COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 was the only time in 20 years New Zealand's carbon emissions dropped

New data shows the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown was the only time in 20 years when New Zealand's carbon emissions dropped. 

The latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory released on Tuesday by the Ministry for the Environment shows New Zealand's gross or total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 21 percent between 1990 and 2020. 

By comparison, 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.   

The only time when New Zealand's total emissions dropped was between 2019 and 2020. Emissions decreased by 3 percent, largely because COVID-19 restrictions caused a decrease in road transport, manufacturing and construction, and domestic aviation. 

Agriculture now makes up 50 percent of New Zealand's total emissions, followed by energy making up 40 percent. Emissions from the waste sector decreased by 17 percent due to ongoing improvements in the management of solid waste disposal at landfills. 

Overall, New Zealand's total emissions comprise 44 percent carbon dioxide, 44 percent methane, 11 percent nitrous oxide and 2 percent fluorinated gases.

Methane is produced by livestock from their digestive systems and nitrous oxide comes from nitrogen-based fertilisers used to help crop plants grow faster. 

According to the Ministry for the Environment, the increase in total emissions since 1990 is mostly due to increases in methane emissions from the dairy cattle population and carbon dioxide from road transport due to traffic growth.

It's not all bad news. Efforts to reduce or capture emissions from land use and forestry have had a "beneficial impact" in removing emissions from the atmosphere since 1990. In 2020, the sector offset 29.6 percent of New Zealand's total emissions. 

In 2021, forests in the Emissions Trading Scheme sequestered 6.7 million tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual emissions from 2.5 million cars.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says the latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory underlines the case for accelerated action to reduce emissions.

"COVID-19 has caused global anomalies in emissions levels, but clearly a pandemic is not the way to tackle climate change," Shaw said on Tuesday. 

"The important thing is that we cannot just go back to normal and watch as our emissions bounce back and start climbing once again. We have to build back better. We have to get on with the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy."

Last week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s sixth report warned that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5C is beyond reach. 

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

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. But it's not thanks to New Zealand. 

New Zealand will meet its international 2020 emissions reduction target under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but only through a mix of emission reductions, removals and international carbon credits.

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

"Meeting the 2020 target is encouraging, but there are bigger, more important targets down the line," Shaw said. 

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 last year 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. 

The emissions reduction plan to be delivered in May will set out how New Zealand will aim to meet its first emissions budget (2022-2025) and set the path towards meeting our long-term climate targets of net zero emissions by 2050.  

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.

Time to tax agriculture?

Agriculture is the only sector not currently taxed under the ETS, so in 2019, the Government decided to tax agricultural emissions and asked the Climate Change Committee to advise on how this could be done.

But the agricultural sector did not 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.

National leader Christopher Luxon is opposed to reducing livestocks to meet our targets. 

"Agriculture generates 80 percent of our foreign export earnings, it's $9000 for every New Zealander in the country, it employs over 380,000 people and it feeds 40 million people internationally," he said on Tuesday.

'This logic of 'we've got to cull our herd' in order to get our emissions in place isn't good for the world because we're already the most carbon efficient producers in the world, and all we're doing is meeting the demand for that 40 million people that we feed, and it will go to another less carbon-efficient country.

"We need to change our mindset quite a bit, stop being so negative and thinking of farmers as villains, and come out and actually back them to be truly world-class and that means investing much more in research and development."

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.