Climate explained: how much of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels and could we replace it all with renewables?

Shutterstock/Tsetso Photo

By Robert McLachlan

How are fossil fuels formed, why do they release carbon dioxide and how much of the world’s energy do they provide? And what are the renewable energy sources that could replace fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels were formed over millions of years from the remains of plants and animals trapped in sediments and then transformed by heat and pressure.

Most coal was formed in the Carboniferous Period (360–300 million years ago), an age of amphibians and vast swampy forests. Fossilisation of trees moved enormous amounts of carbon from the air to underground, leading to a decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels — enough to bring the Earth close to a completely frozen state.

This change in the climate, combined with the evolution of fungi that could digest dead wood and release its carbon back into the air, brought the coal-forming period to an end.

Oil and natural gas (methane, CH₄) were formed similarly, not from trees but from ocean plankton, and over a longer period. New Zealand’s Maui oil field is relatively young, dating from the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.

Burning buried sunshine

When fossil fuels are burnt, their carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The energy originally provided by the Sun, stored in chemical bonds for millions of years, is released and the carbon returns to the air. A simple example is the burning of natural gas: one molecule of methane and two of oxygen combine to produce carbon dioxide and water.

CH₄ + 2 O₂ → CO₂ + 2 H₂O

Burning a kilogram of natural gas releases 15kWh of energy in the form of infrared radiation (radiant heat). This is a sizeable amount.

To stop continuously worsening climate change, we need to stop burning fossil fuels for energy. That’s a tall order, because fossil fuels provide 84% of all the energy used by human civilisation. (New Zealand is less reliant on fossil fuels, at 65%.)

Wind turbines on farm land in New Zealand
Wind energy is one of the renewable sources with the capacity to scale up. Shutterstock/YIUCHEUNG

There are many possible sources of renewable or low-carbon energy: nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass (burning plants for energy) and biofuel (making liquid or gaseous fuels out of plants). A handful of tidal power stations are in operation, and experiments are under way with wave and ocean current generation.

But, among these, the only two with the capacity to scale up to the staggering amount of energy we use are wind and solar. Despite impressive growth (doubling in less than five years), wind provides only 2.2% of all energy, and solar 1.1%.

The renewables transition

One saving grace, which suggests a complete transformation to renewable energy may be possible, is that a lot of the energy from fossil fuels is wasted.

First, extraction, refining and transport of fossil fuels accounts for 12% of all energy use. Second, fossil fuels are often burnt in very inefficient ways, for example in internal combustion engines in cars. A world based on renewable energy would need half as much energy in the first place.

The potential solar and wind resource is enormous, and costs have fallen rapidly. Some have argued we could transition to fully renewable energy, including transmission lines and energy storage as well as fully synthetic liquid fuels, by 2050.

One scenario sees New Zealand building 20GW of solar and 9GW of wind power. That’s not unreasonable — Australia has built that much in five years. We should hurry. Renewable power plants take time to build and industries take time to scale up.

Other factors to consider

Switching to renewable energy solves the problems of fuel and climate change, but not those of escalating resource use. Building a whole new energy system takes a lot of material, some of it rare and difficult to extract. Unlike burnt fuel, metal can be recycled, but that won’t help while building a new system for the first time.

Research concluded that although some metals are scarce (particularly cobalt, cadmium, nickel, gold and silver), “a fully renewable energy system is unlikely to deplete metal reserves and resources up to 2050”. There are also opportunities to substitute more common materials, at some loss of efficiency.

Engineers working on a wind turbine
Building a new system will require energy and resources. Shutterstock/Jacques Tarnero

But many metals are highly localised. Half the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, half the lithium is in Chile, and 70% of rare earths, used in wind turbines and electric motors, are in China.

Wasteful consumption is another issue. New technologies (robots, drones, internet) and economic growth lead to increased use of energy and resources. Rich people use a disproportionate amount of energy and model excessive consumption and waste others aspire to, including the emerging rich in developing countries.

Research analysing household-level emissions across European countries found the top 1% of the population with the highest carbon footprints produced 55 tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions each, compared to a European median of 10 tonnes.

Scientists have warned about consumption by the affluent and there is vigorous debate about how to reduce it while preserving a stable society.

One way of turning these questions around is to start from the bottom and ask: what is the minimum energy required for basic human needs?

One study considered “decent living” to include comfortable housing, enough food and water, 10,000km of travel a year, education, healthcare and telecommunications for everyone on Earth — clearly not something we have managed to achieve so far. It found this would need about 4,000kWh of energy per person per year, less than a tenth of what New Zealanders currently use, and an amount easily supplied by renewable energy.

All that carbon under the ground was energy ripe for the picking. We picked it. But now it is time to stop.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Climate explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to

Who pays? Who changes?

By Robert McLachlan

Climate solutions are often judged not just by whether they work – that is, by whether they reduce emissions – but also by whether they support a “just transition”. As Sam Huggard of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions writes, “the costs of the necessary changes that deliver all of us a more stable climate must be spread evenly and not fall heavily and disproportionately on workers, particularly those in carbon-exposed industries.” New Zealand has joined international declarations to that effect, and set up a “Just Transitions” unit in the civil service, to ensure that the process is “fair, equitable and inclusive [and] that the Government works in partnership with iwi, communities, regions and sectors to manage the impacts and maximise the opportunities of the changes brought about by the transition to a low emissions economy.

All well and good. But what is “fair”? It’s easier to detect things that are unfair, like a large and sudden petrol tax. People whose only available choice is to commute long distances in cheap gas guzzlers would bear the brunt, while wealthy inner-city dwellers could continue to clog up the roads in their Teslas. Most would agree that we don’t want anything as unfair as that and that it’s worth looking for another way.

I want to turn things around and look, not at the impacts on poor people, who generally have low personal emissions and less ability to change them, but at the rich high-emitters.

The Paris Agreement, after all, is founded on the principle of equity, and the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” of the nations. Just what those are is open to debate, but this clause is generally held to mean that countries with high historical emissions – the ones that caused this problem – and rich countries, that have more scope and power to reduce emissions, should move faster than others.

How about within countries? Should rich people, and/or high-emitting people, pay proportionately more towards a country’s transition, and reduce emissions more than others?

How are carbon emissions distributed?

To begin to get a handle on this thorny question we first need to know the distribution of emissions within individual countries. A 2020 paper by Diana Ivanova and Richard Wood (“The unequal distribution of household carbon footprints in Europe and its link to sustainability“) looks at this for 26 EU countries. (The data comes from a survey of the expenditure of 275,000 households carried out in 2010, mapped into greenhouse gas emissions for each type of spending.)

Household emissions measure the emissions related to final consumption, wherever the actual greenhouse gases were emitted. The EU as a whole produces impressively low greenhouse gas emissions of 8 tCO2e per person, a lot lower than New Zealand’s 16.5 tCO2e. But many EU countries effectively import emissions by buying things from other countries, such as China. Imports take the UK’s 6.8 tCO2e per person up to 9.6 tonnes, and Germany’s 9.6 tonnes up to 11. New Zealand, a net exporter of greenhouse gases, consumes 12.5 tonnes per person. Of these 12.5 tonnes, 8.9 tonnes are assigned to households.

