Climate lecturer's warning: New Zealand 'not making any transformative change to meet world's targets'

With a few exceptions, New Zealand is "not making any transformative change to meet the world's targets", warns climate change lecturer Dr Alex Lo.

His comments came after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s sixth report, which has warned that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5C is beyond reach.

The IPCC had already warned in previous reports that if Earth warms by 2C, hundreds of thousands of species could go extinct, various natural environments would die and many coastal communities will be flooded out of existence.

The good news is that despite average annual global greenhouse gas emissions reaching their highest levels in human history from 2010 to 2019, the rate of growth has slowed.

The United States, the UK, Sweden, Romania, France, Ireland, Spain, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Finland and Croatia have all seen their emissions decrease.

But not New Zealand.

Stats NZ's environmental indicators update in February found that emissions in 2019 showed no sustained reductions compared to 2005 levels, and that our glacier ice volumes are continuing to decrease.

Greenhouse gas emissions were mainly made up of carbon dioxide (45.5 percent), methane produced by livestock from their digestive system (42.1 percent) and nitrous oxide from nitrogen-based fertilisers (10.2 percent).

"New Zealand has done quite poorly in controlling transport emissions, in particular," Dr Lo, a Senior Lecturer in Climate Change at Victoria University in Wellington, told Newshub.

Transport is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand, and is up 16.6 percent from 2005.

"This is mainly due to road transport and there are little incentives to improve public transport systems, especially for long-distance travel," Dr Lo said.

"Things like the Transmission Gully in Wellington is an example showing NZ is still addicted to private transport - NZ car ownership per capita is among the highest in the world. Our major cities are small and far away from each other, making public transport inefficient and encouraging us to fly."

There are some encouraging signs. More electric vehicles (EVs) were registered in New Zealand in the six months following the introduction of the Government's Clean Car Discount rebate scheme last year than in 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020.

It led to a 15 percent reduction in emissions from new imported vehicles and a more than tripling of the number of new EVs being sold each month.

Rebates of up to $8625 for imported EVs are funded by charging the purchase of high-emitting vehicles up to $5175. Vehicles with moderate emissions get neither a rebate nor a charge.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

But agriculture emissions remain the largest source of emissions in New Zealand. Methane emissions from livestock in 2019 were up 9 percent from 1990 and down 1.6 percent from 2005. Nitrous oxide emissions were up 45.3 percent from 1990 and up 5.9 percent from 2005.

Agriculture is the only sector not currently facing a price in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), so in 2019, the Government decided to price agricultural emissions and asked the Interim Climate Change Committee to advise on how this could be done.

But the agricultural sector didn't want the Government to determine this on their own. Sector leaders proposed that the Government work in partnership through a proposal called He Waka Eke Noa.

The industry has until 2025 to come up with a solution or else fall into the ETS. But even if agriculture is put into the ETS, it would get a 95 percent discount.

A recent discussion document showed the current proposed arrangement by the industry would lead to reductions in total agricultural emissions of less than 1 percent below 2017 levels, at a cost of up to $430 million per annum.

"We should include agricultural emissions in the NZ ETS," Dr Lo said.

"Be reminded that we do not have a history of successfully meeting emission reduction targets under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)," Dr Lo said.

Under the UNFCCC's 1997 Kyoto Protocol CP1 (2008-2012), New Zealand was expected to return our emissions to 1990 levels. Instead, our emissions were up by 33 percent.

The Zero Carbon Act, passed in 2019, sets a target of zero carbon emissions by 2050, and reducing methane emissions by between 24 to 47 percent by 2050.

But the Climate Change Commission warned the Government in June that the Government's policies were not good enough to meet its targets and that methane would need to be reduced by 49 to 60 percent below 2017 levels. 

New Zealand is one of the few countries to have a net zero emissions by 2050 goal enshrined in law, but based on current policies, the international Climate Action Tracker ranks us as "highly insufficient"

Dr Alex Lo, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change at Victoria University in Wellington.
Dr Alex Lo, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change at Victoria University in Wellington. Photo credit: Victoria University

New Zealand now has a new emissions target, announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in November last year.

The Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), New Zealand's target to help meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, was changed from a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 to a 50 percent reduction.

But Climate Change Minister James Shaw was warned by Treasury that his climate target was too ambitious, too expensive and could be setting New Zealand up to fail. He was also accused of using "clever accounting" to make the target look better.

Dr Lo echoed the criticism from environmental groups of the Government's plan to buy international carbon offsets to meet our goals - as much as two-thirds of our emissions reduction target.

"As something doing research into carbon offsetting, I have no idea where the NZ Government could get such a large number of quality carbon offsets from abroad."

That's not to say offsetting emissions by planting trees doesn't work. In 2021, forests in the ETS sequestered 6.7 million tonnes of CO2 which is equivalent to the annual emissions from 2.5 million cars. The Government is now looking at ways to ensure the right trees are planted in the right place for the right reason.

The Climate Change Minister is aware of how dire the situation is.

"Our Emissions Reduction Plan, which will be published next month, will set out how we will reduce emissions across every sector of the economy," he said on Tuesday.

"There are those who will try and tell you, when it comes to climate change, New Zealand is too small to be counted - this report should well and truly dispel us of that notion. We are part of the problem and we must be part of the solution."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has given himself $6 billion for the upcoming Budget and $4.5 billion is expected to go towards the new Climate Emergency Response Fund, which will spend proceeds from the ETS on initiatives to combat climate challenges.

In the meantime, there are resources available for farmers to reduce their emissions, though Federated Farmers is pushing for more use of products like Bovaer, which goes in animal feed and is said to have the potential to cut methane emissions by up to 30 percent.