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New Zealand: Can you sink a rainbow?

25 years on from Greenpeace’s joint stand with New Zealand’s government against potentially environmentally devastating practices, the country is at a Crossroads

The Rainbow Warrior after the bombing by French commandos. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

In light of the subject of this article, condolences go out to the families of the 29 miners who died in the Pike River Coal mine disaster last year in the West Coast of the South Island.

July 10, 1985.

In a world wracked by Cold War, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, David Lange defends the country’s fledgling nuclear free policy by refusing the nuclear warship USS Buchanan’s entry into New Zealand’s shores. A historic day. He had received an almost unprecedented standing ovation at the Oxford Union Debate four months earlier where he had successfully argued the proposition that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”. He was held high in the estimations of dedicated environmental group, Greenpeace for doing this, who were also fighting for the cease of nuclear testing and for New Zealand to be a leader in environmental protection. In addition, he was respected by his country for his bold stand.

Greenpeace themselves had arrived in New Zealand three days previously, in their flagship Rainbow Warrior from Rongelap Atoll in the Pacific, where it had evacuated the local inhabitants, desperate to flee from the radioactive contamination affecting their homeland.

Jubilant after a successful mission, the crew rested back on their home shores. Just before midnight though, their ship was bombed twice, though luckily most of the crew had disembarked for the evening. This, however, did not reduce the horror felt through all of New Zealand and internationally. As one soul was laid to rest and after a sting of official denials, a truth became inescapable—the bombing was a deliberate act of sabotage that had been authorized at the highest levels of the French Government to prevent Greenpeace leading a flotilla of boats to Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to protest against French nuclear tests.

July 10, 1985 for this reason is etched in every Kiwi’s memory, as New Zealanders are affectionately known, and always will be, as it will also be remembered all over the world because as much as it was a tragedy, the Rainbow Warrior galvanized New Zealand’s nuclear-free identity, united public support for Greenpeace and set New Zealand apart as a forward-thinking nation, proud and protective of their precious environment. Twenty five years on, while Greenpeace’s grassroots mission to expose threats to New Zealand’s environment continues, “you can’t sink a rainbow” has become a catchphrase and their dedication to find solutions to today’s challenges is still strong and successful, the new National Government’s dedication to the same is wavering.

New Zealand is respected across the world for such environmental stands as well as their clean green, “100% Pure” environment, authenticated perhaps through the footage of The Lord of the Rings—the green, rolling, vast hills, stunning countryside and the trademark ‘long white cloud’. However, the reality of New Zealand’s environment is very different from the picture portrayed. With much (and increasing) land urbanized for housing developments or farmed to feed a growing population, the remains of New Zealand’s natural lands resemble those of Brazil’s notoriously degraded Atlantic Rainforest, with forest fragments and heavy farming, as well as degraded water quality in low-land streams, rivers and lakes and bio-security risks from invasive species or diseases affecting productive and native environments. Without protection and management by humans, established pests, weeds and diseases would destroy most native forest, birds, bees, fish and habitats and climate change will alter the ranges of important plant species.

This is concerning not just from an environmental point of view, but from an economic angle, considering that a recent report by global accounting firm KPMG confirmed that “New Zealand Inc’s” most valuable asset is the “tangible association that has developed over the years between New Zealand and clean, green, pure experiences and products.” A 2005 valuation ranked the Pure brand the 21st most valuable brand in the world.

New Zealand wilderness. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

In the UK’s Guardian newspaper last year, environmental journalist Fred Pearce said “New Zealand was a friend to Middle Earth, but is no friend of the Earth.” He awarded New Zealand “a country that sells itself on clean and green” the prize for “the most shameless two fingers to the global community” on the back of soaring greenhouse gas emissions. “New Zealand turns out to be mining ever more filthy brown coal to burn in its power stations. It has the world’s third highest rate of car ownership. And, with more cows than people, the country’s increasingly intensive agricultural sector is responsible for approaching half the greenhouse gas emissions.”

While some have called this 100% Pure Greenwash, the struggles the country is facing must be understood in their context—they are not so different from that of many other countries both developed and developing—battling a growing population and striking a balance between economic growth in a turbulent economic climate and the need to preserve precious environments. Agriculture, including industrial farming, might be damaging the environment and have to answer for a high proportion of New Zealand’s carbon emissions, but it also comprises 95% of New Zealand’s industry and props up New Zealand’s economy.

This is a challenge that the new National Government, introduced in 2008, are very aware of, but in stark contrast to 25 years ago, rather than weathering the storm together, Greenpeace and the New Zealand Government are at a stand-off as Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee announced a major $7.6 million oil and gas exploration program in 2010. John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, also began 2010 promising other reforms:

“2010 will be about putting in place policies to grow the economy and create sustainable new employment… over the longer term.” He affirms, “this Government was elected to achieve a step change in our overall economic performance and that is what we intend to deliver.”

Where perhaps this vision is misguided is his view that “only by lifting [New Zealand’s] economic performance can we deliver New Zealanders the jobs, increased incomes and better living standards they aspire to and deserve…. In the longer term, sustainable jobs will only be created when people have the confidence to invest in productive businesses, which can then expand and take on new employees… New Zealand… has the opportunity to come out of the recent downturn in a better position than many other countries and be well placed to attract investment, build productive firms and create jobs.”

Greenpeace feels that this pro-business attitude coupled with a non-progressive climate policy is taking advantage of New Zealand’s clean, green brand and is at risk of losing its 100% Pure reputation and its position internationally. They also fear for New Zealand’s precious environment and future in a world that is rapidly changing and progressively carbon constrained.
The US Department of Energy (DoE) calls oil “the lifeblood of modern civilization”. Around 86 million barrels (13.7 billion liters) are consumed each day. Oil supplies 37 percent of the world’s energy demand, while 40 percent of the energy demand of New Zealand is fueled by oil alone. Oil powers nearly all of the world’s transportation, without which production and trade would grind to a halt. Studies have shown that GDP growth is very strongly related to increased use of oil. However, as we inaugurate 2011 thoughts around how we power our world are changing, driven by the growing threat of climate change and pressure by international governments to reduce emissions.

At December’s COP16 Summit in Cancun, Mexico, countries agreed to “raise the level of ambition on reducing emissions” and proposed that countries with a legal link to the protocol should “in 2020 reduce emissions in a range between 25 and 40% compared to 1990 levels.” China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and a country heavily dependent on coal, was obliging in rising to this challenge by vowing to “effectively control” greenhouse gas emissions over the next five years.

To do this they intend to turn to cleaner sources of energy. Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a non profit group working to accelerate the greening of China explains “China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data…China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world. It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.”

China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities. It is also one of the leading manufacturers of rapidly growing solar photovoltaic cell production, along with Japan and Taiwan. The Earth Policy Institute describes this as the world’s fastest-growing power technology, but also acknowledges that it remains more expensive than fossil fuel-generated power. However, costs are reducing rapidly, whereas the price of oil, by trend, is going up. In addition, fossil fuel resources are becoming more scarce in China and across the world. Clean technology is becoming a more favorable form of energy. If fossil fuels ceased to receive subsidies and were required to incorporate their currently externalized costs, their relative cheapness would be exposed. The days of cheap oil are certainly drawing to a close, many believe we are nearing, or have already hit, peak oil. Would this drive potentially powerful countries like China to generate less of its new power using fossil fuels? Surely, the only other possible response in the short-term is to import as much energy in the form of oil, coal and natural gas as they can, driving the price of oil further up. The other option is to increase domestic production, but with this there are significant risks—peak oil isn’t a theory, it is a geological fact. Oil resources are not infinite and at some point we’ll reach the stage where half of the resources are gone, which means supply will never satisfy the demand. Although there are other fossil fuels that we can turn to in the future, like methane hydrates, these are even worse for the environment than conventional fossil fuels, much like the increasingly exploited, hard-to-reach oil sources, like tar-sands and extreme deep-sea deposits. Extracting these may pose risks on the scale of what we recently saw in the Gulf of Mexico.

The International Energy Agency estimates the peak lies somewhere between 2013 and 2037; but politics between the countries producing the oil, supply disruptions like hurricanes and climate change and a global lack of investment can only make oil more expensive sooner rather than later. The likelihood that we will see another 2008 type oil price spike in the first six months of 2011 seems to be growing every day. This signals a drastic shift in how our Governments move forward: how we power our economies, our businesses and our homes. It implies that the time for reliance on fossil fuels has passed and that clean, renewable, sustainable energy is the future.

