PHOTO: Rogier van den Berg/Unsplash

Climate Commission draft advice on emissions budgets and targets – Expert Reaction

The Climate Commission is now welcoming public feedback on its draft advice around New Zealand’s emissions budgets and targets.

The draft advice reviews our 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target, as well as whether the 2050 target should also include emissions from international shipping and aviation. It also outlines the fourth emissions budget period from 2036–2040. The consultation period ends on Friday, 31 May.

The SMC asked third-party experts to comment.

Distinguished Professor Robert McLachlan, Massey University, comments:

“Much has happened since Generation Zero began their campaign for a Zero Carbon Act in 2017; since the Climate Change Response Act was amended in 2019; and even since we entered the first carbon budget period in 2022. We are just a few years into a lengthy process which will run to 2050 and beyond. We are only just starting to find out whether the institutions that have been set up, together with New Zealand society and government, are up to the job.

“New Zealand experienced terrible climate change impacts in 2023, and with evidence accumulating that warming is accelerating, more can be expected. Its climate action is rated ‘highly insufficient’ and aligned with up to 4ºC of warming by Climate Action Tracker. The Commission’s discussion of strengthening the 2050 target is timely.

“The Climate Change Commission is performing its job with admirable thoroughness and impartiality, and the three new consultation documents (on revising the 2050 target, on international aviation and shipping, and on the 4th carbon budget) are to be welcomed. However, they fall into a contested space, as the Government has abandoned large sections of the first Emissions Reduction Plan (covering 2022-2025) and has yet to release its plan for the second (2026-2030) period or to say how it intends to strengthen the Emissions Trading Scheme to achieve the budgets. The Commission has rejected here the basis of the new, separate review of the methane target announced by the Government. The Commission’s work has not yet taken into account the change of Government, but will eventually report on progress against the Plan.

“New Zealand’s international aviation emissions are nearly back to pre-Covid levels and are growing rapidly with no effective measures in place to restrain them yet. The Commission finds that ‘including international shipping and aviation emissions in the 2050 target would be consistent with the purpose of the Act, with global efforts under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and with action being coordinated by IMO and ICAO.’ It would also bring us into line with recent actions by the UK, the EU, and the US.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Hinrich Schaefer, Atmospheric Scientist, NIWA, comments:

“Aotearoa – New Zealand’s greenhouse gas profile dominated by agricultural methane emissions and its ‘split-gas’ framework to emission reductions set it apart internationally. The Climate Commission follows this approach in the draft emission budget for 2036-2040 and recommends emission rates of biogenic methane for this period that constitute a sizeable reduction. If achieved, biogenic methane output would already meet the lower goal of the reduction target for 2050. The Commission’s forecast sees this achieved with minor, and potentially positive, economic impact, and through limited policy input or system change (such as mandated reduction in herd numbers). Instead, the change is expected through emerging technologies to mitigate emissions. Research on such techniques has been conducted for decades. Breeding for animals with low methane output, vaccines, and feed supplements that suppress methane production are becoming available but so far with low percentage reductions that have not been tested in widespread commercial applications. It remains to be seen what cumulative impact they will have on New Zealand’s biogenic methane budget by the budget period. The verification of their reduction potential in real-world conditions and adequate accounting in New Zealand’s greenhouse gas inventories will have to be developed. As a signatory to the Paris Accord and the Global Methane Pledge, New Zealand has committed to strong reductions.

“The draft advice of the Climate Commission on the budget periods is specific to the current reduction targets. The recent government announcement of an independent review of the methane targets calls this basis into question, although the Commission is independently reassessing those overall goals as well. It is as yet unclear where the new government review will differ from the work of the Climate Commission. Its stated goal is to reassess the contribution from agriculture to greenhouse gas reductions at no additional warming. Short of a new definition of methane’s climate impact relative to other greenhouse gases, which would have to be endorsed internationally, different agricultural emissions will require a rebalancing of the emission budget with adjusted contributions from other sectors or different mitigation through domestic carbon uptake or offshore obligations.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull, Principal Scientist, GNS Science, comments:

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act and our Paris Agreement NDC both have bold emission reduction targets that, if achieved, will ensure that New Zealand does our fair share in resolving the climate problem. The breakthrough that made the Paris Agreement possible was the recognition that every nation has a different set of emission sources, and different pathways to achieve reductions, depending on the particular circumstances of each nation. For New Zealand, that made possible the split gases approach, that means we aim for a reduction in biogenic methane, and net zero for all other greenhouse gases by 2050. That in turn means that we can first put our attention to the emissions that we can control now, such as transportation and other energy emissions. We have the option to wait a little longer to address biogenic methane as the science and technology progress. In this current draft advice, the Climate Change Commission advises that so-called ‘methane vaccines’ are advanced enough that it will be feasible to implement them in Aotearoa New Zealand and achieve much of our targeted biogenic methane reductions in this way, avoiding the need to reduce animal head counts (which until recently has been the only realistic solution for biogenic methane reductions). This is great news for New Zealand.

“This draft advice points out that gains in electric vehicles and afforestation have been faster than expected, making it a little bit easier to achieve our targets. The CCC is taking a strong stance on avoiding purchase of international carbon credits to offset emissions, the vast majority of which are questionable in their effectiveness. Measuring our emissions carefully and consistently is a key component of achieving our reduction goals, and the CCC is also taking a strong stance on ensuring that the accounting methods used in New Zealand remain robust, verifiable and in line with international accounting rules.”

No conflict of interest.