Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Why Utopia is still a long way off for New Zealand

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Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Why Utopia is still a long way off for New Zealand

Opinion: Futurists present Utopia for New Zealand in the next 20 years, yet how to achieve this vision is hazy and the execution steps are almost non-existent, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.

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It is the time of year when trends for the 12 months ahead are announced, goals are vocalised, and visions are created.

Fitting the pattern is the Utopia being presented to us by futurists, who promote the idea that – “This is what the world/NZ could look like, and this is how it would be achieved. All you have to do is…”

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The next word might be “believe”.

There are certain similarities to political visions and, just like many, political or not, the strategy on how to achieve the vision is hazy and the execution steps are almost non-existent.

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A recent vision, designed to inspire change, involves New Zealand being a world leader in natural infrastructure, clean hydrogen energy, engineered wood and high-quality low-emissions food within the next 20 years.

The change required to achieve this Utopia was acknowledged as challenging but thought “worth it” because the economy would be prosperous.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Why Utopia is still a long way off for New Zealand

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

This last bit is the hiccup for at least some scientists, engineers and economists. Not all (stereotyping the whole of the professions would result in a whole lot of social media claims about “completely wrong”), but certainly some.

“Natural infrastructure” aligns with the “nature-based solutions” proposed by some pundits. Both sound great but meanings are variable.

The former might mean wooden buildings, as proposed for the rebuilding of Christchurch by then CEO of Scion (the forestry Crown Research Institute) Dr Warren Parker.

Concrete, glass and steel dominated, however, and the economy of Canterbury and New Zealand thrived as the building industry boomed.

Wood was not considered seriously and Sir Bob Jones’ plan for the world’s highest wooden office tower (a 25 storey, 52m-tall building with laminated timber columns), announced in 2017, hasn’t yet opened.

Other infrastructure such as roads, bridges and rail (which does appear in the new Utopia, with more people using public transport) also require concrete and steel.

The raw ingredients for both require mining, and in New Zealand, that means gaining approvals.

The environmental case for sand being mined for building and other infrastructure off Pakiri Beach, north of Auckland is already the subject of debate.

The application for mining off the South Taranaki Bight has been through several court processes and failed in the High Court last year.

The Utopian concept of natural infrastructure turns out to be an “emerging term to include native forests, wetlands, coastal environments and other ecosystems that store and clean water, protect against drought, flooding and storms, boost biodiversity and absorb carbon.”

In the past (last year) natural resources and ecosystem services might have been used as descriptors.

These ecosystems are extremely important. They are part of life and add value through their very existence.

Ground-breaking work has attempted to quantify that value, and erudite as well as practical research papers have been written. The actual value of Natural Capital remains hard to quantify, however, and when people are asked to pay for it, the value changes.

“Who pays?” remains the issue. Most of the areas do not generate income per se. Many require income for maintenance.

As part of her doctoral studies, Dr Estelle Dominati (with supervisors Dr Alec Mackay from AgResearch and Dr Murray Patterson from Massey University) calculated the value of the ecosystem services provided by soil on a Waikato dairy farm.

Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

To replace the services given by the soil (such as food production, flood mitigation, filtering of contaminants etc) would have cost $16,390 per hectare per year in 2014.

The value of the milk produced per hectare was $4,757.

This leaves $11,000 per hectare – which, if added to the cost of milk, would treble the base price.

The farmer manages the ecosystem services of the land to produce the milk and provide income to invest in the maintenance of the soil and enterprise, as well as pay taxes and rates so that national and local government can manage infrastructure and services as well.

The Utopian vision for 20 years hence involved the high quality, low emissions food which farmers already produce – but in the future doing so will involve organic and regenerative agriculture.

This perpetuates the myth that organic and regenerative approaches produce fewer emissions and create fewer contaminants than conventional agriculture.

They don’t. Per unit of food they usually have a greater impact. Again, research papers and reports are available to provide the information.

Green hydrogen, also suggested, is equally problematic.

It sounds good, but the energy required to create it currently outweighs the energy created. Hence the concept of “green” but it hasn’t yet been proven: more research is necessary.

All of this means that Utopia is still a long way off but doesn’t mean that sensible steps can’t be taken. Scientific research and futurists agree that reducing fossil fuel use is vital.

The nose-to-tail holiday traffic over the holiday period indicates that rethinking the use of private cars hasn’t yet featured in resolutions for the New Year.

There is still time to change and making the change is urgent. Scientists and futurists agree on that, too.

– Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com

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