“As the world watches whilst oil company BP fails to tackle what many believe to be the worst environmental disaster in America’s history, here is an Energy Minister so seduced by fossil fuels that he wants to expose the pristine coastline of New Zealand to the same risk,” Nathan Argent, Greenpeace New Zealand’s Climate Campaigner, said about Gerry Brownlee, whose further dependence on oil he sees as unfathomable insensitivity rather than an opportunity.

Greenpeace oil protest. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Greenpeace has seen the devastation in the Gulf first-hand. The organization employed their other ship—the Arctic Sunrise—to the mess that unwound there in the harrowing months that followed April last year. Its scientists and divers were on the frontline to show the devastating after-effects of the oil spill to make sure that once the cameras stopped rolling, no one would forget the damage that was done and prove there is no benefit in pushing oil exploration to the limits, only risks. Argent adds that “if Mr Brownlee had any vision for a sustainable, stronger and cleaner economy then he would be putting New Zealand at the heart of a global, green revolution by investing in the clean energy projects that could actually help reduce our dependence on oil and beat climate change”. Instead Mr Brownlee has prioritized investment in fossil fuels by allocating $20 million of taxpayer money to pay for the acquisition of seismic data over the course of the next three years by Crown Minerals. The move is intended to give an initial indication of the oil and gas potential of specific areas. A number of major oil companies have already indicated interest in the New Zealand region and in coming months Crown Minerals will continue to promote bidding rounds in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. The figure that Mr Brownlee allocated for New Zealand’s flagship biodiesel scheme was less than $200,000 and has received heavy criticism from Greenpeace and politicians, especially the previous Labour Government whose biofuel sales obligation Brownlee repealed in late 2008.

The National Government did pass legislation to amend the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2009, ensuring it strikes a better balance between environmental responsibilities and economic opportunities, but the focus does lie more heavily on ensuring jobs aren’t sacrificed in pursuit of overly-ambitious climate change targets rather than thinking strategically about solutions. Greenpeace believes that the illogicality of offering so much support for fossil fuels and so little for the green technologies on which New Zealand’s future depends will end in disaster on the scale of what happened in the Gulf of Mexico.

The other concern is climate change. Climate science and work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates early and large scale intervention is required to reduce the risk of abrupt climate change, i.e. a 25-40% reduction relative to 1990 levels by 2020. In contrast, the New Zealand Government has offered a 10-15% reduction relative to 1990 levels. If the science is even roughly correct, much more ambitious reductions are required to meet international obligations (and preparations to adapt to climate change should already be planned to commence). While the Government may deem the climate change targets overly-ambitious, other successful small economies are aggressively pursuing low carbon or green economy strategies; for example, Denmark has committed DKK700 million to developing and commercializing clean-technology, while Singapore has allocated S$700 million to clean-tech growth.

This sort of subversion to policy by New Zealand and embarking on strategies that do not protect the economy, people, clean green reputation or environment for the long-term is unsustainable. Russel Norman, co-leader of the environmentalists in New Zealand explains that “New Zealand can have a high-tech green technology sector producing innovative services and products for a world with a thirst for green solutions” and believes economic strategy can’t just be about commodities. “We need to embrace the clean tech, high tech green tech revolution that will soon redefine economics.” So perhaps New Zealand’s people, in a democratic society, have a part to play.

“New Zealand is spilling at the seams with home-grown innovators”, says Simon Boxer, Senior Climate Campaigner at Greenpeace, but warns that there is not enough groups working to push the Government in the right direction and raise awareness within the New Zealand population, which means it is hard to get issues such as the importance of the clean-tech industry to be taken seriously.

