Climate Commission’s final advice calls for step-up on climate action – Expert Reaction

Progress is underway to shift towards a low-carbon future – but more action is urgently required, the Climate Commission says in its report to government.

The Commission stresses the technology and tools needed to transition to a low-emissions future are already available, and the shift is affordable.  More than 15,000 people and organisations made submissions to the draft advice on recommended ways to reach net-zero by 2050.

Changes to the advice, after consultation, include a small increase to the emissions budgets that imply a harder road ahead, bolder ambitions for reducing waste, and lower ambitions on EVs due to concerns about supply.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the advice. 

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

“The strengths of the NZ Climate Commission report, tabled today, remain the clear reassurances it sends to New Zealanders that we have the tools we need to make significant emissions cuts already.

“The final report also renews the emphasis on reducing emissions at source, reminding the government our aim should be to emit fewer greenhouse gases – rather than relying, for example, on tree planting to reduce emissions.

“There are also some important changes to the way the final climate report is framed. It is good to see the Commission has brought its reporting responsibilities more clearly into a Treaty of Waitangi constitutional framework. It has also more clearly highlighted the health and wellbeing benefits of tackling the climate crisis and the impact of the crisis on disabled populations.

“With regard to the fraught issues of agricultural emissions, the Commission has reduced the expectation of cuts to herd numbers by 2030 from an original estimate of 15% to 13%, and also made a modest recommendation to increase the efforts to reduce biogenic methane emissions, recommending a reduction of 12% by 2030 (rather than the previous 10% expectation) and an eventual expectation of a cut of 17% by 2035 (up from the earlier expectation of 12-13% reductions).

“The Commission has also noted that New Zealand has been emitting more greenhouse gases than we anticipated based on improved data. This has resulted in some recalculation of how much carbon we can allow ourselves to use every five years.

“The Commission confirms that New Zealand should aim to contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement by reducing our emissions overall by at least 36% from the levels of 2005. This looks very modest when compared to President Biden’s pledge to reduce emissions by 50-52% by 2030.

“Anticipating the introduction of electric ships after 2025 and air travel after 2030 are significant new additions to the final report – as are recommendations for low-cost public transport for young people and national targets for walking and cycling.

“As a political scientist working in climate policy, my major concern about this report now however is one of communication. New Zealand needs to take real action. We have delayed doing anything significant about climate policy for 30 years and in that time our emissions have risen steeply and we remain very poorly prepared as communities to tackle the impact of climate change. In this context one of the real strengths the Climate Commission was that it offers a roadmap against which we can track our progress in cutting emissions as a country –so we can  know in real time how we are doing, information which can be a very empowering for citizens.

“However the modelling the Commission has chosen to use, while mathematically justifiable, differs from the systems used by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand. This potentially makes it confusing for citizens to track our progress in real time and to know if we reducing emissions, or increasing them, each year– and by how much. It is disappointing, for example, that revised targets for emission reductions in this report (based on new, improved data) were not more clearly signalled in the summary.

“In these contexts the media is a powerful ally in the process of democratising climate data, and I look forward to following the Commission’s ongoing efforts to communicate our progress as a nation each year because their independent watchdog role is vital.

Conflict of interest statement: University of Canterbury Professor Bronwyn Hayward is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change core writing team and a co-lead author of the cities and infrastructure chapter of IPCC.

Dr Rhys Jones, Senior Lecturer in Māori Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“The NZ Climate Commission’s advice to Government, Ināia tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa, is an important step on the pathway to net zero emissions. It has been somewhat strengthened following public consultation on the draft advice earlier this year, for example including more explicit recommendations focused on upholding Te Tiriti partnership, but still does not capture the magnitude or urgency of change required. That is perhaps because its limited scope does not allow it to truly examine and address the root causes of climate change and related environmental crises.

“One fundamental problem with the Commission’s advice is that the thinking underpinning the proposed strategies comes from the same frameworks and systems that created the problem in the first place. Climate change is conceptualised in narrow terms, with a primary focus on greenhouse gas emissions and solutions aimed narrowly at reducing those emissions. However, climate change should be understood as a symptom of disrupted relationships – with other people, non-human relations and the earth itself. Colonialism and capitalism lie at the root of the social, cultural, economic and environmental changes that have fuelled the climate crisis.

“Yet the Commission’s advice in many areas seeks to avoid making the necessary changes to social and economic systems by emphasising high-tech fixes that enable business-as-usual to continue, albeit in a slightly ‘greener’ fashion. The fixation on electric cars as a way of decarbonising the transport sector, rather than prioritising a mode shift to active and public transport, is an example of the lack of imagination and status quo bias evident throughout the report.

