IPCC report on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions – SMC Briefing

The third and final section of the latest IPCC report outlines how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as remove them from the atmosphere.

The Science Media Centre hosted a briefing for journalists with a New Zealand review editor of the IPCC WGIII report.


  • Emeritus Professor Ralph Sims, Massey University

The full briefing and excerpted transcript are available here.

What are some of the main takeaways from this report?

Emissions continue to rise, and that’s pretty well documented in this report and has been in the past. Unless there are immediate and deep greenhouse gas emission cuts across all sectors and regions, then the wording in the report is something like ‘1.5 degrees is beyond reach’. In order to get there we need greenhouse gas emissions globally to peak before 2025, in the next three or four years – and they’re still rising. So it’s going to be a real challenge to stay below that.

“Methane emissions are increasing, and that’s very topical for New Zealand of course with half of our our emissions coming from agriculture, mainly methane and nitrous oxide. The statement in this report (assuming it’s been approved) is that methane is to reduce by a third by 2030, which is a major challenge and virtually highly unlikely in New Zealand simply because it’s the agricultural emissions.

“Carbon dioxide net zero by 2050 is in there, which of course, we are aiming towards as well. But that means it does have to peak before 2025. And that’s going to be a challenge too.

“The two degree centigrade target is the backup target to the 1.5, and that still needs some pretty strenuous reductions in the next few years – and probably more than what the Climate Change Commission has advised government to do. So it’s going to be some interesting debates going on with Minister James Shaw, and the emissions reduction plan imminent in another few weeks time. And so taking these targets into account, it’s going to be a real challenge for us to get there.

“But the message is in the main report that technically it’s possible to reduce emissions through energy demand, in particular energy efficiency, behavioral change, new technologies, so there is still hope there. And some of these emissions, many of them could be reduced for less than NZ$150 a tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. And there’s many which can be maybe less than $20 a tonne, which is a positive message coming out.”

Another area which is strongly covered in this report is carbon dioxide removal, probably more so than previous reports. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere counterbalances the hard to eliminate emissions – like for agriculture, aviation, heavy trucks, steel, some industry practices, manufacturing, etc. This can be done by forest sinks, planting trees.

“Soil carbon has been quite controversial, as I understand it, in this approval process, quite what the role of biochar is (producing charcoaling effects from biomass and then locking it up in the soil), there are problems with doing that, so it’s not going to be a simple solution.

“Another option is getting more carbon into the oceans, but they’re already acidifying because of CO2 increases.

“And finally, carbon dioxide capture and storage, which means capturing it from a power plant and then putting it underground. We’ve talked about this for 20-30 years. There are only one or two examples around the world, it is expensive at the moment still. And it’s a challenge to do to find the right geological structures, like old disused gas fields and that sort of thing. Australia has been pushing this for a while, New Zealand’s sort of really pulled out of that.”

The issues probably being discussed at length during this last couple of weeks were the financial flows to developing countries and the policies involved in that, how we can meet the Sustainable Development Goals, which is a real challenge if we have to reduce emissions as well.

“Oil producing countries, certainly, as in previous reports, will feel concerns, because of the aim to reduce demand for oil and gas, and of course, coal as well. The report does say that we’ll have to reduce about 80% of coal demand by 2030 if we’re going to meet the 1.5 degree target – so that really means shutting off coal. We’re still exploring for coal in New Zealand – Southland District Council’s given an approval to look for more coal, which is all quite bizarre, really. Oil and gas we don’t have to get out of quite as fast in order to maintain a reasonable degree of temperature rise and knowing that we can’t do that in a hurry anyway.”

There are a couple of chapters on policies, and existing policies need to be scaled up. That means things like the emissions trading scheme, which of course is under review here. And it’s all levels of government, regional, local and national as well, who all need to be putting their policies together and talking to each other.”

Another key part of this is more investment in research and development, and demonstration. And New Zealand’s actually been dragging the chain on this across the board, but it’s also including climate work. We really have to throw some research dollars at it, if we want to solve this problem.”

We do have quite a bit of emphasis in the report on solar and wind power, and the prices have come down drastically in the last 10 years. And of course, they are being utilized and growing here in New Zealand, I’ve got a wind farm up the road from me just being built now.

“Energy efficiency and reducing energy demand also has also great potential. We’ve had the Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority doing that for some years – their messages can certainly be taken up.

“Energy use in total is about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions. So that’s mainly fossil fuels for heat and power generation, and for transport. Fossil fuel subsidies are being discussed, if we can get rid of the subsidies, then that doesn’t encourage the use of fossil fuels as much.

“There’s a cross cutting chapter as well, which covers things like bio energy, which is controversial, and it depends on where the biomass comes from. But from New Zealand’s point of view, we got all these residues from our forests, when we take the logs out, and they’re just going to drop on the ground and rot and turn into CO2 anyway. So there’s a great resource there, which we’re starting to use, and we could use it a lot more.”

In terms of transport, we know about electric vehicles, we know about public transport, and all of these things are in the report. So are biofuels for aviation in particular, and heavy trucks. So no surprises in the transport sector, other than we need to do it quicker.”

There is quite a bit in this report on behavioral change. Rather than just technology and infrastructure, there are chapters on cities and urban infrastructure, which is, as it was in the fifth assessment report, very useful.

“There’s a statement in there somewhere that says changes in transport, industry, buildings, and agriculture, will let people live low carbon lifestyles. So that’s a real promising statement.

“We fail to consume about a third of the food we produce, still globally, including in New Zealand. And so reducing that waste food is an obvious thing for everybody to, to try and do personally. And there is still the statement in there about the trend to move away from meat products to vegetable products. And indeed, synthetic meats, as was written up in the Listener, I think, last week, there was an article on that.”