28 Apr 2016

Acting on climate change - Royal Society of NZ report

From Our Changing World, 9:40 pm on 28 April 2016

New Zealand could wean its economy off fossil fuels within several decades if a substantial carbon price were imposed and we moved away from dairy, according to a report released by the Royal Society of New Zealand today.

Just a few days after New Zealand signed the Paris Agreement, the report highlights options that would cut greenhouse emissions in all sectors of the economy, including transport, which is New Zealand’s largest and fastest growing emitter of carbon dioxide, and agriculture, which contributes almost half of the total emissions through methane.

Ralph Sims, a renewable energy expert at Massey University and the chair of the panel that wrote the report, says New Zealand has many options to start the transition to a low-carbon economy now, using technologies that are “well understood and feasible”.

On Saturday, 175 countries, including New Zealand, signed the historic Paris climate deal that aims to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees.

Fifteen countries have already ratified the agreement and 19 announced their intent to ratify this year. New Zealand has not yet committed to a time frame for the ratification process.

Professor Sims says New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing steadily and are projected to keep rising over the next decades unless “we take action to either reduce greenhouse emissions or to support their removal from the atmosphere”.

New Zealand’s commitment under the Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, but it remains conditional on aspects of the deal, including a carbon market which would allow for the purchase of carbon credits.

Professor Sims says the pressure will be on all countries to come up with more robust targets because their combined commitments won’t keep temperatures below 2 degrees.

“Therefore New Zealand will have to look closely at the [target] and say we have to do better than that.”

The report focuses on options to cut emissions rather than the trading in carbon credits. “We haven’t got into the politics at all. It’s up to the policymakers to use that information to decide which way we want to go. And indeed the general public, because do we as a nation want to be seen as leading the way in reducing our emissions or do we want to try and buy some credits from somebody else who is leading the way.”

The report analyses options in a number of sectors, including transport, heat and electricity generation, buildings, industry, forest and land use, and agriculture. It says that some mitigation options can be implemented or increased immediately, while others will take time to adopt.

“Some measures would save costs and bring additional benefits such as improved health, easier mobility and liveable cities. Other actions are cost effective only if a substantial carbon price is imposed on greenhouse gas emissions.”

You can listen to the entire interview here:


New Zealand’s transport system is 99 percent dependent on fossil fuels and produces one fifth of total emissions. The report says annual emissions could be reduced by at least 60 percent if vehicle fuel efficiency standards were introduced, people and organisations were encouraged to switch to electric transport and freight transport shifted to rail and shipping.

Heat and electricity

Heating accounts for 28 percent of New Zealand’s consumer energy use, while electricity equates to 23 percent. Cost-effective options to reduce fossils fuels in heating include a greater uptake of biomass, solar thermal and geothermal resources. Electricity generation is already 80 percent renewable but the report says this could increase cost effectively to reach the target of 90 percent by 2025.


Emissions from agriculture make up almost half of New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to methane produced by cows and sheep. While the emissions intensity of farm production has decreased, absolute emissions have grown because of increased production. The report says reducing absolute emissions substantially will be challenging “unless there was a strategic decision to reduce the reliance on meat and milk production for the growth of New Zealand’s economy”.