“We should not be aiming to simply replace one form of extractive capitalism with another form of extractive capitalism. Instead, we should be centralising strategies that dismantle harmful and fundamentally unsustainable systems, and restore relationships. Indigenous values, knowledges and ways of being, underpinned by Indigenous sovereignty, hold the key to achieving a just transition for Aotearoa.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Justin Hodgkiss, Co-Director, the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The final Climate Change Commission advice is a comprehensive document. Having taken on feedback from the consultation period that challenged many assumptions in the model – whether they be too ambitious, too conservative, or lacking nuance – the final report gives us a solid framework to understand how much impact certain actions will ultimately make.

“The report reminds us that a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 is indeed achievable if we take significant steps now. And we are reminded that the cost of doing nothing – even in crude GDP terms – is much higher than the cost of transforming to a carbon neutral economy.

“As a materials scientist working in the area of renewable energy, it is important to understand that the pathways presented do not rely on any technologies that are not yet proven; action must not be delayed in the hopes of a miracle discovery coming along. Yet future discoveries will undoubtedly accelerate our path to net zero carbon economy, or put more options on the table to get there at lower cost.

“We are also reminded that technological solutions go hand in hand with behavioural change. The report considers alternative pathways to the main demonstration pathway to net zero – one with greater technology adoption but less behavioural change, and the other with less technology and more behavioural change. The important thing is that each of these pathways can get us there, and maximising the effectiveness of both technological and behavioural change will be better still.

“As an educator, I am also struck by the analysis of future employment. The report acknowledges that employment in will be affected differently in various sectors and regions, with support and planning needed for a just transition. And it is exciting to see the report highlighting the future importance of new jobs in the circular economy, in a new hydrogen industry, in the renewable electricity sector, and even emissions measurement and management. Many of these future jobs will be filled by today’s students, who we know are driven by a strong sense of purpose around environmental sustainability and climate action.”

No conflict of interest.

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

“Congratulations to the Climate Change Commission for the many positive aspects of this report. New Zealand can now begin to make real reductions in our emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Several aspects of the report could be improved:

“1) Our targets have traditionally been to reduce our net GHG emissions to some level of gross GHG emission in the past. This is cute, and may convince the ill-informed that we are doing something when we are not, but it has promoted inaction in New Zealand, and the report should clarify that we have stopped doing this (if, indeed we have). I am encouraged to hear the Minister say that we need to reconsider our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and I hope that this will be part of that reconsideration.

“2) The decision to split targets for gases into “long-lived” and “biogenic methane” is unlikely to be accepted by the international community, and if we only reach net-neutrality in “long-lived” gases then we are unlikely to be recognised as GHG-neutral in 2050. All atmospheric GHGs considered in this report are out of balance, with inputs exceeding outputs, leading to increases in atmospheric concentrations. They all have half-lives, and if we establish extra capacity for removing them from the atmosphere then we change those half-lives.

“It is true that reducing methane outputs is currently a difficult proposition for us, as we rely so heavily on pastoral agriculture, but that should not lead us to misrepresent reality. We should instead explain that we shall have to rely on new forests over a longer period than we would like, in order to bring all our GHG emissions to net-neutral.

“3) Native forests are frequently quoted in the report as “more permanent sinks” for atmospheric CO2 than exotic forests. There is no such thing as a permanent forest sink. Forests can be permanent reservoirs of carbon (C), on average, but they do not continue to store extra C ad infinitum. The natural role for new forests in mitigating climate change is to act as temporary sinks to buy us time to reduce gross emissions.

“What is important is how rapidly new forests can sequester C from the atmosphere, reducing atmospheric CO2, how long this temporary sink status will last, and how much C they will ultimately store on average.  If we consider the periods during which we need to rely on forests as temporary sinks, and how much new forest C storage we need each year, then we can calculate areas of new forest establishment of various types required to do the job. I see no such calculation in the report, but instead what appears to be very muddled thinking about forestry and climate change.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Luke Harrington, Senior Research Fellow in Climate Science, NZ Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The final advice from the Climate Change Commission sets New Zealand on a path of ambition. Right now, the world is about 1.2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, and currently warming at between 0.2 and 0.25 degrees per decade. One of my concerns with the centrality of the government’s messaging on achieving a “1.5 degree-compatible” future is the challenge to ensure Kiwis will continue to strive towards a net-zero future, even if we see the thermometer climb beyond 1.5 degrees.

“1.5˚C is not some cliff that we fall off, and for New Zealand in particular, a 1.6˚C world might not seem that cataclysmic. But with every extra 0.1 degree of warming, the associated impacts will continue to worsen – and often accelerate. Today’s advice from the Commission is therefore crucial for transitioning to a future where New Zealand can credibly claim to no longer be warming the planet.

“One of the biggest challenges to achieving the Commission’s proposed carbon budgets centres around transport. Carbon dioxide emissions from personal vehicle transport continues to climb unabated in New Zealand and it remains the elephant in the room.

“The Commission separately explored scenarios of how people in urban and rural centres can change ways of getting to work and moving around town. But people who live in cities also like to explore the beautiful natural landscapes we have in Aotearoa. Unfortunately, public transport options for travelling between towns and cities in New Zealand are few and far between, and too often people feel that hopping in a car (or plane) is the only option. Until we see a radical change in both the breadth and affordability of options available to move between towns and cities in New Zealand, I struggle to see how we can reduce our transport emissions to zero within the next three decades.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Jamie Shulmeister (long-term climate change scientist), Head of School of Earth and Environment, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The report is very comprehensive and manages to be both ambitious and rather traditional at the same time.  The projected cumulative gains across all sectors are impressive but there are few innovative measures. This is beneficial as working within current practices is much more feasible than a radically redesigned economy.  It is very interesting that no substantive discussion on subsidies for renewable energy (e.g. solar panels) or conversion to EV are incorporated. Strong partnership with Māori is embedded in the report, as it should be.

“The report highlights how inadequate New Zealand action on climate change has been to date. Gross emissions have increased by 26% since 1990. The old trick of using exotic forestry plantations to offset carbon is insufficient and without unrealistic conversions to forestry has an important but a relatively constrained role to play.  However, the implications of switching down or off of exotic forestry plantation is dramatic and very problematic.

“There is a target of no new Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles by 2030 to 2035. This involves a major change in both the organisation of our transport industry and a major change in thinking by New Zealanders. These changes are large and challenging especially given the NZ predilection to purchasing 2nd hand Japanese vehicles.  The proposed carbon budgets suggest relatively minor reductions in total from transport short-term  with most changes after 2030. This suggests that we need to look at localised transport (walking and cycling) to achieve some of the required changes. EV usage depends on dropping battery prices which may not be as feasible as people envision given key elements are resource constrained.

“Agriculture – A significant change to horticulture from dairying is envisioned. This is possible but in addition to all the likely challenges, it will depend on improved transport and/or manufacturing so that product can get to market. Current supply chain problems under covid show that this may not be straightforward. There is also a focus on reducing methane emissions per kg of milk solids and meat.  This is definitely worthwhile. A pricing mechanism for agricultural emissions is critical but won’t be easy to achieve.

“Power – In the short term, the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter is key to decarbonising. It uses 13% of national electricity all from renewable sources.  For industry the use of an enhanced ETS does appear to be a sensible way to drive behaviour.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sam Dean, Principal Scientist – Climate, NIWA, comments:

“At its simplest, avoiding catastrophic climate change involves an end to burning fossil fuels for energy, heat and transport. Up until today New Zealand has relied on forestry offsets to avoid hard conversations about how to do this. A form of procrastination that will not be well regarded by future generations.

“Today’s report by the Climate Commission recognises this fact. It proposes an alternative approach that encompasses a comprehensive and diverse suite of climate policies that focuses on reducing gross emissions. This includes regulation, investment in innovation, and further changes to the emissions trading scheme to produce better price incentives.

“Rising to the challenge that the Commission has now placed in front of us all won’t be easy!  We will know a lot more once the Government releases its emission reduction plan based on this advice. The report from the Climate Commission is a breath of fresh air, that I believe will come to be seen as a turning point in our climate response.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“Better late than never! It’s great the CCC report now acknowledges that delaying mitigation action will cost us all more – but that’s nothing new. Fifteen years ago the authoritative UK Stern Report concluded ‘the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’.

“A year after that, the Emissions Trading Scheme was first introduced in NZ but emissions have continued to rise ever since. For example, how many drivers know they pay a few cents more for every litre of petrol / diesel purchased as a result of the ETS? It has therefore had little impact, if any, on driver behaviour to save fuel – and money, – or buying a car with lower fuel consumption.

“Strong Government action is now critical, based on the many recommendations in the report. All new policies will have to be robust and far more ambitious than those in the past.

