wonderferret from Auckland, New Zealand via Wikimedia Commons

NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions drastically rise and fall – Expert Reaction

The latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that in 2019 emissions rose by 2 per cent on the previous year.

The Ministry for the Environment said it is mainly due to increases in emissions from manufacturing and construction, and public electricity and heat production. However recent Stats NZ figures show that in 2020 emissions fell by 4.8 per cent from the previous year, mainly due to Covid-19 restrictions causing a fall in transport emissions.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the big picture of greenhouse gas emissions.

Professor James Renwick, climate scientist, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Gross emissions of greenhouse gases increased 2% in 2019, compared to 2018. This is one of the larger annual increases this century, but overall gross emissions have hovered around 80 megatons for about 20 years. Net emissions have also been quite stable for the last decade or so.

“The increase in 2019 takes us slightly further away from our goal of getting to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and are a reminder of why we need to take action. The Climate Change Commission was set up under the Zero Carbon Act to help government tackle the problem, and once the Commission’s advice is tabled in Parliament at the end of next month (May), we hope to see government action to start bringing emissions down.

“Emissions in 2020 are likely to be lower than in 2019, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Estimates are that global emissions reduced around 7% overall, and New Zealand probably saw at least that level of reduction. The important thing now is to lock in those reductions by investing in low-carbon infrastructure as economies come back to full strength. We need to find ways to reduce emissions that much every year, without the terrible cost of the pandemic, by investing in renewable energy, electrified public and private transport, and more sustainable economic activity generally.

“Recent announcements around phasing out coal boilers for heating and powering schools, and the government’s announcement in late 2020 of a carbon-neutral public service by 2025, set us on the path we need to take. The Commission’s draft advice shows it’s possible to decarbonise the NZ economy in an affordable way, using technologies that already exist. More action from Government, the business sector, and communities across New Zealand will make it a reality.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Note: James Renwick is a Climate Change Commissioner.

Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, Atmosphere-Ocean Scientist, NIWA, comments:

“The Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, released by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) today, shows that Aotearoa New Zealand’s net greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Emissions increased by 2% since 2018, primarily due to rising greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, construction, public electricity, and heat production. This contrasts with Aotearoa New Zealand’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“Yet, new data from 2020 offers a glimmer of hope. MfE’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report is the official national reporting of our GHG emissions and removals and must follow rigorous international protocols to meet our obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement. While it is updated annually, 2019 was the most recent year included in the current report to allow time to complete the work needed to meet these standards. Stats NZ has recently started providing a quarterly update to this report, to shed light on more recent emissions.

“In 2020, New Zealand’s emissions dropped by 5% in 2020, primarily due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Atmospheric measurements of CO2 fossil fuel emissions near roads around New Zealand (made by GNS Science and NIWA) show a drop in traffic emissions of 75-80% during Level 4 lockdown. That’s consistent with traffic counts from Waka Kotahi NZTA and the Stats NZ emissions statistics. These emissions began to rise again as restrictions were lifted and people began to resume their normal lives, so that the net impact across the year was relatively small.

“Yet, this remains an enduring lesson about how much we can accomplish by reducing emissions from traffic. The Global Carbon Project estimated that during level 4 lockdown, Aotearoa New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions dropped by more than any other country in the world except Luxembourg, a small European nation. This is in part due to the stringent lockdown measures we took, but it is also in part due to the fact that 82% of our electricity generation is already from renewable sources. Low emissions transportation systems have the potential to take us a long way towards our Carbon Zero goals, without the devastating humanitarian and economic impacts of COVID. ”

No conflict of interest declared.

Distinguished Professor Robert McLachlan, School of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, comments:

“The 2019 greenhouse gas inventory shows alarming emissions increases from the burning of fossil fuels. Emissions from energy industries, including electricity generation, are up 0.78 million tonnes or 17% from 2018; manufacturing emissions up 0.76 million tonnes or 11%. Overall, gross CO2 emissions rose 1.71 million tonnes to 37.49 million tonnes, a rise of 5%. CO2 emissions have now risen 9% in three years and are now nearly back to their record highs of the mid-2000s. The only glimmer of good news is that transport emissions were stable after many years of increase. No areas showed significant declines.

“Carbon storage by forests increased slightly, by 0.66 million tonnes or 2%, but unfortunately projections for the next three years forecast a rapid decline in carbon storage until new forests have time to establish. This is a critical area in the Climate Change Commission’s forthcoming advice.

“Although some increases were expected, since in 2019 no new mitigation measures were in place, their scale is a surprise and reinforces the urgent need to bring in measures to phase out fossil fuels. The carbon price was $25 in 2019; now it’s up to $38 with much higher prices referenced in the Commission’s draft advice.

“Although 2020 will have seen emissions fall in some areas (4.8% overall according to a separate tally by Stats NZ), the immediate situation is not great, with continuing falls in renewable electricity generation and no significant measures yet in place to rein in fossil fuel use. Ideally by 2024 we should be seeing the positive effects of new renewable electricity supply now under construction and decreased coal use in industry.”

No conflict of interest declared.