Midjourney-generated image of an urban pedestrian street in a modern small city full of people walking and riding scooters on a sunny day, interesting building facades, lots of color.

Lessons On Climate Disruption & Adaptation From New Zealand

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For the past five weeks I’ve been living and traveling in New Zealand. The tiny Pacific Ocean nation of five million is an interesting microcosm of climate transformation, and some initial insights and perspectives were brought into relief around my recent talk in Christchurch on the south island.

Why was I in Christchurch? For the same reason I was in Dunedin the next day. The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) and the New Zealand headquartered but globally operating mining consulting firm RSC are taking advantage of my time here to have me give a series of talks in the major cities.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Christchurch. It was struck by a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake a dozen years ago, and most of the downtown was destroyed with horrific loss of life. This geological event intersected with the geologists and subsurface engineers I would be speaking with about the differently tectonic transformation we’re starting as we undertake the necessarily rapid transformation to address climate change. The analogies and resonances were strong.

The city was the second biggest in the country prior to the earthquake. Now it’s third largest with very windy Wellington 300 km north across Cook Strait on the north island taking second place to Auckland, home to a third of the country’s citizens.

As the Uber took me from my hotel on the outskirts into the city proper, the radio was on for a typical afternoon talk show. The first topic was the impact of climate change on oceanic kelp in the waters off of the country. Next there was an extended segment on electric vehicles, triggered by a federal party’s pledge to build 10,000 EV chargers in the run up to the election in a few weeks. As a reminder, Jacinda Arden, face of New Zealand’s excellent pandemic response, resigned her role a while ago, saying she ‘no longer had enough left in the tank’ to continue the challenging role.

The discussion was interesting, including a call in segment. The hosts were quoting analyses by international organizations on emissions payback periods of EVs under different grid CO2e intensities, and getting the numbers right. In New Zealand’s hydro, geothermal, and wind-heavy mix with an emissions intensity of about 150 grams of CO2e per kWh, it only takes a year for the average driver to pay back the carbon debt of the batteries and car manufacturing. It was refreshing, although the first person to call in was deeply anti-EV, citing inaccurate information to form the basis of his calculations that summer weekend travel would be impossible to support.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. New Zealand is car-heavy. The cities are lightly populated and sprawling by global standards, and Christchurch is like Calgary in Canada in that many residents drive for the hills on the horizon every weekend, and further afield for summer vacations.

Auckland’s 1.6 million people are spread over hilly terrain cut by bays and linked by bridges, with limited regional commuter trains and buses, but no light-rail or subway. There’s an over budget and over schedule light-rail system under construction in Auckland adding to the snarl. A perpetual campaign promise has resurfaced in the run-up to the election, another commuter car tunnel under the bay to ‘reduce congestion’. It was first proposed in the 1990s, and reappears around every election, it seems.

An actually useful congestion solution, a bridge devoted to buses, was promised and built a few years ago, but even that had to have a proviso attached that if there was insufficient bus ridership, the route could be converted for passenger cars. Prior to COVID, fully 50% of north shore commuter trips were in buses across that route, a signal success that of course the car drivers don’t care about.

But the car-heaviness has an interesting corollary — quite a large percentage of electric cars. While crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge after a session of wing-surfing in an extinct volcano — possibly a peak New Zealand experience — in a hybrid Uber, I counted half a dozen electric vehicles on the bridge with us. And the share car I rented to explore a broader region was a BYD Atto electric small SUV. The same provider, Mevo, has Tesla Model 3s and MGs in the mix as well.

Chinese, American, and British EVs on the roads of the cities were an interesting mix. But wait. Every single EV I mentioned is actually Chinese. BYD is born and bred, of course. More than 50% of Teslas are manufactured in China now, and all right-hand drive ones. And the British brand MG was acquired by Chinese automotive giant SAIC in 2007 and is now manufacturing EV variants.

New Zealand doesn’t have a domestic automotive manufacturing industry, so it’s just getting different brands than it used to. That’s not true in Europe and North America.

The other cities are even more transit-challenged. Wellington is a bathtub of a city with the CBD ringed by ridges and fronted by water. A major commuter tunnel goes directly beneath the filming location of the hobbits hiding from the Black Riders at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as the path they hide from is actually a mountain biking single track on Mt. Victoria, a major urban park in the city.

Christchurch is flat and deeply sprawling, with hills much more remotely in the distance. It sits on tens of meters of layers of gravel and silt built up by multiple periods of glaciation. Its aquifer is, like the Biscayne Aquifer in southern Florida, a bubble of fresh water in a permeable sub-surface matrix, with fresh water additions from the hills preventing incursions of brine from the sea. Like many Commonwealth cities, it leans heavily into a UK heritage, with punting on the meandering Avon River that cuts through the city being a regularly featured trope.

Interstitial square with entrances and exits in multiple directions in the new Christchurch downtown, picture by author
Interstitial square with entrances and exits in multiple directions in the new Christchurch downtown, picture by author

But now the downtown is brand new and interesting. The result of the rebuild could have been banal and soulless. After all, a complete CBD had to be built rapidly and efficiently, and that did lead to a lot of boxes on square lots. But the urban planners and designers made sure to include lots of interstitial passageways through the buildings, inside out of the weather, in narrow shop and restaurant-lined lanes, and even in overhead pedestrian bridge connectors. And significant effort was put into facades and color to break up the outlines of the boxes. The result is much more complex, interesting, and vibrantly populated and used than could otherwise have been the case.

