Auckland Zoo is delighted to have recently been awarded CarboNZero certification by world-leading Eviro-Mark Solutions, and is gearing up to achieve more ambitious green goals by 2020.

Our inspirational environmental sustainability manager Tess Chilala says “strong scientific evidence suggests that human-induced climate change will become a primary driver of wildlife species extinction in the coming century. But it’s also ultimately with us humans that solutions lie!”

ZooNews (ZN) chats to our inspirational environmental sustainability manager Tess Chilala about why she and all our Zoo team are so passionate about being carboNZero, how we’re doing it, and next steps. Plus we get Tess’s top tips on how we can all put our best (and lowest carbon) foot forward…

ZN: Why is being carboNZero so important to the Zoo?

TESS: There’s such a strong link between all that Auckland Zoo does as a conservation organisation for wildlife and wild places and the issue of climate change; being carboNZero is really integral to who we are. Our Earth’s changing climate resulting from human activities (like deforestation and burning of fossil-fuels) is already having a devastating effect on so much of our natural world, so wildlife habitat.  

In our daily operations, whether it’s keepers or vets travelling by car or ferry to do field work or use of electricity for our vet hospital, native species’ breeding facilities or visitor cafes, our first priority is to do no harm.

While we’ve been actively managing our environmental footprint for almost 20 years, this scheme is now enabling us to use carbon as the leading indicator of our sustainability; it’s a great framework to measure and manage our environmental footprint.

ZN: The Zoo’s a complex beast, how do actually measure its footprint?!

TESS: We worked with the amazing team at New Zealand’s Enviro-Mark Solutions – running a detailed inventory on everything from our energy, water and gas use, our waste to landfill, to how many litres of petrol/diesel our cars, flights, ferries take. We even factored in how many ruminant animals we have – it’s not a lot, but our giraffe and nyala produce methane. On the plus side, waste from these animals along with our elephants and rhino, also goes into producing the wonderful ZooDoo garden fertiliser!

All of this told us exactly how many tonnes of ‘carbon’ we were putting into the atmosphere each year; 606 tonnes. (A “carbon” footprint comprises all six greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride).

From here, we set reduction targets and a plan of activities to produce fewer emissions. Our final step has involved ‘offsetting’ those absolutely unavoidable emissions (like power to keep animals warm or cool or for incubators to hatch precious kiwi) by investing in forest regeneration and clean energy projects. (see below for more about these projects)

ZN: What practical things has the Zoo done to achieve a net zero carbon footprint, and what are its new goals/targets?

TESS:  While we’ve been sending food and green waste to a commercial composter for 10 years, we recently provided compost bins for our visitors to use too, and have a target of sending zero organic waste to landfill by 2020.  Through improving our waste- disposal services, we’re also now sending 100 fewer tonnes of general waste to landfill every year.

In terms of utility reduction initiatives, via an ECCA grant, we’ve installed monitoring equipment on electricity, gas and water meters. We can now identify in real time (down to a single heater being left on overnight!) where waste is occurring, and take action. Our fluorescent tube zero-to landfill recycling programme also ensures no toxic waste like this ends up in landfill.

We have now set an aggressive target of reducing our emissions by a further 20% by 2022. Within six months of measuring our carbon footprint, we’re stoked to have already achieved around 3% in reductions. Work in progress also includes consulting with energy experts on an energy, gas and water reduction strategy, including advice on on-site renewable energy generation potential. Watch this space!

ZN: How does ‘offsetting’ emissions work, and does it really help?

TESS:  The Zoo currently produces 606 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, so invests in 606 tonnes of certified carbon credits. We offset three-quarters through New Zealand native forest regeneration projects – carbon sink/sequestration projects. For the remaining quarter, we purchase credits for renewable (clean) energy projects in Mexico and Brazil - carbon avoidance projects.

All credits are verified through Enviro-Mark (a subsidiary of the crown research agency, LandCare Research) so we know that every credit we’ve invested in has pulled one tonne of carbon out of the world’s atmosphere. Of course, we will always be working to reduce our emissions, and therefore the amount we need to offset. But for those unavoidable emissions, it absolutely works and helps.

