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Net Zero 2050: towards a low carbon future for New Zealand

When a fully cross-party group of New Zealand MPs get together to commission an economic report from Vivid Economics on how the country can achieve domestic emissions neutrality by the end of this century, you know something’s up. This is serious progress on defining how we can achieve our  commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Why do I think this Net Zero report is so important?

Because the co-benefits of an economy that embraces climate change are (a) enormous and (b) deliver benefits across all six capitals.

This transforms climate change from being a source of paralysing fear to a galvanising force for positive change that will benefit the economy, people and the natural environment across the country.

Find out more about that part of it here. Below is my own summary of the report.

Essentially, the Vivid Economics report says that “the world has committed to a low-emissions future” by:

  • holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels
  • achieving a global peak in emissions as soon as possible and “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” – the so-called net zero goal.

In sum, the report, backed up by some hefty research, does four main things.

Firstly, it identifies three distinctive characteristics that affect New Zealand’s ability to meet the low-emissions future to which we’ve committed under the Paris Agreement, namely our:

  • already significantly decarbonised energy sector, which reduces the scope for the easy greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets available to other countries
  • large proportion (almost half) of emissions from the land sector: not only is this a higher proportion than in any other developed country, but such emissions are also difficult to reduce
  • large forestry sector: while this currently sequesters about 30% of gross emissions, like farming, it is also mostly privately owned, so policies around change must consider commercial pressures.

Secondly, the report notes that these characteristics mean that meaningful emissions reductions depend on varying rates of change in:

  • technologies that support “deep decarbonisation”, mainly in the energy and primary production sectors
  • patterns of land use with different GHG emissions and different impacts on water quality and rural communities.

Thirdly, the report analyses three scenarios which I’ve bracketed by two other options mentioned in the report that describe New Zealand’s possible choices with respect to the global Net Zero Goal.

Option 1: Do Nothing and carry on with Business as Usual – this is what we’ve been doing and continue to do despite our domestic and international commitments to address climate change. That is, we effectively allow climate-changing emissions to rise in step with increased GDP.

Scenario 1: Off-Track New Zealand, largely focuses on exploiting low-cost emission-reduction opportunities, but does not significantly alter its land-use patterns. That is, we would achieve some reductions but a “Fail” grade with respect to the domestic net zero emissions to which we have committed by ratifying the Paris agreement.

Scenario 2: Innovative New Zealand – smaller agriculture and more technology. Here we rely on technological breakthroughs to further reduce the emissions intensity of our economic activity through technological advances especially in the energy and farming sectors and we shift away from pastoral (animal-based) agriculture to less emissions-intensive land uses including horticulture, crops and extensive afforestation (an additional 1 million ha) between now and 2050. If we can sustain domestic emission reductions at around 3% per annum beyond 2050, we’ll be on track to achieve net zero domestic emissions in the second half of the century.

Scenario 3: Resourceful New Zealand – smaller decarbonisation of the energy sector due to slow global technology change compensated for by a larger commercial forestry sector. Significant afforestation (an additional 1.6 million ha) is required to offset residual emissions. Such extensive land use change may be difficult for rural economies as well as a lost opportunity to reintroduce native habitat. However, as with Scenario 2’s Innovative New Zealand, long-lived GHG emissions are below zero by 2050.

Option 2: Net Zero 2050 New Zealand – the report finds that it’s possible to reduce 2050 emissions by more than either the Innovative or Resourceful scenarios, simply by combining them. This more ambitious Net Zero 2050 scenario reduces New Zealand’s net domestic GHG emissions down to nearly zero by 2050. Such a rapid pursuit of the net zero goal in the domestic economy would be consistent with a focus on the aspect of the Paris Agreement that calls on countries to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. This scenario is supported by “optimistic technological outcomes across agriculture and energy; substantial changes to land-use patterns; and industry closures across aluminium, refineries and iron and steel.”

The Vivid Economics authors consider there is likely to be interest in examining such a Net Zero 2050 scenario in more depth in the future, especially as global research efforts at exploring the implications of a 1.5°C temperature target increase.

Why do I support Option 2 – the combination of Scenarios 2 and 3? Because it’s what New Zealanders want, not only as reflected in the election debate, but also as overwhelmingly shown in Pure Advantage’s Climate Survey of a thousand New Zealanders about climate policy. The results showed that:

  • 92% of Kiwis have an appetite to effect change and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions
  • 70% of Kiwis are comfortable with the current carbon reduction targets that have been set by New Zealand as a signatory to the Paris Agreement
  • 66% of Kiwis believe New Zealand should be a world leader in finding solutions to climate change, and support the measurement of economic growth in New Zealand (GDP) to include the impact of growth on the environment
  • 60% of Kiwis believe, in light of the US withdrawal from the Agreement, that we should work harder with other countries to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement
  • 20% of Kiwis think our emission reduction targets are not ambitious enough and could be even higher than they are in order to combat the effects of climate change.

Moreover, business leaders from the agriculture and energy sectors have stated strong support for the economic certainty provided by the legally binding targets recommended in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s latest report Stepping stones to Paris and beyond: Climate change, progress, and predictability.

Fourth and last, the report makes some policy recommendations in line with its main conclusions, which are that any pathway to reducing our domestic emissions will involve some substantial changes, mostly around patterns of energy supply and use (including moving towards a 100 per cent renewables grid and substantial electrification of the passenger vehicle fleet and low-grade heat), patterns of land use and uptake of new technologies.

Why do I think this Net Zero report is so important?

As I said at the start, I believe that the co-benefits of an economy that embraces climate change are enormous and deliver benefits across all six capitals.

This transforms climate change from being a source of paralysing fear to a galvanising force for positive change that will benefit the economy, people and the natural environment across the country.

Read the reports and article below, and let’s get going to make a difference to New Zealand Inc!

Links

Vivid’s economic report on how New Zealand can achieve domestic emissions neutrality by the end of this century

The Royal Society of New Zealand’s report on Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy for New Zealand

GLOBE New Zealand is a cross-party climate change working group that involves MPs from all parties. Find out about this non-partisan, unified approach from the New Zealand Parliament here.

Click here  to read my Pure Advantage article on Why Climate Change is not the Enemy and Carbon is your Friend.

Follow the Net Zero debate here.