Yes, it’s time to submit to the Climate Change Commission on their draft advice to the government, if you haven’t do so already. Submissions close on 28 March 2021.
Paul Callister and I have submitted in two key areas, transport and the level of emissions.
On emissions, as I argued in an article in Stuff, the suggested carbon budgets actually allow our emissions to increase in the coming decade. I think most people who voted for the Zero Carbon Act were expecting them to decrease. Our emissions as reported to the UN for the decade 2009–2018 were 548 Mt CO2e; the draft advice puts them at 602 Mt CO2 for the decade 2021–2030.
Paul and I are suggesting a budget of 514 Mt. Even that doesn’t sound like much of a decrease. However, it would still require major cuts to fossil fuel burning, and it would still require us to reverse our past fifteen-year standstill on forestry.
On transport, the Commission is targeting emission cuts of 47% by 2035. However, it’s hard to see the suggested actions achieving that, since we are still going full steam ahead in the wrong direction. Private car travel is heavily and increasingly subsidised and bedded into society, which makes it difficult to visualise the complete transport revolution that is needed. Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan have looked at the whole issue in this March 2021 working paper; Heidi also covers it at Greater Auckland.
Our Commission is based on the one in the UK, which has now been running fairly successfully for a decade. The UK has surface transport emissions of 1.9 tonnes CO2/person, New Zealand 3.3 tonnes. The difference (UK is 43% lower) is made up of 21% less car travel per person and 27% lower emissions per kilometre. In some ways I’m surprised the difference is not even more. The UK has comprehensive bus and train networks and denser cities, and also fuel efficiency standards.
The UK CCC “Balanced Net Zero” model involves transport emissions falling 62% over 2020-2035. This is made up from EVs 55%; better petrol cars 4%; electrifying rail 1.5%; lower demand 14%, with these reductions countered by an increase of 13% due to population and economic growth. This isn’t the transport revolution that some are calling for, but it’s a good start. Could we match that here?
I first wrote about New Zealand wind farms in May of 2019 (“A long time between drinks“). At that time, Mercury’s decision to build the Turitea wind farm seemed to me to be extremely significant, but also hard to interpret in terms of the larger scheme of things. Could it be that our low-emission transition was actually going to get started?
By the end of that year (“Blow, winds of fruitfulness“) there had been a flurry of activity (four more wind farms?!?!?), but the future was still misty.
And now here we are in March of 2021. Amidst all the excitement of the Zero Carbon Act, an election, and the Climate Change Commission getting up and running, what’s been happening with renewable energy?
First, if you’re reading from overseas, a warning. This is New Zealand. You won’t be seeing vast solar panels marching across the deserts, city-sized fleets of electric buses, or mega-projects of any sort (unless they involve motorways). No, here we need to examine the gleanings.
So here are the developments since December of 2019:
On 22 December 2020, a long-tailed bat was thrown into the works of the 93 MW Mt Cass wind farm (Canterbury). The developer says the project has been delayed, but is still expected to start towards the end of 2021.
The 222 MW Turitea wind farm (Manawatū) is under construction, but has been delayed by a slip preventing transport of the blades up to the site and a fire onboard a ship that destroyed 12 nacelles and 11 hubs. It’s definitely happening, though, I can see the towers and turbines from where I’m sitting. The first stage should be finished by April.
The 133 MW Waipipi wind farm (Taranaki) is nearly finished, suffering only an incident in which a blade was blown over en route.
On 15 February 2021, Contact Energy pressed go on the 152 MW Tauhara II geothermal plant near Taupō ($580 million, but equivalent to over 300 MW of wind).
On 24 February 2021, Meridian pressed go on the 176 MW Harapaki wind farm in Hawke’s Bay. The capital cost of $395 million, over a 20 year lifetime, comes out to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, far below present wholesale prices for electricity. They also hinted at much more to come.
On 1 March 2021, plans for two turbines on Rakiura / Stewart Island – which would have been funded entirely by the government – were canned after “agreement could not be reached with the land owners”. The islanders will continue eking out their expensive, high-emission diesel-fired electricity.
On 24 March 2021, Contact Energy announced it was moving into wind energy for the first time, with an initial site lined up in Southland and more to come.
Genesis Energy is still being coy about the prospects for its 860 MW Castle Hill farm. No solid news.
All up, that’s 776 MW of new generation, and very welcome it is too. It can’t come a moment too soon. Electricity prices are still high,
Wholesale electricity prices
the hydro lakes are a quarter below average for this time of year, heading into the dry season, the renewable share has been drifting down from 85% to 81%, Genesis has fired up a spare 250 MW coal/gas unit for the second year running, and the papers are complaining about record coal imports.
So the new farms and the encouraging comments from power companies are positive signs. Perhaps the carbon price (which hit $39, up from a low of $22 in 2020) is starting to bite, or perhaps the companies have come around to the idea that the Zero Carbon Act is here to stay. The suddenly announced closure of the Tiwai Point smelter, and then its four-year stay of execution, is another complicating factor.
Although the government was elected in 2017 with a pledge of 100% renewable electricity by 2035, and re-elected in 2020 with a new target of 100% renewable by 2030, it’s not clear what specific new steps, other than the Zero Carbon Act, have been taken to bring this about. The official target remains where it has been since 2011, 90% renewable by 2025. One of the headline items, to investigate large-scale energy storage (the “NZ Battery Project”), has been delayed.
Some manoeuvrings are hard to read. Infratil sold its majority stake in Tilt Renewables, who built Waipipi and were planning three more wind farms, to Mercury. Remember that Mercury is in the thick of building Turitea and had already installed some enabling works there for yet another farm further east, Puketoi. Will Mercury really be up for five new large wind farms?
Meanwhile, Genesis Energy, for decades the bad boy of climate change in New Zealand, has suddenly changed its tune. First, they bought all of Waipipi’s electricity for the next twenty years; then they bought half of Ecotricity, New Zealand’s only zero-carbon electricity retailer, and sold them some of Waipipi’s power. This is a company behind 10% of New Zealand’s fossil fuel burning, that has been making profits of $300 million a year seemingly forever, but somehow hasn’t built any renewable electricity since 1996. Their annual report talks about “sourcing” a lot of renewable energy, but not necessarily building any. Perhaps they are waiting to see if the government is serious about climate change. Can the leopard change its spots?
By Cate Macinnis-Ng, University of Auckland and Angus Mcintosh, University of Canterbury
Islands are biodiversity hotspots. They are home to 20% of the world’s plants and animals yet cover only 5% of the global landmass. But island ecosystems are highly vulnerable, threatened by habitat fragmentation and introduced invasive weeds and predators.
Climate change adds to all these stresses. In our recent paper, we use Aotearoa New Zealand as a case study to show how climate change accelerates biodiversity decline on islands by exacerbating existing conservation threats.
Aotearoa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with 80% of vascular plants, 81% of arthropods and 60% of land vertebrate animals found nowhere else.
Conservation efforts have rightly concentrated on the eradication of introduced predators, with world-leading success in the eradication of rats in particular.
Potential climate change impacts have been mostly ignored. Successive assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight the lack of information for Aotearoa. This could be due to insufficient research, system complexity or a lack of impacts.
In the past, some researchers even dismissed climate change as an issue for biodiversity in Aotearoa. Our maritime climate is comparatively mild and already variable. As a result, organisms are expected to be well adapted to changing conditions.
Palaeo-ecological records suggest few species extinctions despite abrupt environmental change during the Quaternary period (from 2.5 million years ago to present). But past climate change provides an incomplete picture of contemporary change because it did not include human-induced threats.
Habitat loss and fragmentation, land‐use change and complex interactions between native species and introduced predators or invasive weeds all contribute to these threats.
How climate change affects biodiversity
Species respond to climate change by evolving physiological adjustments, moving to new habitats or, in the worst cases, becoming extinct. These responses then change ecosystem processes, including species interactions and ecosystem functions (such as carbon uptake and storage).
Methods for identifying climate change impacts are either empirical and observational (field studies and manipulative experiments) or mechanistic (ecophysiological models). Mechanistic approaches allow predictions of impacts under future climate scenarios. But linking species and ecosystem change directly to climate can be challenging in a complex world where multiple stressors are at play.
There are several well-known examples of climate change impacts on species endemic to Aotearoa. First, warming of tuatara eggs changes the sex ratio of hatchlings. Hotter conditions produce more males, potentially threatening long-term survival of small, isolated populations.
Second, mast seeding (years of unusually high production of seed) is highly responsive to temperature and mast events are likely to increase under future climate change. During mast years, the seeds provide more food for invasive species like rats or mice, their populations explode in response to the abundant food and then, when the seed resource is used up, they turn to other food sources such as invertebrates and bird eggs. This has major impacts on native ecosystems.
How masting plants respond to climate change is complex and depends on the species. The full influence of climate is still emerging.
Indirect effects of climate change
We identified a range of known and potential complex impacts of climate change in several ecosystems. The alpine zone is particularly vulnerable. Warming experiments showed rising temperatures extend the overlap between the flowering seasons of native alpine plants and invasive plants. This potentially increases competition for pollinators and could result in lower seed production.
Some large alpine birds, including the alpine parrot kea, will have fewer cool places to take refuge from invasive predators. This will cause local extinctions in a process know as “thermal squeeze”.
Small alpine lakes, known as tarns, are not well understood but are also likely to suffer from thermal squeeze and increased drought periods. Warmer temperatures may also allow Australian brown tree frogs to invade further into these sensitive systems.
Climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. In Aotearoa, culturally significant species such as tītī (sooty shearwater) and harakeke (flax) will be influenced by climate change.
The breeding success of tītī, which are harvested traditionally, is strongly influenced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. As ENSO intensifies under climate change, numbers of young surviving are decreasing. For harakeke, future climate projections predict changes in plant distribution, potentially making weaving materials unavailable to some hapū (subtribes).
Mātauranga, the Indigenous knowledge of Māori, provides insights on climate change that haven’t been captured in western science. For instance, the Māori calendar, maramataka, has been developed over centuries of observations.
Maramataka for each hāpu (subtribe) provide guidance for the timing of gathering mahinga kai (traditional food sources). This includes the gathering of fish and other seafood, planting of crops and harvesting food. Because this calendar is based on knowledge that has accrued over generations, some changes in timing and distributions due to environmental or climate change may be captured in these oral histories.
Much of the focus of climate change research has been in agricultural and other human landscapes but we need more effort to quantify the threat for our endemic systems.
On islands across the world, rising sea levels and more severe extreme weather events are threatening the survival of endemic species and ecosystems. We need to understand the complicated processes through which climate change interacts with other threats to ensure the success of conservation projects.
While we focused on terrestrial and freshwater systems, marine and near-shore ecosystems are also suffering because of ocean acidification, rising sea levels and marine heatwaves. These processes threaten marine productivity, fisheries and mahinga kai resources.
And for long-term conservation success, we need to consider both direct and indirect impacts of climate change on our unique species and ecosystems.
Electrifying advice from the Climate Change Commission
by Robert McLachlan
The Climate Change Commission’s draft advice on how to decarbonise New Zealand’s economy is refreshing, particularly as it calls on the government to start phasing out fossil fuels instead of relying on offsets and carbon trading.
Until now, New Zealand has relied heavily on its Emissions Trading Scheme, but the evidence is clear that it has failed to reduce emissions. The commission’s package includes carbon budgets out to 2035 and detailed pathways to achieve them across all sectors of the economy.
For the transport sector, which is responsible for half of New Zealand’s energy-related emissions, the commission suggests a sweeping set of changes to electrify the country’s car fleet and to replace imported fuels with local renewable electricity.
It’s exciting to see a national-level plan that actually cuts emissions. But it raises two questions: is it feasible, and is it the best or only option?
The commission calls for cuts in transport emissions of 47% by 2035, achieved by:
a rapid shift to electric vehicles, with the market share for light vehicles rising from 2% today to 50% in 2027
an end to imports of pure petrol or diesel cars by 2032, and a similar but later transition for trucks
the development of an integrated national transport network that reduces travel by private car
changes to urban planning leading to 7% less travel per person
the development of policies to increase walking, cycling, and public transport by 25%, 95% and 120% respectively by 2030
scaling up low-carbon fuels, such as biofuels, to 3% of all liquid fuels by 2035
some decarbonisation of the rail network, lifting rail’s share of freight from 16% to 20%, and more coastal shipping.
To achieve this rapid electrification, New Zealand would need to produce more renewable electricity. Only one large wind farm, the 840 GWh/year Turitea wind farm near Palmerston North, is currently under construction.
In the commission’s proposed scenarios, New Zealand would need another renewable electricity plant like this every year from now on. At the moment, New Zealand has only 690 MW of wind turbines, and no utility-scale solar generation. The industry would need to scale up considerably.
Other live issues are the planned 2024 closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, which would make a lot of renewable electricity available, and the NZ Battery pumped-hydro project.
The promise of deep cuts to fossil fuels
The proposed shift away from fossil fuels is clearly feasible technically, but would need a quick and radical change in policy. Unfortunately, New Zealand doesn’t have a good track record of carrying out the sweeping regulatory changes that will be needed.
Apart from the proposed import ban on petrol cars from 2032, the EV plan involves a system of subsidies and fuel efficiency standards. Last week, the government introduced a refreshed fuel efficiency standard, with a target of 105 gCO₂/km by 2025.
But the car industry appears to have won several concessions, including a halving of penalties (to NZ$50 per vehicle per gram of CO₂ over the target), a delay in the standard’s introduction until 2023 and a separate target for utes.
The EU did not begin to see rapid EV uptake until 2020, when a new 95 gCO₂/km target kicked in, along with fines of €100/gCO₂/km and generous incentives. Achieving the Norway-like transformation of the car fleet the commission envisages will likely require more incentives and stronger oversight of the market.
Is this the only way?
The commission’s plan doesn’t question the overall structure of the transport system. In the view of some critics, the present system is inequitable and disadvantages people who can’t or don’t want to drive, including children, older people and people living with disabilities.
The commission’s technical advisory panel included representatives from the car importing industry and other road transport groups, but no experts on walking, cycling, public transport, public health or urban planning.
The massive road-building programme undertaken by both National and Labour governments, set to continue far into the future, is not mentioned, despite considerable evidence that it increases transport demand, sprawl and emissions.
There is no requirement to reduce parking, a topic currently contested in urban forums and already being studied by the government. Nor are there any plans for passenger rail or improvements to inter-city public transport.
Changing the way cities grow
New Zealand’s housing crisis has already prompted a rewrite of urban plans throughout the country to enable higher densities, especially near transport hubs. The commission recommends that, before 2025, all levels of government should embed links between urban planning, design and transport so that communities have integrated and accessible transport options, including safe cycleways.
walking and cycling receive 20% of the transport capital expenditure
every local authority must develop a high-quality cycling policy, review road use and increase the number of children walking and cycling to school
new public transport infrastructure must receive twice the funding of any new roads
surburban and commuter rail is to be enhanced across the country, including high-speed intercity links.
You don’t need a complicated model to accept that these steps are more in tune with the required emission reductions.
Those who argue that infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet will not find much to agree with in the commission’s report. Other perspectives, such as those outlined in the recent book A Societal Transformation Scenario for Staying Below 1.5ºC critique the growth and technology biases in most climate scenarios.
Another model of the future could involve less energy, less travel and less consumption overall, but an equivalent or higher standard of living.
I don’t know Taupō well. Even though I stop off there from time to time, I’m always on the way to somewhere else. Usually Taupō means making a hot water puddle in the gritty sand followed by a swim in the lake, noticing with bemusement and resignation the traffic, the parasailing, and the hole-in-one game. Sometimes a random, generic motel. But this time the random motel was not at all generic.
Although right on the edge of town, the buildings were scattered far apart. There were typical 1970s “chalets” (i.e., DIY 4 x 2 carpentry), plus a strange assortment of structures from different periods. There was a large industrial warehouse and a deserted 500-seat bar and restaurant. (I later read that big acts like Prince Tui Teka played here in the 1970s.) Around the back there was a “historic” section, several crumbling structures of assorted age, some still occupied. Some looked like rough-sawn board-and-batten construction – original, or faux-heritage? There was a 2 x 3 metre “church”. I’m using quote marks a lot because it was hard to tell what anything was. One cottage had a photograph of Harry Lauder visiting in the 1920s.
It turned out to be the tattered remains of Taupō’s first hotel, The Glen, founded in 1869 by Edward Lofley to cater to the troops of the Armed Constabulary, posted there in the closing years of the New Zealand Wars. Lofley seems to have been a colourful character, but I’ll leave it to you to read up on him, or to watch the TVNZ documentary about the hotel, for we move on now to the Glen’s 1886 reincarnation as Joshua’s Spa Hotel. By the late 19th century the Spa had become one of the country’s premiere attractions, thanks to its many geysers, hot springs, and boiling mudpots. Its most famous sight was the Crow’s Nest Geyser, with its impressive cone (hence the name), size (spouting up to 30 metres), and picturesque location right on the banks of the Waikato.
Geysers at Taupō?
The Spa Geyser Basin once had ten active geysers, now all extinct. Geysers are rare globally. There are just five geyser fields worldwide, at Yellowstone (Wyoming, USA), Dolina Geizerov (Kamchatka, Russia), Taupō Volcanic Zone (New Zealand), El Tatio (Chile), and Iceland. Geysers are rare and, it transpires, fragile. Development has destroyed nearly all of New Zealand’s geysers. A review by Kenneth Barrick, geographer at the University of Alaska, lists 135 former New Zealand geysers, nearly all extinct due to development. There are just five large, reliable geysers left in the sole remaining geyser field at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, and one or two small, unreliable ones elsewhere.
Spa was the first to go. Lake Taupō was dammed in September 1941 to ensure a more reliable supply of water to downstream hydropower stations, and the riverbed permanently lowered. This killed the Crow’s Nest, which was already known to be susceptible to low river levels. Construction of the Wairakei geothermal power station in 1955 completed the job.
Nearby, Wairakei’s Geyser Valley was renamed Wairakei Thermal Valley after all 22 geysers became extinct in 1968 and the hot springs stopped flowing. Waiora Valley, the location of power station, was renamed Bore Valley. Karapiti (‘blow hole’), whose steam plume once guided visitors across the lake, was renamed Craters of the Moon. The drowning of the largest geyser field, at Orakei Korako, which once had 91 geysers including one of the highest in the world, is ‘remembered as one of the greatest environmental losses in the history of New Zealand’.
