How do we get to zero carbon

The Zero Carbon Act will commit New Zealand to net zero carbon by 2050 or sooner. Getting to zero carbon in this timeframe will require broad political commitment, immediate action, and coherent long-term planning.

We can get most of the way there using solutions that are already available. Getting there will involve moving towards 100% renewable electricity, improving our energy efficiency, electrifying our transport and heat systems, making more use of wood as an energy source, and converting more land to forests.

Getting to zero carbon by 2050 is possible, necessary, and will be beneficial for New Zealand.

Zero carbon by 2050 is possible

Two recent reports have shown feasible options and pathways for New Zealand to transition away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. These reports, by Vivid Economics and the Royal Society of New Zealand, are summarised here.

The 2017 Net Zero in New Zealand report by Vivid Economics, commissioned by cross-party group GLOBE-NZ, shows pathways for New Zealand to achieve the Zero Carbon Act’s goal. The ‘Innovative NZ’ and ‘Resourceful NZ’ scenarios pursue a different mix of solutions, but both achieve zero net emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases before 2050 (see The ‘two-baskets’ approach). Many of their recommendations mirror those of the Royal Society.

In 2016, the Royal Society of New Zealand (Te Apārangi) established a panel of scientists to investigate options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Their Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand report emphasises the extent to which New Zealand could reinvent its energy infrastructure to achieve this goal. Their findings cover a range of key policy areas: reducing fossil fuel use; increasing renewable electricity; smart energy for heat and electricity; low-carbon transport; energy management in buildings and appliances; efficiency and innovation in industrial energy use; and technological efforts to mitigate emissions from agriculture or develop alternative low-emitting land uses. Clear public policy will be crucial to driving these changes.  

The report also highlights the need for both technological and human behaviour change. New Zealanders must understand the risks of climate change; accept that we have to change some of our current behaviour and practices; accept that there are benefits but that also trade-offs have to be made; and become personally involved in implementing mitigation actions and changing our present “carbon culture”. Overall, the report is optimistic about the capacity for action by individuals and businesses, working together with government.  

The report contains a summary of possible mitigation actions, including an indication of sequence priority, level of emission reduction potential, and costs per tonne of CO2 avoided. The report is a strong starting point for New Zealand’s zero carbon transition, and highlights the feasibility of achieving zero carbon. 

The benefits of transitioning to zero carbon

The transition to zero carbon is inevitable, and already underway in many countries. Under the Paris Agreement, the world has agreed to a net zero emissions future.

Starting our transition without delay will minimise costs and create benefits for New Zealand. These benefits include more economic opportunities from expertise in renewables and other low carbon technology, greater productivity and cost savings from improved energy efficiency, and the public health and environmental benefits from reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Many major economies are already successfully reducing their carbon pollution (see below) and making long-term plans about how to achieve zero net emissions. But New Zealand’s emissions are still rising, and there is nothing resembling a plan to meet our existing national targets. The longer we delay our own zero carbon transition, the more costly it will be. Delays will also mean we miss out on the many benefits and opportunities of early action.    

In a 2017 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) observed that “New Zealand’s growth model is approaching its environmental limits”. Ongoing growth cannot continue without a shift to a lower-carbon economy. This is particularly important to protect New Zealand’s international brand as a “green” economy. The OECD concluded that New Zealand should prepare a comprehensive plan for reducing emissions, and that short and medium-term emission reduction options exist in almost every sector. As part of this plan, the Government should set up policies to encourage the use of green technology.