Casting around for a net effect

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
The path to a carbon-neutral future will require radical change and vigorous action, writes Colin Campbell-Hunt.

The pace of climate-change action is picking up. A couple of years ago, prior to the Paris accord, all talk was of targets and "intended nationally determined contributions".

Colin Campbell-Hunt
Colin Campbell-Hunt.

Now we are increasingly seeing plans of how we are going to get these targets met.

Just last month, a report was released on four scenarios — four alternative pathways — whereby New Zealand might reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, three of them achieving zero net emissions by the second half of the century, and one of these achieving zero net emissions by 2050. The report Net Zero in 2050 was commissioned by a cross-party group of 35 MPs and launched at a special session of Parliament that you can watch online  (search for Net Zero in New Zealand). This is just the kind of unified political commitment that we need to have if we are going to make quick progress in transitioning to a low-carbon future. True, the initiative has not come from the government of the day, and was funded in large part from private sources, saliently Sir Stephen Tindall, so we cannot yet say that our government is rising to meet its responsibilities to future generations. But they will (they must), and this report is a helpful guide to what will be involved.

The first conclusion, from the report’s first scenario "Off Track New Zealand", is that even aggressive roll-out of current technologies (for example, 85%  of light vehicles electrified by 2050) will not be enough to get us to a net zero future. To get on track to net zero emissions, the report assesses two more alternatives: improved technology (the "Innovative New Zealand" scenario), and, failing that, aggressive offsetting of emissions through extensive afforestation (the "Resourceful New Zealand" scenario). Both of these include substantial reduction in pastoral agriculture,  animal numbers at least 20%  lower than today and a more diverse portfolio of low-carbon land-based industries. In the Resourceful New Zealand scenario, there would be 1.6 million hectares of new forest planting. These scenarios achieve reductions in emissions of 65-80%  below current levels, and set us on course for net zero emissions in the second half of the century. But even these substantial changes to our current land use strategies do not reach the net zero target by 2050, which comes only by combining elements of both in an unnamed scenario four.

Unwelcome though these conclusions may be for the clear conclusion that substantial land-use change is going to be needed, strategic investors in land-based industries will be grateful for the warning. I am constantly reminded of the experience of businesses during New Zealand’s opening up to international trade  30 years ago. The ones that survived saw the change coming and were ready when it came.

Back in the mid-1980s, it was pressure from international competition that enforced changes upon our business community. It seems that something similar may well happen now. In March of this year Germany’s Environment Agency released a compilation of GHG-reduction scenarios produced by six European countries: France, Germany, the United Kingdom , Italy, Poland, and Sweden.  With the exception of Poland, all reduce annual emissions to about 1 tonne per head of population by 2050, and for the UK to zero. Greenhouse gases are reduced by between 84% and 100%, and nearly all electricity production is from renewables. (Poland’s ambitions are much more modest and GHG emissions are only reduced by 63%  to five tonnes per head in 2050. Only Poland includes nuclear power in its energy scenarios.)

Although agriculture is a far less important source of GHG emissions in Europe than it is in New Zealand — typically about 10%  of total against our 50% — these European scenarios nonetheless are planning on significant change in their land-use industries. In the UK for example, agricultural GHG emissions are reduced by 73%, driven in part by radical changes in diet away from meat and dairy products, the latter falling by  more than 90%  by 2050. The UK scenarios explicitly reject the option of importing food products from offshore, and these are more than halved in order to discourage agricultural emissions offshore. Less ambitious, but broadly similar strategies are being considered in France and Germany also.

It seems that we would be unwise to assume that New Zealand will be allowed to continue its present role as a carbon-intensive provider of protein to international markets, certainly not at present levels. As in the mid-1980s, it may be that pressure from our trading partners will enforce the radical and challenging changes that our own carbon-reducing strategies suggest we must face if we are to avoid the dislocations that climate change can impose on future generations of Kiwis.

- Colin Campbell-Hunt is an emeritus professor at the CSAFE Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability. 


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