Here are Ivanova and Wood’s overall results:

The lowest-emitting half of EU households emit an average of 5 tonnes per person; the middle 40%, 10 tonnes; the top 10%, 23 tonnes; and the top 1%, a whopping 55 tonnes CO2e per person.

Air travel is strikingly unevenly distributed. 90% of EU households have air travel emissions averaging 0.1 tonnes per person; 9% average 0.8 tonnes; and the last 1% average 22.6 tonnes. That’s enough to fly around the world five times (or once in business class). This is confirmed in the breakdown by household expenditure:

Ivanova and Wood, household emissions per person by category and total household expenditure quintile.

Emissions from essential items (food and housing) increase more slowly that total spending: there’s a limit to how much food you need. Emissions from goods, services, and land transport increase in tandem with total spending, while emissions from air travel increases very little in the lower quintiles but very rapidly in the top two. The authors write that this “confirms air travel as a highly carbon-intensive luxury” and describe transport as “one of the most unequally distributed and the strongest drivers of the carbon footprints of the rich“.

They also report the distribution of household emissions across countries. For most countries these track very closely to the distribution of income:

Ivanova and Wood, the 10th (pink oval), 25th (left box), 50th, average (orange oval), 75th (right box), and 90th (grey oval) percentiles of per capita household emissions.

55 tonnes per person may seem like a lot, but it is confirmed by other studies. A 2015 paper by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty (“Carbon and inequality: From Kyoto to Paris“) found that the top 1% of Americans emit 318 tonnes CO2e each per year. They put the emissions of the top 1% globally at 56 tonnes a year. (They get slightly higher figures than Ivanova and Wood, because they include all emissions and all income, not just those tagged to household consumption.)

The extremely skewed distribution of air travel is also reported by Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe, in “The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change” (2020). They find that in any given year 1% of the world’s population are extremely frequent flyers, emitting 10 tonnes CO2 each on average and causing half of all aviation emissions; another 10% fly less and emit 1 tonne CO2; and the remaining 89% do not fly at all. People with access to one of the world’s 22,000 private jets could be associated with emissions of 7500 tonnes each. Even in rich countries like the US and Germany, and rich islands like Taiwan, less than half the population flies in any particular year.

One final report, by Oxfam in 2020, “Confronting carbon inequality: Putting climate justice at the heart of the Covid-19 recovery“, reaches a similar conclusion. Oxfam find that the richest 1% globally have emissions of 74 tonnes of CO2 per person on average, adding up to 15% of all emissions.

Where does New Zealand fit into all this?

Statistics New Zealand have calculated consumption emissions by household for 2017. They only report the average, not the distribution, so I will try to relate the New Zealand figures to the EU study.

The median take-home income in New Zealand is $41,500 per person. Adjusted for purchasing power that comes to €19,300, above the EU median of €17,300, and similar to countries that we think of as ‘rich’, like Ireland and Finland, and above the UK.

I’ll compare New Zealand’s average household emissions to those of a median EU household.

New Zealand 2017EU 2010
Manufactured products0.950.8
Land travel2.32.4
Air travel1.00.17
Household greenhouse gas emissions, in tonnes CO2e per person

We have higher food emissions – I’m not sure why, although the 2.5 tCO2/person figure does agree with another study by Drew. We have lower housing emissions, which makes sense because our electricity is cleaner and we don’t heat our homes with gas (some would say we hardly heat them at all.) Consumption of “stuff” as about the same, as is (surprisingly), land travel. We fly six times as much.

One way to measure income distribution is by the ratio of the total income of the richest 20% to the total income of the poorest 20%. For New Zealand, this ratio is 5.6. For the UK is is 6.1, for Germany 4.4, and for the EU as a whole it is 5.0 – all in the same ballpark.

Therefore, my first estimate is that the emissions of New Zealand households are distributed very unequally. Given our high air travel emissions, and the high elasticity of air travel amongst rich people, it’s likely that our top 1% and top 10% of households have very high emissions indeed. The distribution may look similar to that of Great Britain, shown above.

A second line of attack views New Zealand in light of Piketty’s global income distribution. A take-home income of $75,000 per person puts you globally in the top 1%, which, as we have seen, have sky-high emissions of 56 tonnes per person. In New Zealand, 12.3% of households reach that income level. (Technically, this is net income per ‘equivalent adult’, in which children under 14 count as 0.3 and children 14-17 count as 0.5 adults.) New Zealand’s top 5% ($100K) have similar purchasing power to the top 5% in the richer European countries (~€50K). This also points to distributions similar to those found in the EU.

What then?

The authors of the four studies quoted above have some suggestions.

Oxfam call for

special taxes or bans for high carbon luxury goods and services; wider carbon prices with pro-poor revenue recycling; broader income and wealth redistribution; or challenging stereotypes that promote growth and individual consumerism as normal, desirable, ‘powerful’ and ‘masculine’… such measures may lead to a broader ‘social tipping point’ that makes reductions by other relatively high emitters more acceptable, challenges the political influence of high emitters, and sparks wider shifts in social, gendered and racial norms about endless consumption.

Gössling, on aviation, writes:

Emissions Trading Schemes are inappropriate for a sector in which the distribution of air transport demand and associated emissions is more highly skewed than in other areas of consumption. From a market-based viewpoint, a modest increase in the cost of air travel will not affect business travelers, who are causing disproportionally high emissions… [we] need to develop more complex transition policies for aviation.

Ivanova and Wood:

The contributions of land and air transport are disproportionally large among the top emitters. As land transport and, even more so, air transport are both highly carbon intensive and highly elastic, we would argue that significantly more needs to be done in these domains. Action here is likely to affect those with the highest footprints, incomes and expenditures most, but impacts on low-income groups are also key, as they have significant expenditure shares on land transport.

Overconsumption and materialistic practices are not only damaging for the environment, but may also reduce psychological well-being. In order to reduce trade-offs between social and environmental goals, policies should target changes in higher-order need satisfiers, such as social structures and practices, and reimagine forms of need satisfaction within environmental constraints.

Chancel and Piketty suggest a global progressive carbon tax for above-average emitters, to fund climate initiatives globally, or, failing that (for they acknowledge this is unlikely), progressive income taxes, or a global tax on air tickets of about €20 per 1000 km.

Whichever way you slice it, aviation is a problem. It’s a luxury good that has managed to sell itself as essential, and to be above reining in. International air travel escapes all GST, fuel taxes, and emissions trading schemes, even in places that otherwise have them. Its use is highly skewed towards the rich, even within rich countries, and it has shown very high growth rates over long periods.

The problem is not just that the high emitters have to pay more towards the transition, even more as a proportion of their income: that’s not that controversial, it’s already embedded in progressive income taxes to some extent. The harder problem is that they actually have to reduce their emissions, which means way fewer luxury cars and much less air travel. Ivanova and Wood regard a target of 2.5 tonnes per person by 2030 as consistent with the Paris agreement. (Oxfam say 2.1 tonnes). That means average emissions falling by 70%. But the bottom half of emitters can’t reduce by very much at all, which means the top half have to do more.

