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Climate change already having 'profound impact' as fire risk rises - report

Oct 15, 2020

Not as clean and green as you might think - and New Zealanders need to stop driving so much. That's the message from the Ministry for the Environment's latest report, Our Atmosphere and Climate, which measures emissions in Aotearoa and their major drivers.

And although New Zealand has some of the most ambitious legislation on curbing climate change - the report puts things into perspective: fire risk is worsening, New Zealand is one of the worst polluters per capita on road transport in the OECD, and net emissions have grown by almost 60 percent in less than 30 years.

Natasha Lewis, the Ministry's deputy secretary of strategy and stewardship, said the 84-page report shows climate change is not a far off threat.

"Climate change is having a profound impact on us and on our environment here and now, and it's the decisions that each one of us make that are contributing to this."

Using data from 30 sites, using Niwa stations, it finds temperatures increased at 28 of these since 1972.

Although the report does not make recommendations, Lewis said it should inform decision making everywhere.

"The whole point of doing the report is to generate response across the country and across all levels - from whānau and hapū level, local government, business, industry and of course government," Lewis said.

Fire risk on the rise

As Lake Ōhau residents mourn the loss of their village to wildfire, the report finds extreme fire danger is expected to dramatically rise over the next two decades.

Fire danger is projected to increase by an average of 70 percent by 2040 with the the largest increases set to be in areas not used to fire, like Wellington and Otago.

"The nature of climate change is it's often having a compounding effect on a number of issues," Lewis said.

"We see that with wildfire. We also see that when the think of our biodiversity and some of our precious taonga species that are covered in the report."

Kevin Hague, chief executive of Forest & Bird, said many of the country's at-risk, drier places contain rich biodiversity. This was the case when a rare moth was threatened in a fire at Lake Pukaki - the moths' only breeding ground.

"People think of somewhere like the Mackenzie Basin as being an arid environment and assume it's probably poor in biodiversity, but in fact the biodiversity richness of the Mackenzie is greater than in native forest usually. It's one of our treasure troves."

"And of course the species adapted to those dryland environments are unique to those places."

By 2040, the report predict Wellington will see a doubling in fire danger to 30 days a year where fire risk is very high or extreme, and coastal Otago a tripling - to 20 days a year.

Although the reports began in 2015, this is the first time the Ministry measured wildfire risk.

It found that over the past two decades there was an increasing trend in days with very high or extreme fire danger at Napier, Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Gisborne, Masterton and Gore.

The report also notes that, unlike Australia, New Zealand ecosystems have not evolved to cope well with fire.

Niwa climate scientist Gregor Macara, who worked on the report, has been involved in writing New Zealand's monthly climate summaries since 2013. Since then, for each spot that saw a near-record low monthly temperature, 12 locations saw near-record high monthly temperatures, he said.

"January 2018 was exceptionally warm and it gave us a taste of what a 'normal' January may look like in future. Invercargill had three consecutive days above 30 degrees Celsius, Wellington observed 11 days above 25C - it usually has just one such day, and Cromwell's average maximum temperature from 19-31 January was an astounding 33.1C."

'We love cars'

New Zealand is also one of the worst polluters on traffic per head of population - suggesting there's a long way to go before real gains are made.

Of 43 countries in the OECD, New Zealand ranks 5th in terms of worst polluters on CO2 emissions from road transport. in other words, each person pumps 3.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year from driving alone.

The worst offenders are Luxembourg, USA, Canada, and Australia, but New Zealand ranks worse than Ireland, Iceland, Germany and the UK.

The lead science advisor on the report, Drew Bingham, said this reflects the fact that: "we're a country that loves cars".

"We have one of the highest rates of car ownership in the OECD and in 2018 we had the largest light passenger vehicle fleet to date. We have a lot of cars and we like to drive them."

GNS radiocarbon scientist Jocelyn Turnbull said the report should spell out the urgency of ditching cars.

"You driving your car to work every day is a really big part of the problem and it's spelled out quite clearly in this report. And I don't think we're going to stop driving any time soon but we could drive cleaner cars."

Light commercial vehicles such as utes, SUVs, and vans, made up 16 percent of the light vehicle fleet in 2018, 75 percent of which run on diesel. These larger, heavier vehicles are increasingly popular, while sales of smaller petrol-engined vehicles show a corresponding decline.

The number of heavy trucks and buses, and the distance they travelled has increased every year since 2013, the report says.

Hague said New Zealand's emissions per capita are among the highest in the world, which should trigger a wake-up call.

"We are amongst the worst climate criminals in the world. That creates the burning platform - the moral outrage that requires urgent action. I don't want to be there, I don't think many New Zealanders want to be there either."

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