In June 2010, the Brazilian owned Petrobras oil company was awarded an exploration permit off the East Cape in New Zealand; worrying environmentalists, in light of the reputation that shadows their safety and environmental record from a rig disaster in 2001 and the area in which they will begin to drill.
Greenpeace New Zealand ran two campaigns opposing the move, starting with a high profile demonstration on Muriwai beach, West of Auckland, on the 25th July 2010 where 20 volunteers covered themselves in a mixture of molasses and water to mimic the impact of a crude oil spill on New Zealand shores. They chose this area because the beach sits at the southern end of the Reinga and Northland zones off New Zealand’s coast (which together cover 150,000 square kilometers, an area bigger than the whole of the North Island, with deep water oil wells going down as far as 3000 meters. Their aim was to send a strong message to the National Government before it was too late. This campaign was followed by a similar campaign in Wellington, on the eve of the close of submissions on the Review of the Crown Minerals Act, where the oil-smeared people walked through the streets of the city centre. The Greenpeace submission, along with an ongoing petition that had more than 18,000 signatures at the time, called for the Government to stop the development of new oil and coal reserves and to start investing in building a clean economy.

Greenpeace believes that the policy being taken is lacking a 21st century, coordinated approach to embracing the new green economic wave sweeping the world and they warn that it risks New Zealand being left in its wake. New Zealand is also still pouring money into new motorways and planning to close four regional railway lines. This will encourage further congested roads and increase the emissions problem and cause the cities to sprawl ever-outwards over farmland and countryside and push up transport costs and emissions for those on the city fringes. The figures speak for themselves: in 2008 the global investment in clean energy for electricity generation eclipsed that of fossil fuels for the second year running by attracting US$140 billion compared with US$110 billion for gas, coal and nuclear power and President Obama alone has pledged US$69 billion on clean energy initiatives by the end of 2011. Clean technology represents a huge economic opportunity and is experiencing rapid global growth.

This does not confirm that the rest of the world is moving away from fossil fuels though; there seems to be very little indication that governments are preparing to stop the mining of fossil fuels, so one has to question whether the route that Brownlee is taking is so very misguided. Phil O’Reilly from Business New Zealand argues that New Zealand needs more mining and that taking this step will bring huge benefits. Indeed there’s every indication that other countries would make a similar decision if it were to look as if there could be an economic benefit in doing so. In Canada, the carbon-heavy extraction of oil from tar sands has been criticized as unnecessarily accelerating climate change, but Shell, the company undertaking the project insists that “unconventional” hydrocarbon sources such as tar sands are all justified to ensure that the world does not run out of oil. American Senator Lindsey Graham, who once supported a US climate bill, supports the judgment and announced recently on a visit to view operations that he was going to do all he could to make sure that the oil sands production was not impeded because of US policy. He remarks at that its production “really blends in with the natural habitat”.

Since the whole subject of oil is riddled with contradictions, let’s look directly at the facts and the truth they spell for New Zealand’s economy and environment in context:

Fact 1: New Zealand is a market economy that is greatly dependent on international trade, mainly with Australia, the European Union, the United States, China and Japan.
This is due to New Zealand’s geographical position, which also means they rely heavily on imported oil, as domestic production is insufficient to meet the country’s needs. Lincoln University’s Centre for Land, Environment and People (LEaP) states that this “isolation from the rest of the world [also] acts as a major constraint in the attraction of international explorers. Exploration and mining companies operating in New Zealand have to bear the cost of getting equipment to and from [the country] as well as shipping crude oil to international refineries.”

Fact 2: Almost every aspect of New Zealand’s economy and society has developed on the back of cheap oil.

This includes a massive percentage of the costs to run the machinery needed to grow food, move food, import the components needed to manufacture the majority of New Zealand’s products, ship the exports that New Zealand’s economy depends on and fuel the cheap aviation that attracts so many tourists. Oil is pervasive and is in everything from fertilizers, furniture to people. A study by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested humans for chemicals and metals, and recorded 212 different compounds—more than 180 of them products that started as natural gas or oil. New Zealand is so dependent on oil that when prices seriously rise or fluctuate widely, as seen in previous oil shocks in 1973, 1979, 1990 and 2008, it damages the economy greatly.

These shocks are known as ‘supply crunches’ and happen when oil production capacity does not rise as fast as demand and the safeguard of spare production capacity disappears. This causes the price of oil to ‘spike’ to high levels and high oil prices can induce global recessions because when the price of oil increases, the cost of nearly all economic activity rises also.

There is a risk that the world economy may be in for a cycle of ‘supply crunches’ leading to price spikes and recessions, followed by recoveries leading to more ‘supply crunches’, which would be devastating for New Zealand who pay and will continue to pay the world price for oil, whether that oil is produced domestically or not, because oil producers will not sell their product in New Zealand if they can get a higher price overseas. Up until now New Zealand has benefitted from relatively cheap oil, but they cannot be assured that cheap oil will always be reliably available. As already discussed, low-cost reserves of oil are rapidly being exhausted, which is what has led oil companies to turn to New Zealand where sources are so much more expensive in the first place and it will only drive oil prices up. This would in turn negatively affect the key export-generating industries that New Zealand’s economy depends on, including the tourism, timber, dairy and meat exports. They are all very vulnerable to oil shocks because of their reliance on affordable international transport and when a supply crunch forces oil prices beyond a certain point, the cost of oil forces consumers and businesses to cut other spending, inducing a recession. The recession then destroys demand for oil, allowing prices to drop and the cycle goes around again. Major international organizations are warning of another supply crunch as soon as 2012, due to rising demand and insufficient global production capacity caused by geological, infrastructure, and political/economic constraints.

If the New Zealand Government’s primary focus is truly the economy, their actions in the last 12 months do not make total sense in the long term; they themselves have admitted that “high oil prices have been associated with three major periods of economic recession in the past 40 years, including the lead-up to the recent global economic crisis,” but then that could also explain a rash move towards the short-term gains that potentially large, unfound oil reserves could provide. In addition, oil (like gas) is also already a big New Zealand export, totaling $2.8 billion in the 2009-2010 financial year, beaten only by dairy and meat exports. An increase in these may have the potential to transform the economy dramatically, but only temporarily because New Zealand cannot indefinitely continue to produce oil at an increasing rate from the remaining reserves. A report from New Zealand’s parliament at states that in 2008 and 2009, New Zealand’s annual oil production was 55,000 barrels per day and consumption was 148,000 barrels per day. The New Zealand Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences estimated in a 2009 study that there is the potential for up to 10 billion barrels of oil to be recovered from the nation’s deepwater frontiers, but there is a 90 percent chance that reserves totaling only 1.9 billion barrels of oil remain and only a 50 percent chance there are 6.5 billion barrels. And most of these estimated undiscovered reserves are in difficult to access deposits under deep water in the Great South Basin, the Deepwater Taranaki basin and 3000 meters under the Raukumara Basin off the spectacular East Cape of the North Island. Mining in these areas would push technology to its limits and would make it near impossible to prevent a catastrophe if something went wrong.

Fact 3: The short term gains are not worth a disaster on the scale of what happened (and is still happening) in the Gulf.

Protest. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

In 2009, New Zealand’s Government proposed opening up 7000 hectares of conservation land to prospecting for valuable minerals in the Coromandel, Great Barrier Island and Paparoa National Park. In July 2010 40,000 Greenpeace New Zealand supporters held a “No Mining” march, the biggest protest in a generation, to stress in no uncertain terms that they did not want 3,000 hectares of Paparoa National Park mined and the project was halted. This area was representative of most of the potential oil areas proposed to be opened up for drilling—protected conservation land or areas that if mined would have an impact upon biodiversity, natural heritage, climate and communities and would bring New Zealand to its knees if millions of tons of oil were to spread like it did into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of BP’s offshore rig exploding. This is exactly why the land is protected against mining under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, but at the very least the proposals proved that people power works in New Zealand; there is a growing group of people that oppose the National Government’s plans, which reiterates just how highly Kiwis value their ‘clean and green’ reputation and way of life and do not want either compromised. It is important to note that in the areas that the Government is eyeing for drilling sites the water is double the depth of the water at the BP disaster. The oil hasn’t been recovered previously for this reason.

“As the ongoing BP Gulf oil disaster demonstrates, deep water oil drilling is inherently dangerous and accidents can have devastating effects on the marine environment, with huge economic consequences for the tourism and fishing industries. Not to mention the fact that burning oil fuels climate change,” says Carmen Gravatt, Greenpeace New Zealand’s Campaign Director.
The country’s “clean, green brand”, which attracts tourists and migrants, relies on sustaining a high quality environment. After Gerry Brownlee’s announcement, he did make a plea for New Zealanders to consider the potential for an accelerated oil and gas discovery program to be achieved in an environmentally responsible way. He pleaded that “people need to shift their thinking on exactly this issue. The development of New Zealand’s natural resources and the protection of the environment are not mutually exclusive. It is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment.”

Fact 4: The economy. Simon Boxer states, “These sorts of extractive 19th century industries like coal mining and oil drilling are boom and bust economics—they earn money for a few international corporations and leave a big mess for the rest of us. The cost benefit equation doesn’t stack up.”

While the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development projects oil exports to reach $30 billion per annum by 2025, becoming self-sufficient would require a massive increase in New Zealand’s oil production and refining capacity, and, as with any region, they would not be able to sustain high production rates as reserves were depleted. Granted, in the short-term increasing domestic oil production might strengthen the economy and the decision to open the oil reserve certainly tallies with the increased price of oil, but production at any level would not protect New Zealand from either the direct or indirect effects of price spikes in the same period caused by global supply crunches because of the effect on trading partners. Direct effects include higher transport costs for the export of bulk goods like timber, meat, and dairy and an increased balance of payments deficit due to the increased cost of importing oil. Indirect effects would be felt through lower consumer demand in the markets for New Zealand’s export goods, leading to lower prices. The shocks would also hit New Zealand’s $9 billion a year international tourism industry, which as we have discussed is “highly dependent on affordable oil” and as no commercial production wells of, as yet undiscovered, conventional oil reserves are planned to come online within the next five years, it is forecast that we will be experiencing a supply crunch anyway.

Fact 5: There is an alternative to New Zealand remaining heavily dependent on imported oil.

As discussed already, New Zealand is a renewable energy powerhouse, with biomass, hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power readily available. These technologies present a new export opportunity and the smart thinking, engineering and scientific capability that is omnipresent has the potential to deliver world beating climate change solutions. There have been unprecedented investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, despite the global financial crisis. This is why the clean-tech industry is already worth nearly US $300 billion, and projected to increase to over US$1.3 trillion by 2017. With more than 250 Kiwi companies already driving world class clean technology innovations, everything from turning algae into fuels through designing some of the world’s most efficient wind turbines, there is an opportunity for New Zealand to rightfully claim a piece of this prosperous, clean technology pie because they are in an enviable position.
Greenpeace New Zealand’s Nathan Argent confirms that “many key trading partners have earmarked multi-billion dollar investments in clean energy and are looking to New Zealand as a clean, green place to do business, yet the Government seems only to care for resuscitating the dying fossil fuel industry. And in doing so it’s leaving our clean-tech companies to wither on the vine.” He states “if the Government is genuinely trying to achieve sustainable, economic prosperity and energy security, it should build on our position as a global leader in clean renewable energy now and provide greater support and investment in companies like Wellington-based HTS 110 who are designing world class, super efficient systems for transmitting renewable energy.”
And there are other examples of leading New Zealand clean energy companies, including Designline International, who are producing revolutionary hybrid turbine buses and Windflow, who are designing some of the world’s most efficient wind turbine technologies.

“Most importantly, in backing clean energy innovation we’ll stand a good chance of making the sort of cuts to our emissions that are essential if the world is to avoid a state of runaway climate change,” concluded Argent.

When Brownlee talks of the environment it does not seem like he is thinking of climate change at all, even though in 2002 New Zealand had the eleventh-highest energy consumption per capita, as expressed in total primary energy supply in metric tones of oil equivalent (TOE) per capita. Factors contributing to high energy consumption are a large manufacturing base, a cold climate, a high standard of living and a low population density which means that greater distances are traveled. New Zealand’s standards are also considered by Greenpeace as poor with no regulations on catalytic converters, lackadaisical standards around emissions and comparatively little being invested into public transport— NZ is 98% dependent on oil for transport, there is one car for every person over 15 years old and currently there isn’t even a direct line to Auckland’s airport, although this is being developed.

New Zealand is at a Crossroads

Greenpeace feels that the National Government’s pro business attitude coupled with a non-progressive climate policy is taking advantage of New Zealand’s clean, green brand and is putting the country at risk of losing its 100% Pure reputation and its position internationally. They also fear for New Zealand’s precious environment and future in a world that is rapidly changing and progressively carbon constrained.

