Climate change emergency: How the Government plans to make public sector carbon neutral by 2025

Off the back of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's declaration of a climate change emergency, the Government plans to make the public sector carbon neutral by 2025. 

The Carbon Neutral Government Programme will require public sector agencies to measure and publicly report on their emissions and to offset any they can't cut by 2025.

It will be backed by a $200 million State Sector Decarbonisation Fund that will finance the replacement of public sector coal boilers and support the immediate purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles to start replacing the Government's petrol car fleet.

"Requiring the public sector to be carbon neutral within five years highlights the Government's commitment to leadership on climate change and the urgency of the action required," Ardern said on Wednesday. 

"It's an important step forward in our plan for New Zealand to be carbon neutral by 2050. The public sector needs to be and will be an exemplar that sets the standard we all need to achieve by 2050."

The policy sits alongside the Government's declaration of a climate emergency and "serves as a message to the public sector to get our own house in order", Ardern said. 

"It's also a call to action for the private sector and it's great to see so many examples of businesses taking steps to reduce their emissions."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said achieving carbon neutrality across the public sector by 2025 will build on the progress the Government made over the last three years to transition New Zealand to net-zero carbon emissions.

"According to the world's leading scientists, we have just over nine years left to cut carbon emissions in half. This new initiative shows that the Government is equal to the challenge ahead," Shaw said. 

Since 1990, New Zealand's gross emissions have increased by 24 percent, according to the Ministry for the Environment. The agriculture and energy sectors contributed the most to emissions at 47.8 percent and 40.5 percent of gross emissions in 2018. 

The Government has already banned new offshore oil and gas exploration and established the Climate Change Commission which will advise governments on how to meet targets set in the Zero Carbon Act passed in 2019. 

The targets include zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and a reduction of between 24 and 47 percent of methane emissions by 2050. These targets are intended to keep global warming to within 1.5C by 2050.

What is the Government already doing?

Labour's climate change policies include phasing out coal-fired boilers and decarbonising public transport buses, preventing unnecessary waste by phasing out single-use and hard to recycle plastics, and supporting agricultural climate change research. 

Electric vehicles only make about 0.3 percent of New Zealand's vehicle fleet.

Labour's coalition agreement with New Zealand First in 2017 included a commitment to make the Government's vehicle fleet to become emissions-free by 2025/26, but as of June 14, just 108 cars in its fleet were electric.

"There are nearly 16,000 vehicles in the Government fleet and more than 200 coal-fired boilers currently heating water and buildings in the State Sector. So there is room for improvement," said Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash. 

He said in the last term of Government the focus was on the charging infrastructure necessary to support the uptake of electric vehicles. 

Labour also plans to accelerate the uptake of low emission vehicles by progressively increasing funding for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority's Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund. 

The fund offers $6 million a year to co-fund projects in areas where commercial returns aren't yet strong enough to justify full private investment and around 163 projects have been approved by $27 million in Government funding. 

The fund has supported trials of electric trucks and buses, vehicle-to-home charging systems, and has enabled more than 100 electric vehicle chargers to be rolled out across New Zealand. 

Labour also wants to introduce a vehicle fuel efficiency standard, which would only apply to the new and used vehicles entering New Zealand and not the re-sale of existing ones, which account for 74 percent of annual vehicle sales. 

What about agriculture emissions?

The Government announced in July 2019 it had reached a consensus with the agriculture sector on the need to implement pricing on emissions from 2025. 

It was then decided in October 2019 that farmers would be given five years to develop practical ways to measure and price emissions at the farm-level, to be separate from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). 

Agriculture will be included in the ETS if an alternative isn't figured out by 2025. But either way, farmers would get a 95 percent discount - despite agriculture making up about half of New Zealand's reported emissions.