As required by the Zero Carbon Act (enacted 2019), the Climate Change Commission has presented its first three ‘budgets’ which recommend how NZ should meet its national goals for greenhouse gas reductions as well as meet its international obligations. Each budget covers a five-year window, reaching to 2035. 

These are draft budgets, out for public consultation until 14 March. The Commission must promulgate its final recommendations by May 31. They are not binding on the government, but the government must take the recommendations into account when adopting its official climate plan no later than December 31. 

The Commission first notes that current government policies do not put Aotearoa on track to meet its recommended emissions budgets or the existing 2050 targets. Emissions would decline, but not enough.

In 2018, gross greenhouse gas emissions in Aotearoa were about 45.5 Mt CO2-e of long-lived gases, and 1.34 Mt CH4 (biogenic methane). Our analysis shows if policy stayed as it is now, Aotearoa would fall short of achieving the 2050 net zero long-lived gas target by 6.3 Mt CO2-e. Biogenic methane would reduce 12% below 2017 levels and fall short of the current target of 24-47%. 

However, the Commission has concluded that “there are achievable, affordable and socially acceptable pathways for Aotearoa to take”. 

As the chairman, Dr Rod Carr writes: “Now we must decide where our ambition lies … To achieve a cleaner, greener, healthier and more sustainable future, no emission reduction is too small – or too soon. All of us have a part to play and a contribution to make. 

This means we need to change how we get around, and rethink what we produce and how we produce it. We need to reconsider what we buy, what we do with what we have used, and how we can reuse more of what we have left over.”

The report strongly emphasises that NZ must focus on decarbonising and reducing emissions at the source and not rely on forests to meet our climate change targets: “We can’t plant our way out of climate change”. 

Priority areas for action include improving farm practices, increasing the number of electric vehicles on our roads, increasing our total renewable energy, and planting more native trees to provide a long-term carbon sink. 

Most important is what happens on the land. In 2018, agriculture emissions made up about 90% of biogenic methane and 18% of long-lived gas emissions (CO2e). Here are the steps called for by the Commission:

  • The Government needs a cohesive strategy that includes water, biodiversity and climate. 
  • Farmers can make changes now to reduce emissions on their farms while maintaining, or even improving, productivity. This includes reducing animal numbers and better animal, pasture and feed management. 
  • A long-term plan for targeted research and development of new technologies to reduce emissions from agriculture. For example, the Commission estimates Aotearoa can achieve methane reductions of 24% by 2050 without any technology developments, such as vaccines or inhibitors. 

As for trees, the Commission recommends:

  • Pine trees will still play an important role in getting to 2050 and could support a future bioeconomy, as bioenergy to replace fossil fuels and as timber for building. 
  • Existing forests, small blocks of trees, soils and wetlands can all store more carbon. Work is needed to better understand this potential and how to include this in accounting systems. 
  • Native forests can create a long-term carbon sink while providing a range of other benefits, like improving biodiversity and erosion control. Incentives are needed to get more native trees planted. 

Transportation is another priority. In 2018, transport emissions made up 36.3% of total long-lived gases. The Commission notes that emissions from domestic transport have continued to rise even as emissions from other sectors stabilised or decreased. 

Yet NZ can cut almost all transport emissions by 2050. The technology already exists and is improving fast. The Commission says: “We want to see the majority of the vehicles coming into New Zealand for everyday use electric by 2035.” No further internal combustion engine light vehicles would be imported after 2032.

Note that the Government in its first term abandoned its rather whimpy intention to require more fuel-efficient cars and financially incentivise EVs under resistance from NZ First.

The Commission advocates moving freight off the road and onto rail and shipping, gives the customary nods to public transport and cycleways, and says the use of low carbon fuels, such as biofuels and hydrogen, needs to increase, particularly in heavy trucks, trains, planes, and ships. 

The third area of priority is heat, industry & power. In 2018, heat, industry and power emissions made up 41% of total long-lived gases. 

Here’s how the Commission sums up its recommended path in these three areas:

With this cumulative impact and trajectory over the fifteen years covered by the first three budgets (to 2035):

As you would expect, there’s a heap of detail in the Commission’s 187-page report and recommendations, which are supported by 577 pages of evidence. 

The argument going forward will be about pace, the policy mix and fairness across sectors. It should not be about the facts presented in this meticulous body of work, and it cannot be about the goals.

As NZ charts its domestic path to mitigate greenhouse emissions, the nation’s contribution to the global effort must be weighed. 

The Commission finds that the Government’s commitment (under the Paris Agreement, the current global benchmark) to reduce net emissions by an average of 30% from 2005 emissions levels over the 2021-2030 period is not compatible with global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. 

The Commission observes: “If Aotearoa is to play its part as a developed nation, the NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) would need to be strengthened to reflect emission reductions of much more than 35% below 2005 levels by 2030.” 

Such increased reductions would go beyond the pathways the Commission has recommended for NZ at present. And so the Commission kicks this one to touch: “We consider that these judgements, and the decision on the level of international commitment, should be made by the elected government of the day.” 

Count on BayBuzz to report in depth as this crucial initial debate unfolds over the coming year and tests the Prime Minister’s leadership and resolve.

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