The New Zealand Herald
Carbon-reducing solutions need to stack up
We must strive to avoid creating legislation that simply shifts the environmental burden from carbon emissions to other environmental issues.
In 2009, Europe legislated to decrease fossil fuel use in transport and to increase the use of biofuels. But this seemingly positive legislation had unintended consequences. The subsequent drive to cultivate rapeseed, palm oil, soy and sunflower plants required new arable land, because all the food-producing land was taken up. And so, from Europe to Brazil, land was identified for the new crops. While some plantations are managed sustainably, the massive growth of biodiesel has also been linked to destruction of forests and wetlands, in some cases significantly impacting native ecosystems.
Worse, the process of removing forests to plant crops releases tonnes and tonnes of carbon emissions. According to clean transport campaign organisation, Transport & Environment, producing biofuels for transport releases carbon emissions that are sometimes higher than those from fossil fuels, when considering life-cycle emissions.
Could our current focus on carbon emissions be taking us down a similar path of unintended adverse consequences? The recent Climate Change Commission draft advice to Government on climate action in Aotearoa puts intense focus on reducing emissions across New Zealand’s most carbon-intense sectors, including transport.
To decarbonise transport, we must move to battery-powered electric vehicles and alternative energy sources such as wind turbines. These are powered by a range of rare metals, including lithium, neodymium, and cobalt.
As demand for “green tech” increases, so will mining for these essential rare metals. Some mining activities have been associated with loss of natural habitats and biodiversity — not to mention serious human rights abuses such as the use of child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the ores are mined using fossil fuels and huge amounts of freshwater — including in countries where water is already scarce.
While the Climate Change Commission recognises that use and disposal of these metals may cause environmental impacts, it does not detail the potentially devastating impact of mining of these materials.
How would we feel if this mining were happening in our own backyard, in the seabed around Aotearoa, which is a potential source of some of these rare metals? Could we still consider the impacts of such mining “out of sight and out of mind”?
I suspect that many New Zealanders would consider rare metal mining in our own backyard a step too far; at Environmental Choice New Zealand, we do not advocate for it, but suggest New Zealanders consider the implications of mining overseas as if it were happening here.
Our ecolabel specifications consider the entire lifecycle of a product’s production, from mining of raw materials, through manufacturing and use, to recycling and reuse.
Ensuring social and environmental criteria are met is a key component of achieving our ecolabel. Products sold in New Zealand with the Environmental Choice New Zealand logo have been audited, and if those products are made overseas from mined materials, we can verify their mining operations meet strict requirements for managing environmental impacts, including restoration programmes and mitigating adverse effects on air and water.
We must strive to avoid creating legislation that simply shifts the environmental burden from carbon emissions to other environmental issues. We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by other countries. This is our chance to constructively address climate change and provide environmental benefits, or to — at least — do no harm in the process of transition.