James Shaw is one of many politicians around the world packing their bags for COP26. Going into this landmark summit, is New Zealand an international emissions pariah or are we doing our bit?
Spare a thought for James Shaw. The climate change minister is about to hop on a flight to the COP26 conference in Glasgow under a hail of criticism from all sides. Overseas, our record on climate change has been under attack from the likes of Greta Thunberg and our international peers, while at home the most persistent debate about the conference has centred on why we are sending anyone at all. Now Shaw has to vouch for our efforts on the world stage, touting commitments made by a cabinet that he is not even a proper part of, and at a meeting that even the Queen has called out as nothing but a talk fest.
So what is NZ’s record on climate change to date and how do our international commitments measure up?
Our track record so far hasn’t been great. Since 1990, New Zealand’s net greenhouse emissions have increased at the fourth highest rate in the OECD, rising by a third, and only beaten by Turkey, Cyprus and Canada. In 2019, our gross emissions – that’s emissions not taking into account carbon sinks like forestry – were the fifth highest per capita in the OECD, behind Australia, the US, Canada and Luxembourg, and 50% higher than the OECD average. Our net emissions (including offsets from forestry and land use changes), were the eighth highest and 10% higher than the average.
The Ministry for the Environment said the growth in our emissions was primarily down to emissions from cars and trucks almost doubling since 1990 and agriculture emissions increasing by 17%.
Our emissions profile is unusual in that 48% comes from agriculture and, thanks largely to hydropower, only 5% comes from electricity generation. On average agriculture contributes just 12.3% to the emissions of other developed countries. In Australia, 13% of emissions come from agriculture, while electricity accounts for a third of emissions.
And so to Shaw and COP26 (the 26th “Conference of the Parties”), the most important climate change conference since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015. Back then, 196 countries agreed to take action to limit global warming to between 1.5C and 2C. The most critical part was that each country was required to submit a plan to reduce emissions to reach that goal, called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). These plans have to be submitted every five years and the idea is they become increasingly ambitious.
The first NDC covers 2021 to 2030 and at the moment these commitments aren’t enough to keep warming in check. The UN said current commitments would result in emissions increasing by 16% on 2010 levels by 2030 and could lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7C by 2100. But countries are expected to announce more ambitious targets.
New Zealand’s NDC was set by the previous National government in 2015. It commits us to reducing emissions by 30% on 2005 levels by 2030. Back then, both Labour and the Greens criticised the target as being too weak. Despite the change in government – and many other countries increasing their commitments – at the time of writing our NDC remains unchanged, although we are expected to up our efforts at COP26.
Our current target also probably won’t be enough to meet our obligations for limiting global warming to 1.5C. The Climate Change Commission found NZ would have to increase its reduction target to “much more than 36%” if it wanted to be consistent with that target.
How does NZ’s target compare to other countries?
Confusingly, countries use different baselines for their climate change targets – and cuts can look more impressive depending on how high emissions were in the baseline year.
The UK has committed to reducing emissions by 68% on 1990 levels, while the EU has committed to a 55% reduction on 1990 levels – using that baseline, NZ’s target amounts to an 11% reduction. The US has committed to reducing emissions by 50 to 52% on 2005 levels and Canada by 40-45% on 2005 levels, while Japan has committed to a 46% reduction on 2013 levels. But our commitments are slightly more stringent than Australia’s, which has committed to reducing emission by 26-28% on 2005 levels.
Are we on track to meet our seemingly inadequate NDC target?
Not at all. Our emissions have been more or less flat since 2003. The latest data shows our gross emissions haven’t budged on 2005 levels, while net emissions were down just 7%. In the year to 2019 alone, emissions increased by 2%.
The Ministry for the Environment projections estimate that, based on business-as-usual, emissions are expected to keep increasing, peaking 17% higher than 2005 levels in 2027, and then gradually declining.
We are planning to increase our efforts, but the Climate Change Commission found we’ll still miss our target by a significant amount. In fact, our progress to date has been so poor that the commission argued that reducing our emissions to meet the target would do more harm than good. Basically, because we haven’t acted over the past couple of decades we’d have to do so much in such a short time that it would be immensely costly and inefficient.
If we met the target by reducing our emissions, then it said some businesses would have to shutdown because they would be unable to adapt in time and it would “likely lead to severe social and economic impacts on communities, people and businesses”. It said we can still stay on track to becoming net zero by 2050 and that should be the main goal.
So how do we meet our target, that we can’t meet?
Basically, the only option is to pay other countries to reduce their emissions on our behalf. Under the Paris Agreement, countries can agree to pay another country to reduce their emissions, either through direct agreements with other countries, or in a yet-to-be established international scheme. The details of such a scheme could be hashed out at Glasgow and could have a major impact on NZ’s ability to meet its NDC – and whether paying other countries will result in real and transparent emissions reductions.
How much we will have to pay still isn’t clear and will depend on the international agreements – and whether we increase our target further. The commission said the costs could be shared between polluting businesses and government. If we upped the target to a 36% reduction, it said it could cost between $2.4b and $11.2b, depending on the price of carbon.
It’s worth noting the commission also criticised the government for being opaque on how it would meet its NDC and what the costs could be and called for regular reporting on this. We should be told how much we’re going to fall short by and what it might cost.
Does this all mean we’re among the world’s worst polluters but are doing little to change it?
Not exactly. David Frame is director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington and says New Zealand’s 2050 emissions target of reaching net-zero emissions is still consistent with us doing our bit to keep global warming to 1.5C. That’s a more significant goal and we are putting budgets in place to meet it.
“I think our targets are really impressive,” Frame says. “If we meet the mid-range target, we would stop our contribution to warming some time in the late 2030s.”
He says while New Zealand’s NDC looks relatively weak, other countries are reducing emissions from a higher base and NZ’s emissions profile makes it more difficult to make quick gains. Due to our abundance of renewable electricity and lack of heavy industry, our CO2 emissions are also relatively low.
“We don’t have lots of big coal plants that we can shut off and replace with renewables, or big heavy industries we can move off to China. It means that our rate of emissions decline will be lower. Although we have shown a total failure to get on top of our transport emissions.”
But Frame is also critical of the obsession on national targets on the international stage, which are detracting from the actual hard graft of reducing emissions.
“Keeping warming to 1.5C is virtually impossible. There’s no chance. So last year Covid led to CO2 reductions of about 6% worldwide. What we need to stay at 1.5C is annual and compounding emissions reductions of about 7.8%, every year for 30 years with no rebounding. There’s no chance. So that’s why pointing to each other’s NDCs and saying ‘you’re not compatible with 1.5C’ is not convincing, because I just don’t see those targets as sticking. The governments can’t create policies popular enough to win elections that will square with those tougher targets.”
Frame argues we shouldn’t increase our targets – we should increase our efforts. “Constantly ramping up the target when you don’t have the policy portfolios to meet them is of questionable value. Why not set a bunch of targets you can meet, and weather the inevitable [backlash] from the world, but actually get on and build a bipartisan agreement so that climate policy doesn’t become toxic the way it has in North America and Australia.
“What we have to do is bring the median voter along with climate policy, so they want to live a low-carbon life.”
Turn the talk-fest into a do-fest. That sounds like something both the Queen and Thunberg could get behind.