The country’s annual official record of emissions has found that in 2019 our tally rose in “one of the larger annual increases this century”

A new report from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) has found that New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2 percent in 2019.

The annual Greenhouse Gas Inventory is prepared by MfE officials and serves as the country’s official tally of emissions reported to the United Nations. It lags by about 18 months, meaning the 2021 report has data for emissions through December 2019.

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While Covid-19 is likely to reduce emissions for 2020 by around 5 percent, MfE figures released in January revealed, the Greenhouse Gas Inventory report doesn’t take into account the impact of the pandemic.

What it does highlight is an increase of 2 percent in gross emissions (the total amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere) and net emissions (which tallies the carbon removed from the atmosphere by trees and land-use change) alike.

Experts react

Climate Change Commissioner and Victoria University of Wellington climate scientist James Renwick said the 2 percent rise in gross emissions was “one of the larger annual increases this century, but overall gross emissions have hovered around 80 megatons for about 20 years.

“The increase in 2019 takes us slightly further away from our goal of getting to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and are a reminder of why we need to take action. Recent announcements around phasing out coal boilers for heating and powering schools, and the Government’s announcement in late 2020 of a carbon-neutral public service by 2025, set us on the path we need to take.”

Robert McLachlan, a distinguished professor in the School of Fundamental Sciences at Massey University, said the rises in 2019 were “alarming”. He added, “Although some increases were expected, since in 2019 no new mitigation measures were in place, their scale is a surprise and reinforces the urgent need to bring in measures to phase out fossil fuels”.

Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, an atmospheric-ocean scientist at NIWA, said figures from Statistics New Zealand also indicate emissions are likely to have fallen in 2020. This was a “glimmer of hope” and underscored our ability to reduce emissions from transport in particular.

“This remains an enduring lesson about how much we can accomplish by reducing emissions from traffic. The Global Carbon Project estimated that during Level 4 lockdown, Aotearoa New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions dropped by more than any other country in the world except Luxembourg, a small European nation,” she said.

“This is in part due to the stringent lockdown measures we took, but it is also in part due to the fact that 82 percent of our electricity generation is already from renewable sources. Low emissions transportation systems have the potential to take us a long way towards our Carbon Zero goals, without the devastating humanitarian and economic impacts of Covid.”

NZ’s emissions charted

New methodologies used in the report also meant emissions from previous years were revised. While the 2020 report found that net and gross greenhouse gas emissions had fallen in 2018, the new report found gross emissions had in fact increased that year. Net emissions still declined, but to a lesser degree than expected.

Overall, New Zealand’s emissions in 2019 were well above historical levels. Since 1990, when New Zealand began measuring its emissions and committed to “adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change”, gross emissions have risen by a quarter. Net emissions have grown even further, by 34 percent, because removals from forestry have declined slightly since 1990.

As with previous years, agriculture was responsible for the greatest portion of New Zealand’s emissions. With 39 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary sector made up 48.1 percent of 2019 gross emissions. It was followed by energy, with 41.6 percent, and then industrial processes and product use at 6.2 percent.

The energy category includes road transport, domestic aviation and railways. If transport was separated out, it would be the third-largest source of emissions, responsible for 19.6 percent of the greenhouse gases New Zealand released in 2019.

Transport has also seen the greatest increase in emissions of any sector, from 8.7 million tonnes in 1990 to 16.2 million tonnes in the latest report. Over the same period, non-transport energy emissions rose 20 percent, industrial emissions jumped 42.9 percent, agricultural emissions rose 17.1 percent and waste emissions fell by 16.3 percent.

While the forestry sector is responsible for some carbon emissions, it absorbs so much carbon in any given year that it is considered a net sink of greenhouse gases. In 2019, the sector sequestered 27.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, offsetting a third of our emissions that year.

That’s a 14.2 percent increase on 1990 levels, when forests removed 24 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

New methodologies change the picture

Forestry was one of the sectors most affected by changes to methodologies in the new report. The new tabulation methods and more granular data about the age of trees when harvested has meant there were fewer removals in the 1990s than previously calculated and more in recent years.

The other sector which saw significant changes was agriculture. An MfE spokesperson told Newsroom that emissions were recalculated with new, higher-quality data.

The report included “updated pasture quality data for dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep and deer livestock, and the use of LULUCF data on the area of managed organic soils in cropland and grassland”.

The changes meant that agricultural emissions over the past three decades have been scaled up by as much as 1.9 million tonnes a year.

The Greenhouse Gas Inventory report also tracks our progress towards our Copenhagen emissions reduction target, which called for net emissions over the period 2013-2020 to be on average 5 percent lower than gross emissions in 1990. That would require our net emissions for the eight-year period to be around 619 million tonnes. Instead it is forecast to be 642 million tonnes, necessitating the use of 23.1 million “hot air” carbon credits purchased under the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon market.

The recalculation of historic figures is also likely to affect the emissions reduction needed to meet our Paris target, to reduce net emissions over the next decade to an annual average 30 percent below 2005 levels. While officials had previously calculated that as allowing New Zealand to emit 601 million tonnes between 2021 and 2030, it will now restrict us to emitting just 577 million tonnes over that period.

Projections released by MfE in January indicated New Zealand is expected to emit 637 million tonnes over the next decade, even after accounting for the impact of Covid-19.

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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