (The word “coal” does not even appear.) Since then they have changed their tune, but progress is slow. Their Brightwater plant was converted to a coal/wood blend in 2018 (emissions savings: 2 kt a year); in 2020 a larger plant at Te Awamutu converted fully to wood (savings: 83 kt a year). The Stirling cheese factory has been promising to go electric since 2018, and an announcement was expected in 2020, but there does not seem to be any decision yet. At this rate it will take a decade just to undo the past three years of growth.

And so it goes down the list. Throughout the country people were deciding to buy new fossil-fueled cars, boilers, and machinery far more than they were deciding to get rid of them. Away from the world of elections, policy reviews, school strikes, and opinion pieces, it was business as usual for three years.

So to try to answer my question, Why did New Zealand’s CO2 emissions blow out so spectacularly in 2019: the forces for increasing fossil fuel burning were vastly more powerful than the puny forces opposing them. All the talk about climate change in 2017–2019 had little effect on the behaviour of companies or individuals.

Have we turned the corner?

Possibly. The pro-fossil fuel forces are still there, but the opposing forces are gathering strength, especially through the Zero Carbon Act which for the first time includes a falling cap on emissions. In the most sensitive sector, electricity, the changes can be seen already. My takeaway from the new 2019 data is that the big four, road transport, aviation, electricity, and food processing, that are so large, that have performed so poorly, and that have so much scope for transformation, are where we need to look for change.

Recreation Transition: low-carbon recreation in the mountains

By Jamie Stewart, Federated Mountain Clubs

Looking 130 km east from Fanthams Peak, Taranaki (1966 m) to Mts Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu (2797 m). Photo: Peter Laurensen,

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), founded in 1931, represents 96 clubs, 22,000 members and 300,000 people that regularly recreate in the New Zealand backcountry. This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Backcountry magazine and is reproduced with permission. (Read the original article). See also “EVs for mountain recreation” (Backcountry, June 2020) and a series of articles on climate change and the backcountry (November 2020).

It has been a while now – pre-Covid-19 (everything pre-Covid seems a while ago) since the FMC Executive approved a new campaign we have called ‘Recreation Transition’ to encourage low-carbon recreation.

FMC has been considering our response to the climate crisis for several years. We have taken steps to minimise our organisational carbon footprint, including the recent decision to phase out the FMC Travel Club. But the times demand more of us, so we have developed this campaign to shape our future advocacy, to attempt to impact central and local government thinking and possibly to influence the recreational choices of clubs and our wider outdoor community.

FMC recognises that in this instance we are not leaders, but followers, of many committed initiatives from clubs and individuals in our outdoor community.

Railcar about to enter the Arthur’s Pass tunnel, mid 1970s. These trains ran from 1956 to 1978 and were a legendary source of transport for trampers who would wave down the train for unscheduled pickups. The Auckland–Wellington night train fulfilled a similar function in the North Island until 1979, and is now the subject of a revival campaign. (Photo: Roy Sinclair)

Low-carbon recreation infrastructure

There is a need for low-carbon transport options for people to get to the places they love. Dan Clearwater investigates in this Backcountry what is possible currently with electric vehicles. Improved passenger services on railways are also important, and this government is heading in the right direction – will we see Cantabrians heading to Arthurs Pass on the train for a climb and tramp again in our lifetimes? Clubs also have, and will continue to, play a crucial role with car-pooling, club buses and other climate-friendly practices.

The push for low-carbon recreation infrastructure encompasses the creation of and investment in recreational opportunities that don’t have high embedded transport costs. How much could carbon emissions be reduced if people from Auckland and Tauranga did a yearly tramp in the Kaimai ranges rather than on a distant Great Walk? How much carbon emission reduction if the public money invested in the Paparoa track had been used instead to develop more mountain-biking opportunities near some of our larger centres of population?

From my back door

FMC coined #frommybackdoor pre-Covid, but events have overtaken us. What a lesson and opportunity we have all had to rediscover our neighbourhoods, and to think about how we can improve our local outdoor opportunities. How much could carbon emissions be reduced if more people choose to recreate from their back doors regularly? Should we apply the ‘recreational opportunity spectrum’ suburb by suburb, town by town?

Department of Conservation research has shown that the most influential factors in connecting people to nature are experience in nature as a child and regular interaction with specific natural places as an adult. Where better to make this happen than people’s own neighbourhoods? The unkempt gully, the piece of bush locked away between neighbours, the old braid of the river, the swamp on the edge of town.

A ‘from-my-backdoor’ ethic also includes self-powered journeys, be that to nearby coasts or distant mountains. Ed Hillary of course rode his bike to the hills, as did many others. A more contemporary trip I have always aspired to emulate is Erik Bradshaw’s and Jonathan Kennett’s climb of Tapuae-o-Uenuku from Wellington – by bike – in a weekend. Low-carbon outdoor recreation still allows plenty of opportunity for exploring, achieving ambitious trips and developing skills.

The actual bicycle ridden by Edmund Hillary and Julian Godwin in the 1940s. “”Godwin’s best mate in the RAF was Ed Hillary and on weekends they would ‘double’ each other out to Mt Taranaki and have a crack at the mountain,” said Jecks, recalling what Godwin had told him. In Hillary’s autobiography, there are several mentions of Julian Godwin and even a reference to this very bicycle.” (Photo: Emma James/Fairfax)

Layers of Experience

‘Layers in the outdoors’ usually refers to poly-pro and fleece. Two of each and a good raincoat is my ‘handle anything’ kit. ‘Layers of experience’ might bring to mind those forehead wrinkles and calm that comes with enduring a few challenges in your time. In this case though, FMC is talking about the richness to be gained from a multi- layered experience in a place, beyond what you get from briefly passing through. We are talking about going beyond just ticking another place off your list or taking your photo for instagram.