Which brings me right back where I started: Should rich people, and/or high-emitting people, pay proportionately more towards a country’s transition, and reduce emissions more than others? And if so, how?

Lawyers challenge New Zealand’s proposed emissions budgets as inconsistent with the 1.5℃ goal

Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom via Getty Images

By Robert McLachlan

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission is facing its first legal hurdle, as a group of 300 climate-concerned lawyers seek judicial review of the processes it used to calculate carbon budgets in its recently released advice to government.

Carbon budgets are a cornerstone of New Zealand’s climate change response under the Zero Carbon Act and lie at the heart of the commission’s advice package. They specify the allowed emissions over successive five-year periods, initially up to 2035. The advice calls for net emissions of all greenhouse gases to fall 27% between 2019 and 2030.

The Lawyers 4 Climate Action group claims the commission has misinterpreted pathways in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports in its calculations, making its advice inconsistent with the act, especially regarding the goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃.

Pending the outcome of the legal challenge, the government is likely to adopt the recommended budgets, which would then flow into the settings of the Emissions Trading Scheme and all other aspects of climate policy.

The commission has engaged extensively with the more than 15,000 submissions it received on its draft advice. So it was surprising that in its final advice, the budgets were increased, allowing higher emissions.

The commission’s immediate reason for the increase was the significant blow-out of emissions in 2019, up by three million tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions. It judged this was not a one-off, and has allowed another two million tonnes in each year to 2030.

The commission also had to balance a long list of requirements, including that the budgets be ambitious, achievable and fair to both present and future generations, while supporting the global effort to limit warming to 1.5℃. The commissioners write:

A transition that is fair, inclusive and equitable for people is crucial so that it is acceptable to New Zealanders. Putting the values of manaakitanga, tikanga, whanaungatanga and kotahitanga at the forefront means having a deep ethic of care for people and the land. Having support and buy-in from New Zealanders is vital for meeting and sustaining emissions reduction targets.

But consider Ireland. Like New Zealand, Ireland has high agricultural emissions and a poor climate track record to date. Yet Ireland recently adopted a new climate law that requires net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2050 and cuts of at least 51% between 2018 and 2030. This is unquestionably much stronger than New Zealand’s act.

Many goals, but no easy options

New Zealand is indeed in a tight spot. Decades of delay and spurious manoeuvring have seen emissions rise steadily, with few transition plans in place.

The main emitting sectors are often also key export industries, which should not face unfair competition, while consumption sectors (like private cars) lie broadly across the whole society.

Some key approaches from the past — international carbon trading, and extensive forest planting — have fallen out of favour. Following a collapse in credibility, international carbon trading will need new rules to allow it to restart, while afforestation, though still playing a part, pushes the transition out to future generations.

The scope of the transition is challenging, and the commission argues its budgets are the best combination of ambitious and achievable.

A path towards lower emissions

A major part of the report describes in detail how the budgets could be met. For example, a relatively easy first step is to phase out coal burning for electricity generation.

Coal and gas use in the food industry, mostly for the production of milk powder, has to rapidly decrease. So far, one plant, at Te Awamutu, has been converted from gas to biomass, saving 83,000 tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions per year. But by 2030, the industry needs to cut more than 20 times as much.

Fossil fuel use in buildings, like coal boilers in schools, gets a lot of attention, but only adds up to a small part of the cuts needed. All other industries (including steel, aluminium, methanol, cement, mining, hydrogen, and ammonia) need to cut fossil fuel use substantially, preferably without all having to close.

The table below shows the proposed emissions reductions for different sectors, under the commission’s demonstration path.

The transport sector has finally seen government action, with the introduction of an extensive system of fuel efficiency standards and fees and discounts for newly imported vehicles. The commission argued for all of these and more, with a substantial shift away from private cars to active and public transport on a scale beyond New Zealand’s experience.

This transformation is sure to be contentious, from local battles over car parking and cycleways to the entire operation of the public transport system.

New Zealand’s Paris commitments

Another significant piece of advice the commission was asked to give was whether New Zealand’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is adequate. Climate change minister James Shaw had punted this question to the commission, which has passed it right back like in a game of hot potato.

There are two difficulties. First, the commission has already identified the biggest domestic emission cuts; anything further must come from overseas. That will be expensive, and there are no rules yet on how these “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” will be conducted. This will be on the agenda at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow later this year.

Second, the entire basis for the NDC stems from the requirements to balance equity, responsibility and need. For New Zealand, that points towards much higher ambition than at present.

The commission did advise the NDC should involve an international mitigation effort of “much more than” 10% of current gross emissions, at a cost of many billions of dollars per decade. But it argued this required political, social and ethical considerations only the government could determine.

All of these matters will now fall under the scrutiny of the High Court.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New plastic ban: Interview with Trisia Farrelly

On 27 June, the New Zealand Government announced the phase-out of some hard-to-recycle and some single-use plastics. Robert McLachlan talks to Massey University’s Trisia Farrelly, a tireless campaigner against plastic waste.

Trisia: I’m an anthropologist at Massey University, I wear quite a few hats around New Zealand and internationally on plastic pollution, which I’ve been researching since 2016.

Robert:  And here I thought it was a lifetime passion! You’re an anthropologist… so are you trying to save the world, or just study how it works?

Trisia: Save it! One piece of plastic at a time. 

Robert:  The talk you gave recently described everything from your plastic-free year all the way up to the UN.

Trisia: Yes, multiscale! My personal journey started with a film, I watched the Clean Bin Project. The directors were in New Zealand and I invited them to Massey. That was the turning point. Film can be powerful! The revelations hit home and made me become quite concerned about plastics. A moment of realisation, a wake-up call. After that, things happened. 

My UN work came out of one presentation I gave in Switzerland. In fact I angsted over whether I should go for a long time, but a number of New Zealand organisations urged me to go and speak for them. 

I gave a very impassioned, political talk on why we should stop putting so much attention on the individual, on “ecological citizenship”, and start focussing head on on state–industry relationships and start talking about limiting production. I gave it my best shot. Then I was invited to join the UNEA Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group on marine litter and micro plastics.

I also met Pete Myers, author of Our Stolen Future. He later came to New Zealand and talked to the Ministry for the Environment, he talked to Kim Hill. That inspired my work to try and regulate toxic chemicals in plastics.

Robert:  This “state–industry relationship”, is that as simple as industry lobbying government to do what they want, or is there more to it than that?

Trisia: There’s a whole playbook that industry has on how to influence government and redirect responsibility for plastic pollution onto consumers. It’s an exciting area to study. Since the 1950s they’ve been playing the recycling card, diverting attention from one thing to another, complicating by confusion.  Very much the ‘merchants of doubt’ situation.

Robert:  So New Zealand has now announced that we are going to ban some single-use plastics by 2025. And apart from the supermarket shopping bags, it’s the first time that something has actually been banned, is that right?

Trisia: They also banned some types of microbeads. This is all covered under the Waste Minimization Act: since 2008 there’s been a facility provision to prioritise some products for product stewardship schemes. It’s exciting that this is finally being used. It sets a precedent for a number of problematic products.

Robert:  Is the hope that this will get people used to the idea of banning things?

