Pledge to halve emissions by 2030 – Expert Reaction

Halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is Aotearoa’s new climate pledge, signalled as the Glasgow climate conference kicks off.

The PM says the more ambitious target to cut emissions relative to 2005 will bring New Zealand into step with other countries worldwide, and aligns with what the Climate Change Commission recommended.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, Director Antarctic Science Platform, Antarctica New Zealand, Associate Professor at Victoria University, and Principal Scientist at GNS Science, comments:

“This is a proud moment for the team of 5 million! To tackle the climate change crisis, we need bold and visionary action, and I commend the government for committing to what is urgently needed. The science is clear – in the recently released IPCC report, the message couldn’t have been stronger. Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5C will be beyond reach by 2030.

“New Zealand might be a small nation – but we can divide the world’s population into teams of 5 million to see that all and everyone of us has to do their bit, and do it now. Everyone of us should feel empowered to support the government in their vision, as individuals, communities, experts, consumers, and citizens. It will be important for the government to develop a detailed plan for every year between now and 2030 that identifies measurable steps of our progress and helps mitigate unjust burdens on groups or sectors. We are all in this together and owe it to ourselves and future generations.”

Conflict of interest statement: the Antarctic Science Platform is hosted by Antarctica New Zealand, Nancy Bertler is jointly appointed by Victoria University of Wellington and GNS Science and seconded to Antarctica New Zealand.

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull, Radiocarbon Science Leader, GNS Science, and co-chair of the World Meteorological Organisation’s Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System (IG3IS) comments:

“It is encouraging to see the government step up with an increased greenhouse gas mitigation target, and also the effort to align our international commitments with our domestic policy – the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations. The challenge now – for the government, local government, industry and citizens – is to actually implement the changes needed to meet our mitigation targets.

“The commitment to assist our Pacific neighbours in reducing their emissions is laudable, but we should be conscious of the underlying implication that NZ will claim international carbon credits from this work. We will need to ensure transparent emissions information and reporting to show Kiwis and the world that these international emissions reductions are real and robust.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“The new target is clearly an improvement on New Zealand’s previous target, but the government needs to be absolutely clear that it falls well short of doing our fair share. An analysis by Oxfam NZ published last year, A Fair 2030 Target for Aotearoa, found that much more substantial reductions would be required for New Zealand to play its part in global efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. They found that to achieve this with no or limited overshoot would require at least an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, or at least a 99% reduction if we account for our historical responsibility.

“These dramatic reductions are now required because NZ has spent the last 30 years kicking the can down the road with regard to climate action. However it’s unlikely that a government would commit to cuts of that magnitude, which would effectively require us to get to net zero emissions in less than a decade. We therefore need to do everything possible to make up for our shameful inability to do our fair share, such as massively increasing climate finance contributions to low-income countries.

“Also, our target should be as ambitious as possible (even if it is still woefully inadequate). NZ’s climate targets have generally been weak because of a failure to think outside the square. Possibilities have been severely constrained due to being framed within the same colonial, capitalist, patriarchal thinking that has created the problem. Only by centralising Indigenous knowledges and values, and ensuring our approach is underpinned by climate justice principles, will we be able to genuinely and fairly contribute to global climate action.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

Close but still not close enough? New Zealand’s updated emission reduction target is a late but welcome start – it aims to reduce emissions by a 41 per cent reduction on 2005 levels, using what NZ calls an ‘emissions budget’ approach. This is certainly a case of ‘better late than never’ but the devil is in the detail.

“New Zealand has been amongst a minority of nations that is last to update our five-yearly commitment to meet the Paris Agreement goal of trying to hold the world’s climate well below 2˚C of warming and preferably limiting warming to 1.5˚C.

“The Climate Action Tracker, which provides an internationally well-established, independent assessment of government efforts, has been highly critical of New Zealand’s efforts to date, and has long argued that if New Zealand’s commitments are to be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5˚C, the country should set a 2030 target to reduce gross emissions by at least 44 percent. What we have done here is to set an estimated 41 percent reduction target on 2005 levels. There will now be political debate about whether this meets the 1.5 goal.

“However it is the action that we take next that now matters most; we can set ambitions but its meeting them that is the big challenge as we work to make these cuts to our emissions real in all sectors of the economy, and to dramatically increase our efforts to protect people and businesses from increasingly chaotic climate futures.

“It is disappointing, and I think over the longer term a real strategic error, that Prime Minister Ardern will be absent from Glasgow and not able to present these new ambitions and our significant commitment to supporting climate finance for the Pacific herself, alongside other world leaders tomorrow.

“Glasgow is the first face-to-face diplomatic event since the global pandemic began. We will not have New Zealand represented by our Prime Minister at the opening summit. New Zealand depends on multi-lateral action and we should support multi-lateral efforts like COP26 at the highest level. Now when even Australia’s Prime Minister is attending, the absence of Ardern is a lost opportunity to network with world leaders about a crucial threat to future security and prosperity.”

No conflict of interest. Note: Prof Hayward is a member of the IPCC core writing team and co-lead of the cities and infrastructure chapter for IPCC AR6 – this comment is made in her personal capacity as a University of Canterbury academic and expert in climate policy and politics and not as a member of the IPCC.

Associate Professor Jenny Bryant-Tokalau, Honorary Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Otago, comments:

“This is a significant announcement, and if the emission reduction targets really can be reached by 2030, New Zealand will have done well. Such announcements however, timed to be presented at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, whilst containing all the right words, need to be packed with detail about the actions that must occur.

“Exactly how the emissions will be reduced in such a short time period is unclear, particularly in the agricultural and forestry sectors. The Emissions Reduction Plan, outlining the changes needed and due to be published in 2022, leaves very little time to reach the reduction targets by 2030.

“Nice words and sentiments, on the eve of the global climate conference, but the NZ public will most probably respond with deep cynicism.”

No conflict of interest declared. Note: Associate Prof Bryant-Tokalau is a Member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), and is researching indigenous approaches to climate change, coastal traditional adaptations and the impact on identity in urban areas of the Pacific

Dr Olaf Morgenstern, climate scientist, comments:

“Essentially James Shaw’s announcement amounts to saying that really we are unwilling to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by as much as would be consistent with the 1.5 degrees target. In order for us to nonetheless join the club of progressive nations that have put forward ambitious pledges, we are going to buy emission credits overseas, for the most part, so that we can continue with our fossil-fuel addiction.

“While this appears to be common amongst rich nations, various things are wrong with this approach: (1) It is far from straightforward to establish how much carbon is actually sequestered for the money we pay, and what happens to that carbon in the long run. Afforestation, at home and abroad, is certainly desirable, but land available for this is limited and trees mature and die, or are logged, and the carbon may return into the atmosphere eventually. (2) Buying carbon offsets means we do not need to change our fossil-fuel addiction, and when buying credits overseas becomes difficult or expensive, we have not adapted our economy to the low-carbon reality.

“Ultimately, what’s needed is an aggressive policy to reduce our CO2 emissions at home. This means phasing out fossil-fuel cars as quickly as possible, promoting rail over air travel, shutting down Huntley, or converting it to burning biomass, investing in renewable energy, such as solar panels on roofs and wind farms, investing also in energy storage, and making sure methane emissions from agriculture at least do not grow, by stopping the rush for dairy. Doing so would not only save us money in the long term (see recent petrol price rises…) but would make us more independent of overseas price shocks, and also create jobs. I did not see enough such vision in Sunday’s announcement.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Lauren Vargo, Research Fellow, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 is good for a new target. For reference, the previous target in the recent Emissions Reduction Plan was to cut emissions by 30% by 2030.

“This bigger reduction is important for New Zealand to do its part in keeping warming under 1.5°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) and reducing the impacts of climate change. Warming is already at about 1.1 – 1.2°C, so what we do in these next 9 years is really important.

“The newest IPCC report tells us that the impacts of climate change in New Zealand include extreme heat, increases in flooding, increases in wildfires, loss of glaciers and seasonal snow, and sea level rise. Limiting warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C, 4°C, or even more, will reduce all of these impacts of climate change.

“This target is ambitious, but climate change is a threat to the economy, environment, and human lives. For example, we know that single flood events, made more frequent and severe because of climate change, can cost New Zealand tens of millions of dollars. Now, I wonder how we will meet such an ambitious target in just 9 years. This will take greater commitment, action, and innovation from industry and government.”

No conflict of interest. Note: Dr Vargo receives funding from the Deep South National Science Challenge to improve NZ’s abilities to model seasonal snow.

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

“This is a bigger change in New Zealand’s international climate policy than may appear at first glance, and will help restore international credibility.

“What matters to global warming is the change in concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the difference between what we emit and what we remove through actions like forestry – known as net-emissions. Reframing our targets this way is also simpler to understand. New Zealand’s first NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) commitment to the Paris agreement actually allowed an increase in net-emissions in 2030 relative to 2005 of about 2% – and led to significant and understandable criticism from international watchdogs that monitor national commitments.

“The latest commitment by the government requires a decrease in net-emissions in 2030 of about 27% relative to 2005 and will be viewed more favourably as a result. This is a significant shift from our original position that allowed the possibility of net-emissions increasing, worsening our contribution to climate change, to one that requires net-emissions to decrease meaningfully. The commitment aligns well with the emissions reduction pathways recommended by the Climate Change Commission as achievable, on a pathway to reach net-zero by 2050.

“The scale of the problem is emphasised by the fact that we are currently in the same position as we were in 2005, so actual progress towards change in our net-emissions must now happen over the next 8 years.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Tim Naish, Director, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

50 x 2030 saves the Antarctic ice sheet and and limits global sea-level rise: The announcement today that New Zealand will commit to net greenhouse emissions reductions of 50 percent (below gross 2005 levels) by 2030 at this years Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP26, is long awaited and welcome news.

“The target is not only ambitious, it is required by the weight of scientific evidence. For 30 years the science has been clear and has only got stronger, that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, warming must be limited to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – when global annual mean temperature was 14 degrees C for the last 10,000 years, allowing our civilisations to flourish.

