Climate change minister James Shaw and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have welcome the climate change commission report. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

New Zealand roadmap to net zero revealed on historic day. Here’s what it means for you

Ardern says the government is ready to ‘accelerate’ to meet the ambitious demands of the emissions budget laid down by the Climate Change Commission.

Every home and business in the country will need to see a substantial shift in behaviour under far-reaching guidance just released by the Climate Change Commission. The “emissions budget”, the first in Aotearoa’s history, sets out a path to being carbon neutral by 2050. Without “strong and decisive action” within the next few years, the commission warns New Zealand will not meet its domestic or international climate targets.

The package is ambitious but does not depend on any future technology, steep taxes or painful industrial contraction to decarbonise the economy. Consultation on the draft advice is open until March 14, with a final roadmap to be released by the end of May. The government is then legally required to adopt the advice or come up with its own plan before the end of the year.

“The government must pick up the pace. Aotearoa will not meet its targets without strong and decisive action now to drive low emissions technologies and behaviour change across all sectors. 2050 is not far away,” the nonpartisan commission warns in the blueprint, which runs to nearly 200 pages.

“The good news is that our analysis shows there are technically achievable, economically affordable and socially acceptable paths for Aotearoa to take,” said the commission chair Rod Carr. “But the government must move faster – and support business, agriculture and community to do the same.”

Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr. Photo: Supplied

The prime minister this afternoon welcomed the advice, saying it supported the ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050 as “both achievable and affordable”.

Jacinda Ardern said: “The commission’s draft advice sets out an achievable blueprint for New Zealand to become a prosperous, low-emissions economy … 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.”

James Shaw, the climate minister who pushed the legislation that created the commission through parliament in the last term, said: “There are two things that stand out from the draft advice – first, that action will be required across all sectors of the economy, and second that meeting our targets is affordable and possible with existing technology.”

He added: “There are a series of choices that will need to be made at a cabinet level about how we reach net-zero carbon emissions and reduce biogenic methane – but when I look at the strategic policy direction the commission has set out, I am more confident than I have ever been that it can be done.”

In a statement, of the Schools Strike for Climate group called the commission report “confronting”. Spokesperson Ethan Reille added: “They have made it very clear that New Zealand is not doing enough, and quite frankly we are on the edge of major backlash, such that chain reactions that are soon to come, will be irreversible – unless action is made, and is made now.”

Here’s how the commission proposes to create a zero carbon New Zealand.

Your car

Most New Zealanders will need to buy electric vehicles by the end of this decade. Government support will probably be required to make purchases affordable. The country will begin phasing-out internal combustion engines after 2030.

Your home

No new natural gas or LPG bottles will be fitted to homes or business after 2025. All gas is removed in the 2040s and replaced with heat pumps or electric water cylinders. New homes by 2035 need to be 35% more energy efficient than today.

Your community

We need to build compact communities where people can walk, bike or use public transit. There will be more remote working as we reduce annual kilometres travelled by 7%.

Transport

Medium and heavy electric trucks will be required by the 2040s. Increasingly, freight is moved to trains, ferries and coastal shipping that are all electrified. More biofuels for aviation.

Power

An end to fossil fuel powered electricity. Replace gas and coal process heat in industry.

Agriculture

Reduce stock numbers of sheep and cows. Require low emissions practices, low emissions breeding and new technology to curb methane. Plant native forests instead of exotic trees being used now to capture carbon quickly.

Waste

Stop binning organics and create a circular economy where goods are reused instead of going to landfill. As the report puts it, a transformation from “a throw away culture to one that values our resources.”

That list isn’t a series of pick and choose recommendations. The commission makes it clear that the country needs to do all of them. At the same time. Starting now.

There are 17 critical actions set out that the government needs to take.

According to the commission, the overall cost of meeting the targets and the proposed emissions reductions is less than 1% of projected GDP—which might sound small but is still a massively expensive programme.

The report compares the needed changes to the 1980s economic reforms that continue to shape the country today. It needs to be a steady transition, fast enough to make a difference, but with enough breathing room to support people through the changes and ensure no single group unfairly shoulders the burden of curbing carbon emissions.

It will be difficult, the commission acknowledges. The transition will take decades and needs to be non-partisan, as 10 elections are planned between now and 2050. “Uncertainty is not a reason to delay,” the commissioners warn. Acting sooner creates more options in the future, delay will only make it harder and more expensive when the time does come to meet carbon neutral targets.

To cushion the economic blow, the commission calls for most transitions to happen when cars, gas fittings or industrial equipment wears out and needs to be replaced. Things shouldn’t be trashed early to speed the move towards a carbon neutral economy.  Overall industrial output, as well as milk and meat production, is stable or increases under the emissions budgets.

Up to 1,100 jobs in oil and gas, as well as coal, could be lost by 2035 according to the report’s modelling. “It is worth noting that many of these workers have important skills that will be valuable in other sectors and new industries,” the commission wrote.

There will be a need for the government to help some workers learn new skills. Lower-income and rural communities, who will struggle to reduce emissions cheaply, might also need additional aid during the transition.

As Carr told The Spinoff in an interview last week, choosing the easiest path and ignoring emissions is not an option. He warned that the country could find itself shut out of international markets, its companies boycotted overseas and unable to raise money. As Carr put it, “countries who are putting costs on their local communities are going to get less tolerant of countries and communities that aren’t doing their share.”

While the commission’s goals for New Zealand might sounds far-fetched, they’re increasingly the global minimum. US President Joe Biden signed executive orders this week that committed the country to emissions-free electricity by 2035 and economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.

So how realistic is getting to a carbon free Aotearoa by 2050? Very. The commission came up with two scenarios. In it’s pessimistic headwinds scenario, where technologies are delayed and people stubbornly refuse to change behaviours, the target is hit in 2048. With tailwinds, where everything goes well, the target is hit in 2040.

Once the country gets to carbon neutrality, it can pop a bottle of bubbly and celebrate for a day or two. However, the work doesn’t finish there. That’s when undoing the damage already done starts and the country moves into negative net emissions to start scrubbing the atmosphere.

“Actions taken in the next five years will need to set Aotearoa up to deliver the deeper reductions required in subsequent emissions budgets,” wrote the commission.

While the government’s current policies are set to miss the mark, they don’t miss by much. By 2050 the country would be off by 6.3 megatons of warming gases, which is about 16% of current gross annual emissions. The commission’s programmes requires so much more work because it rejects the largest element of the government’s current plan: planting trees.

New Zealand’s main tool right now to combat emissions is planting trees. Working through the country’s carbon trading schemes, millions of trees are forecast to be planted. Most of the planting will be exotic tree species that grow fast and absorb carbon quickly. That’s the wrong way to go, according to the commission.

For starters, it’s a lot of trees. About 1.1 million hectares of new forest is needed. That’s the area of 13 supercities or all of Northland. That’s valuable land turned into trees that don’t do much for the local environment or biodiversity. There’s also a risk, highlighted in the Spinoff, that as the world warms, the trees might stop absorbing carbon and start emitting it, which would be very, very bad.

There needs to be some tree planting according to the commission, but it should be native bush, which grows over centuries and supports local plants and animals.

Finally, planting trees offsets carbon emissions now, but it doesn’t actually prepare the country for the future. There would be no “meaningful decarbonisation” of the economy, instead, it kicks the can down the road, requiring the next generation to tackle emissions. If there’s one thing the commission learned, it’s to stop delaying action and pushing the burden to the next generation.

 

The climate strike in Auckland in 2019 (Photo: Sylvie Whinray)

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