At long last, CO2 turns the corner

By Robert McLachlan

Two years ago I wrote a post called “Why did New Zealand’s CO2 emissions blow out so spectacularly in 2019?” I ran the numbers and found that fossil CO2 emissions had risen 10% in just three years, to reach a record high. I had to look very hard to find any green shoots – such as the carbon price reaching a then record of $40/tonne, and plans for new wind farms. But overall, I concluded that

Throughout the country people were deciding to buy new fossil-fueled cars, boilers, and machinery far more than they were deciding to get rid of them. Away from the world of elections, policy reviews, school strikes, and opinion pieces, it was business as usual for three years… the big four, road transport, aviation, electricity, and food processing, that are so large, that have performed so poorly, and that have so much scope for transformation, are where we need to look for change.

Now the official data for 2021 is available and we can update the picture. Of course, Covid complicates things enormously. And each year the data for earlier years is recalculated; it turns out that 2019 was not quite so bad as it looked initially.

I’ve kept the two years examined previously (2016 and 2019) and added the new data for 2021, together with the base year adopted by the UN, 1990.

Fossil CO2 emissions (kilotonnes)1990201620192021change ’19-’21
Road transport6659123941300612555-451
Food processing (dairy)1663272130942787-307
Metal industry (70% steel, 30% aluminium)175822512236226024
Residential buildings134416581721174019
Agricultural industry, forestry, and fishing1212137016201472-148
Mining, construction & other industry132410221300131010
Chemicals (mostly methanol)535199016491278-371
Commercial buildings87899612421184-58
International aviation132232743861916-2945
Agriculture (50% lime, 50% urea)3369981021909-112
Domestic aviation9409191016818-198
Oil refining779847882729-153
Fugitive fossil fuel emissions4591151912705-207
Non-metallic minerals: industrial processes562727618529-89
Non-metallic minerals: energy (cement, lime, glass)439437569392-177
International shipping10279431008335-673
Pulp, paper, and print507406441300-141
Manufacture of solid fuel1715290350253-97
Domestic shipping253267329201-128
Iron and steel & non-ferrous industries154155177138-39
Rail transport78129127118-9
Chemical industry (hydrogen, ammonia)17519118361-122
Total CO227604381924156835393-6175

While we have a way to go to get back to 1990 levels, at least we’re heading in the right direction. A fall of 15% in two years (only half of which is due to the drop in international transport) is impressive. The big question is: how much of this is due to Covid, and how much is the beginning of a long-term trend?

The Delta outbreak took up much of the final third of 2021, with Auckland in particular undergoing a long lockdown.

Of the “big four”, road transport emissions have eased off a little, and there are signs that working from home continues to the present. The clean car standard gets a lot of attention, and hybrid and electric car sales have skyrocketed, but this remains a tiny effect for now. As I wrote two years ago, “Despite the phrase “mode shift” being seen more and more frequently, there is not a lot of it about yet… there are still major forces pushing emissions higher, while big battles over mode shift lie ahead.”

In 2021, the electricity sector was still in the throes of the “Indonesian coal” crisis, which eased off in 2022 with record high renewable shares (95% in the 4th quarter). There was one dairy factory conversion from coal to wood late in 2020, at Te Awamutu (cutting emissions by 89 kilotonnes); I’m not aware of any more conversions in 2021. Aviation of course dropped enormously, but recovered steadily throughout 2022 with nothing in place yet to restrain it.

So, yes, it’s great to see a reduction in emissions – especially in fossil fuel emissions, which have to be eliminated entirely. But as for the longed-for tipping point, where all industries, planners, individuals, and voters know what they have to do and are out there doing it – I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

2 thoughts on “At long last, CO2 turns the corner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s