The Climate Commission’s 15-year blueprint – Expert Reaction

The Climate Change Commission has outlined its advice on how we should reshape our economy to mitigate the climate crisis.

The report says current government policies do not put the country on track to meet its 2050 targets. To achieve this, the report sets new emissions targets, and recommends a transition to electric vehicles, accelerated renewable energy generation, climate friendly farming practices and more permanent forests, predominantly natives. The draft proposal will be open for public feedback starting tomorrow until 14 March.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report.

Professor Bronwyn Hayward, professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The bad news is the report says so far we’ve not been doing our fair share to create a safer climate.

“But there is very good news in this report. We can achieve our Paris climate goals at lower costs than we expected and the Commission says we can do it with existing technology and we don’t (and shouldn’t) have to plant as many exotic pine forests either.

“In a highly technical document one of the big points of change is to note that our commitment to reducing emissions of heat trapping gases will need to be by “much more” than 35% compared to 2005 levels by 2030 to meet our Paris pledge. To put this new commitment in perspective the Biden Administration is considering cuts of 38-50% compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

“There are many exciting innovations in the suggestions of how to become a low carbon economy, ending the importation of all new fossil fuel cars by 2032 for example, but the overall rates of change the Commission proposes in the first 5 years are very gentle (and rising more steeply later). The Commission suggests we initially reduce our emissions by just 2% net each year to 2025. To put this into perspective, recent research suggests that the country as a whole managed to reduce our emissions by an astonishing 41% for the period of our first level four lockdown. We don’t want to put our society on hold for four weeks every year to reduce emissions! But that experience does give us an idea of what the power of collective action could do. However not everyone is able to able to change their lives to take a bike once a week to get around for example, and the Commission has been very clear that any action we take has to be fair for everyone.

“So the real tension still remains around the agricultural targets – biogenic methane is currently a separate (spilt) target – this is an unusual move internationally and one many of our major trading partners like the UK are unhappy about. We had first pledged to only cut methane by 10% by 2030 and the new report raises that ambition to 12-13% reductions by 2035. The Commission says this step is realistic. Some New Zealanders forced to trade in their old cars will be asking; is it fair? Is this really an example of everyone going as hard and as fast as we can? Paris asks us to make ambitious reductions in all emissions, not to just ‘stabilise’ methane.

“The debate has just begun but we need to quickly to move from discussion to action, it has taken too long to get here, over 30 years of inaction. Start the conversation in our workplaces, marae, schools and homes and support all our political parties and leaders as they start to commit to real action. It will be hard but the Commission is very clear: we CAN do this.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Professor Hayward was a lead author of the IPCC special 1.5 report and is currently a member of the Core writing Team of the IPCC and a Co-ordinating lead author of the chapter for the 6th report on cities and infrastructure. The views expressed here are her expert assessment and not those of the IPCC.”

Ralph Sims, Professor Emeritus, Sustainable Energy and Climate Mitigation, Massey University, comments:

“This new CCC consultation document is comprehensive. It recognises the need for both the uptake of both technical low-carbon advances across all sectors as well as the need for behavioural changes. It also reinforces the need to strengthen New Zealand’s commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement by endorsing the target for zero-carbon by 2050 and in the shorter term, making our nationally determined contribution more ambitious. It also recognises that buying carbon credits from other countries would be a cop-out and that we have to reduce our own domestic emissions wherever possible.

“Overall it largely duplicates the findings and recommendations of the Royal Society’s 2016 report Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy for New Zealand, but the government at that time took little notice – and our emissions have continued to rise. Now the timing is different with the present Government already announcing a series of emission reduction policies and agreeing to work towards the CCC’s carbon budgets as recommended for the three periods out till 2035.

“There is some sense of urgency in the recommendations – but is it showing enough urgency given that we have not yet managed to bend the emissions curve downwards. This is in spite of numerous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many others over several past decades that gave clear warnings around climate change, outlined how we will need to adapt, and listed how emissions can be urgently reduced.

“Maybe Government should regulate and educate for example that:

  • no new houses will be connected to natural gas;
  • that all light-duty vehicles imported after 2030 be powered by renewable electricity;
  • that the “carbon levy” we are already paying through the emissions trading scheme is identified on our energy bills (as is GST) so everyone has a greater awareness of paying it;
  • that we all try harder to avoid wasting food and reducing all wastes; and
  • that everyone better understands how they can measure, then significantly reduce, their personal carbon footprint.

