Science - Creating a green economy

By: Ralph Cooney

The release of the First Report of the NZ Climate Commission is an important step towards establishing a sustainable economy. The report covers a wide range of issues and targets. It is critical that a fresh vision for a sustainable future emerges from the commission consultation processes. The population of the planet will continue to grow, but will plateau around the year 2100. Africa will dominate population growth and the population of China will decrease by almost 50 per cent. India will become the most populated country, followed by Nigeria and the US. Many wealthy countries, including New Zealand, will experience modest or zero growth. How the global environment and leading regional economies respond to zero or negative population growth will determine the state of the planet in 2100.

Retraining: In the US, the number of jobs in renewable technologies now exceeds the number of jobs in coal industries. These new economy jobs are higher technology and better paid than the fossil fuel sector jobs. Mining jobs are generally declining because of increasing automation. International reports note that many workers in the fossil fuel sector are keen to switch to renewable sectors, but the retraining needed to make this shift is expensive for the individual. Therefore governments, including ours, have an important opportunity to subsidise such retraining in order to facilitate a major but necessary shift in the labour market.

Benchmarking: NZ could steer its progress towards a green economy by benchmarking against the Scandinavian countries that are leaders in the development and adoption of renewables. Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden (as well as the Netherlands) are comparable to NZ in scale and in progressive sustainability values.

Agri-methane: The main emission problem for NZ is agricultural methane from our major pastoral sectors. Methane, despite its misleading common name (natural gas) is the simplest hydrocarbon and a highly potent greenhouse gas. This strategic problem then becomes a litmus test for New Zealand’s national resolution to deal with climate change. Rather than adopt a soft target for agricultural methane, let us make a commercial solution to this problem a major national research and development priority. A recent joint venture using seaweed in stock feed to reduce methane emissions is likely to lead to the creation of a new NZ commercial sector. This natural technology solution would find markets around the world among leading dairy producing nations.  

The hydrogen opportunity: The deployment of hydrogen in fuel cells as an energy source for electric cars and buses, trains (Germany), ships (Norway) and electric airliners is now becoming mainstream. However, the established industrial process to produce hydrogen also produces carbon greenhouse gases. The development of new commercial processes to produce “green” hydrogen is now a high global priority. Toshiba recently announced a commercial process based on solar and wind energy to split water using exceptionally efficient solar cells into “green” hydrogen. Meanwhile, the NZ Government has recently announced an ambitious national hydrogen strategy, which should enable this country to play a key future role in the hydrogen economy.

Emeritus Professor Ralph Cooney


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