Govt promises carbon neutral public sector by 2025 – Expert Reaction

Public sector agencies will soon be required to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions, and to offset any emissions they can’t cut by 2025.

The Carbon Neutral Government Programme accompanies the Government’s move to declare a climate emergency in Parliament today. It’s also replacing coal boilers used in the public sector, and supporting the immediate purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles to start replacing the Government’s petrol car fleet.

The SMC asked experts to comment on:

  1. The programme generally
  2. Electric vehicle uptake
  3. Green standards for buildings

Associate Professor Janet Stephenson, Director, Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago, comments:

“As hinted in the government’s announcement, this programme will require massive carbon offsetting as the scale of change won’t be achievable within that timeframe. Currently the options mainly used for offsetting are into forestry (a short term fix if it is harvestable) either in New Zealand or offshore.

“If millions of dollars are to be put into offsets, how about making this funding available for other innovative solutions within New Zealand towards low-carbon transitions? This means investing those funds into sectors not already covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by retrofitting New Zealand’s substandard housing stock; assisting schools, marae, public facilities to become carbon-zero; assisting low-income families to adopt low-carbon technologies, etc.

“The carbon reductions would need to be measured and certifiable, but this is entirely doable by organisations already operating in New Zealand. This means a double gain from the initiative rather than funds going offshore.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Julie MacArthur, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Carbon Neutral Government Program and $200M State Sector Decarbonization fund are important actions backing up the recent Climate Emergency Declaration. It is good to see a shorter 5 year (rather than the more typical 10 to 15 year) target for implementation.

“The state sector represents approximately 18 per cent of the total New Zealand workforce and reaches across health, education as well as a wide variety of government agencies across Aotearoa. This is no small announcement, particularly when partnered with the range of other climate policy initiatives in the past two years.

“Social science research shows that changes made in the operation of government facilities, buildings and in staff workplace practices flow through to the rest of the economy due to the large size and distributed nature of the public sector. Government procurement is a powerful tool for creating economies of scale for technologies like electric vehicles, which New Zealand has been much slower to adopt than similar countries despite the doubling of domestic transport emissions since 1990. This is despite the fact that our more than 80 per cent renewable power grid means running them has significantly more benefits than countries with fossil fuel dominated electricity generation.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor James Renwick, Head of School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Today’s announcements are an excellent sign that this government is serious about action on climate change. Not only has the Prime Minister declared a Climate Emergency, she has outlined some of the first steps the Government will take to reduce emissions. The goal to have a carbon-neutral Public Service by 2025 is a big step forward. Government will really help to lead the way in the electrification of the private vehicle fleet, and in building energy use and energy efficiency, as the Public Service is such a big player in the market. Replacing coal boilers is another piece of “low hanging fruit” that can quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the public sector.

“Today, New Zealand joins over 30 other countries to have declared a climate emergency. It sends a clear message to the people of New Zealand, to the business sector, and to the international community that we are serious about tackling climate change. Now comes the hard part, delivering on the pledges. If the Government can make the Public Service carbon-neutral in five years, and if Government takes up the advice the Climate Change Commission will deliver next year, we should start to see some real progress on reducing emissions, and on meeting the goals of the Zero Carbon Act.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, School of Geography, Environmental and Earth Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Mandating that new vehicles in the public service fleet must be electric vehicles where at all possible is really a no-brainer, but it’s excellent that the Government is taking this step. It’s notable that National leader Judith Collins has also been pushing for it. So it should be a durable policy. At the same time, we don’t want too many exceptions to the policy when it comes to reluctant chief executives doing the implementation.

“We also need to put this policy in context. Norway is the furthest ahead in the electric vehicle area and the Norwegian Parliament has decided on a national goal that all new cars sold by 2025 should be zero-emissions (electric or hydrogen). The UK government is heading for all new cars by 2030 being zero-emissions. The New Zealand government should be seriously considering whether (and when) it can follow such policies, not just for the government sector, but right across the economy.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Robyn Phipps, Director of Research, Built Environment, Massey University, comments:

“A significant amount of energy and carbon goes into the construction and operation of all buildings. They are also large consumers of energy for heating, lighting, cooling and other building services. There is a huge opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and make buildings carbon neutral. Carbon neutral buildings won’t happen without significant changes in the way we build and use buildings, but they are possible.

“One of the best ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a building is to extend the life of a building, so that it is adaptable to future uses and performs well. Further, buildings are a large canvas on which we can install renewable energy generation devices such as solar panels, micro wind turbines, and solar air heaters. All measures that reduce the environmental impact of buildings are required.

“Overseas evidence has shown that mandating rating tools is an effective method for improving the performance of buildings.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a director of the New Zealand Green Building Council. The role is honorary (unpaid).

Professor Suzanne Wilkinson, Professor of Construction Management, Massey University, comments:

“This is an excellent initiative, but the key questions include: how much it will cost? Who pays for the upgrading or retrofitting of buildings, or construction of new ones? In addition the industry may not be able to undertake the work. Do we have the capacity and capability to be able to deliver?

“Currently the industry knowledge is lacking on how best to “green” buildings and this lack of knowledge and training has hampered development of skills to respond. People think “greening” buildings costs more (and this is usually true) because we are adding in something and not realising the benefit until much later. Developers don’t necessarily want to pay for features that they don’t have to pay for, as they will not benefit from the costs.

“Clients/owners need to know what to ask for, and they currently don’t have this knowledge. There have been no incentives to input sustainable features into buildings (such as grey water systems, water tanks, solar panels, additional insulation) and as a result they have become “luxury” items and not “must haves”. Becoming luxury items has led to “niche” or “specialists” seeing an opportunity to charge more, which has increased the perception of cost. Because this is not mainstream, there are few trained people in an already resource stretched industry.”

No conflict of interest declared.