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Science Deadline: This week in Sci-tech

In this issue: No new oil permits, marine heatwaves heating up, and when did sweet potatoes spread?

Oil exploration permits to end

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday morning that the Government would not hand out any new offshore oil and gas exploration permits through the Block Offer programme.

The decision will come into force immediately with the exception of Taranaki, which will have another three years. Consultation on the 2018 Block Offer (limited to onshore areas in Taranaki) opened yesterday. Current permits will be allowed to continue, which could extend over decades.

Greenpeace and Forest & Bird have praised the move, while Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand chief executive Cameron Madgwick called it a “lose-lose” for New Zealand’s economy and the environment, saying it would threaten jobs and raise prices for consumers.

University of Otago's Dr Katharina Ruckstuhl said the announcement "should come as no surprise".

"However, the government was careful to note that current permits will continue, with some not expiring until 2050. This is roughly in line with the previous Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s belief that gas – Taranaki’s mainstay fuel – would still be needed for roughly 30 years until infrastructure and technology for renewables were in place."

Greenhouse gas inventory

Thursday also marked the release of the annual greenhouse gas inventory, which showed New Zealand's emissions have increased nearly 20 per cent between 1990 and 2016.

Professor Dave Frame, director of the Climate Change Research Institute, said the inventory showed the scale of the challenge ahead. "While New Zealand’s gross emissions aren’t projected to grow, they aren’t projected to fall very fast, either.

"It’s good to see the Minister be clear that ‘it won’t be easy to meet our 2030 target’. That’s been obvious for some time, and it’s why the existing target is already ambitious."

He said while it was good to limit the expansion of the fossil fuel sector, economically it shifted a burden to regional development portfolios.

Massey University's Professor Ralph Sims, director of the Centre for Energy Research, said it was encouraging that emissions had tended to stabilise in most sectors over the past decade.

Exploring for more oil and gas would make little sense if New Zealand was to keep within its share of the Carbon budget, he said. "It is well understood that if we are to keep the planet from warming more than 2 degrees centigrade, of all the known oil, gas and coal reserves in the world, the vast majority will have to remain where they are."

Victoria University of Wellington Professor James Renwick said the inventory showed some good news, especially coupled with the Prime Minister's announcement.

"The government’s new transport funding plan puts emphasis on public transport and active transport (cycling and walking). This gets us away from the outdated mantra of more roads and more cars that we saw from the previous government.

"New Zealand is a small player in global emissions of greenhouse gases but our actions carry huge symbolic weight. If any country can become zero-carbon, surely we can. It can only benefit us to be leaders in this crucial race to stabilise the climate."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the two announcements.

Quoted: NZ Herald

"The sea can be enormously productive if we look after it and we can safely take substantial amounts of seafood out of it, over many generations, if we do it with care.

"But if we squander the resource ... we can 'tip' our systems into much less productive environments and our fish stocks will dwindle."

EDS policy director Raewyn Peart
on her new book on New Zealand's fisheries management system.

Marine heatwaves increasing

As New Zealand heads out of a warm summer driven in part by a marine heatwave, a new study suggests such heatwaves are increasing.

Published this week in Nature Communications, the study found marine heatwaves had become hotter, longer and more frequent over the past century, with a noticeable acceleration in the trend since 1982.

University of Otago Honorary Research Associate Dr Jim Salinger said the paper was particularly relevant given the unprecedented marine heatwave that affected New Zealand and the south Tasman Sea this summer, with the region at least 1.5C above average for the whole season.

National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) meteorologist Ben Noll said while "many Kiwis may have considered summer 2017-18 to have some of the 'best' weather in recent memory, it comes at a steep price".

“The Tasman Sea observed its most unusual warmth on record for the December-February season and pockets of New Zealand’s coastal waters soared up to 6.0°C above average.

“NIWA’s annual long-term aerial snowline survey then revealed some ‘sad and dirty’ looking glaciers following New Zealand’s hottest summer, which was fuelled in part by our scorched seas," Noll said.

Victoria University of Wellington's Professor James Renwick said the observed trend lined up closely with increases in temperature, including extremes, over land and rapid melting of glacier ice this century.

“Climate change is obvious everywhere we look. As the paper points out, further global warming will go hand in hand with even more marine heatwaves, as well as increases in many other extremes of weather and climate.

"Many marine species are very sensitive to temperature and such rapid changes in the oceans are bound to be affecting marine food webs, especially when combined with the continued acidification of the oceans. The only way to arrest these changes is to drastically reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study.

Policy news & developments

Should I check? The Ministry of Health (MOH) has launched a new website, Kupe, aimed at helping men decide whether a prostate check is right for them.

Samurai to slay stink bug: Submissions are open on a proposal to release a biocontrol agent, the Samurai wasp, should the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug ever arrive in New Zealand.

Maternity programme: MOH and the New Zealand College of Midwives are working together on a maternity programme designed to address pressure on the midwifery-led service.

Feral cats: Submissions are open on a proposal to change the regulations around informing households when poison baits are being laid for feral cats.

Flu vaccine available: The annual influenza vaccine campaign has kicked off, with a particular focus this year on lifting immunisation rates among healthcare workers.

Sea lions back on mainland: Following several successful breeding years, sea lion numbers on Stewart Island have been declared an official breeding colony, marking the first time in more than 150 years the species has bred on the mainland.

Porotī land secured: The Crown has purchased nearly four hectares of land near Porotī Spring which will be landbanked for a future Treaty settlement with Ngāpuhi.

Sexual orientation stats: Stats NZ is asking for feedback on development of a new standard for reporting how people identify their sexuality.

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