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Published 27 April 2016

Good opportunities to act now on climate change – report finds

There are many actions New Zealand can and should take now to reduce the threat of climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy, a report released today by the Royal Society of New Zealand finds.

There are many actions New Zealand can and should take now to reduce the threat of climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy, a report released today by the Royal Society of New Zealand finds.

The report, Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand, has been written by a panel of New Zealand experts chaired by Professor Ralph Sims, Massey University, and will be launched in Wellington, supported by the co-chair of the mitigation working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Professor Jim Skea.

“Many mitigation options are already well-understood and achievable. They often also have flow-on benefits. Business-as-usual approaches will not get us where we need to be, ambitious action is needed now by all New Zealanders,” says Professor Sims.

Mitigation is where we take action to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or support their removal from the atmosphere.

Royal Society of New Zealand President, Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford said the report was timely. “It provides a scientific analysis of the complex situation we find ourselves in and what we can best do about it,” he says.

“All New Zealanders need to understand the threats of climate change, accept that we need to change the way we act, realise there are trade-offs that will need to be made, and become personally involved in implementing mitigation solutions.

“The sooner we make changes, the more likely it is that we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“The good news is that there are many opportunities to reduce or capture greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors now.

“This study is a first step to enable an open debate around options, choices and timeframes,” says Professor Bedford.

The report identifies opportunities in the sectors of:

  • heat supply
  • electricity supply
  • transport
  • buildings
  • industry
  • agriculture
  • forest and other land-use.

It also considers the interactions between technology, policy and behaviour and considers factors that either limit or provide opportunities for change, and gaps in our knowledge.

The report outlines important context on each area, but in brief the opportunities to reduce emissions include:

  • Reducing fossil fuel use
  • Increasing renewable electricity
  • Using low carbon transport, eg electric cars, buses, rail
  • Managing energy use in buildings
  • Improving energy efficiency
  • Considering trade-offs in agriculture
  • Planting forests (may only be an interim solution)
  • Supporting low-carbon choices.

“Today, around half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions arise from burning coal, oil and gas for electricity, industrial heat processes, transport and everyday activities in homes and commercial buildings and can be reduced starting immediately,” Professor Sims says.  

In the New Zealand transport sector, which is currently 99% dependent on fossil fuels, there are many opportunities to set vehicle fuel efficiency standards and encourage people and organisations to use low and zero-emissions vehicles. Urban design could prioritise walking and cycling and allow more comfortable and convenient bus and rail.

“For freight, considerable emissions savings could be made by moving road freight to shipping or rail. As an example, the transport of one tonne of freight by diesel-powered rail produces less than a third of the emissions than transport over the same journey by road,” Professor Sims says. Further gains could be made by additional rail electrification.

Electricity generation, already at 80% renewable in New Zealand, is an area that New Zealand has a head start on many countries. The report finds it is “technically and economically possible” to reach New Zealand’s 90% target by 2025. Reaching an even higher percentage of renewable electricity is also possible, but would require a more flexible grid, energy storage and back up generation.

Existing buildings can be retrofitted to improve energy balance and power-hungry appliances replaced. The report suggests the Building Code and standards on energy efficiency for both buildings and appliances could be strengthened.

The use of fossil fuels for industrial heat supply could be reduced by greater uptake of solar thermal and geothermal resources and biomass material, such as wood and waste streams.

Professor Sims said one of the challenges for New Zealand was our high level of emissions from agriculture, which accounts for about half of New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions.  These are mainly methane belched by farm animals and nitrous oxide from animal waste.

Significantly reducing agricultural emissions will be challenging unless we reduce our reliance on animal protein production from meat and milk, but emissions could be reduced by adopting ‘best practices’, selectively breeding cattle and sheep, and adjusting rumen biology to reduce emissions.

Planting new forests in un-forested areas is a practical method to remove large volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the short to medium term, the report finds.

“If planted on marginal land, forest plantings can also provide added benefits of improved water quality and erosion control, but it should not be viewed as an alternative for reducing emissions in other areas, as there are limits to how many forests can be planted due to the availability of suitable land. It is an effective strategy in the short to medium term while other sectors transition to low-carbon technologies,” Professor Sims says.

Professor Sims noted that making the transition to a low-carbon future will require “carefully planned policy interventions and behaviour change by all of us, individuals, businesses, cities and central government”.

Climate Change Mitigation Options for New Zealand Expert Panel

  • Professor Ralph Sims (Chair): School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University
  • Professor Barry Barton: Te Piringa Faculty of Law, University of Waikato
  • Dr Paul Bennett: Science Leader, Clean Technologies, Scion
  • Dr Nigel Isaacs: Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington
  • Dr Suzi Kerr: Senior Fellow, Motu and Adjunct Professor, Victoria University of Wellington
  • Associate Professor Jonathan Leaver: Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Unitec
  • Dr Janet Stephenson: Director of the Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago
  • Dr Andy Reisinger: Deputy Director (International), New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, Wellington

Key findings from report: Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand

Global increase in Greenhouse Gas emissions

  • The climate is changing. Average temperatures are increasing due to human activity, particularly the historically high level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • In order to limit temperature rise, and associated risks of accelerated sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events for example, the world must reduce GHG emissions and work towards a low-carbon economy.
  • Stabilising the world’s climate requires net global emissions of GHGs to be reduced to zero before the end of the 21st century, especially emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) as it is long-lived in the atmosphere.

New Zealand’s GHGs increasing

  • Our gross GHG emissions per capita are well above average for developed countries.
  • Our annual gross and net GHG emissions continue to increase. (‘Net’ accounts for CO2 removed by forests.)
  • The main sources of CO2 emissions are from heat and electricity supply, transport fuels, cement manufacture and forest harvesting.
  • New Zealand also produces an unusually large portion of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions due to the significant role of agriculture in our economy. This accounts for around half of our gross annual GHG emissions.

Understand the risks and trade-offs and take action

  • All New Zealanders need to understand the risks of climate change, accept that we need to change the way we act, realise that trade-offs will need to be made, and become personally involved in implementing mitigation solutions.

Opportunities to reduce emissions

  • There are good opportunities to reduce GHG emissions in all sectors and hence make the transition to a thriving low-carbon economy.
  • Achieving a transition would rely on carefully planned policy interventions and behaviour changes at the individual, business, city and organisational levels.

Reducing fossil fuel use

  • Around half of New Zealand’s GHG emissions arise from the burning of coal, oil and gas for electricity generation, industrial heat processes, transport, and everyday activities in homes and commercial buildings.
  • There are many opportunities to reduce fossil fuel dependence and hence CO2 emissions across all of these sectors.

Increasing renewable electricity

  • Increasing the share of renewable electricity generation to reach New Zealand’s 90% target by 2025 is technically and economically possible.
  • An even higher share is possible but would need a more flexible grid, energy storage, and back-up generation (possibly thermal-plant) to meet seasonal peaks, especially in dry years when hydroelectric power is constrained.

Smart energy for heat and electricity

  • Renewable heat systemshave good potential for buildings and industry. Distributed heat energy systems and a smart electricity grid incorporating small-scale, renewable electricity generation systems, demand-side management, and intelligent appliances could play a future role.

Low carbon transport

  • New technologies and low-carbon travel choices can play a part, including more fuel-efficient vehicles; low-carbon fuels such as renewable electricity and biofuels; using buses, light rail, cycling and walking; and improving urban design to encourage their use.
  • Journey avoidance and modal shifts for freight, such as greater use of rail and sea, will also assist.

Energy management in buildings and appliances

  • Reduce GHG emissions in the residential and commercial building sector through better energy management and improved minimum performance standards for appliances.
  • Improving insulation levels; retro-fitting existing building stock; integrating renewable energy systems; and supporting innovative ‘green building’ design will all contribute.

Industrial energy use

  • The present dependence on burning coal and natural gas for process heat can be displaced by bioenergy, geothermal, solar thermal and electro-thermal technologies.
  • Energy efficiency initiatives can reduce GHG emissions significantly but may need further incentivising to meet the short investment time frame of businesses.
  • Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) could be an option in the long term and, if coupled with bioenergy (BECCS), would give negative GHG emissions.


  • Increasing adoption of best practices can help reduce the present growth in emissions, but even if current research into additional mitigation technologies proves successful, strong reductions in absolute emissions would eventually involve trade-offs with current growth targets for livestock production and would rely on developing alternative low-emitting land-uses. 
  • Some measures to reduce emissions could also support water quality.

Forest planting and harvesting

  • Significantly increasing the land area of plantation forests could offset up to a quarter of our total GHG emissions over the next two to three decades. However, there are only low levels of planting at this time so when current forest stands are harvested our net emissions (gross emissions less COremovals) are likely to rise.
  • Forest sinks can only be an interim solution until all available land has been planted.

Emissions trading

  • The NZ Emissions Trading Scheme has been ineffective in reducing New Zealand’s emissions. This has reflected low international carbon credit prices.
  • Reform is needed to provide clear and stable investment signals.
  • Emission pricing has an important role but to be most effective it needs to be embedded in a wider package of mitigation policies and actions.

Supporting low-carbon choices

  • Policies, targets, regulations, infrastructure, and market settings should be developed systematically to support low-carbon choices by businesses, cities and households.
  • An independent board or entity to provide evidence-based advice to parliament and the public would be valuable.

More ambitious action needed now

  • There is a clear case for immediate action. New research and technologies will continue to emerge but many mitigation options are already well-understood and achievable.  Delaying actions would result in a greater amount of emissions overall, given that CO2 emissions accumulate in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years.
  • Evidence for mitigation pathways for New Zealand is deficient. This has hampered the analysis conducted in this study and limits effective public engagement and debate about our future options.
  • Investment in data gathering and deeper analysis will help refine early mitigation actions and support a transparent public debate about longer term desirable and feasible mitigation pathways.

Starting now

  • We can start immediately by deploying low-risk mitigation actions whilst planning for and trialling more ambitious emission reductions options and system changes to commence the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy.


Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi