The resource challenges of moving to net carbon zero


We have been thinking………..

New Zealand stands to benefit from the natural resource challenges demanded by a worldwide move towards green technologies. New Zealand has significant reserves of cobalt, one of the metals that will be most in demand. Our cobalt reserves are deep offshore. The worldwide demand for cobalt is set to increase by as much as 350% as car fleets go electric. This will drive up the world price of cobalt and make our cobalt reserves an extraordinarily valuable and potentially economic part of our maritime estate.

The demand for other metals and rare earths is also set to increase as a result of the green revolution: these include lithium, copper, silicon, indium, tallurium, gallium, neodymium and dysprosium.

In a 5 June report, UK scientists have identified the natural resource challenges involved in the decision to move to net carbon zero by 2050. The UK Committee on Climate Change has argued that net zero carbon is ‘necessary, feasible and cost effective’. UK scientists behind the 5 June report agree, but they point out that the move to net zero carbon has ‘huge implications for natural resources – not only to produce green technologies like electric cars – but to keep them charged’.

Extracting the ores and refining them to obtain the necessary purities will also have the effect of driving energy demand ‘sharply upwards’ in those countries which are positioned to benefit most from extracting and processing the resources involved in going green.

New Zealand could be one of those countries best positioned to benefit. It has extensive offshore deposits of manganese nodules. These nodules are rich in metals such as cobalt, nickel and copper. New Zealand also has significant numbers of underwater volcanoes and seamounts. Crusts containing cobalt and other valuable metals are found on these seamounts: indeed, the (New Zealand) Environment Foundation, based in Auckland,  notes that ‘some of the most extensive deposits of cobalt crusts in the world are found in the Pacific Ocean’.

In their report, the UK scientists support the drive towards net zero carbon but note that ‘there is a raw material cost to going green…new research and investment is urgently needed to evaluate how (best) to obtain these resources’.

The New Zealand Oceans Foundation agrees that research and investment in deepening our knowledge of ocean-based resources will be needed as a consequence of the Green revolution. We would have needed to do this anyway. It is said that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do our own seabed. The Green revolution is now accelerating and driving that need.

Any decision to benefit from our cobalt resources is of course a long way off. Much scientific and investigative work remains to be done.  And we need to  ensure that extracting these resources can be achieved without causing unintended or irreversible environmental damage. But the challenge is there and it is an exciting one that is arising from accelerating moves to a green economy here as well as overseas.

We acknowledge the assistance of Cornel de Ronde of GNS in drawing our attention to the UK report. The full text can be found at

Additional background material by the Environment Foundation on the availability of minerals in New Zealand is at


How should we think about the 10 June announcement of new oil and gas exploration programmes off the Taranaki and Otago coasts? Is this good or bad news? The New Zealand Oceans Foundation thinks that this is good news. Here is why.

New Zealand is in transition. To reduce greenhouse gasses to net carbon zero by 2050, Government and its science and industry partners are leading the necessary transition from a fossil fuel to a renewables economy. During this transition period, as we begin to replace New Zealand’s light transport fleet with electric cars, commit to large scale afforestation, reprice carbon and move to 100% renewable sources of energy from solar, wind, hydro and geothermal, we need to secure an ongoing supply of natural gas. This gas is required to fire the process heat needed by New Zealand’s large industrial consumers (milk powder, paper production, cement, steel, ammonia-urea, methanol and users) as well as by domestic consumers.

Most of this gas comes from the offshore fields of Maui and Pohokura, but these fields have a limited life.  We cannot wait for them to run out before we look for new sources of offshore gas. It takes several years, possibly up to ten, to turn a newly discovered offshore gas field into full production, if necessary economic, environmental and safety measures are to be developed and put in place, as they must be. If existing fields run out in the meantime, we can import natural gas as a stopgap, but shipping natural gas from other countries incurs additional transport costs and an additional carbon footprint, which is not what any responsible government would want to do. Besides it transfers economic activity, and part of our carbon footprint, to another jurisdiction and is not an example of good global leadership.

So it makes both good environmental and economic sense for the government to allow existing exploration permits to be exercised. This is not a loophole. When the government announced its intention to prohibit the issue of new exploration permits it also made it clear that the legal and contractual rights of existing permit holders to explore for oil and gas would be honoured. The government is not in the business of tearing up existing rights.

There is an additional reason why the new exploration programme is good news. OMV-NZ and Tamarind are bringing in the latest in international exploration technology to drill for gas. The COSL Prospector was built in 2014. It is massive. It has a gross tonnage of 34,526 tonnes and a draught of 17.5 metres. It can operate in water up to 1500 metres deep. It is semi-submersible and self-propelled, with a speed of 6-7 knots. It brings the most modern gas exploration technology to New Zealand’s oceans.

The Prospector will be operated initially by Tamarind off the Taranaki coast, and later in the year will be used by OMV-NZ to explore the Tawhiki structure off the Otago coast some 130 kms SE of Balcutha. This structure is in 1200 metres of water, so it is well within the capability of the Prospector (the Pohokura field off Taranaki, by contrast, is in only 70 metres of water). If commercial quantities of hydrocarbons are found then up to 5 appraisal wells will be drilled. If the economics work out then the government will be able to consider whether exploration should proceed to extraction. By that time we will be well down the track towards net zero carbon, so any decisions then can be taken on the basis of scientific and environmental knowledge developed during the intervening years.

While we transition to a green economy it makes sense to develop our scientific and technical knowledge around how best to preserve the ocean environment whilst also considering whether we wish to develop New Zealand’s offshore gas reserves further. We get the possibility of an additional natural gas resource to give our industries additional time within which to convert to renewable energy. And we get the possibility of shifting the balance of the land based economy more towards our oceans. As the New Zealand Oceans Foundation, we are in favour of that.

Plastics in Our Oceans – are our efforts enough?

Today’s news reports about a plastic bag and sweet wrapper being found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench have got us thinking. We have all heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to some reports, this floating landfill between Hawaii and California is twice the size of Texas, or three times that of France. NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) says its not like a landfill. It is more like a giant smog patch made up of microplastics suspended in the water column. Too small to gather up in a net or suck up with a vacuum cleaner.

In July 2017 we saw news reports about another such patch in the South Pacific, off the coasts of Chile and Peru. This one only 1.5 times the size of Texas. Oh good. But wait. According to a UNEP report way back in 2006, every square mile of ocean worldwide contains on average 46,000 pieces of plastic. Who counts this stuff?

According to the World Economic Forum, not normally known for its alarmism, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight, than fish.

This sounds to us like an environmental security problem if ever there was one. How are we going to get rid of the plastic? The standard answer is that you can’t. Not the vast bulk of it. Discarded fishing nets, plastic containers and car tires can be swept up, possibly. But not the smoglike microplastics. We can only try and stop microplastics getting there in the first place.

But is the standard answer good enough? Or should we be charging our scientists to think harder about how to filter out the microplastics? Fish and turtles and marine mammals can concentrate the stuff. In their intestines. Why can’t we imitate ocean-based life forms and ingest the microplastic by floating machinery? Paid for by the plastics industries that put the plastic there in the first place?

We’ve been thinking…..

Climate change deal struck at Paris Summit

At the Paris Climate Change conference in 2015 New Zealand committed itself to a 30% reduction over 2005 levels in its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. New Zealand ratified this commitment on 17 August 2016 and the Agreement became binding on all parties on 4 November 2016. More recently (early 2018) the New Zealand government announced its commitment to pass into law an even more ambitious programme of GHG reductions. Called the Zero Carbon Bill (ZCB), this law, when passed by parliament, will commit New Zealand to net zero GHG emissions by 2050.

Against this pending legislative background, the question is to what extent New Zealand’s oceans could assist in meeting these international and domestic obligations under any set of realistic scenarios?

Going further, and supposing government wanted to seize the environmental high ground, what would need to be the characteristics of any new oceanic carbon sink in order to progress from a net zero carbon economy to a net negative carbon economy? In effect, to promote both the oceans and the New Zealand ocean economy as a means of reducing GHG emissions below net zero by 2050 or sooner?

Assuming that pure and applied science can supply a practical set of answers to oceanic carbon sink issues, New Zealand could eventually position itself to sell carbon offsets on the international carbon offset market, thereby creating new economic opportunities based on our oceans.