ZN: What’s driven you to get involved in leading the Zoo’s carboNZero journey?

TESS: I’ve always been passionate about wildlife and the natural world. I was lucky enough to grow up with loads of access to national parks, rivers and the coast, which inspired me to gain a BSC in Biology and specialise in Environmental Management.

It’s not an understatement to say that deciding to volunteer at Auckland Zoo in 2004 while still at university set up my entire career!  I volunteered on the Bird and Primate sections – where I was blown away by keepers’ incredible knowledge of their animals and insight into the pressures these species were under in the wild. I then got an opportunity to be a representative on the newly established Green Team, which by 2005 turned into a part-time paid position as the Zoo’s sustainability co-ordinator.

This role saw me work closely with management to find creative and innovative solutions to reduce the Zoo’s environmental footprint. Among many things, it resulted in a waste audit and a partnership with Enviro-fert in Tuakau where we could send organic waste.

It was great to see the Zoo receive a Ministry for the Environment Green Ribbon Award in 2008 – before I headed off to Africa (for what would be 6 years) to further my experience. I worked on many different projects, eventually becoming company director of a company – managing wildlife research expeditions, inner-city education programmes and community development projects on the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

A Zambian husband and two children later, I’m back here at Auckland Zoo; after hearing last year about the Zoo’s ambition to become carbon neutral, I jumped at the chance. It’s really been like coming home, and I feel so lucky to work within an organisation that takes its role as an environmental champion so seriously.  Auckland Zoo is now among just 67 organisations in New Zealand, and only a handful of conservation organisations around the world to have been awarded carbon zero certification.

ZN: What’s been most inspiring about this journey for you?

TESS: People!  Here at the Zoo we have a massively passionate director in Jonathan Wilcken, a committed and supportive Lead Team, and highly motivated Green Team and wider Zoo staff.

My time in Africa also entrenched in me a deep understanding that any environmental or conservation issue is actually an issue of human behaviour. It’s about people impacting the natural world around us, and ultimately it’s with people that solutions lie.

There’s such a strong link between the work the Zoo does and climate change. And because of the magnificent animals that we care for and help, we’ve got this pretty unique opportunity to enable our 700,000+ visitors to form a personal connection with the subject of climate change and inspire them to take action and that really excites me.

Strong scientific evidence suggests that human-induced climate change will become a primary driver of wildlife species extinction in the coming century. But it’s also ultimately with us humans that solutions lie!

Tess Chilala, Environmental Sustainability Manager,

Climate change in Aotearoa

Climate change impacts are especially true for our unique native species like reptiles and frogs. The just out Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ ‘Atmosphere and Climate’ report  says New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions rose 24 percent from 1990 to 2015.  Like us, the report is concerned for the likes of tuatara – our dinosaur-age reptile where the sex of its eggs laid are temperature dependent during incubation - which can affect sex ratios in nests, with warmer temperatures producing more males.

None of us wants to see this magnificent iconic reptile go extinct – or any other of our precious fauna and flora. Not me, not you. So let’s take action together!

ZN:  What are the best ways we can all help reduce our carbon footprint?

TESS: Start composting! Separate out your food and garden scraps from your general waste stream, and you’ll cut your emissions drastically. Currently in New Zealand, organic waste to landfill accounts for close to 45% of all household rubbish. Organics in landfill produces methane – which is a 23 times’ worse greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide, so can greatly contribute to climate change. In contrast, when you compost, you’re putting nutrients back into the soil and avoiding emissions

Energy use is going to make up a significant proportion of your carbon footprint, even here in Aotearoa, where much of our power is produced through hydro stations. Turn plugs off at the wall and think about how much you need to put that heater on as opposed to putting on a jumper – you’ll save money too!

Consider eating less meat, particularly red meat. Worldwide, the livestock industry produces a significant proportion of total carbon emissions, and in New Zealand about half our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. You don’t have to go full vegan to make a positive impact, it’s all about those small steps, like maybe trying a plant-based diet just one day a week.