To meet the Paris Agreement, global emissions must reduce by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and reach net zero by 2050. Each country has a Nationally Determined Contribution, ideally representing its fair share of change. The Climate Change Commission has advised the New Zealand Government on GHG budgets, policy and a new NDC.

9 min read | Last updated 29 June 2021

Climate scientists agree that global warming and climate change are almost entirely due to industrial activities (The Guardian, 2019), which have emitted a cumulative 1.5 trillion tonnes of CO2e into the atmosphere over the last 250 years (Our World in Data, 2018).

The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020 finds that Covid-19 caused a 7% decline in emissions in 2020, but this will be short-lived. Emissions have grown 1.4% per year since 2010 and we are emitting more than 51 GtCO2e per annum globally, 75% of which is emitted by the G20 countries. The biggest emissions are from energy use in industry (24.2%), transport (16.2%), agriculture, forestry and land use (18.4%) and energy use in buildings (17.5%). The richest 1% of people make twice the combined emissions of the poorest 50%. As at December 2020, to stay below 1.5C, there were only 295 GtCO2 left in the carbon budget, which would be exhausted in 7 years at current rates, and to stay below 2C, there were 1045 Gt O2 left in the carbon budget, which would be exhausted in 25 years at current rates (Mercator Research Institute, 2020).

Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research via Global Carbon Project

The Paris Agreement is an international pledge to limit the global temperatures this century to well below 2C above pre industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C. Achieving this requires abatement of future CO2 emissions and removal of past CO2 emissions.

‘Limiting warming to 1.5C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of other GHGs, particularly methane. Such mitigation pathways are characterised by energy-demand reductions, decarbonisation of electricity and other fuels, electrification of energy end use, deep reductions in agricultural emissions and some form of CO2 removal with carbon storage on land or sequestration in geological reservoirs.’
(IPCC, 2018 (pdf))

Scientific projections suggest that to have a 50% likelihood of keeping global warming below 1.5C by 2100, we need to reduce global emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and then reach net zero emissions by 2050 (Carbon Brief, 2021).

Achieving net zero emissions by the second half of the 21st century requires the development and deployment of compensating technologies for those GHG emissions that cannot be eliminated entirely, such as agricultural and aviation emissions. Modeling suggests the necessary GHG removal and storage technologies will be needed on a very large scale, to remove about 13 GtCO2e per year or one quarter of current global annual emissions (Royal Society, 2018 (pdf)). Achieving a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels is a crucial goal.

The Paris Agreement has been ratified by 189 countries, accounting for 96% of global emissions. But it is a pledge not a binding commitment. Countries are free to set their own mitigation targets, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Developed countries have earned their wealth over several centuries of growth uninhibited by emissions targets and should contribute more to reducing global emissions.

The Nordic nations lead on net zero ambition. Finland aims to be carbon neutral by 2035, Iceland by 2040 and Sweden by 2045. New Zealand, the EU, Japan and South Korea are aiming for 2050, and China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060. The EU and more than 30 other countries, including New Zealand, have enshrined their net zero targets in law or policy.

Near term
ambition is
imperative.

Yet, setting a net zero goal 30 years ahead tempts a country or an organisation to continue high emissions for another decade or more on the assumption that technologies will emerge in the 2030s to quickly abate future emissions and remove past emissions. This is an irresponsibly hopeful and hugely harmful strategy. There is only a very limited amount of further emissions humanity can make before global warming would exceed 1.5C or reach 2C. This ‘carbon budget’ must be used prudently by reducing emissions as much as possible as soon as possible. It is also highly unlikely that any sufficiently large-scaled GHG removal and storage solutions will exist in the near future – even afforestation cannot be scaled sufficiently and harmlessly (The Conversation, 2021).

Norway is targeting an emissions reduction of 50% of its 1990 level by 2030, Denmark is targeting 70%, the UK is targeting 68% and the EU is targeting 55%. New Zealand is currently targeting 11% below its 1990 level by 2030. Yet, none of these countries’ NDCs are truly aligned to the Paris Agreement and would lead to global warming of 2C-4C by 2100. Currently only two countries, The Gambia and Morocco, have NDCs that are aligned with 1.5C. For up-to-date information on countries’ 2030 and 2050 commitments see Climate Scorecard and Climate Action Tracker.

The 2019 global climate change conference (COP25) in Madrid was disappointing because stronger action to achieve the Paris goals was opposed by a group of high emitting nations – see Greta Thunberg’s response in the video below.

Much of what it had been hoped would be agreed at COP25 was pushed out to COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. At COP25, nations agreed to submit updated NDCs to the UNFCCC by the end of 2020, but only 48 nations, accounting for 30% of global GHG emissions, had submitted new pledges by that deadline. These were only 3% more ambitious than previous pledges and would reduce global emissions by a dismal and disturbing 0.5% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels (UNFCCC, 2021 (pdf)), nowhere near the 45% reduction that is necessary. We are on track for warming of no less than 3.2C by 2100 – or even sooner, should we exceed tipping points that may cause unpredictable acceleration of change.

New Zealand has declared a climate emergency, formally acknowledging the global warming crisis and has put in place a legally binding requirement to stay within 1.5C of global warming above pre industrial levels (RNZ, 2020).

Parties to the UNFCCC are required to produce a biennial report describing historical and projected GHG emissions, emissions targets and progress, policies and measures in place to support transition and support for developing nations. New Zealand submitted its fourth biennial progress report in 2019, and its next report is due by the end of 2021.

Manatū Mō Te Taiao the Ministry for the Environment’s report Our Atmosphere and Climate 2020 explores the make-up of national gross GHG emissions (ie from from goods and services produced in New Zealand) across energy, transport, industrial processes and product use, agriculture and waste sources. Based on 2018 figures, New Zealand GHG emissions are 45% carbon dioxide, 43% methane and 10% nitrous oxide.

New Zealand gross emissions have grown 26% since 1990.

Drivers Increasing Emissions 1990-2020Drivers Decreasing Emissions 1990-2020
Carbon dioxide
Rising production and consumption per person
Population growth
Increased energy use per person
Reduction in energy per unit of production
Reduction in CO2 per unit of energy
Methane
Increase in number of dairy cows
Increase in feed per animal
Decrease in beef cattle and sheep
Capture of methane from landfill sites
Nitrous oxide
More livestock dung and urine on pasture
More manure
Increase in use of synthetic fertiliser

New Zealand’s NDC has two parts: a 2030 goal and two 2050 goals. The 2050 target is split between long-lived GHGs and biogenic methane, a short-lived GHG.

NZ 2030 Target

30% reduction below 2005 (or 11% below 1990) gross GHG emissions for the period 2021-2030, equivalent to 11% below 1990 levels for that same period

NZ 2050 Targets

Reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases (other than biogenic methane) to zero by 2050

Reduce emissions of biogenic methane to 24-47% below 2017 levels by 2050, including to 10% below 2017 levels by 2030

Climate Action Tracker projects that, under current policies, emissions will be 2-13% higher in 2030 than in 1990. New Zealand must urgently reverse its GHG emissions trajectory by setting new budgets and formulating new policies.

New Zealand’s 2050 climate goal is enshrined in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 (ZCA), which established:

The New Zealand Government plans by the end of 2021 to have set emissions budgets for 2022-2035 and produced an emissions reduction plan based on the advice of He Pou Arangi the Climate Change Commission (CCC). In June 2021, the CCC issued the report Ināia tonu nei advising the Government on a series of emissions budgets 2022-2035, policy direction to meet ZCA 2050 targets and the Nationally Determined Contribution.

The CCC recommends a reduction in net emissions of 7% in 2022-2025, 20% in 2026-2030 and 36% in 2031-2035 compared to the 2019 level.