The impact on New Zealand if they do not stop the trajectory they are currently on could be great; Nathan Argent warns that “by declaring open season on our oil reserves, the Government is playing Russian roulette with our pristine coastlines, our international reputation and the climate. The climate crisis is close to tipping point and it is irresponsible to be prospecting for new reserves of fossil fuels. New Zealand should be on the side of pioneering real progress towards a clean and sustainable energy future rather than being shackled to Gerry Brownlee’s 19th century way of doing business.”

Greenpeace protest. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

And his opinion is supported. Greenpeace New Zealand has over 60,000 financial supporters and their petition opposing expansion and further government funding or support of the exploration and exploitation of new petroleum or coal industries currently holds 36,310 signatures. This may be a tiny minority of New Zealand’s population, nearing 4.5 million, but their message is strong and support is growing. Greenpeace warns that Brownlee’s approach is what drives the oil companies, who will continue to expand their exploration as long as governments support them and the product is demanded. They recommend Brownlee initiates a plan that seizes upon the opportunity presented by climate change and global recession to move to a low carbon economy. Greenpeace have invested much time and effort into researching and presenting alternatives and they are requesting that the Government expand existing support for research and development in clean-tech and sustainability sciences to ensure, long term sustainable prosperity and energy security Each will fall down without the other and for both to succeed New Zealand needs visionary leadership.

After the U-turn on the mining regulation Schedule 4, the Government moved straight on to working with Iwi leaders regarding the possibilities of mining on Maori-owned land instead. John Key said Maori were already involved in the many mining activities going on around the country and stated “it’s not as if they’re not participants already, the question is whether they can, or would want to play a bigger role.” He said he thought New Zealanders recognized that there was a big mineral and resource base in New Zealand and that “done the right way it can be exploited for the benefit of all New Zealanders and can add significantly to the economic growth and the revenue of the Crown”.

John Key was heavily criticized for this move, he is being seen as trying to make a quick buck amidst the pressures of the global financial crisis, rather than balancing the economic advantages with the environmental impact and leading forward. He also recently gave state-owned coal miner Solid Energy the green light to start a lignite-coal-to-diesel plant in Southland—a lignite-coal-to-fertilizer plant that will have huge greenhouse gas emissions.

New Zealand needs to move past this mindset to develop, adopt and adapt technologies and policies that will protect and restore environments to ensure healthy and productive air, water (fresh and coastal), soils, plants, animals and ecological systems, as well as support the transition from a lifestyle dependent upon oil.

New Zealand should consider an oil transition plan that utilizes the remaining cheap oil to transition transport systems, energy supplies and communities towards sustainable alternatives including cleaner, renewable technologies.

Greenpeace protest. Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Reducing dependence on oil does not have to mean abandoning it altogether as a fuel, but the country does need to plan contingencies for the impacts that higher oil prices will have and form a strategy that envisions a low oil future and prepares solutions that include a mix of fuels. This will reduce New Zealand’s vulnerability to oil shocks and better position it to benefit from emerging clean energy options. It also reduces the risk of environmental catastrophe from oil and gas accidents. Jobs could be created through the growing clean-tech industry and effective carbon capture and sequestration processes could positively facilitate the extraction of coal. The alternatives are nothing that New Zealand’s clean-tech industry isn’t already working on, as I have described—renewable energy (wind, wave and geothermal), waste to energy, as well as hybrid and electric buses. Up and down the country, ‘Transition Towns’ are springing up, bringing “people together to explore how we—as communities—can respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges arising from climate change, resource depletion and an economy based on growth”, says a web site devoted to the trend. Add to this investment, ultra-fast broadband and policy that systematically improves skill levels in important public and private sector roles and incentivizes domestic and international equity investment in high productivity activities and you are halfway towards a solution.

New Zealand should also embrace local solutions and look at moving away from oil and free-markets sooner rather than later. Again this doesn’t have to mean total abandonment, but at the moment New Zealand is at the whim of the markets in all areas; when commodity markets go down, New Zealand does too and in an oil constrained world it makes more sense to adapt to your own local circumstances.