“To achieve this will require a mandate from society, but this will not occur without a major educational campaign to explain how huge the threat of climate change is; how we will all have to reduce our carbon footprints; and to outline the many co-benefits that could result. (These are clearly outlined in the CCC report, can help offset any costs involved, but are still poorly understood).

“But the Government can only do so much, and businesses, agriculture, local government, and every citizen will all have to play a part if we are ever to reach our Net Zero target. Very few people have tried to reduce their personal carbon emissions to date, or even given it much thought. Per person, we are around the sixth highest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. It is well realised that to avoid continual rising temperatures we simply have to stop burning coal, natural gas and diesel/petrol urgently.

“However, urban sprawl onto prime agricultural land continues rather than urban densification; a third of food fails to be consumed; most car trips are below 3km; the Building Code is past it’s use-by date and gives little attention to using low-carbon materials or minimising future energy demands; and the necessary trend towards consuming less animal protein remains slow (although virtually all restaurants now offer vegetarian options which wasn’t the case 10 years ago).

“Not covered in the CCC report is the strong educational campaign needed, equivalent to that introduced for COVID-19. Societal acceptance is imperative if national and local government policies are to prove successful, and carbon footprints reduced, in order to lower our annual emissions at the rate clearly outlined in the CCC report that will be necessary if we are ever to reach “Net Zero” by 2050.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Dave Frame, Professor of Climate Change, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The Climate Change Commission report tries to get New Zealand on a pathway to decarbonisation by the middle of the century. That is a laudable goal, if an exceptionally ambitious one. A small Commission has been asked to do a lot of work, across all sectors, and it is inevitable that there will be gaps. Some of these will be major.

“To make major changes stick in democracies, the responses of voters have to be anticipated and accommodated. Talking to people in energy and infrastructure companies, there are concerns that some policies – intended as signals regarding future behaviour – may lead to abrupt but unintended retreats from investment in infrastructure now.

“The Commission’s discussion of transport is also more a starting point than something from which actionable policy ideas may soon follow. Numerous options are discussed but strangely missing is the idea of pricing fossil fuels via an additional surcharge, in spite of the obviousness of this idea. Research published last year argued that for the vehicle fleet to fulfil its numerical share of previous plans to reduce emissions by 2030, an additional dollar would have to be added to fuel prices. Electorally unpopular though this may be, it shows the scale of the issue in getting New Zealanders out of their SUVs.

“At the same time, the Commission hasn’t helped itself in terms of using available expertise: as far as I can tell there was little engagement between the Commission and New Zealand’s climate scientists (the Commission didn’t, for instance, engage with New Zealand’s IPCC authors at any point, nor did it engage with any of the other half dozen or so climate scientists I spoke to). The Commission gives the impression of being much more comfortable in the company of activists than that of scientists, and this plays out in the confused thinking on how gases are compared in the supporting material, and in the thinking behind carbon budgets more generally.

“The material on how to compare gases remains exceptionally poor. In particular, the Commission shows an atavistic reluctance to move beyond the Kyoto-era GWP100 metric. The Commission accepts that GWP* provides a better way of comparing gases if the goal is to understand the link between emissions and warming, but fails to follow this through to the setting of carbon budgets. It is thus internally inconsistent. This stores up trouble for the future, and could have been easily avoided if the Commission had engaged with experts who work in this area.

“Furthermore, the Commission wasn’t invited to consider the 1.5°C goal, but this warrants serious discussion. Remaining under 1.5°C implies compounding annual cuts to global CO2 of more than 7% per annum. COVID took about 6% off CO2 emissions in 2020. Therefore, to remain under 1.5°C requires the entire world to make emissions reductions of about COVID-plus-a-fifth, every year, with no rebounds, for thirty years. I haven’t met anyone who thinks this is plausible. However, it is in the Zero Carbon Act, so the Commission were required to treat this as though it were a binding constraint on New Zealand’s behaviour.

“These points illustrate the main issue with the Commission, and its advice. The organisation is small, and reports to one person, a Minister who is not in Cabinet, and he gets to set the terms of its reports. Important questions and issues can be deemed out of scope, or ignored or handled badly, precisely because they may cause the Minister discomfort. Better institutional design – such as reporting to Parliament more broadly (or perhaps a Select Committee) – would have allowed far greater stress-testing of the advice. It is unlikely an institution reporting to all of Parliament would have been able to get away with releasing important parts of its work on Sunday afternoons, or through carefully managed embargoes with head-starts given to select journalists, or through carefully-timed supporting pieces from European contractors.

“Climate policy promises to be one of the most important parts of societal change over the next half century, and beyond. The Commission’s advice is an important milestone along the way. Carbon budgets, if scientifically robust, provide a powerful way of organising the requirements of climate policy. The Commission’s report is a step along that journey, but for it to move beyond the symbolic, there will need now to be a series of much deeper and more rigorous sectoral initiatives to create the conditions for an electorally-sustainable low carbon change.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“Climate Change Minister James Shaw highlights that the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations “build on the foundations we have laid – and that we need to do it quickly”. Science has played an critical role in laying New Zealand’s foundations for the response, and this is particularly true in the case of New Zealand’s unique agriculture and forestry sectors.

“It is useful to first applaud the Commission’s work, including use and communication of the existing science – to both understand the urgency of climate change and communicate reasonable actions and recommendations. The quality of the work, and its foundations are critical for providing New Zealand with confident directions. For agriculture and forestry, the four major responses changes and responses following the consultation appear well targeted and summarised.

“The Commission’s final advice better clarifies a target for a future research strategy to be published by the end of December 2022, as part of recommendation 24. Usefully, this recommendation also suggests that information tallying total investment in research should also published at this time. This step in important because the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recently identified that there is not a reliable inventory of research investment related to environmental issues.

“We can’t take for granted the need to clarify the processes that fund and deliver the needed science. The greater clarity shows important progress resulting from the consultation.  It is important to note that New Zealand’s investment in research may not be increasing at the required rate and breadth.

“Three important issues related to future research start with understanding how the future of our land and its uses may change with higher carbon prices and changing international diets and demand. This will reflect an often underestimated need for interdisciplinary and integrated assessment research if our negotiators and planning is to compete with comparable nations. Such research also needs to consider global trends and other related environmental issues that producers, regulators and industry must respond to. As a second point, research specifically addressing broader opportunities beyond 2030 and 2035 would be useful to separately plan and fund now. And last, if research is critical for planning our future, we will need to explicitly consider the ability to build or recruit the needed workforce given the concerns currently raised about the stability of our science careers, particularly for emerging scientists.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflict of interest except noting current and expected research funding related to climate change and environment.”

Associate Professor Alex Macmillan, Department of Preventative and Social Medicine, University of Otago, comments:

“The Commission’s advice is a major advance towards protecting people’s health from climate change. The advice demonstrates that climate action is achievable with existing technologies and acknowledges the opportunities to improve health and fairness through well designed policies. Despite this, the specific sector policy recommendations often miss the chance to save lives and improve health equity because of a lack of health expertise on the Commission.

“Transport, with its rapidly increasing emissions holds major opportunities for improving health and fairness. The Commission’s advice reflects sound evidence by focusing on more walking, biking and public transport, recommending immediate reallocation of existing road space to healthy low emissions public and active travel, and the creation of low-traffic neighbourhoods. However, specific targets are unambitious, assuming less than 15 per cent of travel will be taken by public and active travel in 2035. Recent changes in similar countries show that stronger targets that make private cars a minority mode are achievable, and necessary for the climate and health.

“While the government can now be reassured by the feasibility, affordability and gains for quality of life signalled in the Commission’s advice, it now has a responsibility to go further than the advice in adopting specific policies.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Susan Krumdieck, Chair in Energy Transition Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, Research Leader of the Islands Centre for Net Zero, Scotland, and Adjunct Professor in Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury

“After looking at the Climate Change Commission Report and the announcements of Prime Minister Ardern and Minister Shaw, I have a clear understanding of what comes next. Local communities have to just go forward, make bold moves, take courageous steps and give innovative transition projects a chance.

“According to a 2019 IAG -Ipsos poll, 80% of New Zealanders say climate change is important, and 67% said they were prepared to act. Only 32% said they had the information they needed, and 71% said that local governments should be empowered to take action and government should facilitate.

“The government is not prepared to fund research and development to change business as usual.

“Fossil fuel downshift will happen because engineers across all sectors will become  “climate emergency first responders”. Councils will take on the projects like regional electrified tram and rail, and will re-organise into a low-carbon 20-minute form. Surprising innovations will push the old real estate system out of the way so we can all afford to have decent housing.”

“We all will just have to race ahead and turn the  corner; we will need 10% fewer cars and 10% less oil, gas and coal each year. Farmers will need fewer cows to cover over-leveraging. Coastal homeowners will plan and execute retreat from the coast with help from everyone else. We will regenerate the land. Transition Engineering will be key. I can only hope that the government will support things they didn’t announce and will not get in the way.”

No conflict of interest.