“The CCC draft report provides strong recommendations to Government. However, its reasoning, targets, and key messages also need to be clearly presented by whatever means to our team of 5 million. Just like COVID-19, we’re all in this together – but the longer term ramifications are far greater. Only with strong public support will there be sufficient, cross-party, political will to make the difference.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Chaired the panel of authors of Royal Society report on climate change mitigation 2016. Co-ordinating Lead Author of several IPCC reports (1999, 2007, 2011, 2014) and currently review editor of the IPCC 6th Assessment Report (in progress)”

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

“Whew! It’s great to see the Commission coming out with strong but achievable carbon budgets – and making it clear that government will need to develop consistent and coherent policies to achieve them. The recommended changes should be no surprise as they target sectors that have been repeatedly identified as the problems in numerous NZ reports over the past 5 years. And many businesses, councils, iwi, NGOs and community groups already aspire to contribute to a low-carbon future and have been calling out for government leadership.

“As a social scientist, I suggest that a major challenge will be the cultural change involved in adjusting how we live and how we run our businesses – the shift from vague aspirations for change, to the significant alterations that will be required in how we produce and consume products and services.

“It isn’t just a matter of adopting new technologies, but changing our everyday activities, shifting our expectations of ‘a good life’, and accepting that the changes we face are not only permanent, but will continue to re-shape life as we know it for the next 30 years or more. There is no going back.

“But the livelihoods and lifestyles that emerge out of these changes, if well managed, will deliver a more just and equitable society.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Troy Baisden, Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato; and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, comments:

“The Climate Change Commission’s (CCC) report and invitation to consultation demonstrates how effective and convincing climate science and wider analysis can be. The Commission finds that New Zealand’s goal to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050 is achievable with technologies and ideas that are available and affordable. For New Zealand to do its part to limit warming to 1.5°C, the Commission suggests a need to slightly steepen the ramp on rates of change to be achieved by 2030, achieving net reductions of at least an extra 5% of 2005 levels.

“The CCC was able to prioritise a series of actions, labelling seven to be ‘time-critical’. Within these, the urgent themes emphasise that the transport and industrial energy use sectors must move fast onto a track where they join forests as the three major sources of net reductions in emissions. This allows agriculture to continue as a major sector of the economy, with its own target and more minor reductions, reflecting unique status of methane emissions.

“Given that agriculture accounts for nearly half of New Zealand’s current emissions, the report contains relatively little detail on agriculture and land use, except for reductions achieved by forests. This is neither surprising nor a weakness. It simply reflects both the difficulty and uncertainty in achieving emissions reductions in agriculture, and projecting these forward. The Commission’s analysis briefly notes significant yet uncertain areas of potential, such as an ongoing conversion from grazed pastures toward high-value horticulture, such as wine and fruit. However, a significant gap is understanding the potential for the growth of a bioenergy sector, and whether this might start to resemble agriculture more than forestry.

“The uncertainty gaps around New Zealand’s land-based production represent a challenge for the future that needs to be increasingly met by new science. That’s challenging when it means moving beyond the incumbent producers, to the new billion dollar sectors, industries and initiatives that may emerge in coming years. Their success requires science to find and then quantify the paths to transformation change. Getting such science in place will make New Zealand more competitive, and less dependent on the Commission’s recommendation to continue buying emissions reductions overseas. It will also help project a path forward that will enable innovation throughout our motu, and heed the Commission’s prerogative that “climate related policies do not further compound historic grievances for Māori.”

“In a world where an automaker like General Motors suddenly committed yesterday to zero emissions from its vehicles within 15 years, the Climate Change Commission stands out today. It has done its job to digest the science and signal clear paths forward in a remarkably short time, given it was formed only last year. They now pass the baton to the rest of New Zealand, to pitch in through the consultation.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Justin Hodgkiss and Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, Co-Directors of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comment:

“The release of He Pou a Rangi – the Climate Change Commission’s draft advice to the Government is very welcome, and has been keenly awaited. It unpacks some of the problems related to different emissions and their sources, and is a great step in the right direction. We particularly welcome the inclusive approach taken, specifically the references to the concerns of Māori communities and the need to not exacerbate historic grievances, within the report.

“As specified in the Executive Summary, Aotearoa does not need to rely on future technologies to start cutting emissions. While the prospect of emerging technologies is positive in that there are many issues in renewable energy generation and storage – as well as in the conservation of energy in manufacturing and industry – that are moving closer and closer to market, they also rely on the right economic settings in order for transition to happen in a coordinated and timely way, overcoming the economic barriers associated with incumbent technologies.

“The connection of climate change strategy to ideas that emerge from consideration of a circular, self-sustaining economy are ideas that we (as physical scientists!) see as being very profound and useful. The sustainability of each and all of our physical and environmental resources is connected; the connection between waste and methane emissions is a powerful example.

“Finally, the discussion of decarbonisation beyond electricity generation, moving into manufacturing and transport, is really very welcome and a hugely important contribution from this report. Transport is one of our biggest concerns and electric vehicle technologies are no longer a matter for the future; low or zero carbon fuels (such as hydrogen) may become a more practical solution for some applications in future. Maximising the use of electricity in manufacturing – and eliminating coal – should not merely be seen as a path to decarbonisation, but as a path to growth of those industries that have most value in a zero carbon future.

“On this note, we would add a caution to those discussing our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as though it would always be based on the profile of our current economy. Achieving this through offshore mitigation may be necessary “to increase our contribution beyond what is possible at home” currently, but our proportion of current renewable energy generation, together with the growth of ‘deep tech’ industries in Aotearoa that have the power to leverage renewables into internationally competitive products, should encourage us to consider that exceeding our effective NDC might be possible through investment into zero carbon manufacturing for export. While the current plan is ambitious – being even more ambitious in very specific directions might be in all of our interests!”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Euan Mason, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The Climate Change Commission should be commended for making a very helpful, comprehensive report on such a difficult topic. The Commission is right to state that our long term focus must be on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“However, with respect to forestry issues there appear to be a number of unsubstantiated assumptions:

“Forest carbon (C) storage is said to be “impermanent”. What matters is the total area of New Zealand in forest, not whether or not any particular forest stand blows down, burns or is harvested. If we commit to increasing the total national area of forest and to ensuring that the very small areas that blow or burn down, or those areas that may be harvested, will be re-established, we can enlarge a very stable, permanent C store in forests.

“Forest is said to be risky because climate change will increase the risk of fires. New Zealand’s forests have long been far more likely to blow down than burn down, and the frequency of forest fires has not yet been shown to have increased in New Zealand. Australia, at similar latitudes to the Sahara and with continental climate patterns, has always been subjected to greater forest fires than us, and our opinions on this matter appear to have been strongly influenced by anecdotes from across the Tasman Sea. This is poor evidence on which to base policy.

“There appears to be an implicit assumption that native forests are more permanent than exotic forests, and to the extent that exotics tend to be pioneer species from an ecological point of view. This is true for unharvested forests, but the conclusions that we must plant native forests and that these forests will greatly help us reach our 2050 target are flawed. Native forests sequester C very slowly compared to our most productive exotics, and areas of native forest required to have the necessary impact on our C accounts by 2050 are simply too large and expensive for us to contemplate. There is abundant evidence that we could take advantage of rapid sequestration rates of exotics to fill gaps in our C accounts (these gaps result from a necessarily slow pace of change in greenhouse gas emissions and are acknowledged by the Commission) while gradually transitioning these pioneer exotic carbon forests to later seral stage native forest over many decades. This latter approach would have substantial advantages. It a) is much cheaper, in dollars and in land area required, than directly planting native C forest; b) ensures that forests actually fill the gaps in our C accounts; and c) ultimately provides extra native forest which many of us would like to see, but in a more natural way.”

No conflict of interest.

Prof Simon Hales, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“In general, I find the CCC advice to be well thought-out and very clearly set out. The task of advising on greenhouse gas targets and policies is a complex one, and this initial report is as comprehensive and detailed as could reasonably be expected given the short timeframe.

“I support the analytical framework and principles, and welcome the recognition of health co-benefits of energy policies. The economic modelling should quantify the potential for health co-benefits in future analyses. Reductions in air pollution and increased physical activity from shifts to active transport can have very substantial benefits. Significantly reducing agricultural production from livestock could also have substantial health and environmental benefits.

“The potential for targets for reduction in biogenic methane to be strengthened should be further considered. This would give us flexibility to rapidly decrease our greenhouse footprint, should this prove necessary.

“Recognition of the need for transformational social change is welcome, but how is this to be conceived and facilitated?”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Anita Wreford, Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University, comments:

“I welcome the publication of this first report of He Pou A Rangi – Climate Change Commission, which is a critical first step in Aotearoa-NZ’s transition to net-zero emissions. The report is comprehensive and from my initial reading, based on the best scientific evidence.

“The report emphasises the fact that our current direction is not enough to meet the net-zero target, and we need to change course in the next few years to be able to achieve the target (which we must, to play our part in the global effort to avoid the worst impacts of climate change).

“The report identifies seven key principles to guide the transition and base decisions on, including equity and inclusivity, which will be critical. Another to emphasise is to increase resilience to climate impacts while transitioning to a low-emissions future, key to ensuring our communities and economy can continue to function in an inevitably changing climate.

“In many ways the principles of the report do not present many surprises: much of the information is already understood. The key will now be in how the government implements the recommendations to ensure action actually occurs.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I’m on the Land Use Technical Reference Group for the CCC.”

Sally Owen, Kairangahau | Researcher, Te Kura Ohaoha Pūtea | School of Economics and Finance, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“An excellent milestone for Aotearoa New Zealand has been reached today, with a strong call to action being made to government. The advice from He Pou a Rangi, the Climate Change Commission, is clear: current government policies do not put us on track to meet our target. However, today He Pou a Rangi have laid out an ambitious set of recommendations which will help us move forward. We have some serious mahi ahead!”

No conflict of interest. 

Professor Susan Krumdieck, Energy Transition Engineering, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The main message of the CCC draft advice to government is “We must start now” with decarbonising at the source and we cannot rely on offsetting with plantation forests. The other highlight for me is not to wait for new technologies. A clear statement is given that “Action is needed across all sectors of the economy.” I consider this to be the key.

“The seven principles for accelerating action to reduce emissions will surely raise few objections: align with 2050 targets, focus on decarbonising the economy (don’t push emissions off-shore), create options, avoid unnecessary cost (and not stranding assets), transition in an equitable and inclusive way, increase resilience to climate impacts, and leverage co-benefits.

“The 2025 emissions budget of 2% below 2018 is not exactly aligned with the declaration of a climate emergency. Rather, it is indicative of the approach of following scenarios that do not include transition innovation. The perspective of the approach was only on emissions, not on the fuels, animals and land use changes that are actually responsible for the emissions. When people who design, build and operate systems that use fossil fuels, for example, take on the CCC’s call to action that “we must start now” to achieve net zero, then there are 1000 transition innovations in 1000 places that can occur, all of them aligned with the principles. Transition innovation is a massive sustainable and renewable resource. Transition innovation can be found in every company and every community. Transition innovations can return a lot of value and usually solve a problem without having to rely on purchase of large imported depreciable consumer goods. It is not surprising that the CCC had not been aware of the potential of Transition innovation, as it is just emerging from valorisation of research conducted over the past 20 years. In fact New Zealand is the birthplace of Interdisciplinary Transition Innovation, Management and Engineering (InTIME), which is now being taken up around the world.  I hope that the final draft can include support for ground-up transitions as well as government policy.

“The emphasis on not exporting emissions and not borrowing from future emissions budgets is very important. The CCC advice uses the data for emissions to focus squarely on transport and heat (oil, gas and coal) as the main focus for action. This focus aligns with the government policies in Europe and the UK. In the introduction of the CCC draft advice, there was discussion of transformation of our cities so that walking, cycling and public transport can provide for the majority of travel needs.  However, in the key insights section the CCC advice then recommends a very large export of emissions by stating; “Through switching to electric vehicles, road transport, including heavy vehicles, can be almost decarbonised by 2050.” The manufacture of electric vehicles is more carbon intensive than for petrol vehicles, and the continued building and maintenance of roads is not net zero.  Furthermore the recommended “switch to electric vehicles” does not meet the principle of equitable and inclusive transition as it relies heavily on consumerism of the second most costly living expense for families. I do not agree that we can consume our way to net zero by importing expensive and short lived, high carbon footprint vehicles that are only utilized about 5% of the time. I hope the final advice recognises what the people discovered during the COVID lockdown – our cities without 4 million vehicles are great places with great potential and so much room for innovative transition regeneration.

“The CCC advice recognises the importance of efficiency and behaviour change in achieving demand reduction in the near term with positive economic benefits realised as savings. However, the means of achieving demand reduction are just now starting to be understood to require interventions, new businesses, and transition engineering of complex systems. The Net Zero reality means that engineers throughout all sectors will re-design and re-develop the fossil fuel intensive products and services into an energy lean and efficient economy. Transition Engineering of existing transportation networks and urban form for example is a whole new field requiring new fundamentals, skills and competencies. One thing that was distinctively missing from the CCC draft advice was the need for education and training in the engineering, management and policy areas. The final CCC advice should include professional development, trade skills and inclusion across tertiary programmes of both carbon literacy and transition innovation, management and engineering.”

No conflict of interest declared.