In addition, improving public transport and creating cycle and pedestrian friendly cities are positive steps that New Zealand, in this day and age, should be taking anyway, as is improving air quality, promoting safe organic food, and embracing the opportunity to sell many of the solutions New Zealand has around the world. The country is rich in natural resources, has some of the best food producers in the world, a beautiful landscape that tourists flock to and some of the smartest, hardest-working people in the world and it is these things that should be exploited.
The New Zealand Government has a big responsibility at a critical time. Oil has had benefits—freedom, power, wealth—and young generations have benefited from them, but right now New Zealand’s economy hinges on acting on climate change. Oil doesn’t present a solution to this challenge and financial gain doesn’t justify turning a blind eye to the alternatives that couple the economic with the environmental that are available. Greenpeace presents a resource for knowledge and innovation that that the Government could utilize. and The New Zealand Institute confirms that “innovation drives economic prosperity in advanced economies. The most prosperous small advanced economies export high value differentiated goods and services.” The challenge is to harness valuable natural resources, strong green brand, inventiveness and innovation to gain advantage in the emerging low carbon world. An advantageous compromise would be that Greenpeace New Zealand and the National Government stand firm together again, as they did 25 years ago and at least in that way move closer to moving forward sustainably in a way that is respected by the rest of the world.

It may already be too late to save most of the precious environments on our planet, why risk the few pristine areas we have left? Doing so could even be described as morally indefensible.
Former Prime Minister David Lange’s brave step to stand firm with this statement regarding nuclear engagement and retain nuclear-free policy represented something his country felt strongly about and believed in. It cost him a relationship with the US, who before the Oxford debate outlined the retaliatory measures that the US would be taking against New Zealand for not towing the line. The ANZUS alliance of which New Zealand had been a part since 1951 was effectively canceled at that meeting and at the debate he was famously asked: “why you don’t do the honorable and the consistent thing and pull out of the ANZUS alliance. For whether you are snuggling up to the bomb or living in the peaceful shadow of the bomb, New Zealand benefits, sir. And that’s the question with which we charge you. And that’s the question with which we would like an answer, sir.”

David Lange answered: “And I’m going to give it to you if you hold your breath just for a moment … I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me!”

The answer was insouciant, but his stand was respected and it stood New Zealand apart. It is Greenpeace in this position now – making a stand for something they believe in, in the interests of their country and while they may be criticized by some for the direct action techniques used to communicate their messages, no one can question their motives. All they want is for New Zealand to be fully recognized as more than just a little island off the coast of Oz, like it was in 25 years ago, for its clean technology and environmental protection and they how they intend to continue it.

As Daniel Beltrá, a freelance environmental photographer for Greenpeace states:

“It is to this end that our brave and committed volunteers will continue to challenge the reckless efforts to drain the last drop of oil from the earth, which would be disastrous for both the climate and the local environment. The risks are too great… It’s time to go beyond oil.”

The future of the oil market is bleak and Greenpeace New Zealand’s is asking the National Government to “Be bold and have a vision that plays to our strengths. The New Zealand environment is our economy.”

Simon Boxer concludes “It’s time for our government to show some leadership and vision”.

New Zealand’s history shows that the country doesn’t exist in geopolitics, unless through leading. This is what made the Rainbow Warrior significant. If New Zealand is to lead again and be proud, mindsets need to change; the spirit of the Rainbow Warrior lives on, but the world has changed.

Clare Raybould is founder of Accountability Now is a consultancy intended to support businesses small and large to raise their green reputation, reduce their environmental footprint and increase their bottom line.

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Visiting the Gulf: how wildlife and people are faring in America’s worst environmental disaster, an interview with Jennifer Jacquet

(07/29/2010) “President Obama called it ‘the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.’ So I thought I should face it and head to the Gulf”—these are the opening words on the popular blog Guilty Planet as the author, marine biologist Jennifer Jacquet, embarked on a ten day trip to Louisiana. As a scientist, Jacquet was, of course, interested in the impact of the some four million barrels of oil on the Gulf’s already depleted ecosystem, however she was as equally keen to see how Louisianans were coping with the fossil fuel-disaster that devastated their most vital natural resource just four years after Hurricane Katrina.

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