Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Endangered beetle faces ‘unholy alliance’ of rabbits and redbacks

An “unholy alliance” between rabbits and Australian redback spiders is threatening the existence of an endangered New Zealand species, a study led by AgResearch has shown.

Carried out with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and University of Otago, the study has illustrated the struggle for the ongoing survival of the Cromwell chafer beetle – a nationally endangered native species that can now be found only in the 81 hectare Cromwell Chafer Beetle Nature Reserve between Cromwell and Bannockburn, in Central Otago.

The study found numerous rabbit holes that provided shelter for the rabbits were also proving ideal spaces for the redback spiders to establish their webs. Investigation of those webs in the rabbit holes found the Cromwell chafer beetle was the second-most commonly found prey of the spiders.

These findings “give a fascinating insight into the almost accidental relationships that can develop between species in the natural world, and how that can impact on other species,” says AgResearch Principal Scientist Dr Barbara Barratt.

As a result of the research, DOC has carried out a programme to break down old rabbit holes and hummocks in the reserve to destroy spider nests, and does regular rabbit control. An annual survey for beetle larvae with AgResearch will show whether these actions are having an effect.

Beetle larvae will be surveyed next summer to see what effect reducing redback spider nests is having on the Cromwell chafer beetle.

The Cromwell chafer beetle (Prodontria lewisi) is a large flightless beetle that lives underground in the sandy soils of the Cromwell river terrace. In spring and summer adult beetles emerge from the ground at night to feed on plants and to breed.

Trump is poised to begin rolling back Obama’s environmental regulations

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order today (NZ time) aimed at rolling back one of former President Barack Obama’s major environmental regulations to protect American waterways. But according to the New York Times (HERE), it will have almost no immediate legal effect.

The order essentially will enable Mr Trump to direct his new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, to begin the complicated legal process of rewriting the sweeping 2015 rule known as Waters of the United States. But that effort could take longer than a single presidential term, legal experts are quoted as saying.

The order is the first of two announcements expected to direct Mr Pruitt to begin dismantling the major pillars of Mr Obama’s environmental legacy.

In the coming week, Mr. Trump is expected to sign a similar order instructing Mr Pruitt to begin the process of withdrawing and revising Mr Obama’s signature 2015 climate-change regulation, aimed at curbing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.

Both of those rules were finalised under existing laws long before Mr Obama left office. Legal experts say they cannot therefore be simply undone with a stroke of the president’s pen.

The clean water rule was issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act. It gives the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in major bodies of water, like Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River and Puget Sound, as well as in streams and wetlands that drain into those larger waters.

The water rule came under fierce attack from farmers, property developers, fertiliser and pesticide makers, oil and gas producers, golf-course owners and other business interests that contend it will stifle economic growth and intrude on property owners’ rights.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which has led the legal fight against the rule, contends that it places an undue burden on farmers in particular, who may find themselves required to apply for federal permits to use fertiliser near ditches and streams on their property that may eventually flow into larger rivers.

Grasslands are shown to hold potential for increased meat and dairy production

About 40% of natural grasslands worldwide have the potential to support increased livestock grazing, according to a new study published in the journal Global Change Biology. 

This translates to a potential increase of 5% in milk production and 4% in meat production compared to the year 2000 or allow for  2.8 million square kilometers of grassland area to be released from production.

The research findings are reported (here) by Science Daily, which notes that global food production must be increased to feed the world’s growing population, but food production systems have impacts on the environment and climate.

Livestock products, including meat and milk, are a major food source for millions of people. Demand for these products is increasing but livestock and conversion of land for increased livestock production can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions or soil erosion through overgrazing.

“Grasslands are generally regarded to play an important role in increasing food production to meet future food demand,” says Tamara Fetzel, a researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna (Alpen Adria University), who led the study as part of her participation in the 2015 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA.

“But to achieve this target in a sustainable manner, our study suggests that we should focus on making more efficient use of currently available land resources, instead of converting land from other uses.”

How much livestock grasslands can support depends on a number of variables including climatic, biological, and socio-economic factors such as management, storage systems, and biomass conservation.

In the new study, the researchers explored the impact of seasonal patterns of biomass supply on the potential dynamics of grass-based livestock systems, at a global scale. Fetzel and colleagues identified areas where additional biomass could potentially be extracted from the landscape, by comparing the current level of grazing intensity to the maximum levels supported in periods of minimum biomass supply, such as winter or dry periods.