Layers of experience may include: skill development, sense of community, contribution to the place – say through conservation volunteering – artistic endeavour, mentoring and increased knowledge in various fields. This is a richness which many clubs have done well to preserve, but which has been lost to much of our outdoor community, who have been herded instead from carparks, along gravel tracks, to well-worn destinations. It is a richness that may help people confidently choose to recreate #frommybackdoor and indeed to generally live more lightly upon the earth.

Family Tramping

FMC has had a focus this past year on family tramping, the joy of parents introducing their children to the outdoors. What if we look at this opportunity anew through a recreation transition lens? Can we family tramp from our back doors, after a short drive, or from a railway station?

Wellington’s Ōrongorongo valley is a long-standing outdoor recreation success with its mix of bookable and non-bookable huts, close to each other but incredibly well used and cost-effective for servicing and maintenance. Is this a model worth replicating elsewhere? In say the Glentui/Mt Richardson area, Waitawheta River, or at an appropriate spot in the Hūnua Ranges?

Do we need to design multi-day trips for little legs – were DOC’s previous policies to remove front-country huts and ensure minimum distances between huts short-sighted? Do we need to think more about providing appropriate loops in our most accessible places? Could we do more to encourage camping during what we now call day-trips?

There will no doubt always be a place for journeys to remote road ends and mysterious ranges out the back of beyond, but maybe we can make more of the opportunities close to home as well.

Submit! Submit! Submit!

Yes, it’s time to submit to the Climate Change Commission on their draft advice to the government, if you haven’t do so already. Submissions close on 28 March 2021.

Actually, Tolstoy can teach us a thing or two about climate change. See Michaelson 2011, Morally Differentiating Responsibility for Climate Change Mitigation: An Analogy with Tolstoy’s” Master and Man”Business & Professional Ethics Journal, pp. 113-136, and “How Tolstoy’s War and Peace can help us understand history’s complexity“, History News Network, December 2019.

Paul Callister and I have submitted in two key areas, transport and the level of emissions.

On emissions, as I argued in an article in Stuff, the suggested carbon budgets actually allow our emissions to increase in the coming decade. I think most people who voted for the Zero Carbon Act were expecting them to decrease. Our emissions as reported to the UN for the decade 2009–2018 were 548 Mt CO2e; the draft advice puts them at 602 Mt CO2 for the decade 2021–2030.

Paul and I are suggesting a budget of 514 Mt. Even that doesn’t sound like much of a decrease. However, it would still require major cuts to fossil fuel burning, and it would still require us to reverse our past fifteen-year standstill on forestry.

Lawyers for Climate Action NZ have suggested a budget of 400 Mt, the same as what we emitted in the 1990s.

On transport, the Commission is targeting emission cuts of 47% by 2035. However, it’s hard to see the suggested actions achieving that, since we are still going full steam ahead in the wrong direction. Private car travel is heavily and increasingly subsidised and bedded into society, which makes it difficult to visualise the complete transport revolution that is needed. Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan have looked at the whole issue in this March 2021 working paper; Heidi also covers it at Greater Auckland.

Our Commission is based on the one in the UK, which has now been running fairly successfully for a decade. The UK has surface transport emissions of 1.9 tonnes CO2/person, New Zealand 3.3 tonnes. The difference (UK is 43% lower) is made up of 21% less car travel per person and 27% lower emissions per kilometre. In some ways I’m surprised the difference is not even more. The UK has comprehensive bus and train networks and denser cities, and also fuel efficiency standards.

The UK CCC “Balanced Net Zero” model involves transport emissions falling 62% over 2020-2035. This is made up from EVs 55%; better petrol cars 4%; electrifying rail 1.5%; lower demand 14%, with these reductions countered by an increase of 13% due to population and economic growth. This isn’t the transport revolution that some are calling for, but it’s a good start. Could we match that here?

And did I say, it’s time to submit?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

By Robert McLachlan

I first wrote about New Zealand wind farms in May of 2019 (“A long time between drinks“). At that time, Mercury’s decision to build the Turitea wind farm seemed to me to be extremely significant, but also hard to interpret in terms of the larger scheme of things. Could it be that our low-emission transition was actually going to get started?

By the end of that year (“Blow, winds of fruitfulness“) there had been a flurry of activity (four more wind farms?!?!?), but the future was still misty.

And now here we are in March of 2021. Amidst all the excitement of the Zero Carbon Act, an election, and the Climate Change Commission getting up and running, what’s been happening with renewable energy?

First, if you’re reading from overseas, a warning. This is New Zealand. You won’t be seeing vast solar panels marching across the deserts, city-sized fleets of electric buses, or mega-projects of any sort (unless they involve motorways). No, here we need to examine the gleanings.

So here are the developments since December of 2019:

  • On 22 December 2020, a long-tailed bat was thrown into the works of the 93 MW Mt Cass wind farm (Canterbury). The developer says the project has been delayed, but is still expected to start towards the end of 2021.
  • The 222 MW Turitea wind farm (Manawatū) is under construction, but has been delayed by a slip preventing transport of the blades up to the site and a fire onboard a ship that destroyed 12 nacelles and 11 hubs. It’s definitely happening, though, I can see the towers and turbines from where I’m sitting. The first stage should be finished by April.
  • The 133 MW Waipipi wind farm (Taranaki) is nearly finished, suffering only an incident in which a blade was blown over en route.
  • On 15 February 2021, Contact Energy pressed go on the 152 MW Tauhara II geothermal plant near Taupō ($580 million, but equivalent to over 300 MW of wind).
  • On 24 February 2021, Meridian pressed go on the 176 MW Harapaki wind farm in Hawke’s Bay. The capital cost of $395 million, over a 20 year lifetime, comes out to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, far below present wholesale prices for electricity. They also hinted at much more to come.
  • On 1 March 2021, plans for two turbines on Rakiura / Stewart Island – which would have been funded entirely by the government – were canned after “agreement could not be reached with the land owners”. The islanders will continue eking out their expensive, high-emission diesel-fired electricity.
  • On 24 March 2021, Contact Energy announced it was moving into wind energy for the first time, with an initial site lined up in Southland and more to come.
  • Genesis Energy is still being coy about the prospects for its 860 MW Castle Hill farm. No solid news.
On the way to Waipipi. Source: Taranaki Daily News
Turbine blades waiting for a ride up a hill, Palmerston North. Photo: Warwick Smith / Stuff.

All up, that’s 776 MW of new generation, and very welcome it is too. It can’t come a moment too soon. Electricity prices are still high,

2021 Jan-Feb19.8c
Wholesale electricity prices

the hydro lakes are a quarter below average for this time of year, heading into the dry season, the renewable share has been drifting down from 85% to 81%, Genesis has fired up a spare 250 MW coal/gas unit for the second year running, and the papers are complaining about record coal imports.

So the new farms and the encouraging comments from power companies are positive signs. Perhaps the carbon price (which hit $39, up from a low of $22 in 2020) is starting to bite, or perhaps the companies have come around to the idea that the Zero Carbon Act is here to stay. The suddenly announced closure of the Tiwai Point smelter, and then its four-year stay of execution, is another complicating factor.

Although the government was elected in 2017 with a pledge of 100% renewable electricity by 2035, and re-elected in 2020 with a new target of 100% renewable by 2030, it’s not clear what specific new steps, other than the Zero Carbon Act, have been taken to bring this about. The official target remains where it has been since 2011, 90% renewable by 2025. One of the headline items, to investigate large-scale energy storage (the “NZ Battery Project”), has been delayed.

Some manoeuvrings are hard to read. Infratil sold its majority stake in Tilt Renewables, who built Waipipi and were planning three more wind farms, to Mercury. Remember that Mercury is in the thick of building Turitea and had already installed some enabling works there for yet another farm further east, Puketoi. Will Mercury really be up for five new large wind farms?

Meanwhile, Genesis Energy, for decades the bad boy of climate change in New Zealand, has suddenly changed its tune. First, they bought all of Waipipi’s electricity for the next twenty years; then they bought half of Ecotricity, New Zealand’s only zero-carbon electricity retailer, and sold them some of Waipipi’s power. This is a company behind 10% of New Zealand’s fossil fuel burning, that has been making profits of $300 million a year seemingly forever, but somehow hasn’t built any renewable electricity since 1996. Their annual report talks about “sourcing” a lot of renewable energy, but not necessarily building any. Perhaps they are waiting to see if the government is serious about climate change. Can the leopard change its spots?

Many New Zealand species are already at risk because of predators and habitat loss. Climate change makes things worse

By Cate Macinnis-Ng, University of Auckland and Angus Mcintosh, University of Canterbury

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Islands are biodiversity hotspots. They are home to 20% of the world’s plants and animals yet cover only 5% of the global landmass. But island ecosystems are highly vulnerable, threatened by habitat fragmentation and introduced invasive weeds and predators.

Climate change adds to all these stresses. In our recent paper, we use Aotearoa New Zealand as a case study to show how climate change accelerates biodiversity decline on islands by exacerbating existing conservation threats.

Banded dotterel chick in a snad nest
Many native birds are threatened by introduced predators such as rats, possums and cats. Shutterstock/Imogen Warren

Aotearoa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with 80% of vascular plants, 81% of arthropods and 60% of land vertebrate animals found nowhere else.

Its evolutionary history is dominated by birds. Before the arrival of people, the only native land mammals were bats. But now, introduced predators threaten the survival of many species.

Complex interplay between many threats

Conservation efforts have rightly concentrated on the eradication of introduced predators, with world-leading success in the eradication of rats in particular.

Potential climate change impacts have been mostly ignored. Successive assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight the lack of information for Aotearoa. This could be due to insufficient research, system complexity or a lack of impacts.

In the past, some researchers even dismissed climate change as an issue for biodiversity in Aotearoa. Our maritime climate is comparatively mild and already variable. As a result, organisms are expected to be well adapted to changing conditions.

Palaeo-ecological records suggest few species extinctions despite abrupt environmental change during the Quaternary period (from 2.5 million years ago to present). But past climate change provides an incomplete picture of contemporary change because it did not include human-induced threats.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, land‐use change and complex interactions between native species and introduced predators or invasive weeds all contribute to these threats.

How climate change affects biodiversity

Species respond to climate change by evolving physiological adjustments, moving to new habitats or, in the worst cases, becoming extinct. These responses then change ecosystem processes, including species interactions and ecosystem functions (such as carbon uptake and storage).

Methods for identifying climate change impacts are either empirical and observational (field studies and manipulative experiments) or mechanistic (ecophysiological models). Mechanistic approaches allow predictions of impacts under future climate scenarios. But linking species and ecosystem change directly to climate can be challenging in a complex world where multiple stressors are at play.

