The time is now!

The NZ Climate Commission’s final recommendations to Government were tabled on Wednesday by Climate Minister James Shaw.

The recommendations chart an evidence-based course for New Zealand to reach its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

New Zealand has committed to reaching net zero emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases by 2050 and reducing biogenic methane emissions between 24-47% by 2050. 

By 31 December this year, the Government must have set its emissions budgets and finalised the country’s first emissions reduction plan, detailing the policies it will use to achieve the budgets. 

The Government is not obliged to adopt each and every recommendation in the Commission’s 400-page plan – titled Ināia tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa – but the exhaustive analysis of underlying trends and mitigation opportunities will put a huge burden on the Government if it, or any interest group, advocates a ‘softer’ path.

Commission chairman Rod Carr emphasised both the urgency and achievability of the proposed strategy. “Transformational and lasting change is both necessary and possible. The technology and the tools  Aotearoa  needs to reach its climate targets exist today. Our evidence shows climate action is affordable. Ināia tonu nei – the time is now.” 

Past governments are reprimanded: “Instead of putting policies in place to decarbonise the economy and develop low-emissions technologies, practices and behaviours, Aotearoa used forests planted in the 1990s to offset its emissions and meet its targets. The carbon removal benefits of these forests are now coming to an end. Gross emissions have increased by 26% since 1990 and Aotearoa is in a position that is more difficult than it might have been if it had started developing the structures, strategies and plans it needs to create a low emissions system earlier.” 

The Commission strategy rolls out across three 5-year time frames, with steadily decreasing ‘emissions budgets’ for each window. These are the reductions proposed: 

The Commission argues that acting now is economically advantageous: “We have assessed that the level of GDP could be around 0.5% lower in 2035 and 1.2% lower in 2050 than it would be otherwise. This is consistent with findings overseas. Investing in low emissions technologies and practices now will open up new opportunities and reduce the risk of damaging the country’s reputation due to a lack of credible climate action. However, delaying key actions like the move to EVs and embedding more efficient farm practices could result in the level of GDP in 2050 falling by around 2.3%. 

Here are some key principles guiding the strategy.

  • NZ needs to ‘decarbonise’ (i.e. actually reduce emissions, not rely on offsetting them); 
  • The plan to do so must ensure intergenerational equity and sustainable prosperity, with all sectors pulling their weight;
  • NZ will require a ‘carbon sink’ to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, provided near-term by exotic forests (pines), but longer-term by permanent native forests;
  • The plan treats ‘long-lived’ GHG emissions (think carbon) and ‘biogenic’ methane emissions (think cows) differently, arguably targeting the latter too weakly;
  • The plan moves “as fast as real-world constraints allow” recognising that necessary systemic changes – e.g., building the required electricity infrastructure, shifting to electric vehicles, changing farming practices – require reasonable time frames to achieve.

What the Commission proposes is indeed transformational, requiring significant behavioural changes by companies, sectors and individuals, alongside major re-tooling and retirement of embedded physical infrastructure and operating systems.

The Commission argues it has struck a proper balance when it comes to pace of change. However, the timing of transitions will be the most politically contentious aspect of the recommendations. The specific mitigation measures proposed are solidly grounded in evidence and technical feasibility … no fuzzy ‘blue sky’ assumptions or fixes. The real issue is: How far, how fast?

Here’s a preview of that debate, from the disappointed perspective of Greenpeace:

“New Zealand has the world’s highest methane emissions per person, largely thanks to those six million dairy cows. The Commission’s goal of a 16% reduction in methane is not only insufficient, it’s unlikely to succeed because it relies on voluntary measures and future techno-fixes, like the fabled methane vaccine.”

“Intensive dairying is to New Zealand what coal is to Australia and tar sands are to Canada. If this Government is serious about tackling the climate crisis, it must do what we already know will cut climate pollution from intensive dairying: phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, substantially reduce stocking rates, and support farmers to shift to regenerative organic farming.” 

We’ll be reporting more fully online and in BayBuzz magazine on the recommendations and the Government response, especially in terms of implications for Hawke’s Bay, where our agriculture sector accounts for 80% of our GHG emissions.

As I get ready to watch the French Open semi-finals, the Commission has served well, the ball’s shoulder high to the Government’s forehand.

Stay tuned.

For serious students, here is the Commission Advice.

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  1. “building the required electricity infrastructure” is very easy to say. But is it understood that most houses in NZ are wired, single phase, to standards developed more than 60 years ago, and are incapable of supporting EV charging systems of even 7.4 kW. That is not sufficient to charge your Tesla overnight. To improve that for a number of houses in your street the distribution network and distribution transformers will require to be upgraded. The costs are going to be huge, but are presently glossed over.

    It’s a pity that the advantages of solar power generation, at your own home, barely gets a mention.

  2. The proposed pathway places considerable weight on expanding our network of wind farms to provide the extra electricity required for transport, heating etc as we transition away from reliance on coal, oil, and gas. As there will be days when the turbines are stationary due to low wind speeds it will be crucial to plan for backup at these times to ensure stability of the grid. This aspect of the pathway needs attention especially as there are also occasions when our hydro lakes are low – the “dry” years..

  3. Climate is not changed by co2. C02 follows changes in climate, look at history. Conversion to electric car problematic, creates poverty.

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