Carbon research grant “exceptional moment” for scientist

A NIWA-led team has today been awarded a multi-million dollar research grant that will help drive major advances in understanding of New Zealand’s carbon emissions and uptake. As New Zealand begins the transition to a low-carbon economy, this world-leading research will help ensure that the value of our natural carbon sinks to our economy is maximised.

The multidisciplinary team includes GNS Science, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Auckland Council and the University of Waikato.

Leading the team is NIWA scientist Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, whose project builds on a pilot study using atmospheric data that uncovered a striking revelation about how much carbon was absorbed by New Zealand’s indigenous forests. But it left unanswered questions about how our planted forests, pastures and urban ecosystems could do the same – questions that, if answered, could guide our future carbon mitigation strategies.

Now Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher has been awarded $11.4 million is from the 2018 round of the Endeavour Fund, New Zealand’s largest and most prestigious science fund.

Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher leads a new research project that could answer vital carbon sink questions and guide New Zealand's future carbon mitigation strategies. [Photo: Dave Allen, NIWA]

She describes the grant as an exceptional moment in her career.

The funding of $11.4 million is from the 2018 round of the Endeavour Fund, New Zealand’s largest and most prestigious science fund. Her world-leading project will provide new information about carbon uptake and inform New Zealand’s transition to a low-carbon economy and international best practices for carbon accounting. The proposed research will tackle New Zealand’s two primary greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and methane, which are responsible for most of the human-induced warming in the atmosphere.

“Having this project funded at a time when the Government has ambitious plans about mitigating climate change, and the opportunity to be part of that vision, is career changing and life changing.

“What makes this so exceptional is that doing this work is not just about scientific discovery, it is work that will make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher is an internationally recognised expert in carbon cycling.

Two years ago, she and her team made a surprising discovery when they identified a major carbon uptake in New Zealand, most likely occurring in native forests in the South Island. The discovery led them to suspect that the way New Zealand’s carbon uptake may be substantially underestimated and that our forests and other land areas may be absorbing up to 60 per cent more carbon dioxide than previously thought.

New Zealand’s forest carbon uptake played a key role in meeting commitments under the Kyoto Climate treaty and is likely to continue to play a key role in meeting our Zero Carbon goals. This research has significant ramifications for the future management of national emissions.

The Endeavour Fund grant will now expand that initial pilot study making possible new carbon uptake research in forest, grassland and urban environments and infering our methane emissions using atmospheric inverse modelling. This method uses atmospheric measurements and high resolution weather models to estimate the amount of carbon that has been absorbed or emitted.

“No other country is producing national scale CO2 uptake and emission estimates based on atmospheric data, nor is any other country as close to establishing this capability as we are.”

Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher says there is strong international interest in the work.

There were several “unfair advantages” in New Zealand that made this possible.

“We’re an island nation far from everything, where our air comes over the ocean and not from other land sources. We have a history of excellence in atmospheric measurements going back more than 60 years and extraordinary high-resolution weather forecasting in New Zealand.

"The winds from these weather models are essential for translating the atmospheric measurements to emissions or uptake.

“It’s the research, carbon accounting, and policy community here that makes New Zealand such a fantastic place to do this work– there is a level of openness and engagement to working here that is hard to replicate in other places.”

Carbon uptake is currently assessed using a system of tree girth measurements from hundreds of sample sites all over the country. Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher says the atmospheric measurements won’t replace that system.

“The carbon accounting community is responsible for differentiating between parts of the carbon balance we will never tease apart from the atmospheric measurements alone.

"For example, they distinguish between forest planted after 1990 and forests planted before that time for current climate treaties. However, measurements of tree girth alone don’t tell the complete story of a forest’s carbon uptake either. By working together, we can get a better answer for New Zealand’s three most important landscapes: forests, pasture and urban areas and create a more complete picture.”

NIWA has also received Endeavour funding for a number of other research projects. These include:

  • Chris Tanner and Rupert Craggs, Doubling On-farm Diffuse Pollution Mitigation
  • Amanda Valois, Rivers as Vectors of Plastic Pollution
  • Helen Macdonald, Reliable ocean forecasts for marine disaster management
  • Michelle Greenwood, New tools to define ecologically friendly streetlighting solutions
  • Eimear Egan, Identifying critical eel habitats using isoscapes
  • Nico Fauchereau, Locally relevant seasonal climate forecasts
  • Hamish Biggs, Drone Flow: Aerial river monitoring system
  • Sue Clearwater, Freshwater bioremediation using native mussels (kakahi).

For more information contact:

Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher
Ph 027 364 0697 (until midday Friday 14 Sept)


Susan Pepperell
Senior media adviser
Ph 04 386 0473.