Tuatara, a reptile found only in New Zealand.
Tuatara survive only on a few offshore islands and in sanctuaries. Shutterstock/Ken Griffiths

There are several well-known examples of climate change impacts on species endemic to Aotearoa. First, warming of tuatara eggs changes the sex ratio of hatchlings. Hotter conditions produce more males, potentially threatening long-term survival of small, isolated populations.

Second, mast seeding (years of unusually high production of seed) is highly responsive to temperature and mast events are likely to increase under future climate change. During mast years, the seeds provide more food for invasive species like rats or mice, their populations explode in response to the abundant food and then, when the seed resource is used up, they turn to other food sources such as invertebrates and bird eggs. This has major impacts on native ecosystems.

How masting plants respond to climate change is complex and depends on the species. The full influence of climate is still emerging.

Looking up into the canopy of beech trees.
Every few years, beech trees produce significantly higher amounts of seed. Shutterstock/sljones

Indirect effects of climate change

We identified a range of known and potential complex impacts of climate change in several ecosystems. The alpine zone is particularly vulnerable. Warming experiments showed rising temperatures extend the overlap between the flowering seasons of native alpine plants and invasive plants. This potentially increases competition for pollinators and could result in lower seed production.

Some large alpine birds, including the alpine parrot kea, will have fewer cool places to take refuge from invasive predators. This will cause local extinctions in a process know as “thermal squeeze”.

Small alpine lakes, known as tarns, are not well understood but are also likely to suffer from thermal squeeze and increased drought periods. Warmer temperatures may also allow Australian brown tree frogs to invade further into these sensitive systems.

The alpine parrot kea
The alpine parrot kea lives in New Zealand’s mountain ranges. Shutterstock/Peter Nordbaek Hansen

Climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. In Aotearoa, culturally significant species such as tītī (sooty shearwater) and harakeke (flax) will be influenced by climate change.

The breeding success of tītī, which are harvested traditionally, is strongly influenced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. As ENSO intensifies under climate change, numbers of young surviving are decreasing. For harakeke, future climate projections predict changes in plant distribution, potentially making weaving materials unavailable to some hapū (subtribes).

Mātauranga, the Indigenous knowledge of Māori, provides insights on climate change that haven’t been captured in western science. For instance, the Māori calendar, maramataka, has been developed over centuries of observations.

Maramataka for each hāpu (subtribe) provide guidance for the timing of gathering mahinga kai (traditional food sources). This includes the gathering of fish and other seafood, planting of crops and harvesting food. Because this calendar is based on knowledge that has accrued over generations, some changes in timing and distributions due to environmental or climate change may be captured in these oral histories.

Climate change is here now

Future projections of climate change are complicated in Aotearoa — but it is clear the climate is already changing.

Last year was the seventh hottest on record for Aotearoa. Many parts of the country suffered severe summer drought. NASA captured images of browned landscapes across the country.

Satellite images of New Zealand, showing two years and the impact of drought.
These images show how the Hawke’s Bay dried out between the summer (December to February) periods of 2019 (left) and 2020 (right). NASA, CC BY-SA

Much of the focus of climate change research has been in agricultural and other human landscapes but we need more effort to quantify the threat for our endemic systems.

On islands across the world, rising sea levels and more severe extreme weather events are threatening the survival of endemic species and ecosystems. We need to understand the complicated processes through which climate change interacts with other threats to ensure the success of conservation projects.

While we focused on terrestrial and freshwater systems, marine and near-shore ecosystems are also suffering because of ocean acidification, rising sea levels and marine heatwaves. These processes threaten marine productivity, fisheries and mahinga kai resources.

And for long-term conservation success, we need to consider both direct and indirect impacts of climate change on our unique species and ecosystems.

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

Way to go

Electrifying advice from the Climate Change Commission

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

by Robert McLachlan

The Climate Change Commission’s draft advice on how to decarbonise New Zealand’s economy is refreshing, particularly as it calls on the government to start phasing out fossil fuels instead of relying on offsets and carbon trading.

Until now, New Zealand has relied heavily on its Emissions Trading Scheme, but the evidence is clear that it has failed to reduce emissions. The commission’s package includes carbon budgets out to 2035 and detailed pathways to achieve them across all sectors of the economy.

For the transport sector, which is responsible for half of New Zealand’s energy-related emissions, the commission suggests a sweeping set of changes to electrify the country’s car fleet and to replace imported fuels with local renewable electricity.

It’s exciting to see a national-level plan that actually cuts emissions. But it raises two questions: is it feasible, and is it the best or only option?

Transforming the transport sector

Land transport was always going to be squarely in the commission’s sights. Its emissions have doubled since 1990, and, unlike agriculture, it’s not a protected export industry.

The commission calls for cuts in transport emissions of 47% by 2035, achieved by:

  • a rapid shift to electric vehicles, with the market share for light vehicles rising from 2% today to 50% in 2027
  • an end to imports of pure petrol or diesel cars by 2032, and a similar but later transition for trucks
  • the development of an integrated national transport network that reduces travel by private car
  • changes to urban planning leading to 7% less travel per person
  • the development of policies to increase walking, cycling, and public transport by 25%, 95% and 120% respectively by 2030
  • scaling up low-carbon fuels, such as biofuels, to 3% of all liquid fuels by 2035
  • some decarbonisation of the rail network, lifting rail’s share of freight from 16% to 20%, and more coastal shipping.