The authors also discuss many socioeconomic and ecological constraints related to unlocking this potential, such as a lack of infrastructure, market access, knowledge, finance, and labor constraints or the impacts of droughts, and potential negative trade-offs  such as loss of biodiversity or soil degradation.

“Grassland productivity and intensification potential are some of the most uncertain parameters in global land-use assessments and are often used to estimate ambitious GHG mitigation targets, “says IIASA researcher Petr Havlík, a study coauthor who advised Tamara Fetzel during the YSSP together with Karl-Heinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology Vienna.

“Making estimates of potential maximum grazing intensity more realistic by considering seasonal constraints reveals a certain potential to increase grazing intensity in some places, yet shows that the actual grassland area available for other purposes remains limited,”

Fetzel T, Havlik P, Herrero M, Erb K-H (2017). Seasonality constraints to livestock grazing intensity. Global Change Biology, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/gcb.13591/full.

Greens raise questions in Parliament about Waikato River quality remarks

The quality of the Waikato River’s fresh water and remarks about the river by Jacqueline Rowarth this week became the subject of questions in Parliament. 

Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty kicked things off with a question to Environment Minister Nick Smtih: did he agree with the comment from Dr Rowarth, the Environmental Protection Authority’s Chief Scientist, that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world?

In reply, Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth’s comments were made before she took up her position with the EPA, when she was a professor at Waikato University.

More important to the environmental debate that has been triggered by her comments, she had advised him that her comments were taken out of context.

He explained:

Water quality in the Waikato is superb and amongst the very best in the world in the upper reaches, like around Huka Falls, but deteriorates in the lower reaches due to nutrients, pathogens, and sedimentation, particularly below the confluence of the Waipā River.

The data shows that in the lower reaches these problems have been increasing in recent decades, and steps are required to reverse those trends. That is why this Government has invested over $300 million in its clean-up.

I do note the EPA does not have a role in the regulation of water quality, and its principal function is the regulation of hazardous substances and new organisms.

Delahunty followed up, asking if Dr Smith considered the comments of the EPA’s new chief scientist showed a robust understanding of science and of a waterway that has more than $8 million of Government funding dedicated to cleaning it up because it is so seriously polluted?

In reply, Smith said the Government is spending a lot more than $8 million; it is spending over $300 million (“such is the importance of Lake Taupō and the Waikato River to this Government”).

“In respect of this particular individual, I think the member should be cautious of taking her comments out of context, because, actually, in the upper reaches, the water quality is very good at Huka Falls, and it would be wrong for the Green Party to run that down.”

Delahunty then drew attention to the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society, comprising 400 freshwater scientists and professionals. In light of the way it disputed Dr Rowarth’s full claims, “should we have faith that the EPA is able to make good decisions about hazardous chemicals and water and protect our environment?”

Dr Smith said Dr Rowarth, a new appointment to the EPA, is a well-qualified scientist. The decision as to her appointment had been made independently by the EPA, “and I think this House should be cautious of being openly critical of neutral public servants, which is the new role she has, after completing her term as a professor at Waikato University”.

Experts comment on Parliamentary Commissioner’s report on agricultural emissions

The Science Media Centre has gathered expert reaction on the latest report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, on the issue of agricultural greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, which form about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The debate around agricultural emissions and the emissions trading scheme has been polarised for too long, the commissioner says.

“But the ETS is not the only way forward – there are other things that can be done.”

Dr Wright says reducing biological emissions will not be easy, but a common understanding of the science is a good place to start.

Immediate opportunities for reducing New Zealand’s emissions lie in new native and plantation forests, and urges real progress in this area.

“It might not be the whole solution, but a million hectares of trees would make a big difference – not to mention the added benefits for erosion and water quality.”

The Government has recently set up working groups to look at these issues. Dr Wright says this is encouraging but she warns that change is now inevitable.

“Our farmers have shown time and again their ability to adapt to new challenges,” she said. “The world will continue to need food. But in the long term the way in which food is grown, and the types of food grown, will have to change if biological emissions are to be reduced.”

The Commissioner’s report Climate change and agriculture: Understanding the biological greenhouse gases is available here. A set of frequently asked questions can be found here.

The Science Media Centre’s roundup of reactions can be found here. 

Professor Louis Schipper, University of Waikato, comments:

“As usual for PCE reports, the problem and the science are eloquently described and the text remains rigorous and accessible. This report clearly lays out the case that New Zealand’s rather unique greenhouse gas emissions require bespoke solutions. The report argues that even if we reduced much of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, we still would have relatively high emissions due to nitrous oxide and methane primarily derived from agriculture. To deliver solutions to this problem we need tailored research on New Zealand farms with New Zealand farmers.

