As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine

The coronavirus and Covid recovery have so dominated attention that we tend to forget nature moves on, not particularly caring about – in the grand scheme of things – human frailty or waiting for us to recover.

Most important to nature is the unrelenting reality of global warming. We are nature’s enemy.

According to readings from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the amount of CO2 in the air in May 2020 hit an average of slightly greater than 417 parts per million (ppm). This is the highest monthly average value ever recorded.

Scientists say the last time these levels were reached, sea levels were 50 to 80 feet higher.

And because CO2 levels are cumulative (the molecules remaining in the air for up to 1,000 years), they will not decrease until substantially altered human activities – or catastrophic ecosystem changes (not favourable to humankind) – remove more greenhouse gases than are going into the air.

Yes, there has been a short-lived reprieve in the pace of release of greenhouse gas emissions. The Covid-induced global shutdown decreased emissions by a peak drop of 17% in April. But this is as good as the news gets. This graph shows just how temporary the decline has been.

That decline still meant nations had continued to generate more than 80% of their ‘usual’ carbon pollution. The reality of the situation is that the rate of increase is still accelerating.

Of interest is that emissions linked to home energy use increased about 3 percent, not surprising during a time when people are confined to their homes, using more appliances, lighting, heating and cooling. But industrial electricity demand plummeted, leading to net electricity declines overall.

Unison tells BayBuzz that its service area displayed the same pattern — residential demand over April-May was up 5%, with more people being at home, but business consumption was down by 10-20% depending on size of customer.

Scientists say that at the current rate we’ll hit 450 ppm by 2050, the level at which emissions would need to stop increasing to have any chance of meeting the goals in the Paris climate agreement. A UN report last fall indicated that emissions would need to fall by 7.6% each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

How bleak is it?

While we wait for the 2050 tipping point to be exceeded (and it will be, given the current direction of human behaviour and governmental inaction), what are the current manifestations of global warming around the planet? Here’s just a few of the impacts headlined in recent months while we were pre-occupied with coronavirus.

The Economist, in an article titled Sea of troubles, just reported on a pandemic of plastic pollution triggered by response to coronavirus.

Think about masks, visors, gloves – one estimate says the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020. Consumption of single-use plastic has increased 250-300% in the US since the coronavirus took hold. Meantime, e-commerce has boomed, with an accompanying increase in plastic wrapping to protect these precious goods in transit. At the same time, recycling programmes have been shut down. The Economist traces how the result of this is more and more waste finding its way into our seas.

Australia’s recent ­second-hottest summer caused the second-worst bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 40 years of observation; and of course that nation’s worst wildfires in history didn’t help either.

Greenland had its worst drop in ice sheet mass ever recorded. And highest-ever temperatures (38C) have been recorded in Siberia, with heat and massive wildfires thawing permafrost and releasing methane, formerly trapped, whose atmospheric warming impact is 28 times more powerful than CO2.

Another study, looking at the CO2 absorption capacity of the planet’s two largest forest carbon sinks – the Amazon and African tropical forests – concludes: “the tropical forest carbon sink has already peaked”. And notes rather calmly: “This saturation and ongoing decline of the tropical forest carbon sink has consequences for policies intended to stabilize Earth’s climate.

Compounding this, the CO2 absorption capacity of our oceans – another vital carbon sink – may be diminishing too. Oceans have absorbed almost 40% of the carbon dioxide humanity has emitted from fossil fuels since 1750, considerably slowing global temperature rise. Bloomberg cites new research indicating: “As the world attempts to cut emissions to zero by 2050 — which scientists say is necessary to avoid utter catastrophe — the ocean’s ability to store CO2 will diminish with it.”

As for human impacts, we’re on the way to one-third of humanity living in Sahara-like conditions by 2070. In fact, global weather station data measuring combined heat and humidity indicate that the Persian Gulf and Indus River Valley are already “flirting” with lethal conditions.

What’s to be done?

Well, on the one hand, we could resort to desperate bandaids like covering our remaining glaciers with giant white tarps, as they are actually doing attempting to save the Presena glacier in Italy, which has lost one-third of its volume since 1993!

But I suggest more massive mitigation is needed.

At a global and national scale, the gigantic financial stimulus measures – over US$7 trillion dollars so far allocated by G20 nations alone – could be structured to achieve win/win goals – stimulating economies, but in sustainable climate-conscious directions. However, an exhaustive University of Oxford analysis of these proposals finds that only “4% of policies are ‘green’, with potential to reduce long-run GHG emissions, 4% are ‘brown’ and likely to increase net GHG emissions beyond the base case, and 92% are ‘colourless’, meaning that they maintain the status quo.”

The Oxford analysis recommends these spending priorities to achieve economic and climate goals:

  • clean physical infrastructure investment,
  • building efficiency retrofits,
  • investment in education and training to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural unemployment from decarbonisation,
  • natural capital investment for ecosystem resilience and regeneration, and
  • clean R&D investment.

Germany seems to be setting the pace in terms of green stimulus. That nation plans to spend US145 billion on economic recovery, with 30% of that committed to activities that will cut emissions. Here’s what such a plan entails:

And Danish lawmakers recently agreed on plans to reduce Denmark’s emissions by 70% in the coming decade, significantly bettering the ambitious European Union goal of 40% reduction by 2030. Denmark, just a bit larger than NZ with a population of 5.8 million and a GDP about a third larger, is home to home to the world’s biggest turbine maker, Vestas Wind Systems A/S, and to Orsted A/S, the world’s biggest operator of offshore wind parks.

New Zealand’s contribution to the global rescue is Fonterra, the fifth-largest dairy emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.

Stuff has compiled this profile of NZ’s carbon emitters.

And here is the overall emissions profile.

Our Government is merely plodding along on climate change, with coalition partner NZ First dragging anchor and preventing any really significant policy changes – like mandatory auto fuel efficiency standards (NZ being the only OECD nation without any) and requiring agricultural emissions reductions.

Bringing this closer to home, here in Hawke’s Bay our Regional Council declared a ‘climate emergency’ in June 2019 and is chipping away at its own use of energy, and has led an investigation into mitigating the coastal erosion that will accelerate with rising seas.

Positive gestures … but not good enough.

While claiming in its latest Strategic Plan that “Climate Change is at the heart of everything we do” [their emphasis], HBRC is yet to provide real leadership on the climate issue. Councillors have been too distracted by coronavirus, a dysfunctional Regional Planning Committee, plotting ‘shovel ready’ spending projects, and searching for irrigation supplements for our worst-polluting farmers.

Indeed, it might be more accurate for HBRC to say: “Water Supply is at the heart of everything we do”.

So, let’s turn to water, that other nagging Hawke’s Bay issue.

Water ‘security’

What environmentalists want to address is water quality. What municipal water suppliers want to address is water safety. What commercial water users want to talk about is water supply (or the preferred PR-friendly term, ‘water security’).

While most of us have been busy in recent months ordering stuff online, these water issues have been bubbling away, largely out-of-sight.

The current regimes at our territorial authorities seem committed to atoning for the sins of their predecessors. They’ve beefed up their long-term budgets to support needed water infrastructure improvements and the necessary work has begun. They’ve sought financial help from government to get this job done. Yet both levels of government seem more ready to devote energy and money to amenity projects – nice to have’s, but not health protecting or environment restoring.

At the Regional Council, everything boils down to water supply. For sure, nestled away in various places are Council references to “Land Use Suitability” information “to inform smarter land use” … and “Land use is managed to ensure pathogens and contaminants are being reduced, and water is being allocated sustainably to highest value use.”

And “Transform and upscale land management function to support a greater rate of farm system change to meet environmental, climate and market drivers.”

But more and more these look like throwaway lines for councillors far more committed to sprinkling more irrigation water over inappropriately farmed land … “By 2030, Hawke’s Bay has environmentally sustainable, harvestable water identified and stored or plans to be stored if required,” says the strategy.

There’s a heap of ‘political code’ in these lofty public statements, but in private conversations the chat is all about how fast water storage can happen … with the political icing on the cake … “It’s our answer to climate change”. Whew … glad we’ve got that problem solved!

Who’s the regional councillor prepared to say flat out, in public: “No water storage unless there’s land use change … unless there is smarter land use.”

Instead HBRC, as in the case of the Ruataniwha dam, where previous councillors also used voodoo economics (costing ratepayers $20 million), is putting the cart before the horse.

This time, with $30 million to spend already earmarked for water storage, HBRC is claiming a dire, economy-saving need for water storage without first examining and determining: a) whether there are land management practices – across viticulture, horticulture and pastoral farming – that could by themselves store and use natural water more effectively; and b) whether alternative land uses would make more efficient and productive use of existing water.

While HBRC chair Rex Graham declares the region will become a desert without water storage, the study that is actually supposed to quantify – with appropriate rigour – the region’s future water supply and demand won’t be completed for another year.

The biggest elephant is in CHB’s room, where a handful of dairy operations consume the preponderance of that region’s allocated water … water sucked up for unsustainable, heavily polluting land use (see CHB Water Take Concentration). The politicians and irrigation advocates know this, but they won’t call the question as to whether this a warped ‘social contract’ for the people of Central Hawke’s Bay.

Instead, advocates pressure to grandfather in these dinosaur users with water storage … the Regional Council is spending $15 million on CHB ‘feasibility’ work to justify that ‘solution’. And by calling it ‘water security’, linking it to the politically attractive climate change bandwagon.

In contrast, take a look at how the Waikato Regional Council (WRC) is addressing climate change – for real.

The WRC has just issued its second regional Community-scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory. This report delineates the region’s emissions by source – agriculture (69%), transportation (14.5%), stationary energy (13%), waste (2%, industry (1%) – as well as across the region’s ten districts.

The detailed analysis allows that council and its public to share a clear holistic understanding of the region’s emissions profile, identifies trends, and permits reasoned policy responses to be formulated.

  • Transportation emissions have increased the most (32.27 %), partly due to better activity data but also change in emissions factors and population increase.
  • Stationary energy increased mainly as a result of overall population increase by 6.68 % between 2015/16 and 2018/19.
  • Agriculture is the only sector for which the gross emissions have decreased (4.20 %) – primarily due to a decrease in dairy herd size in Waikato.
  • Forestry sequestration has decreased, primarily due to afforestation rates being lower than harvesting rate.

So, while forestry currently removes (actually, stores for a while) 44% of the region’s emissions, the report measures and notes that current lower planting rates are diminishing the region’s carbon sink.

The report also notes that it takes no account of changes in soil carbon (soil is another carbon sink), “in line with the national Greenhouse Gas Inventory that is prepared on the assumption that soil carbon does not change when land use is constant, and changes in carbon are only taken into account when there is a change in land-use.”

[Here in Hawke’s Bay, our new HB Future Farming Trust has recently made a commitment to fund a rigorous soil carbon benchmarking project, with the intention of monitoring soil carbon response to future land/animal management practices.]

One has to expect that a similar emissions inventory at the same level of detail for Hawke’s Bay would lead to the same conclusion as reached for Waikato: Waikato Region would need to focus its reduction efforts on agriculture as well as consider options for maintaining its carbon removal potential from forestry. Regarding agriculture, the report urges WRC to: “Consider the development of a long-term strategy for offsetting emissions in order to incentivise land-owners to shift to, and accelerate de-intensification and land-use change.”

Maybe that’s an analysis – or takeaway — we just don’t want to hear in Hawke’s Bay.

So instead – putting up a ridiculous strawman … what if we do nothing? – HBRC recently commissioned a report telling us that we’ll need a helluva lot more water storage by 2050 or face economic collapse.

I must admire Chairman Graham’s recent ‘Chicken Little’ press release to that effect. His ‘sky is falling’ warning about water shortages bringing economic Armageddon to Hawke’s Bay sometime after 2050 was the mark of a skilled propagandist.

There’s no doubt that the future use of scarce water needs examination, and water harvesting and storage will likely be part of the solution. However the economic analysis used to scare the bejeebies out of HB’s uninformed – already nervous about droughts and recovery – is woefully deficient.

Its core faulty assumption is that land and animal management practices – and even our land uses themselves — will remain the same … as unsustainable, unprofitable and environmentally harmful as some of these clearly are.

The facts are that alternative farming practices are already at hand in Hawke’s Bay and elsewhere in NZ that reduce the need for both artificial water (ie, irrigation) and synthetic fertilisers, creating healthier soil and food in the process.

HBRC needs to wake up to that option rather than simply grabbing the nearest shovel.

There’s only one valid assumption that should drive any water storage projects in HB — that irrigation is a last, not first, resort, to be considered only in support of environmentally sustainable land uses. On that basis, who can oppose?

Perhaps chairman Graham’s hysteria is merely political posturing … a gauntlet to a cadre of storage-resistant Maori adversaries. But the public deserves facts and transparency. There’s some hope that moles buried with HBRC have an intelligent view, as evidenced by this passage from a recent Agenda paper on ‘Regional Water Security’.

“Climate change will inevitably intensify the competing tensions associated with freshwater use and allocation. Water storage is seen by many as a maladaptation that only sustains unsustainable water use (particularly associated with agriculture and horticulture) in areas already experiencing environmental stress and now threatened by lower rainfall, drought and other climate disruption.

“A February 2020 report supported by MPI’s Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change Fund observes how ‘debates over irrigation highlight the deeply held social, cultural and environmental values held by many New Zealanders about their natural environment, privileged groups, and the delays in addressing the lock-in of unsustainable intensification pathways, leading to overuse and compounding nutrient run-off, leaching and degradation of water quality.”

Note the phrase “lock in of unsustainable intensification pathways”. This is code for not grandfathering in place practices like feedlots next to rivers and carrying dairy cattle on gravel soils … for not subsidising outmoded, harmful practices in the quest for ‘water security’.

To which one can only say, Amen!

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1 Comment

  1. Ever since I was born there has been predictions that the world is about to end, by religious groups and scientists and it has never come to past. Their crystal balls are balls are all bull shit. The world is still here even after the year 2000. The best we can do is control the over population and that will never happen.

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