Geothermal development then paused for a few decades, as New Zealand focussed on a large-scale push into oil and gas. The next power station was completed in 1989. Because of the destruction at Wairakei, a site at Ohaaki with fewer hydrothermal features was chosen, although, ironically, this site had already been significantly degraded by hydro development in 1961. But there was one feature left:
The large Ohaaki Ngawha (boiling pool) with its clear, pale, turquoise-blue water and extensive white sinter terrace was described as “the most handsome pool in the whole thermal area”. When development commenced, the extraction of geothermal fluid made the water level in the Ohaaki Ngawha drop. This caused the partial collapse of the delicate sinter edge and the white silica formations weathered to a dull dirty grey. The sinter terrace is now cracking and has plants growing through it.
Even Whakarewarewa was nearly lost on not one but two separate occasions. The Rotorua Bathhouse (1908) was fortunately built at the opposite end of town, because of the supposedly more therapeutic waters there. Whakarewarewa’s geysers were safe for the time being. But some changes to local hydrothermal behaviour were already evident in the late 19th century, with geysers progressively faltering also in the 1940s. There were still sixteen geysers playing in 1969, but by the mid-80s this was down to four, and even Pōhutu, the largest, most reliable, and most famous geyser in the country, was beginning to weaken.
In 1986 the government revoked the local council’s authority over the geothermal resource, ordered the closure of all 120 bores within 1.5 km of Whakarewarewa, and applied steep royalties to those further away. What happened next will be familiar from other environmental battles:
Many Rotorua geothermal users were slow to adopt voluntary conservation measures because of perceived historic rights and resistance to change. Historically, access to Rotorua’s geothermal heat was essentially free, and use patterns developed into a tradition over a period of decades. The geothermal lifestyle attracted a self-selected group of committed adherents and defenders of the tradition. Even after the Government declared a ‘‘crisis,’’ the well closure was perceived as an unjustified taking of important aspects of Rotorua’s geothermal lifestyle. At the height of frustration, tensions in Rotorua reached near riot status.
Public resistance to the Government’s well-closure program was organized by the ‘‘Rotorua Geothermal Users Association.’’ Despite the friction between the local residents and the Government, there seemed to be mutual agreement on the need to preserve the remaining geysers. Nonetheless, debate raged on the appropriate degree of change, especially regarding domestic heating systems. Rotorua geothermal users cited scientific uncertainty and reminded the Government that Whakarewarewa underwent natural dormant phases, including a major period of decline in the early 1900s. Therefore, they argued that low rainfall rather than geothermal wells might be causing geyser decline.
Barrick concludes that ‘local adherents to the established use become dedicated advocates for the status quo, complete with organized resistance to change, and, ultimately, organized disenchantment with government remedies.’
Following the well closures there was a mixed pattern of partial recovery and continued decline. None of the large extinct geysers have resumed playing.
Of course, thermal tourism didn’t completely stop with the death of the Spa Geyser Basin, although that was probably a major factor in the sputtering decline of the Spa Hotel. (Every decade or so there is another attempt to revive it along the lines of the ultra-high-end lodge nearby.) You can see an engineered geyser at Wai-o-Tapu and bathe in engineered silica terraces at Wairakei. Even at Spa you can still bathe in natural hot pools at the edge of the Waikato River, recently upgraded (or, as my daughter put it, ‘ruined’) with toilets and a cafe.
So why was I so moved by this tale of environmental destruction? It’s hardly a unique story. The whole of New Zealand has been and continues to be heavily altered, with conservation biology routinely described as a ‘crisis discipline’. The interplay between development, environment, and tourism has been heavily contested for a long time.
I think one factor was that I stumbled on it suddenly and accidentally. The remaining geothermal attractions don’t hide the story but they don’t exactly emphasize it, either. Like many New Zealanders I grew up enjoying hot pools, and I still remember my first visit to Whakarewarewa. (I thought ‘Pohutugeyser’ was one word, like ‘pohutukawa’.) Psychologically, the sudden reveal meant that I wasn’t subjected to the shifting baseline phenomenon, in which a steadily degrading environment progressively and successively becomes the new normal. Geysers were (and still are) part of the New Zealand identity, so to discover that they had been so carelessly discarded was a shock.
Beyond identity and tourism, geyser basins, with their unique geology and their extreme temperatures, chemistry, and dynamics, are home to unique forms of life. The first high temperature bacteria, thermus aquaticus, was discovered at Yellowstone in 1965, and today forms the cornerstone of high-speed DNA sequencing. Numerous such thermophiles from several different kingdoms of life have since been found, some dating back to the origin of life on earth. Nevertheless, as Barrick remarks,
The positive benefits from national heritage status should not be underestimated. The evolving encoding of landscapes that have extraordinary natural history characteristics with importance as part of a nation’s collective ‘‘sense of community’’ has the power to inspire responsibility for enduring resource stewardship. In time, geyser preservation motivations based on national spirit can be transformed through altruism into global public goods held in trust for future generations.
To address climate change, we need to phase out the burning of fossil fuels. The largest share of fossil fuels is burnt in cars and trucks. So it seems clear that fossil-fuelled vehicles need to stop being designed, made, imported, and driven. But anyone who has visited a road or seen a car ad recently knows that that isn’t happening, or, if it is, it’s happening so imperceptibly slowly as to hardly make a difference.
In New Zealand the situation is particularly acute, as we are now very, very far down the path towards a system dominated by urban sprawl and private cars, with little regulation of either. Road transport emissions doubled between 1990 and 2018. In the US they rose 30% in the same period, and in the UK, just 6%, which campaigners still point out is woefully insufficient.
Soon we will start to take steps to turn this ship around. It may or may not be quick, it may or not be easy. But it’s probably not going to be both quick and easy. As plans start to crystallise, there is certain to be a lot of back-and-forth between different factions.
Let’s take a look at the protagonists.
In the green corner: the climate advocates.
There are hundreds of advocacy groups, but a good example is 1.5 Project, led by Paul Winton. He points out that to fulfil our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we need to cut emissions 60% by 2030. Many sectors (such as the dairy industry, which creates huge emissions burning coal and gas to dry milk into milk powder) already have transition plans in place, and, in any event, are valuable and productive industries. So he concludes that road transport has to be virtually emission-free by 2030.
