6 May 2024

Old, more polluting ships serving NZ could be a barrier to climate goals

7:05 am on 6 May 2024
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Counting cargo shipping would add to New Zealand's annual tally of greenhouse gases. Photo: 123rf

The Climate Change Commission is floating the idea of bringing international shipping into New Zealand's carbon-cutting targets.

Because New Zealand exports and tourism rely on being perceived as green, tackling greenhouse gases from overseas cargo could be better for the country, according to new public consultation documents.

Currently, about 5 million tonnes of planet-heating gases from ships and planes travelling to or from other countries are not counted towards New Zealand's annual tally of greenhouse gases. If they were, it would add about 9 percent to the country's annual impact.

Unlike other sectors, the climate impacts of international shipping and aviation are increasing. Without action, they are projected to use up to a fifth of Earth's carbon "budget" for staying within the goal of 1.5C of global heating.

Despite overseas shipping and flights being excluded from national greenhouse gas balance sheets under the Paris Agreement, there are international moves towards lower-emissions travel and trade. The EU, UK and United States, for example, were setting their own domestic targets.

The climate commission's preliminary view was that it could be in New Zealand's best interests to follow them, given its reliance on environmental credentials for trade purposes.

There were risks, however, and it was seeking public feedback by 31 May on whether - and how - New Zealand should include these emissions in its 2050 target of having net zero carbon dioxide emissions.


Most of New Zealand's exports travel by ship.

Exporters, a supply chain expert and the union of maritime workers said ports could not handle the larger, less-polluting ships that could lower the climate impact of our exports. Instead, they were calling for investment in ports and infrastructure for fuelling and charging cleaner vessels.

ExportNZ executive director Joshua Tan said alternative fuels were expensive, and those costs would need to be passed on.

Exporters Zespri and Fonterra were approached for interview, but said they were still working out their response.

In an email, Fonterra called for the Government to co-ordinate with other jurisdictions so emissions in international waters were counted only once.

Zespri, meanwhile, called for investment in port infrastructure and greener technology.

The two exporters are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the relative importance of shipping to their product's climate impacts.

A kilogram of exported kiwifruit creates roughly 2kg of carbon dioxide, according to Zespri. Almost half that is from shipping the fruit overseas.

In contrast, distribution comprised only 1 percent of Fonterra's emissions - but that was because dairy created more emissions than kiwifruit in the form of methane and nitrous oxide from cows, as well as the coal used to dry some milk powder for export.

Tan said exporters wanted to make sure they were not being double-taxed, if planet-heating gases from shipping were priced both in New Zealand and elsewhere, such as the European Union.

He stressed the need to invest to upgrade ports and infrastructure to cope with greener shipping - as did supply chain lecturer Nadia Trent of Waikato University.

New Zealand ports could not currently handle the larger, newer, lower-emissions vessels seen in other countries, and this could create a barrier to cleaner imports and exports, Trent said.

Establishing a green shipping route over the Tasman would be interesting to explore - for example, if the connection with Brisbane was served by lower- or even no-emissions vessels, products would be able to join with bigger shipping routes from there and reach their final destinations on bigger and more efficient ships.

The path for alternative fuels and electric ships was still unclear, Trent said, but ship owners face huge pressure internationally from lenders, customers and regulators to move to low or no-emission vessels.

Maritime Union spokesperson Victor Billot said it supported green fuels and green shipping corridors, but would like to see more jobs for New Zealanders.

Only one New Zealand-operated ship served the Trans-Tasman crossing at the moment, but there was potential to create seafaring jobs through coastal shipping and with more New Zealand involvement in short hops, like to Australia.

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