“At the current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions we are on track for 1.5 degrees C of warming in 10 years and 2 degrees of warming in 20 years, breaching the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Achieving these targets is still possible, but requires a global reduction of 50% by the year 2030 to have an 83% chance of success.

“Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre is one of a number global climate research groups that have signed up to the 50 x30 coalition (www.50×, which is encouraging governments to bring their emissions in line with this future pathway, and by doing so avoid “overshooting” the 2 degree C target on the way to net carbon zero by 2050, based on the scientific evidence. The science shows, among the many benefits, that this pathway prevents meltdown of Antarctica’s ice sheets, and therefore avoids multi-metre global sea-level rise that future generations would have to deal with. This is because 1.5-2 degrees C of global warming is a “tipping point” for not only the Antarctic ice sheet, but the Greenland ice sheet and potentially a vast reservoir of methane locked up in Arctic permafrost.

“New Zealand’s Antarctic Climate research, together with our international partners, will be on display at side events during this COP26 in the Cryosphere Pavilion and the IPCC events. My colleagues and I are thrilled and enormously relieved to see New Zealand leading the way yet again, on the basis of clear and uncontrovertible scientific evidence.”

No conflict of interest declared. Note: Prof Naish’s roles include: Leader – Ice, ocean, atmosphere programme, NZ Antarctic Science Platform; Chair – Grand Challenge “Melting Ice & Global Consequences” – World Climate Research Programme; and Co-Chief – Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research “Instabilities & Thresholds in Antarctica” – INSTANT Programme.

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

“In terms of the physical climate impact of our policies, this announcement is a little hard to assess. Not only does it smear together long- and short-lived gases in a way that introduces unnecessary ambiguity, it also compares gross emissions to net emissions. This is not fatal, but it is unnecessarily opaque.

“As far as I can tell, gross emissions in 2005 were 81.27MtCO2e, and net emissions were 55.94MtCO2e. A halving of the 2005 gross emissions is 40.64MtCO2e; which amounts to a 27% reduction on the 2005 net CO2e number.

“How this is to be apportioned between methane and CO2 is not immediately clear in the government’s media release (seen prior to the announcement), and this makes a difference to temperature outcomes, since the warming associated with a fixed CO2e path varies with the mix of gases.

“All of this could be much more transparent if we stuck to announcing target tonnages, were clear about whether these are gross or net, and kept the short-lived stuff separate from the long-lived stuff. Then climate physicists could work out, fairly easily, what these targets imply for surface warming; the limiting of which is, after all, what the Paris Agreement is about.”

No conflict of interest.

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

“Good to learn we have a more ambitious NDC target just announced in time to ‘save face’ at COP 26. Setting a target is easy. Meeting it is hard.

“It has to be met mainly by reducing our domestic emissions: forest sinks only buy us time, and buying international credits is yet to be agreed under Paris COP rules and remains questionable with double-counting a risk.

“Will the team of 5 million support robust policies to reduce domestic emissions? The negative response to the ‘ute tax’ feebate scheme for new vehicles; the ever-growing demands for powerful SUVs; the difficulties for agriculture to reduce emissions; and the recent EECA survey showing – amazingly – that 20% of the NZ population still don’t believe in climate change and 60% reckon they cannot reduce their carbon footprint, all exemplify that the transition to a lower-carbon economy will not be easy.

“A few businesses are lowering their carbon footprints but a lowly 7% emission reduction by members of the Climate Leaders Coalition over 3 years is not too exciting.

“The Government is now seeking ideas and comments as to how to reduce emissions through their draft Emissions Reduction Plan. This is only delaying the need to act, particularly after the Climate Change Commission already received 15,000 similar comments not too long ago before submitting its advice.

“In essence we will all need to change behaviour to reduce our carbon footprints. Government regulations and incentives to encourage that – including local and regional governments covering such things as cycleways and public transport – will need to emphasise the co-benefits (such as health, cost, efficiency) to gain support.”

No conflict of interest.

Adjunct Professor Ralph Chapman, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, comments:

“This announcement is very welcome. It’s consistent with the Government’s view that we are in a climate emergency. It is a little technically confusing as it’s not clear how much long-lived gases will be cut, and the ‘budget approach’ is fine but not quite what we are used to. But for all that, a 41% reduction is a lot better than the old NDC commitment to a 30% cut from 2005 levels by 2030.

“The main thing most of us will be looking for now is following through the commitment by delivering an Emission Reduction Plan by May 2022 at the latest that involves real policy and behavioural action. The recent discussion document on current emission reduction plans was disappointing, and officials need to be working hard to firm up ambitious plans over the summer and get them signed off early in 2022. That means pushing hard with business leaders – such as the rather complacent Climate Leaders Coalition, and working hard to find measures that create a just transition. We also need to leave behind the outdated preoccupation with generating economic growth.

“New Zealand can at last hold its head a little higher at Glasgow, in the light of this commitment.”

No conflict of interest declared.