His and similar voices are being heard. For example, Auckland and Wellington councils have set made climate goals that require road transport emissions to at least halve by 2030. But targets like this are very, very difficult to achieve. They would mean essentially no new fossil-fuels vehicles entering the fleet, starting immediately. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands are being imported every year, and people are buying them.
Passing to the red corner: the Labour government
The Government has a plan already prepared: the Clean Car Standard. It was developed and widely discussed in 2019 and taken into the 2020 election. It’s a fuel efficiency standard for new (or newly imported) vehicles, something that almost all developed countries have had for years, and that New Zealand would have had too in 2009, had not the incoming government of John Key blocked it. (You can read the official reasons in the cabinet papers; even in 2009 they must have seemed somewhat flimsy, and of course they have not stood the test of time.)
In the Standard as originally designed, the average fuel efficiency of all vehicles (of each importer) must meet a certain target that gets progressively more stringent. This was set at 161 gCO2/km in 2022, falling to 105 gCO2/km by 2025. The Standard was predicted to cut emissions by 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year (about 13% of road transport emissions) by 2030, for a net savings of $2.4 billion.
Per person, 1990
Per person, 2018
135 gCO2/km 20261
81 gCO2/km 20252
105 gCO2/km 20253
Road transport emissions compared. 1For cars and light trucks (i.e. utes) combined; Obama target was 117g. 2EU target for cars only. Target 125g for light trucks. 3Proposed in the Clean Car Standard for cars and light trucks. Current new light vehicles average 180 gCO2/km. 4For the entire current fleet including heavy trucks.
OK, 13% savings, that’s a bit less than we need, but, wait a minute, there’s another player to consider….
In the blue corner: the car industry
This is a massive industry. Something like $6 billion of new cars are sold every year, in part thanks to $600 million of advertising. They are represented by the MIA (Motor Industry Association, for sellers of new vehicles), the VIA (Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association, for sellers of used imports), and the MTA (all the above, plus resellers, petrol stations, and mechanics). Then there is the AA with 1.7 million members, half of all drivers in the country. I think it’s fair to say that they were all apoplectic about the government’s proposals.
You can read the MIA’s comments for yourself. They direct attention for emission reduction to agriculture, to the electricity sector, to the drivers of existing vehicles, and to the heavy vehicle sector – that is, to everywhere but the buyers of new cars, which is the area relevant to the MIA and to the plan itself. For the rise in land transport emissions, they blame previous governments, used vehicle importers, the lack of vehicle manufacturers in New Zealand, and buyers (for preferring utes and SUVs). They also blame external consultants and would prefer the industry to analyse itself. Unlike the MIA, the AA does not blame car buyers (i.e., its members). However, they do blame car manufacturers for making larger vehicles, and Australia for having no fuel efficiency standard. They state, “The principal reason for the growth in transport carbon emissions is nothing to do with vehicle efficiency. It has been driven by population growth.” This does not seem to be the whole story. In the three years 2014–2017, emissions of light vehicles rose 13.7% while population rose 5.7%.
Neither the AA nor the MIA accepts any responsibility for the rise in land transport emissions, despite the fact that both organisations are heavily involved in it, the AA through its statutory role and through lobbying for more roads and favourable treatment for drivers, and the MIA through supplying vehicles and (especially) through advertising. Perhaps not surprisingly, the MIA does not favour any measure that impacts on the demand or supply of vehicles – the exact area in which its members operate. The AA says, “Lacking alternatives, much of New Zealand relies on motorised transport” – a situation due in part to the activities of the AA itself.
Both submissions say they recognise the need to reduce emissions from land transport, but neither organisation has shown much enthusiasm for the issue until now. As late as 2017 the AA were recommending ridiculously inadequate measures like educating people to drive more efficiently. The MIA’s industry-led proposal was found in 2008 to be overly complex and to have costs that exceeded its benefits. After it was dropped they don’t seem to have done anything on this issue until now. The MIA submission says they favour increased fuel taxes – how much, how often, will they tell their members and customers? More likely, they are saying this because they know it will go nowhere.
Of course, these groups know now that fuel efficiency standards are actually coming. Should they cooperate in good faith, or should they try and distract and confuse the issue? Unfortunately, the MIA seems to have decided on the second strategy for the time being. A few days ago they launched their own proposal, to drop the standards entirely in favour of a feebate. The MIA’s feebate scheme exempts all vehicles between 100 and 230 gCO2/km (namely, the vast majority of all sales) entirely. They wouldn’t mind if the government chipped in to the subsidy part of the scheme as well, just to sweeten the deal.
But we’re not done, because, look over there… the public!
The public are perhaps the big unknown here. Any why shouldn’t we be? We hold diverse and often contradictory attitudes and behaviours. We can be fickle.
We say that we’re getting more and more concerned about climate change, and three-quarters want the government to act more strongly on climate.
But that’s easy to say. How would people really react if strong measures were introduced suddenly? Talk-back was running hot over Auckland’s 10c fuel surcharge, introduced in 2018, and that was enough to kill its roll-out elsewhere in the country.
I don’t think the Clean Car Standard as proposed will provoke too much unrest. It’s a gentle change, phased in gradually over a period of years. All economic and climate arguments support it. It fits the call for a “careful revolution”, in the words of David Hall. On the other hand, cars are emotional objects, and the National Party saw value in attacking the proposal last year in an ad that was later found to be misleading.
Climate change minister James Shaw said, “transport [emissions] have just gone up and up and up because we fell in love with the Ford Ranger” (a sound-bite I heard repeated on talk-back radio). The Ford Ranger, of which 10,000 are sold every year in New Zealand compared to 50,000 in the whole of Europe. “A pickup designed to last forever – just when its time is running out,” in the words of one review.
Perhaps the reason that the different parties are sounding so different here is that they have different views on the transport system as a whole. The car industry see the system as a free market, almost frozen in time, with themselves being minutely attuned to consumer preferences. The responsibility for emissions, if it lies anywhere, falls on each individual driver (or buyer).
