The Climate Change Commission lays out its vision, with targets, for a transformed society. David Williams and Marc Daalder pick through it

After decades of New Zealand’s leaders talking about it and doing very little, the Climate Change Commission’s draft advice to the Government, released yesterday, lays out how the country should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a “roadmap” that will change how we get around and how we move things around, how we farm and what we farm, and how energy-hungry industries are powered. Public transport will become more reliable and affordable. Our houses and buildings will be more energy efficient. More of our electricity generation will come from renewable sources.

The costs of this difficult transition will fall unequally, and the commission recommends the Government support those less able to afford it, and the worst-affected industries.

There will be rewards for those who reduce fossil fuel use, and incentives to take up alternatives which are increasingly affordable and accessible. The country will have to stop investing in old technologies, like coal-fired boilers and natural gas pipelines.

Petrol prices will go up. Wholesale electricity prices will dip, assuming the Bluff aluminium smelter closes, only to rise again. A big increase in tree-planting, as a carbon sink, won’t be as big as previously thought, and more will be natives.

Coal, gas and petrol will be used dramatically less, but still be used, even in 2050.

Commission chair Rod Carr says in arriving at the necessary pace of change, it weighed the climate risks of delays versus affordability and what he calls the “risk of reckless urgent action”.

“We are open to consultation,” Carr says during an online video briefing last night. “We do want to hear views and evidence about whether there are practical known ways of getting things done sooner, and whether or not some of our assertions and expectations about what can be done are unrealistically ambitious. But we do need the evidence to support the argument rather than just a gut feel.”

Public feedback closes on March 14.

The Climate Change Commission is taking aim at second-hand, imported light vehicles, in particular. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

New Zealand is a country with a climate action problem. In conflict with our 100 Percent Pure image, our net emissions increased by 57 percent between 1990 and 2018, placing us amongst the worst of developing countries.

The Government ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, promising a relatively weak reduction in greenhouse gases of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But there’s been little assessment of if we are on track (the commission says: No, we’re not) and if that promise is consistent with keeping warming within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – thus avoiding the worst and most dangerous effects of climate change (again, the answer is no).

Every Government of the past 30 years has had policies allowing big increases in cars, cows, and emissions. That makes the job of decarbonising now even tougher.

“I would like to think that the fact we find ourselves in this circumstance will galvanise action,” Carr says.

But as a result, New Zealand will be cleaner and greener, Kiwis will be healthier, and our economy more sustainable. That is, if the policy advice is taken by the Government, which is not a given.

The advice has been described as ambitious and transformational, although the latter was disputed by Greenpeace. The commission said achieving the goal of emissions reductions to keep temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – avoiding the worst and most dangerous effects of climate change – was achievable and affordable.  That’s incredibly encouraging, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday.

“Some in the past have claimed that climate action is too expensive – that is simply not the case. The commission has determined that the economic cost to New Zealand, as I’ve said, is not as great as previously thought, in fact there are great economic opportunities for new jobs and businesses over the coming years as we transition to a zero-emissions economy.”

‘Open to consultation’: Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr. Photo: Getty Images

Newsroom has combed through the commission’s advice, and picked out targets to give readers a picture of how society will change – that is, if its recommendations are adopted.

Overall, the country’s total emissions will drop by 2 percent by 2026, 17 percent by 2031, and 36 percent by 2036. (That seems lower than international ambitions. Three years ago, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said to keep the world safe, a 45 percent drop in carbon pollution, on 2010 levels, is needed by 2030.)

Recommended measures over certain periods include:

Early 2020s: New renewable electricity generation built.
2026: New Zealand Aluminium Smelter closes.
Late 2020s: Further renewable generation built.
By 2031: Achieve roughly 95 percent renewable generation.
2030-2035: Phase out imports of internal combustion engine light vehicles.
2037: The country’s “on track” to eliminate coal use for food processing.
2030-2050: Native forest planting of 25,000 hectares a year.
2050: Existing targets for net-zero “long-lived” greenhouse gases, and a reduction in biogenic methane by 24 percent to 47 percent, deemed achievable.

The commission also sets out a series of 2035 targets for specific industries:

Agriculture: Emissions of biogenic methane and long lived gas emissions were 1.2 megatonnes of methane (Mt CH4) and 8.3 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-e), respectively, in 2018. By 2035, that should be reduced to 0.97 Mt CH4 and 6.9 Mt CO2-e, respectively, to achieve our 2050 target.

Transport: In 2018, transport emissions made up 36.3 percent of total long-lived gases, or 16.6 Mt CO2-e. They should be almost halved to 8.8 Mt CO2-e.

Heat, industry and power: Forty-one percent of total long-lived gases, or 18.8 Mt CO2-e, came from heat, industry and power in 2018. This should reduce to 10.4 Mt CO2-e.

Forestry: The commission wants net forestry removals to more than double to 14.5 Mt CO2, from 9.5 Mt CO2.

Waste: In 2018, waste emissions were 10 percent of total biogenic methane, at 0.14 Mt CH4, and 0.22 Mt CO2-e of long-lived gases. Emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) were 1.8 Mt CO2-e. By 2035, waste emissions would drop to 0.12 Mt of biogenic methane, while HFC emissions would be 1.2 Mt CO2-e.

Renewable energy: A target of 60 percent renewable energy to be achieved, up from 40 percent in 2018.

Year-by-year expectations:

2021: The Government must release its emissions reduction plan by December 31.

2022: By March 31, the Government will create a separate climate change appropriation for Budget funding, giving the issue greater impetus and transparency. By the end of the year, the Government will have released a plan to partner with iwi/Māori and local government for emissions reductions. It will also publish a proposal to incorporate the views of all New Zealanders into emissions budgets, perhaps by establishing a public forum. A long-term plan will be developed for funding research and development to reduce biological emissions from agriculture.

2023: An equitable transitions strategy must be drafted, and linked to the Government’s economic plan

2025: The end of natural gas connections to the grid, or bottled LPG connections. Also, no further native deforestation occurs after this year. From this year, 2000ha of dairy land is to be converted to horticulture each year.

2026: Space heating and hot water systems installed in new buildings must be either electric or biomass. Selective breeding to produce low-emissions sheep to be progressively adopted.

2027: At least half of light vehicles (that’s cars, SUVs, vans and utes) and motorbike imports should be electric – battery EVs and plug-in hybrids.

2028: Emissions target to be adopted for light vehicles of 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

2030: Coal use in commercial and public buildings eliminated Fifteen percent of medium trucks and 8 percent of heavy trucks will be electric. Kilometres travelled by each person to reduce by about 7 percent. Increases in distances travelled by walking (25 percent), cycling (95 percent) and public transport (120 percent). Four percent of freight tonne-kilometres shift from road to rail and coastal shipping. Seventy million litres of low emissions fuels (like biodiesel and hydrogen) made each year. Planting new native forests to reach 25,000 hectares a year, while exotic tree planting starts to decrease. Organic waste going to landfills to decrease by at least 23 percent on 2018 levels. “Process heat” emissions from boilers to drop from 4 Mt CO2-e in 2018 to 2.6 Mt CO2-e.

2033: No further imports of internal combustion engine light vehicles.

2035: Half of all light vehicle travel by electric vehicles, which make up 40 percent of the light vehicle fleet. Nearly all vehicles entering the country’s fleet are electric. Internal combustion light vehicles will be 15 percent more efficient. Eighty-four percent of medium trucks and 69 percent of heavy trucks to be electric. Production of low emissions fuel reach 140 million litres per year. Existing homes’ energy efficiency improves by 6 percent, while newly built homes will be 35 percent more energy efficient than today. An estimated 600-1100 fewer jobs in coal mining, oil and gas. Commercial and public buildings will be 30 percent more efficient. Close to 300,000 hectares of new native forests will be established, versus around 380,000 hectares of new exotic forestry. Wholesale electricity prices will likely fall by 30 percent by 2026, but returned to close to 2021 levels by now. Average household gas bills increased by $150 a year. Annual electricity generation increased by around 20 percent. Boiler emissions reduced to 2 Mt CO2-e.

2050: Road transport almost entirely decarbonised. No natural gas used in buildings. GDP will reach $508 billion, slightly lower than $512 billion under business as usual. Switching away from coal, diesel and gas to electricity and biomass could mean the decarbonisation of low-and-medium temperature heat industry and buildings.

2100: Methane emissions reduced by 49-60 percent on 2017 levels.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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