Trisia: Yes, but it doesn’t have to be bans. There are other tools, like incentives. But for the worst products, banning is suitable. And unfortunately, 2025 feels like a long way away!

Robert:  Apparently New Zealanders generate 58 kg of plastic waste each per year. Are these the most urgent products to be looking at?

Trisia: I think so. They partly made these determinations based on what is found in the beach cleanups/audits, a very powerful citizen science initiative. For example, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is very toxic, and it’s difficult to recycle, and also to transport because it’s so light and bulky. It’s nasty stuff. With  an EPS meat tray, you’ve got a high fat food item which potentially increases the potential for toxic leaching from the plastic packaging into the food. They are also starting to find increasing volumes of disgusting plastic ties from meat works on some beaches, and a lot of plastic preproduction pellets. These are not on the list. But they have caught some of the high-volume items, and they’re starting with the low-hanging fruit. That’s not a bad way to go. It will ease industry and consumers into this new way of thinking about regulating problematic items.

A lot of people missed the very last line of the press release, which is the bit that got me really excited: New Zealand has now declared that we will support a global treaty on plastic pollution. I’ve been working on this for years and we couldn’t get even an informal statement of support. Now we could be seeing support for an international negotiating committee in the September ministerial meeting, before the UN environmental assembly meeting next February. We are the 131st country to support the treaty! 

Robert:  With the New Zealand phase-out by 2025 – why is it so long?

Trisia: It’s about getting everyone on board. For me it’s too long, but I keep reminding myself to celebrate the small stuff. And I can see it setting a precedent for more problematic items. There’s so much more I’d like to see in there, that a lot of people submitted on: cigarette butts, wet wipes that clog waste water plants, agri-plastics.

It’s good to see that the oxo-degradable and photo-degradable plastic are included. They break down into microplastics but are not truly biodegradable. That came about because of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s report, which had some really good scientists on it. 

Robert:  There were 8000 public submissions on the proposal.

Trisia: It was so huge! It was the biggest public engagement on plastics we’ve ever seen. There are a lot of people really wanting this to happen.

Robert:  Thanks Trisia! We look forward to our plastic-free future.

Trisia: We do indeed.

So it begins: The Climate Change Commission’s advice to government and what happened next

By Robert McLachlan

What’s that? You wanted action, not just words, on climate change? And you wanted it now, not next year or the year after? How about something big, really big, maybe also diving right into the heart of an emotional, touchstone issue – say, the private car? 

Welcome to the EV subsidy.  

The New Zealand government has surprised and delighted electric vehicle advocates by announcing significant direct subsidies for electric vehicles – both all-electric and plug-in hybrid, whether new or used but newly imported) of up to $8625. These take effect in just a few weeks time, on 1 July 2021. 

From 2022 they will be replaced by a revenue-neutral ‘feebate’, in which higher-emitting vehicles pay a fee, and lower emitting vehicles (including some petrol cars) receive a rebate. That year fuel efficiency standards also come into effect, with fines for noncompliance applying to vehicle importers from 2023. Taken together, these three steps bring New Zealand firmly and finally into line with most other developed countries, where fees, subsidies, and efficiency standards are the norm

Ināia tonu nei: The time is now 

Now we’ll find out if EV sales will start to increase significantly from their currently puny levels. We’ll find out if the charge that the taxpayer is subsidizing rich suburbanites’ consumption will stick. We’ll find out if more EVs means less power for the fossil fuel industry. In the meantime, winning the support of the car industry and of drivers’ advocates (the AA called the plan “well-balanced and positive” with a “good mix of carrot and stick”) is no small feat. 

Carbon price: necessary, but not sufficient 

The Climate Change Commission, in their advice to Government released on 10 June, were very clear that existing tools to address emissions are far from adequate. In particular, the market-based Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), even with a rising price on carbon and a falling but flexible cap on emissions, cannot do the job on its own. Their landmark report discusses a whole smorgasbord of market failures (such as split incentives, bounded rationality, and infrastructure lock-in), all of which of have arguably been preventing climate action so far, and all of which are addressed by the new vehicle package. 

Think collectively 

For example, the benefits of an EV subsidy don’t fall mainly on the car buyer. The benefits arise collectively from starting the decarbonisation of the entire transport system, from building networks of suppliers and supporters, and from beginning the delegitimisation of burning petrol. 

Yes, it would be more environmentally sound to rapidly ramp up the cost of all unsustainable consumption, especially of cars and petrol; to stop all new road construction; and to divert the lion’s share of transport funding towards walking, cycling, and public transport. It would also have massive side effects and be politically completely impossible from our current starting point.  

While the ETS retains a central role – the Commission advises raising the carbon price from its present $20-$50 range to $30-$70 immediately, and to $50-$150 by 2030) – its actual operation under the Zero Carbon Act remains to be tested. While the international evidence is that a mixed approach of carbon pricing and regulation has worked so far, for the far more sweeping changes needed in the years ahead we are in uncharted waters. 

To sketch just one possible outcome of an “ETS only” approach, a sharp rise in the carbon price could result in excessive tree planting and damage to industry, while still not having any noticeable effect on suburban drivers. (Even $100/tonne would only add an extra 12c/litre to the price of petrol.) 

The Climate Change Commission is just the kind of institution we need more of to safeguard the future 

The Climate Change Commission, through its establishment in 2019 under the Zero Carbon Act in 2019, its formation, its draft report, its extensive community engagement resulting in more than 15,000 submissions, and now its first package of official advice (engaging in detail with the public’s arguments and evidence), is amply fulfilling early hopes of depoliticising climate and fixing the areas of debate.  

That’s not to say that carrying out the advice will be easy. A common thread running through the 400 page report is the almost complete lack of planning up to this point. The Commission recommends that the government develop national strategies to decarbonise the energy system; for the bioeconomy; for a circular economy; for an equitable transition; for industry transition; for low-emission freight, for hard-to-abate industries; for waste; for buildings and urban form; and for an equitable transition for Iwi/Māori and the Māori economy.  

This “planning” is not central planning. Communities, Iwi/Māori, and industry are all expected to take part. But a failure to plan at all can lead to trouble, one current example being electricity shortages that have led to price spikes and an increase in coal burning. This could have easily been avoided if we had had even slightly more direction on climate change just five years ago.   

An example of what long-term strategies might look like is found in Hīkina te Kohupara – Kia mauri ora ai te iwi: Transport Emissions: Pathways to Net Zero by 2050, a May 2021 green paper from the Ministry of Transport, now out for consultation. One pathway, the only one that achieves a 47% cut in transport emissions by 2035, as suggested by the Climate Change Commission, involves significant shifts throughout the transport system. Driving by cars and light trucks falls 39%; public and active transport increases massively (five times as many buses as now, and all of them electric), while total demand for travel decreases. The main tool that reduces driving is “distance pricing”.  

Let’s hop on that pathway, sure, but let’s bring everyone else on board too. And if you know a better way, tell me. 

