Our next climate target is at risk if we don’t speed up consenting of green projects, the Climate Change Commission has warned

The Climate Change Commission has released a draft of its second major package of advice on Wednesday evening, dealing with how to cut greenhouse pollution in the second half of this decade.

The report reiterates the messages from its first advice to the Government, released in 2021. However, it found that further action is needed to meet the emissions target covering 2026 to 2030, against the expectations set by the Government’s modelling.

New Zealand has a target for net zero carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2050, as well as a significant reduction in methane from animals and waste by the same date. In order to get us there, we also set five-yearly emissions budgets which cap the amount of greenhouse pollution at a certain level.

The first budget, covering 2022 to 2025, is the focus of the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan last year. A new plan will be needed for the second budget, from 2026 to 2030, which will be informed by the draft advice released by the commission this week.

While government modelling had shown the second budget was within reach if the policies from the first emissions plan were implemented, the commission has disagreed. Instead, it says more is needed in transport and energy in particular to meet the target.

A major barrier is the difficulty of consenting new renewable electricity generation. From 2025, the equivalent of two very large wind farms are needed each year to meet an increase in demand from electrified transport and industry, as well as population growth.

As it stands, a third of the emissions reductions needed in transport and energy could be in jeopardy because of delays to consenting. The commission recommended that the Government accelerate renewable generation growth.

Energy infrastructure is also a barrier to transport electrification, it found. While transport will play a larger role in the third budget period (2031-2035), changes are needed now to enable those later emissions reductions.

At issue is the strength of the electricity distribution network. Commission chair Rod Carr told Newsroom the network needs upgrades to be able to power the charging infrastructure New Zealand will need.

“If you want to bang three fast chargers in the forecourt of a petrol station, the constraint now is not the parking places to make available, it’s, ‘Will that substation support multiple fast chargers on that site?’ The infrastructure isn’t just about the point you plug into, it’s about the lines company that delivers power to the plug.”

Beyond consenting, bureaucratic delays to building new infrastructure are also a problem.

“The process to get delivery of infrastructure takes too long. Both Let’s Get Wellington Moving, which originated in 2016, and Auckland Light Rail, which originated in 2018, are yet to commence building public transit,” the commission said.

It recommended the Government “simplify planning and increase funding of integrated transport networks that optimise public and active transport. For major population centres, the Government should also complete cycleway networks by 2030 and take steps to complete rapid transport networks by 2035.”

A major issue identified by the commission was finding the appropriate balance of cuts to pollution versus carbon sequestration in trees. Right now, policy settings are incentivising a massive boost to pine planting, without reducing greenhouse emissions.

If the current path is maintained, Carr warned, New Zealand could still meet net zero emissions in 2050 but it would still be burning fossil fuels and using trees to offset those emissions.

“Not only keep planting new ones, we’ve got to maintain all of that inventory as well. So every time a storm comes through or disease comes through or fire takes it out, we’ve got to build back that, keep the pests out, make sure it doesn’t die, if it does replace it all – and keep adding new forest footprint,” he said.

“While the rest of the world is now getting the benefits of low-emissions businesses, low-emissions products and services, low-emissions ways of living, we’re sitting there going, ‘No, we’re just planting’.”

This is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, fossil fuels release carbon that has been buried for millions of years into the atmosphere. A tree that absorbs that carbon for a century isn’t the equivalent of not burning the fossil fuel in the first place.

Second, the planting will need to continue as long as we avoid cutting our emissions. That means ever-greater swathes of New Zealand would be planted in pine, eroding social licence for the transition.

Third, the costs of transitioning are greater the longer we wait. The hit to GDP from decarbonising could double if emissions reductions are postponed.

Fourth, there are opportunities to lead the world in low-carbon technologies and innovation, which we would miss out on if we relied on tree planting.

“I am very concerned that we will end up not taking up those technologies until much later than is in our own best interest to take them up,” Carr said.

To avert this, the commission said the Government should specify the balance of gross reductions and carbon removals it wants to use to meet the targets, and then amend the Emissions Trading Scheme to accomplish that.

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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