Recommended Emissions Budgets 2022-2035

Key CCC advice includes:

  • for long-lived GHGs
    • replacing fossil fuels with low emissions electricity with a major expansion of the electricity system
    • almost completely decarbonising road transport by 2050 through increasing walking, cycling and public transport and switching to low emissions vehicles, with all new vehicles EV by 2035
    • decarbonising low and medium temperature heat in industry and buildings through switching from fossil fuels to electricity and biomass
    • new native forests on steeper less productive land
  • for biogenic methane
    • widespread adoption of improved farm management practices, waste reduction and diversion from landfills
    • developing and adopting new technologies to reduce livestock emissions and increase landfill capture; or, without new technologies, lower production from livestock and change land use

The CCC advises that current policies do not enable New Zealand to achieve its targets.

Emissions Trading Scheme

The Government is using an Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) as a tool to help achieve the ZCA emissions budget. The scheme was reformed in 2020 to introduce a cap in accordance with the country’s carbon budget. This raised the carbon fixed price from NZ$25 to $35 in 2020. Since early 2021, carbon units have been auctioned with a floor of $20 and a ceiling of $50 (ie the Government will release more units into the market if the price reaches $50).

Agriculture

Almost half of New Zealand’s gross emissions (47%) are from agriculture, mostly methane from livestock, increasingly from dairy cattle. Methane is treated separately in emissions budgets as it is a short-lived GHG – its molecules persist in the atmosphere for about 12 years. Yet, it has a high global warming potential – one tonne of CH4 absorbs 72 times more energy than one tonne of CO2 over a 20-year period. If New Zealand’s agricultural methane emissions could be reduced, the impact would be large and fast.

The primary sector is vital to Aotearoa New Zealand’s economic prosperity and food security. The He Waka Eke Noa – Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership is working to reduce primary sector emissions by equipping farmers to measure, manage and reduce on-farm agriculture GHG emissions and adapt to climate change.

Under current policy, the agriculture sector is exempt from ETS reforms, with no cap on total emissions, until 2025. After 2025, the agriculture sector can apply for free allocation of emissions units and farmers will be required to meet the costs of only 5% of their emissions. The CCC will assess this in a review of He Waka Eke Noa’s progress and sector readiness in 2022.

Transport

Between 1990 and 2018, domestic transport emissions increased by 90% and currently account for one third of long-lived GHG emissions. The Government has introduced a Clean Car Discount that aims to reduce CO2 emissions from light vehicles, effective from July 2021. The CCC’s advice is to develop a national low-emissions freight strategy that includes moving more freight by rail and sea, and encourages the production and use of low emissions fuels, such as biofuels, electricity and green hydrogen.

Forestry Sink

Successive New Zealand governments have used LULUCF (land use, land-use change and forestry) as an emissions sink to help meet emissions targets. But reliance on forests has put New Zealand in a more difficult position than if governments had put low emissions strategies in place instead. The forestry sector offsets about 27% of New Zealand’s gross emissions, but this is coming to an end as much of the exotic pine plantation planted in the early 1990s is due to be harvested.

Existing policy aims to plant one billion trees by 2028 in an unspecified mix of harvestable exotics and permanent indigenous forests. But this policy encourages exotic plantations. As of May 2020, 150 million trees had been planted, 88% of which were exotic species. Continued exotic planting (ie no change in policy, or no constraints on using forests as a sink) will help net emissions reach zero goals by 2050 but will cause them to bounce back by 2065 as plantations become harvestable, requiring re-planting of about 1.5 million hectares in order to reduce gross emissions. This an unfair burden on the next generation.

NDC

The current New Zealand NDC aims to achieve a 30% reduction below 2005 gross GHG emissions by 2030 and assumes a contribution from offshore mitigation. However, the ZCA requires emissions budgets to be met domestically. Also, the CCC considers the current NDC to be incompatible with the 1.5C Paris goal. As a developed nation, New Zealand’s NDC needs to reflect deeper emission reductions than the global average necessary. The CCC advises a reduction of more than 36% below 2005 levels by 2030, with offshore mitigation as a last resort and only in exceptional circumstances.