We now know the first three carbon budgets (probably) 

The Commission’s carbon budgets have been the focus of attention, for the government is very likely to adopt them. Gross CO2 emissions, mostly from fossil fuels, are to fall from 37.5 Mt a year in 2019 to 27.5 Mt by 2030. In addition, tree planting – which largely stopped fifteen years ago – starts expanding again, so that net emissions of long-lived gases fall 38% over 2019–2030. The scope of the changes suggested in the detailed plan give some idea of how challenging this will be. The Commission argue that this, in fact, the most that is practical and achievable. 

Are we meeting the Paris Agreement? 

The question of the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which the Minister of Climate Change James Shaw punted to the Commission, has been passed right back again like a game of hot potato. There are two difficulties. One is that the Commission has already found the biggest domestic emission cuts it thinks it can; anything on top must come from overseas. That will be expensive, and there are no rules yet or how these “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” will be conducted. It was on the agenda at COP25 in Madrid, it will be on the agenda at COP26 in Glasgow. It’s a famously difficult issue. Most developed countries aren’t using them, but many developing nations would love it.  

Secondly, the entire basis for the NDC stems from the requirements to balance equality, responsibility, and need. For New Zealand, that points towards much higher ambition that at present. The Commission found that the precise level of the NDC involves political, social, and ethical considerations that could only be determined by the government. Still, they did advise that the NDC should involve “much more than” 8 Mt CO2e a year of international mitigation (10% of current gross emissions), at a cost of many billions of dollars per decade. Over to you, Minister. 

And to any ute drivers out there worried about price rises: I’m reliably informed that modern utes are built to last forever. If a ute really is the best vehicle for the job, just keep driving it a while longer. 

Jacinda- you beauty!

Steve Trewick

She’s a scarlet, long-legged stunner with dainty white feet, and the male of the species is almost as impressive. Yet this stunning creature has rarely been seen and was only this year formally recognised.

Hemiandrus jacinda is a ground wētā named this year for New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Most of us are aware of distinctive New Zealand species. Kiwi and kākāpō for example are unusual birds specific to New Zealand and frequently in the news, but our bird diversity is relatively small and well-recognised. There are today a little over 200 species of native birds in New Zealand, but there are an estimated 20,000, yes twenty thousand, native insect species, of which more than 80% are endemic to this land (found nowhere else on the planet). Given the number it is not surprising that about half of those insects (moths, beetles, flies, bees, wētā etc) have not yet been formally recognised. And then there are the millipedes, spiders, mites, land-hoppers etc… About 22,000 New Zealand arthropods (invertebrates with an exoskeleton and jointed legs) have been described but we have a similar number to get to grips with. Oh, let’s not forget the flat-worms and worms, the slugs and the snails.

To put that in some sort of context, consider the United Kingdom is only slightly smaller than New Zealand and home to abut 24,000 species of insects. One of those insect species is endemic to the UK. That means the level of endemicity among UK insects is less than 0.005%. More precisely, that one endemic species is a small moth called Eudarcia richardsoni; one species out of an impressive 2,500 Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) known to occur in the UK (endemicity of ~0.04%). The New Zealand Lepidoptera fauna is a bit smaller in terms of total numbers of species; it includes about 1,800 species. Of these, approximately 1,600 are found nowhere else in the world. In other words about 90% of New Zealand butterflies and moths are endemic and if lost from New Zealand would be lost from the world. And there’s the rub.

The dearth of endemic species in the United Kingdom is not for want of trying; the entomology collections of the Natural History Museum in London, for example, number more than 34 million insect and spider specimens, amassed over 300 years. No, here lack of endemicity is not a lack of discovery. It is because the UK biota is shared with western Europe; the plants, animals, fungi, microbes and humans (Cheddar man) arrived in Britain as the last glacial maximum (LGM) receded about 18,000 years ago. Before that an icy climate and polar ice sheet excluded life from the region. The same global climatic cycling affected the Southern Hemisphere including New Zealand but long distance from the Antarctic ice sheet and temperature buffering by the ocean allowed an existing biota to survive through the Pleistocene glacial phases. The net result is a biota in New Zealand evolved over millions of years rather than one dominated by arrival over fewer than 20,000 years as in the UK.

Despite the lack of insect endemicity in the UK, insect biodiversity is ecologically and culturally valued. Entomologists across Europe are justifiably concerned about recent declines in species richness and waning populations of many formerly common insects. Declines are now documented across the landscape including the reserves established to protect native plants and animals. As insects and other invertebrates mediate many aspects of plant biology including pollination and are essential prey for many vertebrates, their loss is predicted to destabilise fundamental ecosystem functions.

The challenge for the UK and Europe is to identify changes in species richness and population size among an already well-studied biota and respond to it. For New Zealand the problem is more complex as it involves discovering the diversity at the same time as documenting changes in abundance and finding solutions.

The reasons for the declining abundance and diversity of insects and other organisms are well recognised. They relate primarily to habitat loss. Since the 1950’s the UK has destroyed almost all of its ancient, native, flower-rich meadows (97%) and half of its ancient woodlands, with similar trends across Europe. The remaining native, complex ecosystems with rich biodiversity are fragmented and less resilient.  In New Zealand the dominant vegetation when humans arrived was forest; native herb-rich grasslands were a limited feature of our landscape outside the alpine zone. The process of landscape change was extremely rapid and extensive as European colonists developed a pastoral economy using a small number of European grass and herb species. Two thirds of the ancient forests, the majority in lowland areas favoured for farming, have been erased. These forest were not just havens of biodiversity but among the most important carbon reserves on the planet. Moves are being made to establish a more inclusive and moderated approach to the landscape, but this will not return substantial, biodiverse native forests in a hurry. Meanwhile pastoral intensification continues.

Formally describing the dwindling populations of endemic insects and other small animals is already beyond our current capacity. There are too few scientists with the necessary skills and time. Understanding the biology of these animals and their interactions with each other and their environment is even more remote. Looking away is not an option.

So, welcome jacinda. See you around, I hope.

Climate explained: when Antarctica melts, will gravity changes lift up land and lower sea levels?


By Robert McLachlan

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to

I’ve heard the gravity changes when Antarctica melts will lower the seas around New Zealand. Will that save us from sea level rise?

The gravitational changes when Antarctica melts do indeed affect sea levels all over the world — but not enough to save New Zealand from rising seas.

The ice ages and their effects on sea level, geology, flora and fauna were topics of intense scientific and public interest all through the 19th century. Here’s how James Croll explained the “gravity effect” of melting ice in his 1875 book Climate and Time in their Geologic Relations:

Let us now consider the effect that this condition of things would have upon the level of the sea. It would evidently tend to produce an elevation of the sea-level on the northern hemisphere in two ways. First, the addition to the sea occasioned by the melting of the ice from off the Antarctic land would tend to raise the general level of the sea. Secondly, the removal of the ice would also tend to shift the earth’s centre of gravity to the north of its present position – and as the sea must shift along with the centre, a rise of the sea on the northern hemisphere would necessarily take place.

His back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested the effect on sea level from ice melting in Antarctica would be about a third bigger than average in the northern hemisphere and a third smaller in the south.

A more detailed mathematical study by Robert Woodward in 1888 has falling sea level as far as 2000km from Antarctica, but still rising by a third more than average in the north.

Sea-level fingerprints

Woodward’s method is the basis of determining what is now called the “sea-level fingerprint” of melting ice. Two other factors also come into play.

  1. The elasticity of the earth’s surface means the land will bounce up when it has less ice weighing it down. This pushes water away.
  2. If the ice is not at the pole, its melting shifts the south pole (the axis of rotation), redistributing water.

Combining these effects gives the sea-level fingerprints of one metre of sea-level rise from either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS), as shown here:

Red areas get more than the average sea level rise, blue areas get less.
Fingerprints of sea-level change following melting of ice from West Antartica (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS) equivalent to one metre of sea-level rise on average. Red areas get up to 40% more than the average sea-level rise, blue areas get less. Author provided, CC BY-SA

Woodward’s method from 1888 holds up pretty well – some locations in the northern hemisphere can get a third more than the average sea level rise. New Zealand gets a little bit below the average effect from Antarctica, and a little more than average from Greenland. Overall, New Zealand can expect slightly higher than average sea level rise.

Combining the sea-level fingerprints of all known sources of melting ice, together with other known changes of local land level such as subsidence and uplift, gives a good fit to the observed pattern of sea level rise around the world. For example, sea level has been falling near West Antarctica, due to the gravity effect.

Changes in sea level around the world, 1993-2019

Sea-level rise is accelerating, but the future rate is uncertain

The global average rise in sea level is 110mm for 1900-1993 and 100mm for 1993–2020. The recent acceleration is mostly due to increased thermal expansion of the top two kilometres of the oceans (warm water is less dense and expands) and increased melting of Greenland.

But the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite has revealed the melting of Antarctica has accelerated by a factor of five in recent decades. Future changes in Antarctica represent a major source of uncertainty when trying to forecast sea levels.

Much of West Antarctica lies below sea level and is potentially subject to an instability in which warming ocean water melts the ice front from below. This would cause the ice sheet to peel off the ocean floor, accelerating the flow of the glacier towards the sea.

In fact, this has been directly observed, both in the location of glacial “grounding lines”, some of which have retreated by tens of kilometres in recent decades, and most recently by the Icefin submersible robot which visited the grounding line of the Thwaites Glacier, 2000km east of Scott Base, and found the water temperature to be 2℃ above the local freezing point.

The big question is whether this instability has been irreversibly set into motion. Some glaciologists say it has, but the balance of opinion, summarised by the IPCC’s report on the cryosphere, is that

Observed grounding line retreat … is not definitive proof that Marine Ice Sheet Instability is underway. Whether unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat has begun or is imminent remains a critical uncertainty.

The IPCC special report on 1.5℃ concluded that “these instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5℃ to 2℃ of global warming”.

What’s in store for New Zealand

Predictions for New Zealand range from a further 0.46 metres of sea-level rise by 2100 (under a low-emission scenario, with warming kept under 2℃) to 1.05 metres (under a high-emission scenario).

A continued rise in sea levels over future centuries may be inevitable — there are 66m of sea level rise locked up in ice at present — but the rate will depend on how fast we can reduce emissions.

A five-year, NZ$7m research project, NZ SeaRise, is now underway, seeking to improve predictions of sea-level rise out to 2100 and beyond and their implications for local planning.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My favourite Anzac biscuit recipe

By Mary Morgan-Richards

Every year, in the lead up to Anzac day (25th April) when Australians and New Zealanders remember all those who died at war, we bake and eat sweet biscuits associated with WWI.

After 100 years I wanted to calculate the impact of my biscuits on global warming. Each ingredient needs to be harvested, prepared and packaged before transporting to my local shop. What is the carbon footprint of these activities?  Because food is grown in different parts of the world, I wanted a New Zealand figure. I found a thesis by M.J. Drew from the University of Otago called “Healthy & Climate-friendly eating patterns for New Zealand” and it had all the information I wanted (Drew et al. 2020).


The Anzac biscuit has been described as a culinary icon embedded in the Australian and New Zealand intangible cultural heritage (Cobley 2016) – but it is also a sweet and crunchy treat. The name “ANZAC” first appeared in recipe books during the First World War and what is now known as the Anzac biscuit seems to have emerged independently in kitchens in New Zealand and Australia ~1918 using the same basic ingredients that were readily available at the time (Leach 2008).  

Method: Heat water in bowl in microwave on high (about 40sec at 800-1000 watts), add baking soda, honey, golden syrup, oil and stir. Add oats, flour, coconut, sugar and two good pinches of salt. Mix thoroughly. Dust baking try with flour. Place teaspoonfuls of mixture onto the tray. Bake 180oC for about 10 mins until biscuits have melted flat and are golden brown. Allow to cool slightly before removing from tray onto a rack. Eat with a hot cup of tea.

For each food item, farming and processing produces most of the greenhouse gasses (with a few exceptions; Figure 1). Other stages in what is called the “lifecycle” of the food such as packaging, transport, refrigeration all contribute a smaller proportion of emissions per item, but it adds up.

FIgure 1

For some ingredients and many recipes there are a range of possibilities; one could use butter or margarine, apples or oranges. If I use canola oil in my biscuits instead of butter, I make the biggest difference to the total footprint. Most canola oil on my supermarket shelf is from rapeseed plants that were not grown in New Zealand, but there are a few yellow fields of rapeseed (Brassica napus) grown, harvested and pressed for oil in this country (e.g. Pure oil NZ). Even though transport is a much bigger contributor to the total for the canola oil I used (about 50%; Figure 1), growing a plant (rapeseed) produces much less CO2 than dairy farming. Butter also needs refrigerating. But without butter I need to add a pinch of salt to my biscuits. Per kg salt has a fairly high emission level and I wonder if we could reduce how far salt needs to travel? – selecting locally produced brands would help (I didn’t need to use pink salt from the Himalayas to get the taste I wanted and I made sure to reduce my chance of suffering from goitre by using a salt with iodine added). 

I was surprised to discover that honey production has a lower footprint than either salt or sugar or golden syrup – although more CO2 is invested in packaging honey, the transport and production releases less CO2 in total. But honey is expensive, and it doesn’t easily convert into the same volume of sugar in a recipe. Here I have reduced the golden syrup and sugar a bit, and added honey, but traditional Anzac biscuit recipes (from 1920’s) all have golden syrup. In fact, I might be breaching the NZ law if I don’t have enough golden syrup, as the law here requires that the name ‘Anzac’ is only associated with the original basic recipe (and that they are never referred to as cookies). In addition, completely replacing sugar and golden syrup with honey risks ‘food waste’ by producing a softer biscuit that doesn’t get eaten, so I’ve tried to balance emission-reduction with taste.

Electricity in New Zealand can be completely renewable and so I brought my electricity for baking my biscuits from ecotricity

In general, vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less climate-polluting (1.2−1.8 kgCO2e/kg) than animal-based foods (12−21 kgCO2e/kg). Potentially I could reduce my CO2 emissions by up to 42%, depending how much I reduce meat and dairy from my diet and continue to minimise food waste – I might even live longer!

Cobley, J. 2016. Should we safeguard ‘the idea of the Anzac biscuit recipe’? Women’s Studies Journal, 30 (1): 62-70. ISSN 1173-6615

Drew, M. J. 2017. Healthy & Climate-friendly eating patterns for New Zealand. University of Otago.

Drew, J. Cleghorn, C. Macmillan, A. Mizdrak, A. 2020. Healthy and climate-friendly eating patterns in the New Zealand context. Environmental Health Perspective 128(1)

Leach, H. 2008. The pavlova story: A slice of New Zealand’s culinary history. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Why did New Zealand’s CO2 emissions blow out so spectacularly in 2019?

By Robert McLachlan

Every year in April, the trees start changing colour, the clocks go back an hour, and the national greenhouse gas figures are released and promptly forgotten.

They take fifteen months to prepare, so by the time they come out it’s very easy for commentators to point out that they are out of date. Even now that the national media are running several new climate change stories every day, this one seems to pass us by. Not only are the figures out of date, they are also highly technical and hard to interpret: the year-to-year changes might be influenced by one-off factors like the weather, while the long-term trends have been subject to the changing winds of climate policy.

The Ministry for the Environment does an amazingly thorough job of reporting greenhouse gas emissions. The latest release includes a 633 page report accompanied by 100 MB of data – 300 spreadsheets in all. But as for interpreting the data, they don’t go very far:

Between 2018 and 2019, gross emissions increased by 2 per cent, which was largely attributed to an increase in emissions from the energy sector (by 5 per cent ot 1,711 kt CO2-e) drive mainly by an increase in emissions from manufacturing industries and construction, largely due to an increase in methanol production, and an increase in emissions from public electricity and heat production, primarily driven by an increase in natural gas-fired and coal-fired electricity generation in response to lower levels of hydro generation.

The “energy sector” is exactly the part we’re supposed to be focusing on. A 5% increase in one year, unless it’s some sort of one-off exception, is disastrous. We need to be cutting those energy emissions by at least 5% a year. The Ministry makes is sound like those increases just happened. But how can that be, when we’re in an emergency and climate politics is front and centre? What’s the relationship between emissions and climate policies?

CO2 emissions reach record highs

To try and get a grip on recent trends, I’m going to look at the changes from 2016 to 2019. Gross CO2 emissions did at first fall over the past decade, from 41.2 Mt in 2008 to 38.3 Mt in 2016, before rising again to 42.2 Mt in 2019. This turnaround is a worry and could indicate that climate policy over the period has failed. The three years 2017 to 2019 saw a massively increased focus on climate change: September 2017 saw Labour returned after a decade in a strikingly climate-led election. A Zero Carbon Bill (originating with the youth climate movement Generation Zero) was promised and extensively debated over 2018 and 2019, becoming law in November 2019.

Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg burst onto the world stage in late 2018, leading to massive School Strikes 4 Climate throughout New Zealand and the world in 2019. Climate emergencies were declared throughout the country, and eventually by Parliament itself.

Surely anyone even tangentially involved with fossil fuels would have realised that change was coming?

In fact, change had already been signalled before the 2017 election. The 2008 Emissions Trading Scheme, which had been weakened almost as soon as it was introduced, began to return to its original plan, with a 50% discount being removed during 2017 and 2018. Carbon prices rose, perhaps indicating that emitters expected to face more restrictions:

Carbon price (per tonne of CO2) in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme. Until 2019 only half a unit was needed for each tonne of emissions, effectively halving the price.

Although on the surface it looks like carbon prices tripled during 2017-2019, it is difficult or impossible to know how much emitters actually paid. Several years worth of credits have been banked ahead of time, many bought when prices were much lower, and many imported from Russia and Ukraine in dodgy deals: as the “low integrity” of these carbon credits became known, New Zealand companies were left as the only buyers, leading to very, very low prices (and an end to international carbon trading). In addition, many large emitters get 60% or 90% discounts, to protect them from international competition. The only large sectors that are fully exposed to the ETS are domestic transport and electricity.

Emissions up 10% in three years

CO2 emissions (kilotonnes)20162019ChangeFully in ETS?
Road transport1346214560+1098+8%Yes
International aviation32743856+582+18%
Food processing (dairy)26893237+548+20%
Metal industry (70% steel, 30% aluminium)22512236-15-1%
Chemicals (mostly methanol)19991875-123-6%
Agricultural industry, forestry, and fishing13701430+60+4%
Fugitive fossil fuel emissions12391021-218-18%Yes
Agriculture (50% lime, 50% urea)1089111728+3%
Mining & other industry10221194+172+17%
Commercial buildings9951130+135+14%Yes
International shipping9431009+66+7%
Domestic aviation9191015+97+11%Yes
Oil refining847882+34+4%Yes
Non-metallic minerals: energy (cement, lime, glass)727618-109-15%
Residential buildings585628+44+8%Yes
Non-metallic minerals: industrial processes466596+130+28%
Pulp, paper, and print381421+40+10%
Manufacture of solid fuel291354+63+22%Yes
Domestic shipping270329+59+22%Yes
Chemical industry (hydrogen, ammonia)191183-8-4%
Iron and steel industries176190+14+8%
Rail transport129126-3-2%Yes
Total CO23834342180+3836+10%
New Zealand’s CO2 emissions (kilotonnes) in 2016 and 2019, compared.

Let’s look at the big four.

Road transport (up 1098 kt CO2) is in the ETS, but a carbon price is a terrible way to reduce emissions in this sector. Even $50/tonne only adds 10 cents per litre to the price of fuel, which itself is only weakly linked to people’s transport decisions. The main causes of the rise in emissions are the almost exclusively car-focussed transport system, which has left us with the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD, and a lack of fuel efficiency standards. These had been on the way in 2008 but were cancelled by the incoming National government, then stalled in 2019 by Labour’s coalition partner New Zealand First. (They’re supposed to be introduced in 2021.) Since 2016 there has been a large increase in road building, with further massive plans announced in February 2020. Despite the phrase “mode shift” being seen more and more frequently, there is not a lot of it about yet. Electric car sales got off to a good start in 2017, but have stalled since 2018. The total EV fleet is preventing about 50 kt a year or 0.3% of road transport emissions. Conclusion: transport policy was a failure in 2017–2019 and there are still major forces pushing emissions higher, while big battles over mode shift lie ahead.

International aviation (up 582 kt) is not in the ETS and it is also exempt from GST and fuel excise tax. Together these have contributed to make it one of our largest emission sectors. Covid has wiped it out, reducing emissions by 90%, but there are no measures in place to prevent it returning in full.

Electricity (up 1142 kt) is in the ETS and is very sensitive to the price of carbon. A carbon price of $25 adds 2.5 cents per kWh to the price of electricity. There are cheap alternatives to fossil fuels and higher renewable energy targets have been in place for many years. So why have emissions blown out? The Ministry for the Environment blame the weather (“lower levels of hydro generation”). But that isn’t the whole story.

It’s true that hydro generation does fluctuate. But looking at the long-term trends, new renewable energy construction came to a complete stop in 2016. If it hadn’t, emissions would have fallen significantly. Wholesale electricity prices were low in 2016 (6c/kWh), but by 2019 they were at record highs (13c/kWh) and companies started to plan new renewable power stations. (A bit late: in 2021 prices are over 20c and we are facing electricity shortages.) A possible conclusion is that despite what they say, electricity generators don’t really care about emissions at all.