Another view is that the entire transport system has built up over many decades as the collective result of many decisions by car manufacturers, oil companies, urban planners, central and local governments and many different factions within the public – including individuals, who can only make choices from those that are available to them. Responsibility for emissions is shared right across the spectrum.
In climate circles there is a lot of talk of the need for a ‘just transition’. This originally meant taking into account the needs of workers in the coal, oil, and gas industries, which necessarily face major disruption; it can also mean making sure that inequality is not increased by changes such as carbon taxes. I suppose it could at a stretch refer to the makers and sellers of fossil-fuelled cars. But in New Zealand’s case we only have the sellers, not the makers, so there is less potential for an industrial hit. Second, some car companies have been dealing with emissions much more openly and positively than others. Shouldn’t they reap the rewards? Protecting the laggards just risks even more delay. Finally, I don’t think the industry as a whole really has anything to fear from the Clean Car Standard.
Understanding climate change means knowing that road transport emissions have to come down. There’s a steady, sensible way to do start doing it. We should do it and then, once we’ve got the hang of it, work out the next step. And the car industry should embrace it as if its life depended on it.
Following this week’s climate emergency declaration, New Zealand will have to face up to the fact it has one of the worst climate records of industrialised nations. Of 43 industrialised countries, 31 are experiencing a drop in emissions. But 12 have seen net emissions increase between 1990 and 2018, and New Zealand is near the top of this group.
As part of the Paris Agreement, countries were asked to submit emissions reduction targets. These Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are a measure of a nation’s commitment to contribute to the goal of limiting warming to well below 2℃. New Zealand submitted its NDC in 2015, with a headline target of bringing emissions down over the coming decade to 30% below 2005 levels. But this is not what it seems. New Zealand’s NDC confuses the issue by adopting a target of net emissions in 2030 compared to a baseline of gross emissions in 2005. This target actually allows New Zealand to increase net emissions.
Last year, New Zealand introduced the Zero Carbon Act, making it one of few countries to have a zero-emissions goal enshrined in law. But current short-term policies do not yet keep up with the ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Fair and ambitious climate action
It was clear at the time of the Paris Agreement that countries’ initial targets would be woefully insufficient for limiting warming to well below 2℃. Therefore, the agreement requires countries to show a “progression over time” to reflect each country’s “highest possible ambition”.
In addition to increasingly more ambitious targets, countries were also asked to explain why their intended contribution to the common aim was fair. Many did so, but not New Zealand. Some countries argued their contribution was fair because their total share of global emissions was small. Others said their per-capita emissions were small, while some high-emitting nations pointed out their per-capita emissions were falling. If those arguments weren’t applicable, some countries said it was particularly hard for them to reduce emissions, so their fair share should be smaller.
As any child in the playground complaining “That’s not fair!” would recognise, these are just self-serving excuses for inaction, rather than justifiable bases for determining fairness.
Climate Action Tracker argues an approach is fair if it would lead to the outcomes agreed in Paris, were it to be followed by all countries. On that basis, New Zealand’s NDC was rated insufficient, consistent with a world that would be 3℃ warmer.
The Climate Equity Reference Project attempts to determine universally agreed criteria of fairness, based on UN agreements and on discussions with social, environmental, development and faith groups around the world. They found there should be a component of historical responsibility — who got us into this mess, and who benefited from it?
This can be assessed by cumulative emissions from some starting point, such as 1850 or 1950. There should also be an element based on a country’s ability to act, assessed by GDP above a certain threshold. Under this approach, New Zealand’s target would need to be for net emissions to reach zero by 2030, and to go negative after that by storing carbon and by investing in emission reductions in other countries. These conclusions were recently endorsed in a detailed study by Oxfam NZ.
Zero net emissions by 2030 is just not possible. New Zealand hasn’t even started reducing emissions yet.
Wealthy nations should shoulder more responsibility
So what can you do when you’ve agreed to something that you can’t achieve? The first step has to be to acknowledge the situation and to determine a fair contribution. New Zealand hasn’t done that yet — our present NDC (updated in April 2020 to reflect the Zero Carbon Act) does not mention fairness. The second step is to work out the highest possible ambition. For example, New Zealand could follow the EU lead of cutting emissions by a further 42–48% in the next decade.
The Climate Change Commission, set up under the Zero Carbon Act, gives New Zealand a framework for addressing this. The commission is expected to release a consultation document in February, reviewing the NDC and preparing emissions budgets out to 2035. The commission’s chair, Rod Carr, has acknowledged the importance of fairness in determining the NDC, saying:
I think fair share is a really good conversation for New Zealanders to have […] We’re a wealthy, developed nation. The wealthy nations, with the higher incomes per capita, do have a responsibility for doing more than the average.
The commission will also advise on how much of New Zealand’s contribution should be met domestically or internationally, and how much should be met by planting trees versus actually reducing emissions. The latter is already a contentious issue, as the payments for “carbon farming” (which New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme, uniquely in the world, includes) are leading to unrest in the farming and environment sectors.
If people are paid to store carbon in trees today, who bears the responsibility for maintaining that store indefinitely, and who bears the risk should it fail?
Climate change minister James Shaw has acknowledged the present target is weak, compared to what the US, EU and China are now considering, and that he is expecting a stronger target to be recommended by the commission next year.
New Zealand has put in place new institutions and mechanisms to cut emissions and to phase out fossil fuels. Now, we put them to work.
Climate change was a small but perceptible part of the recent election. On climate change, Labour pointed proudly to their record of legislating for net zero emissions by 2050 (nicknamed the ‘Zero Carbon Act’), establishing a Climate Change Commission to set carbon budgets and advise the government, and for strengthening the Emissions Trading Scheme by adding a falling cap on emissions.
But on closer inspection, all is not well. There is a serious gap between words and actions, the same gap that bedevils climate action in many countries. In fact, Climate Action Tracker rates New Zealand’s actions as ‘insufficient’, and consistent with a +3ºC world. How can this be?
Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high, at 16 tCO2e. Gross emissions are up 24% on 1990 levels, and have not reduced in the entire 17-year operation of climate legislation. Transport emissions have doubled since 1990; New Zealand now has the highest vehicle ownership rate in the world, and recent years have seen the start of a large-scale motorway-building programme, supported by both major political parties. The Emissions Trading Scheme suffers from a carbon price that is too low ($35/t) to cut emissions, combined with too little coverage – export industries are largely exempt.
