The New Zealand Climate Change Commission has released their first package of advice for public consultation. The advice covers the first three carbon budgets (out to 2035) and provides a detailed plan on how to achieve them.
As many aspects of the country’s climate policies have been criticised as weak – from the “split gas” approach in which not all gases need to reach net zero emissions by 2050, to an over-reliance on commercial forestry, to a past failure to cut emissions and future projections that miss targets – the commission’s first major report has been keenly anticipated on all sides.
The carbon budgets themselves are only slightly lower than current plans. The commission is recommending cuts in net emissions of 7% on 2018 levels by 2025; 24% by 2030; and 43% by 2035. The report suggests that these cuts can be achieved at low cost – just 1% of GDP – and minimal change to lifestyles. In fact, most of the changes sound terrific: warmer homes, slightly more compact cities with better provision for walking and cycling, fewer sheep and cows (but no loss of production), a manageable number of new wind and solar farms.
What’s not to like?
The big shift in the commission’s climate plan is that it calls for much steeper and earlier cuts in fossil fuels than anything that has been seen previously. Coal and gas consumption would fall by three-quarters by 2035, petrol and diesel by a quarter. That’s not easy. Step by step through all areas of society, the report details the requirements for rapid and sweeping regulation and oversight. That places the ball squarely in the government’s court.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, recognised this in her initial response, saying, “Reaching our emissions reduction targets by 2050 is both achievable and affordable according to the commission’s advice … As a government we are committed to picking up the pace and focusing much more on decarbonisation and reducing emissions rather than overly relying on forestry.”
Consider land transport. It accounts for half of all fossil fuel CO2 emissions, and it’s a sector whose emissions have doubled since 1990. The transport system is overwhelmingly dominated by private cars, and both Labour- and National-led governments have greatly increased the pace of motorway expansion. Now the commission is recommending emission cuts of 47% by 2035, involving a 50% market share for electric vehicles by 2027 (compared to just 2% today) and a ban on importing fossil-fuelled vehicles from 2032.
Immediate changes to urban planning lead to more compact cities and 7% less travel. Walking, cycling, and public transport increase 25%, 95%, and 120% respectively by 2030. Changes like this will require a revolution in transport policy and delivery, which is already a heavily contested area.
Last week, the government announced that it would introduce long-delayed fuel efficiency standards. Although the car importing industry has won several concessions, including halving the proposed fines for noncompliance and delaying them by a year (to 2023) they still claim the targets are unprecedented and impossible to meet. But the commission’s targets will require much more sweeping action than this. Responsibility for walking, cycling, and public transport mostly falls on cash-strapped local councils. And specific decisions, such as adding pedestrian crossings and building cycleways, are very slow and can provoke intense local opposition.
Previous scenarios for New Zealand have involved staggering amounts – millions of hectares – of new plantation forestry. This has found its way into government policy, through the Billion Trees programme, and subsidies via the Emissions Trading Scheme. In turn this has generated concern both from farmers, that farmland is being converted to less productive uses, and from climate advocates, who argue that trees represent a finite and risky store of carbon. Focusing on them can act to delay the exit from fossil fuels and limit land-use options available to future generations.
The commission has heard these concerns and responded with a new proposal. It still involves 300,000 hectares of new plantation forests, but it also contains a new ingredient, 300,000 hectares of permanent native forests, planted on steep, less productive land. These store carbon at a much slower rate, but can keep doing so for centuries, and also lead to biodiversity gains. The commission argues that this is a plausible way to offset the small remaining emissions from fossil fuels.
The sheep, beef, and dairy industries will be paying close attention to the recommendations on biogenic methane – the famous cow burps that have bedevilled New Zealand’s climate response for decades. A range of targets was written into the Zero Carbon Act. The commission has found that the lower end of the targets can be achieved with existing approaches and with no loss of production; the higher end will need some new technology, such as a possible methane vaccine, or lower production.
On the larger question, of New Zealand’s contribution to the global effort, they write:
Overall we assess that there are good reasons for Aotearoa to expect to reduce biogenic methane emissions by at least the global average [37% reduction by 2100] as part of contributing to the global 1.5°C goal.
Finally, the commission was asked – they seem to be a convenient place to kick difficult questions – to look at New Zealand’s international responsibility for climate action. Indeed, the current Nationally Determined Contribution, a 30% reduction of 2030 net emissions compared to 2005 gross emissions, has been widely seen as weak, and was not updated in 2020 under the Paris Agreement. They have found that, taking into account New Zealand’s emission profile, a 35% reduction would meet the global requirement for the 1.5°C goal. But – and it’s a big but – to also take into account New Zealand’s historical responsibility, and its status as a wealthy, developed nation, the targeted reduction should be “much more than 35%”. In other words: back to you, government.
The UK’s Climate Change Act, on which New Zealand’s version was based, is credited with stabilising policy and improving political debate and decision making. Will the same thing happen in New Zealand? So far, the signs are good. The ball now passes to the public and then, once the advice is finalised, to the government, who must respond with their final plan by the end of the year.
Robert McLachlan is a professor in applied mathematics at Massey University