To achieve this rapid electrification, New Zealand would need to produce more renewable electricity. Only one large wind farm, the 840 GWh/year Turitea wind farm near Palmerston North, is currently under construction.

Wind farm in New Zealand
New Zealand would need to build more wind farms and scale up renewable electricity generation. Brendon O’Hagan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the commission’s proposed scenarios, New Zealand would need another renewable electricity plant like this every year from now on. At the moment, New Zealand has only 690 MW of wind turbines, and no utility-scale solar generation. The industry would need to scale up considerably.

Other live issues are the planned 2024 closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, which would make a lot of renewable electricity available, and the NZ Battery pumped-hydro project.

The promise of deep cuts to fossil fuels

The proposed shift away from fossil fuels is clearly feasible technically, but would need a quick and radical change in policy. Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn’t have a good track record of carrying out the sweeping regulatory changes that will be needed.

Apart from the proposed import ban on petrol cars from 2032, the EV plan involves a system of subsidies and fuel efficiency standards. Last week, the government introduced a refreshed fuel efficiency standard, with a target of 105 gCO₂/km by 2025.

But the car industry appears to have won several concessions, including a halving of penalties (to NZ$50 per vehicle per gram of CO₂ over the target), a delay in the standard’s introduction until 2023 and a separate target for utes.

The EU did not begin to see rapid EV uptake until 2020, when a new 95 gCO₂/km target kicked in, along with fines of €100/gCO₂/km and generous incentives. Achieving the Norway-like transformation of the car fleet the commission envisages will likely require more incentives and stronger oversight of the market.

Is this the only way?

The commission’s plan doesn’t question the overall structure of the transport system. In the view of some critics, the present system is inequitable and disadvantages people who can’t or don’t want to drive, including children, older people and people living with disabilities.

It has contributed to poor health and safety outcomes, traffic congestion and car-dominated city streets. At an annual cost of NZ$17,000 per household (not counting greenhouse gas emissions), it is also expensive.

The commission’s technical advisory panel included representatives from the car importing industry and other road transport groups, but no experts on walking, cycling, public transport, public health or urban planning.

The massive road-building programme undertaken by both National and Labour governments, set to continue far into the future, is not mentioned, despite considerable evidence that it increases transport demand, sprawl and emissions.

There is no requirement to reduce parking, a topic currently contested in urban forums and already being studied by the government. Nor are there any plans for passenger rail or improvements to inter-city public transport.

Changing the way cities grow

New Zealand’s housing crisis has already prompted a rewrite of urban plans throughout the country to enable higher densities, especially near transport hubs. The commission recommends that, before 2025, all levels of government should embed links between urban planning, design and transport so that communities have integrated and accessible transport options, including safe cycleways.

Child riding a bike along a cycle way
The commission wants to see policies that increase cycling by 95% by 2030. Shutterstock/ChameleonsEye

A glimpse of what can be possible comes from Ireland:

  • walking and cycling receive 20% of the transport capital expenditure
  • every local authority must develop a high-quality cycling policy, review road use and increase the number of children walking and cycling to school
  • new public transport infrastructure must receive twice the funding of any new roads
  • surburban and commuter rail is to be enhanced across the country, including high-speed intercity links.

You don’t need a complicated model to accept that these steps are more in tune with the required emission reductions.

Those who argue that infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet will not find much to agree with in the commission’s report. Other perspectives, such as those outlined in the recent book A Societal Transformation Scenario for Staying Below 1.5ºC critique the growth and technology biases in most climate scenarios.

Another model of the future could involve less energy, less travel and less consumption overall, but an equivalent or higher standard of living.

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

Geyserland: Or, What happened at Taupō

By Robert McLachlan

I don’t know Taupō well. Even though I stop off there from time to time, I’m always on the way to somewhere else. Usually Taupō means making a hot water puddle in the gritty sand followed by a swim in the lake, noticing with bemusement and resignation the traffic, the parasailing, and the hole-in-one game. Sometimes a random, generic motel. But this time the random motel was not at all generic.

Although right on the edge of town, the buildings were scattered far apart. There were typical 1970s “chalets” (i.e., DIY 4 x 2 carpentry), plus a strange assortment of structures from different periods. There was a large industrial warehouse and a deserted 500-seat bar and restaurant. (I later read that big acts like Prince Tui Teka played here in the 1970s.) Around the back there was a “historic” section, several crumbling structures of assorted age, some still occupied. Some looked like rough-sawn board-and-batten construction – original, or faux-heritage? There was a 2 x 3 metre “church”. I’m using quote marks a lot because it was hard to tell what anything was. One cottage had a photograph of Harry Lauder visiting in the 1920s.

It turned out to be the tattered remains of Taupō’s first hotel, The Glen, founded in 1869 by Edward Lofley to cater to the troops of the Armed Constabulary, posted there in the closing years of the New Zealand Wars. Lofley seems to have been a colourful character, but I’ll leave it to you to read up on him, or to watch the TVNZ documentary about the hotel, for we move on now to the Glen’s 1886 reincarnation as Joshua’s Spa Hotel. By the late 19th century the Spa had become one of the country’s premiere attractions, thanks to its many geysers, hot springs, and boiling mudpots. Its most famous sight was the Crow’s Nest Geyser, with its impressive cone (hence the name), size (spouting up to 30 metres), and picturesque location right on the banks of the Waikato.

From the album: Record Pictures of New Zealand, 1920s, New Zealand, by Harry Moult. Te Papa (O.032191)

Geysers at Taupō?

The Spa Geyser Basin once had ten active geysers, now all extinct. Geysers are rare globally. There are just five geyser fields worldwide, at Yellowstone (Wyoming, USA), Dolina Geizerov (Kamchatka, Russia), Taupō Volcanic Zone (New Zealand), El Tatio (Chile), and Iceland. Geysers are rare and, it transpires, fragile. Development has destroyed nearly all of New Zealand’s geysers. A review by Kenneth Barrick, geographer at the University of Alaska, lists 135 former New Zealand geysers, nearly all extinct due to development. There are just five large, reliable geysers left in the sole remaining geyser field at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, and one or two small, unreliable ones elsewhere.

Spa was the first to go. Lake Taupō was dammed in September 1941 to ensure a more reliable supply of water to downstream hydropower stations, and the riverbed permanently lowered. This killed the Crow’s Nest, which was already known to be susceptible to low river levels. Construction of the Wairakei geothermal power station in 1955 completed the job.

Nearby, Wairakei’s Geyser Valley was renamed Wairakei Thermal Valley after all 22 geysers became extinct in 1968 and the hot springs stopped flowing. Waiora Valley, the location of power station, was renamed Bore Valley. Karapiti (‘blow hole’), whose steam plume once guided visitors across the lake, was renamed Craters of the Moon. The drowning of the largest geyser field, at Orakei Korako, which once had 91 geysers including one of the highest in the world, is ‘remembered as one of the greatest environmental losses in the history of New Zealand’.

Geothermal development then paused for a few decades, as New Zealand focussed on a large-scale push into oil and gas. The next power station was completed in 1989. Because of the destruction at Wairakei, a site at Ohaaki with fewer hydrothermal features was chosen, although, ironically, this site had already been significantly degraded by hydro development in 1961. But there was one feature left:

The large Ohaaki Ngawha (boiling pool) with its clear, pale, turquoise-blue water and extensive white sinter terrace was described as “the most handsome pool in the whole thermal area”. When development commenced, the extraction of geothermal fluid made the water level in the Ohaaki Ngawha drop. This caused the partial collapse of the delicate sinter edge and the white silica formations weathered to a dull dirty grey. The sinter terrace is now cracking and has plants growing through it.

Even Whakarewarewa was nearly lost on not one but two separate occasions. The Rotorua Bathhouse (1908) was fortunately built at the opposite end of town, because of the supposedly more therapeutic waters there. Whakarewarewa’s geysers were safe for the time being. But some changes to local hydrothermal behaviour were already evident in the late 19th century, with geysers progressively faltering also in the 1940s. There were still sixteen geysers playing in 1969, but by the mid-80s this was down to four, and even Pōhutu, the largest, most reliable, and most famous geyser in the country, was beginning to weaken.

In 1986 the government revoked the local council’s authority over the geothermal resource, ordered the closure of all 120 bores within 1.5 km of Whakarewarewa, and applied steep royalties to those further away. What happened next will be familiar from other environmental battles:

Many Rotorua geothermal users were slow to adopt voluntary conservation measures because of perceived historic rights and resistance to change. Historically, access to Rotorua’s geothermal heat was essentially free, and use patterns developed into a tradition over a period of decades. The geothermal lifestyle attracted a self-selected group of committed adherents and defenders of the tradition. Even after the Government declared a ‘‘crisis,’’ the well closure was perceived as an unjustified taking of important aspects of Rotorua’s geothermal lifestyle. At the height of frustration, tensions in Rotorua reached near riot status.

Public resistance to the Government’s well-closure program was organized by the ‘‘Rotorua Geothermal Users Association.’’ Despite the friction between the local residents and the Government, there seemed to be mutual agreement on the need to preserve the remaining geysers. Nonetheless, debate raged on the appropriate degree of change, especially regarding domestic heating systems. Rotorua geothermal users cited scientific uncertainty and reminded the Government that Whakarewarewa underwent natural dormant phases, including a major period of decline in the early 1900s. Therefore, they argued that low rainfall rather than geothermal wells might be causing geyser decline.

Barrick concludes that ‘local adherents to the established use become dedicated advocates for the status quo, complete with organized resistance to change, and, ultimately, organized disenchantment with government remedies.’

Following the well closures there was a mixed pattern of partial recovery and continued decline. None of the large extinct geysers have resumed playing.

Despite the logo, you won’t see many geysers on the Thermal Explorer Highway.

Of course, thermal tourism didn’t completely stop with the death of the Spa Geyser Basin, although that was probably a major factor in the sputtering decline of the Spa Hotel. (Every decade or so there is another attempt to revive it along the lines of the ultra-high-end lodge nearby.) You can see an engineered geyser at Wai-o-Tapu and bathe in engineered silica terraces at Wairakei. Even at Spa you can still bathe in natural hot pools at the edge of the Waikato River, recently upgraded (or, as my daughter put it, ‘ruined’) with toilets and a cafe.

So why was I so moved by this tale of environmental destruction? It’s hardly a unique story. The whole of New Zealand has been and continues to be heavily altered, with conservation biology routinely described as a ‘crisis discipline’. The interplay between development, environment, and tourism has been heavily contested for a long time.

I think one factor was that I stumbled on it suddenly and accidentally. The remaining geothermal attractions don’t hide the story but they don’t exactly emphasize it, either. Like many New Zealanders I grew up enjoying hot pools, and I still remember my first visit to Whakarewarewa. (I thought ‘Pohutugeyser’ was one word, like ‘pohutukawa’.) Psychologically, the sudden reveal meant that I wasn’t subjected to the shifting baseline phenomenon, in which a steadily degrading environment progressively and successively becomes the new normal. Geysers were (and still are) part of the New Zealand identity, so to discover that they had been so carelessly discarded was a shock.

Beyond identity and tourism, geyser basins, with their unique geology and their extreme temperatures, chemistry, and dynamics, are home to unique forms of life. The first high temperature bacteria, thermus aquaticus, was discovered at Yellowstone in 1965, and today forms the cornerstone of high-speed DNA sequencing. Numerous such thermophiles from several different kingdoms of life have since been found, some dating back to the origin of life on earth. Nevertheless, as Barrick remarks,

The positive benefits from national heritage status should not be underestimated. The evolving encoding of landscapes that have extraordinary natural history characteristics with importance as part of a nation’s collective ‘‘sense of community’’ has the power to inspire responsibility for enduring resource stewardship. In time, geyser preservation motivations based on national spirit can be transformed through altruism into global public goods held in trust for future generations.

The hot springs of anarchy rose from the depths where there was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight – a rainbow in their cooling vapours – with a power the rocks could not repress. (Eveyln Waugh, Brideshead Revisited). Photo: Pōhutu geyser, Seamus Kearney

Acknowledgements. This post draws heavily on two articles by Kenneth Barrick, Geyser decline and extinction in New Zealand—energy development impacts and implications for environmental management, Environmental Management39(6), 783-805 (2007) and Environmental review of geyser basins: resources, scarcity, threats, and benefits, Environmental Reviews 18, 209-238 (2010).

We (still) need to talk about cars

By Robert McLachlan

To address climate change, we need to phase out the burning of fossil fuels. The largest share of fossil fuels is burnt in cars and trucks. So it seems clear that fossil-fuelled vehicles need to stop being designed, made, imported, and driven. But anyone who has visited a road or seen a car ad recently knows that that isn’t happening, or, if it is, it’s happening so imperceptibly slowly as to hardly make a difference.

In New Zealand the situation is particularly acute, as we are now very, very far down the path towards a system dominated by urban sprawl and private cars, with little regulation of either. Road transport emissions doubled between 1990 and 2018. In the US they rose 30% in the same period, and in the UK, just 6%, which campaigners still point out is woefully insufficient.

Soon we will start to take steps to turn this ship around. It may or may not be quick, it may or not be easy. But it’s probably not going to be both quick and easy. As plans start to crystallise, there is certain to be a lot of back-and-forth between different factions.

Let’s take a look at the protagonists.

In the green corner: the climate advocates.

There are hundreds of advocacy groups, but a good example is 1.5 Project, led by Paul Winton. He points out that to fulfil our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we need to cut emissions 60% by 2030. Many sectors (such as the dairy industry, which creates huge emissions burning coal and gas to dry milk into milk powder) already have transition plans in place, and, in any event, are valuable and productive industries. So he concludes that road transport has to be virtually emission-free by 2030.

His and similar voices are being heard. For example, Auckland and Wellington councils have set made climate goals that require road transport emissions to at least halve by 2030. But targets like this are very, very difficult to achieve. They would mean essentially no new fossil-fuels vehicles entering the fleet, starting immediately. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands are being imported every year, and people are buying them.

Passing to the red corner: the Labour government

The Government has a plan already prepared: the Clean Car Standard. It was developed and widely discussed in 2019 and taken into the 2020 election. It’s a fuel efficiency standard for new (or newly imported) vehicles, something that almost all developed countries have had for years, and that New Zealand would have had too in 2009, had not the incoming government of John Key blocked it. (You can read the official reasons in the cabinet papers; even in 2009 they must have seemed somewhat flimsy, and of course they have not stood the test of time.)

In the Standard as originally designed, the average fuel efficiency of all vehicles (of each importer) must meet a certain target that gets progressively more stringent. This was set at 161 gCO2/km in 2022, falling to 105 gCO2/km by 2025. The Standard was predicted to cut emissions  by 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year (about 13% of road transport emissions) by 2030, for a net savings of $2.4 billion.

Growth, 1990–2018Per person, 1990Per person, 2018Per vehicle4Targets
USA+30%4.8 tCO24.8 tCO2300 gCO2/km135 gCO2/km 20261
UK+6%1.94 tCO21.78 tCO2220 gCO2/km81 gCO2/km 20252
NZ+99%2.19 tCO23.06 tCO2330 gCO2/km105 gCO2/km 20253
Road transport emissions compared. 1For cars and light trucks (i.e. utes) combined; Obama target was 117g. 2EU target for cars only. Target 125g for light trucks. 3Proposed in the Clean Car Standard for cars and light trucks. Current new light vehicles average 180 gCO2/km. 4For the entire current fleet including heavy trucks.
From the Clean Car Plan proposal. I’ve tried to indicate the predicted 2 million tonnes savings by 2030 under the plan. Actually, I think the ‘BAU’ (Business As Usual, a terrible term) projection is pretty optimistic given our past and current behaviour.

OK, 13% savings, that’s a bit less than we need, but, wait a minute, there’s another player to consider….

In the blue corner: the car industry

This is a massive industry. Something like $6 billion of new cars are sold every year, in part thanks to $600 million of advertising. They are represented by the MIA (Motor Industry Association, for sellers of new vehicles), the VIA (Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association, for sellers of used imports), and the MTA (all the above, plus resellers, petrol stations, and mechanics). Then there is the AA with 1.7 million members, half of all drivers in the country. I think it’s fair to say that they were all apoplectic about the government’s proposals.

You can read the MIA’s comments for yourself. They direct attention for emission reduction to agriculture, to the electricity sector, to the drivers of existing vehicles, and to the heavy vehicle sector – that is, to everywhere but the buyers of new cars, which is the area relevant to the MIA and to the plan itself. For the rise in land transport emissions, they blame previous governments, used vehicle importers, the lack of vehicle manufacturers in New Zealand, and buyers (for preferring utes and SUVs). They also blame external consultants and would prefer the industry to analyse itself.
Unlike the MIA, the AA does not blame car buyers (i.e., its members). However, they do blame car manufacturers for making larger vehicles, and Australia for having no fuel efficiency standard. They state, “The principal reason for the growth in transport carbon emissions is nothing to do with vehicle efficiency. It has been driven by population growth.” This does not seem to be the whole story. In the three years 2014–2017, emissions of light vehicles rose 13.7% while population rose 5.7%.

Neither the AA nor the MIA accepts any responsibility for the rise in land transport emissions, despite the fact that both organisations are heavily involved in it, the AA through its statutory role and through lobbying for more roads and favourable treatment for drivers, and the MIA through supplying vehicles and (especially) through advertising. Perhaps not surprisingly, the MIA does not favour any measure that impacts on the demand or supply of vehicles – the exact area in which its members operate. The AA says, “Lacking alternatives, much of New Zealand relies on motorised transport” – a situation due in part to the activities of the AA itself.

Both submissions say they recognise the need to reduce emissions from land transport, but neither organisation has shown much enthusiasm for the issue until now. As late as 2017 the AA were recommending ridiculously inadequate measures like educating people to drive more efficiently. The MIA’s industry-led proposal was found in 2008 to be overly complex and to have costs that exceeded its benefits. After it was dropped they don’t seem to have done anything on this issue until now. The MIA submission says they favour increased fuel taxes – how much, how often, will they tell their members and customers? More likely, they are saying this because they know it will go nowhere.

David Vinsen, chief executive of the Vehicle Importers Association, said the Government could instead “simply increase the excise tax on fuel to discourage emissions”. Simply? I don’t think so. 

Of course, these groups know now that fuel efficiency standards are actually coming. Should they cooperate in good faith, or should they try and distract and confuse the issue? Unfortunately, the MIA seems to have decided on the second strategy for the time being. A few days ago they launched their own proposal, to drop the standards entirely in favour of a feebate. The MIA’s feebate scheme exempts all vehicles between 100 and 230 gCO2/km (namely, the vast majority of all sales) entirely. They wouldn’t mind if the government chipped in to the subsidy part of the scheme as well, just to sweeten the deal.

You don’t need to run the numbers to see that the MIA’s proposal won’t have anything like the effect on emissions that is needed. In fact, it looks dangerously close to the strategy pursued by the oil and gas industry, described in Terrence Loomis’s recent book “The Predatory Delay Diaries: The petroleum industry’s survival campaign to slow New Zealand’stransition to a low carbon economy”.

But we’re not done, because, look over there… the public!

The public are perhaps the big unknown here. Any why shouldn’t we be? We hold diverse and often contradictory attitudes and behaviours. We can be fickle. 

We say that we’re getting more and more concerned about climate change, and three-quarters want the government to act more strongly on climate. 

But that’s easy to say. How would people really react if strong measures were introduced suddenly? Talk-back was running hot over Auckland’s 10c fuel surcharge, introduced in 2018, and that was enough to kill its roll-out elsewhere in the country.

I don’t think the Clean Car Standard as proposed will provoke too much unrest. It’s a gentle change, phased in gradually over a period of years. All economic and climate arguments support it. It fits the call for a “careful revolution”, in the words of David Hall. On the other hand, cars are emotional objects, and the National Party saw value in attacking the proposal last year in an ad that was later found to be misleading.

Climate change minister James Shaw said, “transport [emissions] have just gone up and up and up because we fell in love with the Ford Ranger” (a sound-bite I heard repeated on talk-back radio). The Ford Ranger, of which 10,000 are sold every year in New Zealand compared to 50,000 in the whole of Europe. “A pickup designed to last forever – just when its time is running out,” in the words of one review.

Perhaps the reason that the different parties are sounding so different here is that they have different views on the transport system as a whole. The car industry see the system as a free market, almost frozen in time, with themselves being minutely attuned to consumer preferences. The responsibility for emissions, if it lies anywhere, falls on each individual driver (or buyer).

Another view is that the entire transport system has built up over many decades as the collective result of many decisions by car manufacturers, oil companies, urban planners, central and local governments and many different factions within the public – including individuals, who can only make choices from those that are available to them. Responsibility for emissions is shared right across the spectrum. 

In climate circles there is a lot of talk of the need for a ‘just transition’. This originally meant taking into account the needs of workers in the coal, oil, and gas industries, which necessarily face major disruption; it can also mean making sure that inequality is not increased by changes such as carbon taxes. I suppose it could at a stretch refer to the makers and sellers of fossil-fuelled cars. But in New Zealand’s case we only have the sellers, not the makers, so there is less potential for an industrial hit. Second, some car companies have been dealing with emissions much more openly and positively than others. Shouldn’t they reap the rewards? Protecting the laggards just risks even more delay. Finally, I don’t think the industry as a whole really has anything to fear from the Clean Car Standard. 

Understanding climate change means knowing that road transport emissions have to come down. There’s a steady, sensible way to do start doing it. We should do it and then, once we’ve got the hang of it, work out the next step. And the car industry should embrace it as if its life depended on it.