“The overview of the production of methane and nitrous oxide demonstrates that the emissions of both these gases are inefficiencies of the soil and animal systems and so reduction has the potential to capture these valuable resources. Over the last few decades, we have improved our farming practices and this lowered the amount of greenhouse gas produced for every kg of milk or meat. And yet we still need to decrease our total greenhouse gas emissions.

“Before describing some New Zealand examples of mitigation strategies being developed, the report describes the critical characteristics of what might be considered successful mitigation strategies. These characteristics include the need to be practical, cost effective and nationally-applicable while avoiding risks – either perceived or real. It is recognised that finding a silver bullet mitigation strategies and continuous incremental gains are equally important.

“This report does a nice job highlighting some specific New Zealand studies at different stages of development that are making good progress on finding solutions. These case studies are also a realistic assessment of success and failure. Use of case studies draws people in with practical solutions rather than dense scientific explanations. This approach allows the discussion to move beyond ‘it’s all too hard, so why bother’ to considering interesting leads. Some of these case studies nicely describe the tradeoffs that need to be considered where a management practice may lead to reduction in say, methane but lead to an increase in nitrous oxide emissions. Scientists will need to continue to look to resolve these frustrating trade-offs. The case studies clearly demonstrate that we will be faced with many good ideas that fail but we only need a few successes to make real progress.

“Table 9.1 is fascinating: an estimate of the number of hectare of native forest to offset emissions from animals. I had wondered about this but never done the calculations. Must remember this is newly planted native forest and not existing native forest. The key here is that this planting could buy us time to get other strategies in place.”Absent perhaps is a greater discussion of the role of soils in storing carbon and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, briefly touched on in section 9.4 (less than a page). Ultimately, we must remove a large amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and still increasing, even if we stop methane and nitrous oxide emissions. As the PCE states: “it is not possible to stop temperatures from continuing to rise with stopping net carbon dioxide emissions”. [section 3.4] “Net” means either reducing losses of carbon or getting some gains. Conversion of this carbon dioxide to soil organic matter is one way and a focus globally in the international “4 per mille initiative”. The research is in its early days in New Zealand and very challenging work.”

Note: Professor Schipper leads a team investigating the potential for soil organic carbon to capture atmospheric CO2 as a means to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Suzi Kerr, senior fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, comments:

“It is excellent to have a clear careful presentation of the different aspects of the science in this complex area which is one of the things that the PCE does so well. I agree with all the actions she suggests.

“For the sake of farmers and rural communities as well as for the climate, we need to start making a gradual transition now toward new land uses – including new types of food. On land where sheep and cows continue to be grazed, we need to move toward low emission practices including new technologies as they become available. Our long term goal on that land is to produce ultra low emission dairy and red meat.

“Many farmers are aware of these issues and deeply concerned about the resilience of their sectors. Including biological emissions in the ETS, even if it only slightly increased the cost of dairy and red meat production, would send a signal to the wider farming community and those who support them in education, research and industry that it is time to move their attention, energy and creativity toward transition.

“Inclusion in the ETS could be done with a focus on helping the rural community make a gradual transition, not with expectations that the relatively small group of farmers would bear a significant part of the cost of New Zealand’s Paris commitment. In the short term, trees – including natives – are the main way that the rural sector can help achieve our Paris goals but we can’t wait to start action on the longer game of reducing nitrous oxide and methane.”
Note: Motu Economic and Public Policy Research prepared two reports that informed the PCE’s report.

The New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) provided a media release in response to the PCE’s report:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report into greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture highlights the need for a suite of mitigation solutions rather than a single silver bullet.

In welcoming this report, Harry Clark, NZAGRC Director says, “The report provides a comprehensive overview of the unique challenges New Zealand faces when it comes to agricultural greenhouse gases. It emphasises that, for effective mitigation, New Zealand needs to have a suite of mitigation options available that match our diverse farming systems rather than hope for a single, one size fits all ‘silver bullet’ solution.”

The report released by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) today outlines New Zealand’s unique situation and provides an overview of the technologies and practices that could help reduce greenhouse gases from New Zealand’s pastoral sector. The report covers breeding low methane-producing animals, identifying low methane feeds, manipulating rumen microbial communities to reduce methane emissions, pathways for reducing nitrous oxide, and the use of trees to offset emissions.

The government funded NZAGRC, in partnership with industry, is coordinating and investing in research to allow these options to be developed, tested and adopted by New Zealand farmers.

Harry Clark says, “New Zealand’s agricultural emissions make up almost half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The more options we have to reduce agricultural greenhouse gases, the easier it will become for New Zealand to achieve its 2030 emission target signalled under the Paris Agreement of a 30% reduction in emissions compared with 2005.”

The PCE report not only presents technical options but emphasises that any solution needs to be scrutinised for the actual reduction it can achieve on farm (and whether it reduces absolute emissions or, primarily, emissions per unit of product), its positive or negative side-effects, cost-effectiveness, ability to be integrated into existing systems, and whether it makes sense from a national perspective.

Harry Clark says “Research and technical development is only the first step in a solution. The report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment provides a highly accessible summary of potential solutions. More importantly though, it concludes by considering the next steps: how we can collectively ensure that our science can be adopted to the benefit of the country and the climate? The Paris agreement sets a new framework for addressing climate change issues and this report makes a valuable contribution to the debate New Zealand must have round the role of agriculture in meeting national emissions reduction commitments agreed under this framework.”

Note: Dr Clark was involved in the review process of the PCE’s report.

Nick Smith to talk about water policy

Concerns raised by the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply and suspicions harboured about the part played by the Tuki Tuki River make it timely that Environment Minister Nick Smith will talk about the state of the nation’s environment at Lincoln University on August 30.

The Minister will deliver the 2016 State of the Nation’s Environment Address.

He is expected particularly to focus on freshwater issues following the public consultation in the Next Steps document  This will include identifying swimming areas and improving swimming water quality, the proposed stock exclusion regulations and good management practice for farming and other land use.

The Next Steps process is aimed at better environmental outcomes, enabling sustainable economic growth to support new jobs and exports, and improving Māori involvement in freshwater decision-making. It is part of the Government’s long-term reforms which are based on supporting communities to identify and test solutions that meet their own challenges, but within a national framework.

There will be an opportunity to ask questions after the address and to meet the Minister during drinks and nibbles in the School of Landscape Architecture foyer.

Details: 5:30pm – 7:30pm (doors open at 5:15) Tuesday 30 August, Stewart Lecture Theatre, Stewart Building, Lincoln University

Organiser: Lincoln University and Centre for Nature Conservation

Significant progress made towards eradication of Hydrilla weed

A recent annual flora and fauna survey conducted by the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research shows the Ministry for Primary Industries has made good progress in removing Hydrilla verticillata, a highly invasive aquatic weed from the Tutira, Waikōpiro and Opouahi lakes in the Hawke’s Bay.

For the first time in more than five decades the Hydrilla weed has not been found in the three Hawke’s Bay lakes where it was first found, says Dr Mike Taylor, the ministry’s Manager Biosecurity Response.

“After over seven years of dedicated work, we are well on our way to reaching our goal of eradicating this invasive weed,” he says.

Hydrilla is a submerged, rooted freshwater aquatic plant which grows up to 9 metres. As it grows it becomes very dense and crowds out native aquatic plants, restricts light, and depletes oxygen. It is considered one of the world’s most invasive water weeds.

Hydrilla is one of 9 species currently managed as part of the National Interest Pest Responses, which is an ministry programme focused on responding to organisms that present significant risks to New Zealand’s biodiversity.

In collaboration with the Hawkes bay Regional Council, Department of Conservation, Fish and Game, and local iwi, MPI has been actively working on removing Hydrilla from Hawke’s Bay’s lakes since 2008.

The programme started off with the use of an aquatic herbicide, which was then followed up with the introduction of Ctenopharyngodon idella, the herbivorous grass carp (a type of fish), into the affected lakes in December 2008 and again in 2014.

“This has been successful as Hydrilla is a preferred food plant by grass carp. The carp used will not breed in New Zealand waters, so we aren’t having to deal with an increase of carp numbers in the local waters,” says Dr Taylor.

“Being able to remove Hydrilla from these lakes will remove the likelihood that Hydrilla can be transported to other water bodies.”

Native fauna, such as freshwater mussels, are re-colonising their preferred habitat which was previously smothered by the dense Hydrilla weed beds.

The ministry will be contracting NIWA to conduct a further flora and fauna survey in autumn 2017 to monitor progress.

The 2016 flora and fauna survey report is available here.