Food processing (up 548 kt) is not fully in the ETS. Most of these emissions are from burning coal and natural gas to dry milk into milk powder. In these three years new plants and boilers were being built and operated at a great rate. A 2017 presentation from a Fonterra representative did not mention that their company was the largest consumer of coal in New Zealand. (The word “coal” does not even appear.) Since then they have changed their tune, but progress is slow. Their Brightwater plant was converted to a coal/wood blend in 2018 (emissions savings: 2 kt a year); in 2020 a larger plant at Te Awamutu converted fully to wood (savings: 83 kt a year). The Stirling cheese factory has been promising to go electric since 2018, and an announcement was expected in 2020, but there does not seem to be any decision yet. At this rate it will take a decade just to undo the past three years of growth.

And so it goes down the list. 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.

So to try to answer my question, Why did New Zealand’s CO2 emissions blow out so spectacularly in 2019: the forces for increasing fossil fuel burning were vastly more powerful than the puny forces opposing them. All the talk about climate change in 2017–2019 had little effect on the behaviour of companies or individuals.

Have we turned the corner?

Possibly. The pro-fossil fuel forces are still there, but the opposing forces are gathering strength, especially through the Zero Carbon Act which for the first time includes a falling cap on emissions. In the most sensitive sector, electricity, the changes can be seen already. My takeaway from the new 2019 data is that 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.

Recreation Transition: low-carbon recreation in the mountains

By Jamie Stewart, Federated Mountain Clubs

Looking 130 km east from Fanthams Peak, Taranaki (1966 m) to Mts Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu (2797 m). Photo: Peter Laurensen,

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC), founded in 1931, represents 96 clubs, 22,000 members and 300,000 people that regularly recreate in the New Zealand backcountry. This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Backcountry magazine and is reproduced with permission. (Read the original article). See also “EVs for mountain recreation” (Backcountry, June 2020) and a series of articles on climate change and the backcountry (November 2020).

It has been a while now – pre-Covid-19 (everything pre-Covid seems a while ago) since the FMC Executive approved a new campaign we have called ‘Recreation Transition’ to encourage low-carbon recreation.

FMC has been considering our response to the climate crisis for several years. We have taken steps to minimise our organisational carbon footprint, including the recent decision to phase out the FMC Travel Club. But the times demand more of us, so we have developed this campaign to shape our future advocacy, to attempt to impact central and local government thinking and possibly to influence the recreational choices of clubs and our wider outdoor community.

FMC recognises that in this instance we are not leaders, but followers, of many committed initiatives from clubs and individuals in our outdoor community.

Railcar about to enter the Arthur’s Pass tunnel, mid 1970s. These trains ran from 1956 to 1978 and were a legendary source of transport for trampers who would wave down the train for unscheduled pickups. The Auckland–Wellington night train fulfilled a similar function in the North Island until 1979, and is now the subject of a revival campaign. (Photo: Roy Sinclair)

Low-carbon recreation infrastructure

There is a need for low-carbon transport options for people to get to the places they love. Dan Clearwater investigates in this Backcountry what is possible currently with electric vehicles. Improved passenger services on railways are also important, and this government is heading in the right direction – will we see Cantabrians heading to Arthurs Pass on the train for a climb and tramp again in our lifetimes? Clubs also have, and will continue to, play a crucial role with car-pooling, club buses and other climate-friendly practices.

The push for low-carbon recreation infrastructure encompasses the creation of and investment in recreational opportunities that don’t have high embedded transport costs. How much could carbon emissions be reduced if people from Auckland and Tauranga did a yearly tramp in the Kaimai ranges rather than on a distant Great Walk? How much carbon emission reduction if the public money invested in the Paparoa track had been used instead to develop more mountain-biking opportunities near some of our larger centres of population?

From my back door

FMC coined #frommybackdoor pre-Covid, but events have overtaken us. What a lesson and opportunity we have all had to rediscover our neighbourhoods, and to think about how we can improve our local outdoor opportunities. How much could carbon emissions be reduced if more people choose to recreate from their back doors regularly? Should we apply the ‘recreational opportunity spectrum’ suburb by suburb, town by town?

Department of Conservation research has shown that the most influential factors in connecting people to nature are experience in nature as a child and regular interaction with specific natural places as an adult. Where better to make this happen than people’s own neighbourhoods? The unkempt gully, the piece of bush locked away between neighbours, the old braid of the river, the swamp on the edge of town.

A ‘from-my-backdoor’ ethic also includes self-powered journeys, be that to nearby coasts or distant mountains. Ed Hillary of course rode his bike to the hills, as did many others. A more contemporary trip I have always aspired to emulate is Erik Bradshaw’s and Jonathan Kennett’s climb of Tapuae-o-Uenuku from Wellington – by bike – in a weekend. Low-carbon outdoor recreation still allows plenty of opportunity for exploring, achieving ambitious trips and developing skills.

The actual bicycle ridden by Edmund Hillary and Julian Godwin in the 1940s. “”Godwin’s best mate in the RAF was Ed Hillary and on weekends they would ‘double’ each other out to Mt Taranaki and have a crack at the mountain,” said Jecks, recalling what Godwin had told him. In Hillary’s autobiography, there are several mentions of Julian Godwin and even a reference to this very bicycle.” (Photo: Emma James/Fairfax)

Layers of Experience

‘Layers in the outdoors’ usually refers to poly-pro and fleece. Two of each and a good raincoat is my ‘handle anything’ kit. ‘Layers of experience’ might bring to mind those forehead wrinkles and calm that comes with enduring a few challenges in your time. In this case though, FMC is talking about the richness to be gained from a multi- layered experience in a place, beyond what you get from briefly passing through. We are talking about going beyond just ticking another place off your list or taking your photo for instagram.

Layers of experience may include: skill development, sense of community, contribution to the place – say through conservation volunteering – artistic endeavour, mentoring and increased knowledge in various fields. This is a richness which many clubs have done well to preserve, but which has been lost to much of our outdoor community, who have been herded instead from carparks, along gravel tracks, to well-worn destinations. It is a richness that may help people confidently choose to recreate #frommybackdoor and indeed to generally live more lightly upon the earth.

Family Tramping

FMC has had a focus this past year on family tramping, the joy of parents introducing their children to the outdoors. What if we look at this opportunity anew through a recreation transition lens? Can we family tramp from our back doors, after a short drive, or from a railway station?

Wellington’s Ōrongorongo valley is a long-standing outdoor recreation success with its mix of bookable and non-bookable huts, close to each other but incredibly well used and cost-effective for servicing and maintenance. Is this a model worth replicating elsewhere? In say the Glentui/Mt Richardson area, Waitawheta River, or at an appropriate spot in the Hūnua Ranges?

Do we need to design multi-day trips for little legs – were DOC’s previous policies to remove front-country huts and ensure minimum distances between huts short-sighted? Do we need to think more about providing appropriate loops in our most accessible places? Could we do more to encourage camping during what we now call day-trips?

There will no doubt always be a place for journeys to remote road ends and mysterious ranges out the back of beyond, but maybe we can make more of the opportunities close to home as well.