We often hear that New Zealand has a lot of renewable electricity. Electricity generation in 2019 was 58% hydro, 17% geothermal, 5% wind, 1% biomass, 13% gas, and 5% coal. Sounds pretty good, right? And yet in a time of climate crisis and supposed action, no fossil fuel plants have closed since 2015, and no new wind farms have been completed since 2014 (although activity is now starting up again).
Clearly something has to give at some point. That point could come next year, after the Climate Change Commission releases their first major advice in May 2021. But into this mix the Labour Party has introduced two striking election policies: one, to commit to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and two, to fund a study and initial work on a stupendously large pumped hydro power station at Lake Onslow in the South Island.
For the high renewables percentage masks some fundamental problems with the system. The hydro lakes are not large, containing just 4 TWh of storage in a country with annual electricity consumption of 40 TWh. It only takes a few months of low rainfall to send prices and emissions higher. Even worse, the lakes are fed by snowmelt in spring. This creates an imbalance of about 2 TWh between hydro supply (highest in spring and summer) and demand (highest in winter), currently covered by fossil fuels. The imbalance can also lead to the lakes overflowing, wasting energy. Finally, the whole country faces a ‘dry year risk’. Every 5 or 10 years supply is unusually short, and households and industries are asked to save electricity. This risk is permanently priced in.
And that’s just the present situation. To decarbonize the whole economy will require a lot more electricity. Hydro is largely maxed out. There is scope for more geothermal energy, although the best sites have been built already, and most fields are not truly low-carbon or indefinitely sustainable – typically plants are designed to deplete the field over 50 to 100 years. That leaves solar and wind.
Enter the nation-sized battery. Engineers know well that pumped hydro is overwhelmingly likely to provide the majority of energy storage in decades to come, and will be needed to balance intermittent renewables. But most systems contain only a few hours or days of storage. The Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Virginia has a large capacity of 3 GW. But with its 24 GWh of storage, it can only run flat out for 8 hours.
The opportunity at Lake Onslow is due to the combination of demand, outlined above, and the special geography of the region. The storage lake would be created with an earth dam with an 80 metre operating range at a large, gently-sloping, high-altitude schist basin, connected to another lake (part of the existing hydro system) 700 metres below, via a 20-kilometre tunnel. In one scenario, 1.2 GW of generation is matched to 5 TWh of storage, more than doubling the capacity of the entire hydro system of the country. It could run continuously for six months. The largest configuration has up to 12 TWh of storage.
Proponents describe numerous benefits of the Lake Onslow pumped hydro station, first proposed by Earl Bardsley in 2005. It would balance a large amount of new wind and solar on time scales of hours. It would provide seasonal balancing on a scale of months. It would prevent spilling in the rest of the system and allow the other lakes to maintain more constant levels. It would allow decarbonization of the electricity grid, and of a lot of industrial process heat use and transport as well. The cost (perhaps $4 billion) could add 0.5c/kWh to all other electricity; but it’s possible that, overall, the net cost of electricity would be lowered. It would make private investment in new wind and solar more attractive, by putting a floor on spot prices. Every five or ten years, when a dry year comes along, the full capacity of the lake would be called into use.
If pumped hydro is such a great idea, and is urgently needed for the future worldwide, why isn’t it happening already? A 2016 review by Edward Barbour and others points to some of the problems. Consider the example of Germany. Germany has seen a rapid expansion of renewables, to the point where electricity generation is now 29% from wind and 8% from solar. That should have created an ideal environment for pumped hydro. Instead, the opposite happened. Declining wholesale prices for electricity during the daytime reduced the opportunity to buy low (at night) and sell high (during the day), to the point where even existing pumped hydro facilities became unprofitable and closed.
The Barbour study found that 95% of pumped hydro stations are publicly owned or operate in monopoly conditions. The authors write:
A major reason for this is thought to be due to the regulatory and financial uncertainty surrounding the integration of Pumped Hydro Energy Storage into liberalised electricity markets, which increases the risk, without providing the certainty of rewards over longer-time frames.
Regulators have struggled to find a model that balances the benefits to consumers, to the private and publicly owned generators and retailers, and to the environment, all on different time scales. This could justify direct public capital investment, especially at a time when governments are seeking labour-intensive, ‘green rebuild’ projects, and can borrow for close to nothing. It also points to a need to modify the market structure in the future to incorporate pumped hydro.
However, there is a political dimension to the Lake Onslow project too, especially relevant at election time. “100% renewable” is a catchy slogan; a large civil engineering project doesn’t threaten anyone’s lifestyle today, the way a hefty carbon tax or regulation of car sales might. Climate politics requires gaining support for actions today whose benefits extend far into the future.
Ian Mason is Research Fellow in Energy Engineering and Carbon Management and Director of the Renewable Energy Programme at the University of Canterbury. A version of this article appeared first at RenewEconomy.
At an industrial park in Herøya, south of Oslo, Norway, a site has been cleared for the construction by Norsk E-fuel of a factory that will produce the world’s first climate-neutral jet fuel on a large scale. By 2026 the plant will be producing 100 million litres of aviation kerosene a year, enough to cut emissions by 200,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.
Although the scale is new, the building blocks of the technology are not. Electricity from hydropower (in commercial use since the 1880s) is passed through water to produce hydrogen, a process discovered in 1800. The hydrogen is reacted with carbon dioxide in variants of the Fischer–Tropsch process, widely used since the 1920s, to produce liquid fuels including jet kerosene. The carbon dioxide supply is the most innovative part – most commercial production today comes from burning fossil fuels, which is of course not climate neutral. Instead, it will be captured directly from the air by Climeworks, a company who have been doing just that since 2017.
This synthetic jet fuel, called Power-to-Liquid or e-fuel, is already approved for use in current aeroplanes.
If it’s all so simple, and the technology is ready to go, why isn’t it being used already?
From an economic point of view, it comes down to cost. The industry needs to grow in order to achieve economies of scale, and also so that costs can reduce over time by learning from experience. That’s the standard picture of technological spread, from phones to solar panels. But it can’t get started, because it can’t compete on price with fossil fuels. Kerosene is cheap, and even under optimistic assumptions on the availability of cheap renewable electricity, e-fuels will still cost twice as much by 2050.
However, we can’t wait for 2050. Until Covid-19, global aviation was growing strongly, having doubled in the past decade. It was projected by the industry body IATA to triple further by 2040. In fact, by 2050 aviation could be using all of the available carbon emissions available under a 1.5ºC scenario. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will require strong action on aviation well before 2050.
This growth has been fueled by a concerted effort from the aviation and tourist industries, supported by governments (who often own airlines and airports and see aviation as a tool for growth) and international bodies like the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation and the World Tourism Organisation. As a result, jet fuel is untaxed, international airfares attract no sales tax or carbon tax, and international aviation emissions are not yet part of national targets under the Paris Agreement.
Furthermore, modelling by Paul Peeters of Breda University finds that standard methods of reducing demand, such as very steep carbon taxes and ticket surcharges, can’t do the job by themselves. Economic growth and the increasing comfort and convenience of long-distance air travel will still lead to overall growth. In addition, the industry is likely to vigorously resist any extra charges, or indeed any attempt to reduce demand at all. They can do this quite easily because positive action requires international cooperation.
In an impasse like this, something has to break. E-fuels offer a way forward. They increase the cost of travel and reduce emissions at the source. But to expand beyond their first trial facility, they need help. Climate advocates, some tourist bodies, and the e-fuel industry are calling for a tax on jet fuel, a mandated e-fuel requirement (for example, a 10% blend by 2030), and direct investment by governments. Support for large quantities of renewable electricity is also needed.
Climate advocates might be wary at this point, and they would be right. Aviation, like many other industries, has long been guilty of selling stopgaps and technological smoke-and-mirrors ‘solutions’. For decades these have failed to come to pass, because there was not enough incentive from industry, governments, and the public to push them forward. Some have been a deliberate delaying tactic: Leave us alone, we’ve got this. Meanwhile, most of the money goes into developing marginally more efficient fossil fuel-burning machines and promoting growth.
So far, a key stumbling block has been the lack of widespread acceptance in the industry that emissions need to start decreasing now, and to eventually be eliminated. The challenges are not really technological or economic, they’re social.
The aviation industry is now in an unparalleled crisis, although it will surely survive in some form. The industry is vital to New Zealand. Although we may not return to the days when 33 different airlines flew here, Air New Zealand itself may well emerge relatively stronger. It’s less indebted than many airlines, it has long been focused on sustainability, and it has government backing and a strong domestic market. But, whatever the pace of the recovery, environmental concerns about aviation emissions are not going to go away. New Zealand’s potential for renewable energy and our early steps towards green hydrogen (made from water and renewable electricity) put us in a promising position to develop e-fuels.
The Covid-19 pandemic gives us a breathing space, a time to reflect and to plan. A dangerously unsustainable industry can acknowledge that it needs to set out on a better path. We can ensure that future investments, and bailouts, lead to genuine emission reductions and that aviation plays a fair part in a more balanced and sustainable world.
This article appeared first in the New Zealand Herald. Read the original article.
New Zealanders are polarised on climate change policy, according to a recent Stuff/Massey University survey of 55,000 readers. This puts the two major political parties in a difficult position as they seek options that are credible yet appealing to voters.
Just 30% of Labour voters and 22% of National voters think the country is “more or less on the right path” on climate action.
The majority of voters on one side of the political spectrum wants to see “urgent action and radical change”, while at the other end most recommend caution and scepticism.
The survey helps explain the deep distrust climate advocates have for the National Party, and their demands for bolder choices from Labour.
The party has dropped the electric car rebate, which the National Party has attacked on the grounds it could increase the price of popular vehicles. A similar approach worked for the Australian Liberal Party in 2019.
The Green Party would go further. While also promising 100% renewable electricity by 2030, the party promotes home solar and insulation and community clean energy. More boldly, it would immediately ban new fossil-fuelled industrial boilers and end industrial coal use by 2030 and gas by 2035. It would prioritise free public transport for under-18s, ban petrol car imports from 2030 and create a NZ$1.5 billion cycleway fund.
The National Party has released its electric vehicle policy, with a target of 80,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2023 (up from 16,000 now). It would exempt these vehicles from fringe benefit tax until 2025 and from road user charges until at least 2023 to encourage uptake by commercial fleets. It would also target a third of government vehicles to be electric by 2023 and allow electric vehicles to use bus and carpool lanes. The last point has been criticised for impeding the flow of buses.
On the other hand, National’s climate spokesperson, Scott Simpson, has called the party a “broad church” and pledged to amend the Zero Carbon Act to emphasise that food production should not be sacrificed for climate goals.
The ACT Party, which on current polling would increase from one to ten MPs, was the only party to oppose the Zero Carbon Act. It now proposes repealing the act and tying the price of carbon to that of New Zealand’s five top trading partners.
What a difference three years make
At the time of New Zealand’s last general election in September 2017, Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike 4 Climate movements did not yet exist. Greta Thunberg was unknown to the world.
Now climate activism has increased globally. Climate-change impacts, including temperature records of 38℃ in northern Siberia to 54℃ in Death Valley, have attracted widespread attention. Orange skies in San Francisco are a reminder of apocalyptic Australian bushfires less than a year ago.
There are also signs of bolder climate action that may fulfil the declarations of the Paris Agreement. In the European Union, negotiations are under way to cut 2030 emissions to 40-45% of 1990 levels. This target would require halving emissions in the next decade. In the US, the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has a US$2 trillion proposal for rapid decarbonisation. Ireland’s new government has agreed to emission cuts of 7% per year. China has pledged to be carbon-neutral before 2060. In New Zealand, both Auckland and Wellington councils have released highly ambitious climate plans that will require sweeping changes to housing and transport.
But this year’s New Zealand general election won’t be about climate change. The COVID-19 crisis and the high level of uncertainty about economic recovery and employment have made issues of leadership, trust and party branding more important than ever.
It could decarbonise not just all electricity generation, but a lot of industrial process heat and transport as well. It would address the seasonal imbalance between lake inflows and electricity demand, and protect against dry years. But it’s also a traditional civil engineering project far in the future and doesn’t threaten anybody’s lifestyle today.
In New Zealand, as elsewhere, climate politics means finding support for actions now whose benefits extend far into the future.