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Could New Zealand ban deep sea mining?
Parliament is set to debate a new member’s bill that would prohibit deep sea mining. Meanwhile, the world grapples with whether to mine seabed minerals that could power renewable tech.
Haere mai and welcome to Future Proof, brought to you by Electric Kiwi.
I’ve got mining on my mind after two bills were pulled out of the parliamentary biscuit tin last month. Green MP Eugenie Sage’s bill to ban any new mining activity on conservation lands and water was drawn just a week after Te Pāti Māori MP Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s bill, which would ban seabed mining in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone. That came just a few weeks after 35,000 people signed a petition calling for the practice to be prohibited.
The black-sands battle
The issue is particularly important to Ngarewa-Packer, who was a key figure in the years-long legal fight to prevent seabed mining off the coast of Taranaki. Here, minerals come in the form of iron-rich sands. Back in 2017, Trans-Tasman Resources got the go-ahead to suck up 50 million tonnes of the sand every year. But a group of iwi and environmental organisations successfully got the decision overturned in 2021, after taking their fight all the way to the Supreme Court. It was a definitive win for protection of our moana.
The seabed minerals that could power green tech
Minerals can also come in the form of potato-shaped, jet-black rocks called polymetallic nodules, which litter the deep seafloor in the trillions. Although abundant, the nodules are millions of years old, growing at a rate of about one centimetre every million years. These chunks are rich in minerals like manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper – all essential ingredients for green tech, such as solar panels and electric cars. So should we rip up the seafloor in order to power our much-needed shift away from fossil fuels? It’s a debate that is polarising scientists and environmentalists.
A tricky decision for global regulators
Polymetallic nodules are plentiful in parts of the deep Pacific (we have some south of New Zealand), with several nations weighing up the decision to extract the valuable minerals in their ocean realms. Among them is Nauru, a tiny palm-fringed island nation northeast of Australia. Last year, Nauru triggered a clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now, the UN’s International Seabed Authority has until June next year to formalise and finalise global rules for deep sea mining.
The process is slow and fraught with uncertainty. If the 2023 deadline passes with no decision, mining will be allowed to go ahead. Both NIWA and CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) have signed on to help at least one mining outfit minimise environmental damage in their quest for the Pacific’s metal-rich nodules.
What will deep sea mining mean for our oceans?
We know very little about life in the depths, but nodule fields are biodiversity hotspots. A recent expedition to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area of the Pacific practically paved with nodules, discovered 30 new species. The potential impacts of deep sea mining are pretty dire. The noise could harm marine mammals like whales within hundreds of kilometres, while removing the nodules could induce long-lasting damage to seafloor ecosystems. It could even trigger the release of carbon dioxide from sediments.
Are these risks worth the promise of abundant minerals essential for the batteries in a carbon-free future? On balance, I’d say nah. Rather than barreling headlong into a deep sea gold-rush era that could stuff up our already strained oceans, we should be taking a precautionary approach. Some of our Pacific neighbours – Palau, Fiji and Samoa – have called for a moratorium on seabed mining.
Our neighbourhood is more ocean than land; the sea is central to life in the South Pacific. New Zealand has a duty of care to our moana and our Pacific whānau. Will the seabed mining ban pass its first reading? I’ll be watching with anticipation.
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The saga of the giant worm
One of The Spinoff’s live updates last Friday, about a one-metre-long earthworm dug up by nine-year-old Barnaby in his Christchurch backyard, sparked a Twitter furore. Some admonished The Spinoff for bringing the unnervingly large worm into their Twitter timelines, while others lamented the framing of the poor worm as needing to go “straight to hell”. Barnaby, who was delighted with his “amazing discovery”, first featured on Stuff, and by the end of the day he was on RNZ talking about the worm he had christened Dead Fred. The Spinoff has since issued a formal apology for calling Dead Fred “nightmare fuel”.
It’s all light-hearted, but as Sophie Fern, an expert in “feral charisma”, points out, the way we talk about wildlife (especially in the media) has a profound effect on what species we think are important, and where we direct our conservation efforts (and dollars). Like worms of unusual size, spiders are much-maligned: recent research on arachnid media representation finds that spider stories are often spun in a web of misinformation and negativity. I for one think the giant worm is spectacular and would welcome it in my backyard. Dead Fred might even glow in the dark! Most importantly, I’m stoked to see a kid get excited about nature.
Should scientists take radical action to protest climate inaction?
Dr Bruce Glavovic, a professor of environmental studies and urban planning at Massey University, reckons we probably don’t need yet another damning IPCC report. Six reports have come out since 1990, painting an increasingly dire picture of our climate future. And yet, governments around the world haven’t taken the urgent, transformative action we so desperately need to limit global temperature rise.
Instead, perhaps scientists need to take a more radical approach to spur climate action. Glavovic features in episode two of the new ABC podcast series Who’s Gonna Save Us? which profiles the people charting a course through the climate crisis to a better future. He’s not the only researcher calling for scientists to strike for the climate: a recent article in the high-profile journal Nature Climate Change argues that civil disobedience by scientists is effective.
Climate change pushes weather to the max
It’s official: this winter was Aotearoa’s warmest and wettest on record, according to NIWA. That makes three record-breaking warmest winters in succession. The NZ Herald’s science reporter Jamie Morton has the lowdown on our wild winter – and the forecast for the coming months.
While parts of New Zealand have been devastated by floods and torrential rain in recent weeks, a whole other level of natural disaster has unfolded in Pakistan, fuelled by climate change. One-third of the country is underwater. Thirty-three million people have been displaced, and 1,300 people have died. David Williams, Newsroom’s environment editor, considers what this disaster means for New Zealand’s climate action.
Let there be night
Our cities are flooded with artificial light, which isn’t good for our sleep, our connection to the night sky, and our wildlife. Shanti Mathias spoke to ecologists, doctors and stargazers about the need to preserve darkness for The Spinoff. In one example of the harm caused by too much light, Cook’s petrels (a type of native seabird) can crash-land in Auckland after becoming disoriented by the city lights. Volunteers patrol the streets of Auckland’s CBD looking for woozy seabirds, which are then rehabilitated by the good folks at BirdCare Aotearoa.
This month we’re celebrating eight years of The Spinoff. We’ve come a long way since 2014 and that is in no small part thanks to our members – we literally wouldn’t be here today without them.
Their generous support underpins all our work and has meant we are able to cover more areas of life in Aotearoa, to tackle more stories about our people and issues impacting our communities. From our ongoing coverage of inequality and the cost-of-living crisis, to political reporting and our focus on te ao Māori, it’s important mahi and we can’t do it without you.
Let’s keep a good thing going - tautoko mai, donate today.
The West Coast stewardship land reclassification process (covered back in issue two of Future Proof) is heating up, with fierce criticism facing the bulk of recommendations made by the “expert panel”, Lois Williams reports for Newsroom.
Can you access the essentials in a short walk from home? Dr Tom Logan ranks Aotearoa’s cities based on their walkability. Wellington comes out tops, with 61% of residents living within a 15-minute walk of core amenities.
Bye bye birdie! Dunedin’s first toroa chick and star of the Royal cam livestream, known as QT, has flown the nest early, heading off on a years-long Pacific wander.
Christchurch was once “the cycling capital of New Zealand” (seriously, those old-school photos of streets teeming with bikes? *chef’s kiss*).
The world’s most remote tree – an introduced Sitka spruce on subantarctic Campbell Island – is a window into the carbon past of the Southern Ocean for climate scientist Dr Jocelyn Turnbull. (I visited the loneliest tree back in 2018. I promise it has lots of non-tree wildlife companions – like sea lions and albatross and megaherbs!)
Take a moment to act for nature this Conservation Week. DOC has a few suggestions for quick and easy actions you can take to make a difference for the environment.
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who got in touch following last week’s newsletter on cats and wildlife. It was heartening to hear how so many of you are involved in predator control on your patch, or are keeping wildlife (and your kitties!) safe by not letting your cats roam. David says that his catio in Wellington allows his four cats to enjoy fresh air without disturbing native wildlife, and “frees us from worrying about our cats becoming roadkill or being stolen”. They are (left to right): Aisha, Abdul and Alia, and Ameer (inset). Likewise, Jo’s cat Sakura (far right) enjoys a sunny spot by the window, with easy access to a cat run. How purr-fect!
Until next time, cool cats,
Got some feedback about Future Proof or topics you’d like covered? Get in touch with me at email@example.com