Till your well runs dry: NZ drought hits record levels

Australia may have had an extraordinary “Angry Summer“, but New Zealand’s been having a bit of a cracker too. Prolonged warm and sunny weather over much of the country has driven North Island soil moisture deficits to levels not seen for at least 70 years (see map at left). Official drought status — which means farmers are eligible for various forms of government assistance — has been declared in Northland, South Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, and Hawke’s Bay. The Manawatu and Rangitikei regions have also asked government for drought status. Most of the North Island is also subject to total fire bans — another first for this dusty summer. Preliminary estimates of economic losses are already heading towards $1 billion.

Stuff.co.nz noted the obvious climate connection:

Long, dry spells are forecast to double by 2040 as temperatures continue to rise and New Zealand heads towards a more Mediterranean climate.

Experts warn it could spell the end for farming as we know it and may cost the country billions of dollars in drought relief each year before practices are adjusted.

“This is historic,” said climate scientist Jim Salinger, who has calculated that the amount of rain needed for grass growth was the highest since records began. “It’s like comparing your income against expenditure in your cheque book. And we are in deficit.”

Continue reading “Till your well runs dry: NZ drought hits record levels”

Tackling agricultural emissions: the NZ story

In this guest post, Josh Pemberton, an intern at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, describes the Ag Dialogue exercise Motu ran last year. This interesting and thought-provoking short film exploring what reducing emissions really means for New Zealand’s farming communities was one result.

New Zealand is, in many ways, an unusual country. We pride ourselves on punching above our weight in international relations and sport; but we cherish the fact that we are a small and uncrowded nation, happily occupying our own little corner of the earth. We admire our rugby and Olympic heroes yet our national symbols are relatively innocuous: an upside down fern frond (the upper side of a silver fern is, of course, green) and a flightless, nocturnal bird. It must say something about our mentality that in recent years we treated an unshorn sheep like a national celebrity, and that a shortage of our favourite spread triggered panic-buying and created ongoing headlines.

Something else which is unusual about New Zealand — considering that we’re a developed nation — is that agriculture is responsible for almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is, of course, vitally important to our economy – providing jobs and crucial export dollars. These two factors together give rise to a tension which can inhibit conversation about the effect of agriculture on the environment. It’s easy to end up with “naïve greenies” and “conservative farmers” (as they may perceive each other to be) talking past one another, and missing an opportunity to make real progress.

In the past two years, Motu Research has sought to increase the quality of the conversations that people are having on this topic. Motu set up and ran the Ag Dialogue group, bringing together farmers, scientists, iwi, government representatives and other experts to talk through issues around greenhouse gas emissions. There was no specific output in mind, although the Dialogue did catalyse a significant amount of research by Motu economists. The Dialogue also led Motu to release The New Zealand Farming Story: Tackling Agricultural Emissions, the short film embedded above.

Continue reading “Tackling agricultural emissions: the NZ story”

NZ climate policy shambles, and other summer reading

It’s summer down south, and New Zealand’s politicians have embarked on their summer break. It’s summer in Waipara too, and with yesterday topping 30ºC and today heading in the same direction, your blogger has immediate climate concerns of an irrigation and vine management nature to attend to. So, with apologies for what may turn out to be less frequent posting over the next few weeks, here’s a quick round-up of stuff worth reading.

The NZ government will be relieved to be heading to the beaches after being battered by a hail of criticism for their climate policies over the last week. Brian Fallow, the NZ Herald‘s economics editor, was especially direct in his dissection of NZ’s climate policy settings post-Doha:

The Government’s climate change policy is a shambles and a disgrace. Unless, that is, you are happy for the costs of the inevitable adjustment to a low-carbon future to be needlessly increased and pushed onto the young, in which case it is doing a great job.

Gareth Morgan joined in, calling for the government to come clean about what its policies really mean:

Continue reading “NZ climate policy shambles, and other summer reading”

Sustainable Energy NZ #14 – how much energy hides in food and ‘stuff’

Welcome to the fourteenth post in the Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air – A New Zealand Perspective series. After our previous posts on hydro power, geothermal and wind (and a summary on the big three), solarbiofuelsmarine and waste energy, we’re now looking at answering the question:

How can we achieve a BIG reduction in our personal and national energy consumption?

Remember, as before, the units are in kWh/day/person – ie. if you ran a 40W lightbulb for 24 hours, it’d take ~1 kWh over the space of a day. We then divide it by person to give you a sense of the scale of the resource proportionate to the size of the population. Be sure to check out the methodology. For reference – we’ve been looking to replace around 55 kWh/d/p of energy currently generated by fossil fuels.


Farming and food processing cost about 8kWh/d/p of the NZ energy bill, much of which is of course exported. This is only energy consumed in food production – a great deal more energy is directly incorporated into our food from the sun. When looking at land for either biofuel or solar production, energy production competes directly with food. We could grow a lot more biofuel if we produced a lot less milk, for instance. For the purposes of national energy supply, we doubt much can be gained in terms of energy efficiency to support current production.

New Zealanders eat more beef than the UK population, but we eat next to no grain-fed beef and barning is rare. Overall, the 15kWh/d/p for a UK person is probably pretty similar here. Reduce that to 10 for vegans, but remember that crops cannot be grown on much of the land that we graze (especially not continuously).

Continue reading “Sustainable Energy NZ #14 – how much energy hides in food and ‘stuff’”

Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment

Here’s the first in a series of NZ election special articles from Hot Topic’s contributors. More pithy comment to follow… Last week I was open-mouthed when I heard the National Party release its environment and climate policy pretty much in the same breath as  releasing the agriculture policy (same province, same day). I can’t figure out how they thought these two things went together — well, in a good way anyway.

Climate change: no mention of the importance of the issue, the alarming reports coming from the scientists.  A lot of blather about keeping up (or perhaps “down” would be a more appropriate term) with other countries. Slowing down the ETS. Never mind that our actions are among the smallest in the industrialised world (see the Climate Action Tracker’s assessment here — rated “inadequate”).

Continue reading “Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment”