Opinion: A promise to move to fully renewable electricity by 2030 distracts from Labour’s unwillingness to act on the sectors that contribute measurably to our greenhouse gas emissions, like transport and agriculture, Marc Daalder argues

On the face of it, the promise from Labour that it would make New Zealand’s electricity system fully renewable by 2030 seems a bold climate pledge.

In reality, it is little more than a red herring to distract from the woeful lack of policy to reduce emissions in sectors that pollute far more than the energy industry.

The pledge advances an earlier target of a 100 percent renewable system by 2035 and would involve a review of the plan when the Government evaluates its five-year emissions budget in 2025. However, it is targeting only a small slice of the country’s emissions profile, while leaving larger chunks like transport, agriculture and industrial process heat unaddressed.

Already, some 84 percent of the country’s electricity is generated renewably. While knocking off that last 16 percent may seem an admirable goal, research by the Interim Climate Change Committee (ICCC) has actually found there are more cost-effective ways to reduce emissions and that an early move towards total renewable electricity could cause a steep spike in the price of power.

The key issue is the “dry year” problem. Because New Zealand’s electricity system is so reliant on hydroelectric generators – which produce nearly two-thirds of our power – a dry year with less rain could mean we don’t create enough electricity to power everything that needs power. To avoid that, we keep a handful of fossil fuel power stations running, because they can operate regardless of the weather.

Overcoming the dry year problem without a technological breakthrough like a pumped hydro scheme or a massive Tesla battery would mean building more renewable generation than we realistically need for non-dry years, the ICCC found.

“It is technically feasible to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by ʻoverbuilding’. This means building additional renewable generation like wind and solar to cover dry years, and substantially increasing battery storage and demand response,” the committee found.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, the electricity system will be 93 percent renewable by 2035 anyway. And more emissions could be avoided through electrifying transport and process heat than by decarbonising that last 7 percent.

“Such a solution is very costly, particularly in terms of achieving the last few percent of renewable electricity,” the ICCC wrote.

“The Committee recommends that the Government prioritises the accelerated electrification of transport and process heat over pursuing 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 in a normal hydrological year because this could result in greater greenhouse gas emissions savings while keeping electricity prices affordable.”

Pursuing the 100 percent renewable scenario could see residential power prices jump 14 percent by 2035, along with a 29 percent increase in commercial electricity costs and a 39 percent increase for industry.

What could we focus on instead?

In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, New Zealand emitted 78.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases when converted to the equivalent measure).

Electricity generation made up just under 3.3 million tonnes of that, or 4.2 percent.

Industrial process heat, meanwhile, resulted in 7.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2e) or 9.1 percent of the whole.

Transport represented about 15 Mt CO2e or 19.1 percent of the country’s emissions. That’s a 101 percent increase since 1990, more than double the increase in population over the same period.

Finally, agriculture was responsible for a whopping 37.7 Mt CO2e – nearly half of our emissions.

What policies has Labour announced to deal with these? Any agriculture strategy has yet to be revealed, but the transport and process heat policies were embedded in the overall energy announcement.

For process heat, the party merely pointed to money already invested by the current Government to encourage companies to electrify their process heat.

“Our plan will start by rolling out the recently announced $70m Government investment to support large businesses to replace the use of fossil fuel in industrial heat processes and connect to the grid. This includes transmission line upgrades, and direct support to industrial users to convert their coal boilers to electricity or other renewable alternatives,” the policy fact sheet reads.

On transport, Labour has outlined the need for electrification, saying it “represents a huge opportunity to reduce the country’s emissions”, but hasn’t offered a way to accomplish it.

Instead, it would add a bit more money to scheme that funds the electrification of buses and electric vehicle chargers and has promised to implement a vehicle emissions standard – New Zealand is one of just three OECD nations without one. But such a standard would reduce emissions over the 20 year period by just 5.1 Mt CO2e, according to a Ministry of Transport analysis. That’s 255,000 tonnes a year, or 0.3 percent of the whole.

Compare that to the scale of change needed. Our emissions reduction target under the Paris Agreement – which the Ministry for the Environment says isn’t even consistent with halting global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels – calls for us to reduce emissions over the next decade by a total of 100 million tonnes below our projected emissions trajectory.

On that scale, a plan to cut 5.1 million tonnes over the next 20 years from our second largest polluter hardly hits the mark.

Of course, there are valid reasons Labour has shied away from an effectual climate policy – but they’re political. Everyone likes the idea of burning less coal and powering our houses with renewable energy. Far fewer want to pay the price or make the effort to reduce our transport emissions by switching to an electric vehicle, taking public transport to work, biking or walking to the shops and working from home when possible.

While New Zealanders consistently tell pollsters they care about the climate, we are frequently less likely to be willing to make personal sacrifices for it than people in other countries. A recent Ipsos survey found replacing car travel with walking or cycling was opposed by 37 percent of New Zealanders, compared with a global average of 23 percent. Reducing beef and dairy consumption was similarly opposed by 46 and 59 percent of the Kiwis polled, respectively, while just 39 and 49 percent of the global population disagreed with these measures, respectively.

At the same time, we are more likely to tell polls that we are satisfied with our Government’s progress on climate change than people in other countries, even though our emissions are projected to rise until 2026, while emissions in countries like the United Kingdom have nearly halved since 1990.

So long as we are unwilling to commit to the hard work needed to decarbonise our society, political parties like Labour will continue to get away with offering stingy emissions reductions as if they’re game-changing climate policies.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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