But even on the edge of downtown there is a stark concrete shell, constructed before COVID but never occupied due to the pandemic. Raw concrete and plywood-covered windows face onto one of streets verging the CBD. Next door is the reconstruction site of the cathedral. I took advantage of an electric scooter from one of the share systems in the city to expand my range a bit, and outside of the core were a mix of active businesses, hoardings, and empty lots.

One of the visible differences of New Zealand is the sheer number of bookstores — actual bookstores selling new and used books made of paper and pretty much nothing else — compared to other cities in the world. A bookstore staff member suggested the lack of big box foreign stores like Amazon and Borders, as well as more niche electronics like book readers taking longer to arrive in New Zealand possibly explained the bookstore disparity. And he said that there used to be a lot more in Christchurch’s downtown core, but the earthquake had destroyed many businesses. Ones that were surviving on inexpensive rents and making enough money to stay afloat gave up the ghost after the earthquake, or moved out to the suburbs.

There are innumerable links to assessments of the trauma visited on the citizens and implications for the city and its business. For me, the most obvious aspect was the almost insistent newness and crafted charm of the downtown. It was disconcertingly well and recently planned and designed, and at least to my urban-oriented eyes, obvious. It needs weathering for the built environment to feel fully real, but the residents clearly were living fully in it. I wondered, but didn’t ask, what ghosts of buildings and businesses and people they occasionally saw in their mind’s eyes as they went about their days and lives.

Christchurch’s earthquake, while metaphorically resonant, was not a climate impact. However, New Zealand is not isolated from extreme weather and sea level rise. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with Natural Resources Canada to develop a guide for municipal leaders to plan for adaptation of their cities to rising climate impact risks, especially in the context of planned retreat. That’s relevant as the global literature search found excellent New Zealand resources. The country has been carefully assessing risks and bringing consensus and planning along to relocate the most at risk.

And, of course, in January of 2023, Auckland and region experienced unprecedented flooding, exacerbated by climate change. The first flooding was the worst non-earthquake disaster in New Zealand’s history. Two weeks later it was surpassed by the damage wrought by Cyclone Gabrielle, which dropped 30% more rain on New Zealand than a similar cyclone would have prior to climate change.

And so to the tectonic shifts occurring in energy globally. The thread of my talks is the radical electrification of transportation that we’ll be seeing in the coming decades. All ground transportation will electrify, with batteries on the roads and grid-connections on rail. All inland and most short sea shipping will run on batteries. A lot more aviation will be battery-powered than most understand, the benefits of cheap, simple, quiet, low-maintenance and efficient drivetrains powered by increasingly energy dense batteries transforming the business models.

And with that comes a change in what we extract, process, refine, and distribute from under the surface of the earth. Most transportation today runs on single-use crude oil derivatives. We extract 4.5 billion tons of crude annually and turn the majority of it into fuels for cars, trucks, and trains. That’s all going away rapidly, as is a large part of the portion that goes to shipping and aviation. Shipping alone will see a significant decline in tonnage annually, as 40% of deepwater shipping is of bulk coal, oil, and gas, and most of that tonnage will disappear as we shift to renewables and electrified energy services. Another 15% is raw iron ore, and in our coming economy that will be processed into iron and steel much closer to the mines much more of the time.

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That 4.5 billion tons of oil flows through pipelines globally, as well as other modes of transportation, and they’ll be empty too, their energy demands and emissions a thing of the past. While not powering transportation, the 13 billion tons of coal we move around will disappear from ships and rail as well. The seven billion cubic meters of natural gas will not flow through pipelines or be liquified to cross oceans in LNG ships.

In place of the billions of tons of transportation fuels, we’ll have millions of tons of metals such as lithium, sodium, nickel, copper, and aluminum. Batteries weighing perhaps 400 kilograms will be recharged hundreds or thousands of times over their decade of life in cars, then find new lives as stationary storage behind or in front of meters, and then will find yet another new life as they are mined for their high-grade, already refined metals, which are then turned into more batteries.

Green electrons from wind turbines made from green steel and more recyclable composites and solar panels made with silicon, copper, and steel through transmission cables made of aluminum and distributed into the transportation grid. We’ll throw away vastly less energy and we will live in a cleaner, quieter world that hums instead of growls.

But this tectonic shift, while it will take decades instead of the seconds of the Christchurch cataclysm, will be more broadly disruptive. Just as the independent bookstores of Christchurch were disrupted by the quake, innumerable businesses globally will be shaken and find it difficult to survive in the coming decades. We can manage it wisely or foolishly, yet it will still occur.

The biggest and most obvious, of course, is the fossil fuel industry with its billions of tons of extraction, processing, refining, and distribution annually. Along that entire supply chain there will be losers. And there will be winners for the subset that can pivot and supply the much smaller demand for biofuels. Finnish firm Neste is staking out an early position as a leader in the space, producing over a million tons of sustainable aviation biofuels a year from its Singapore plant alone.

And a big winner is going to be the entire hard mineral extraction industry. The engineers and geologists I spoke to in Christchurch and Dunedin are part of the cohort that are receiving and will continue to receive much more market and policy attention. That’s part of why I agreed to speak with them. Their pushback on my hypotheses and questions about my projections will inform me as much as reading a dozen or three dozen papers and reports.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. Most recently he contributed to "Proven Climate Solutions: Leading Voices on How to Accelerate Change" (https://www.amazon.com/Proven-Climate-Solutions-Leading-Accelerate-ebook/dp/B0D2T8Z3MW) along with Mark Z. Jacobson, Mary D. Nichols, Dr. Robert W. Howarth and Dr. Audrey Lee among others.

Michael Barnard has 759 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard