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NZ needs more science, more trees, fewer beasts to beat carbon emissions

Tuesday 21st March 2017

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  A combination of technology breakthroughs, much more plantation forestry, and a big switch away from pastoral, particularly dairy farming, are identified as the key elements of any approach New Zealand takes to reducing its carbon emissions to a net zero level, according to a new report sponsored by the New Zealand chapter of GLOBE, a multi-party, global parliamentary grouping.

On current policy settings, the report by London-based Vivid Economics says New Zealand will remain ‘off track’ to meet its climate change policy commitments.

The ‘Net Zero in New Zealand’ is Vivid's second report on this country. It was behind the 2012 report for the green business group, Pure Advantage.

The report coincides with today’s release of a report card on New Zealand’s environmental performance from the OECD, which also highlights emerging constraints on the country’s agricultural capacity, particularly the impact of further expansion of dairying, as well as shortcomings in its urban planning regime and urgent need to implement announced policies to deal with freshwater quality improvement. 

Early reporting suggested Vivid was urging the culling of the national dairy herd by up to 30 percent, but its managing director, John Ward, said any such adjustment would be of long term changes in land use and that the report aimed to show scenarios rather than hard and fast predictions about the future.

It poses two key scenarios -  "Innovative NZ" and "Resourceful NZ" - as poles between which the future might play out. The Innovative scenario delivers more emissions reduction gains through scientific discoveries, such as a vaccine to lower methane emissions from cows, while the Resourceful scenario assumes a doubling in plantation forestry and reversion to native bush of currently marginal, eroded land.

Among the report's main conclusions is that "it is possible for New Zealand to move onto a pathway consistent with domestic net zero emissions in the second half of the century, but only if it alters its land-use patterns".

There was an "acute need" to upgrade the quality of energy and land-use modelling tools to help support a plan to achieve low carbon emissions.

New Zealand's already high level of renewable electricity generation made it unusual for a developed country, with most reducing electricity generation emissions as their earliest priority.

However, there was a major opportunity to electrify as much of the public, private and freight transport as possible to substantially reduce carbon emissions from vehicles and to do the same for the production of low-grade industrial heat.

The country would have choices as it moved towards to "net zero-consistent trajectory", including "the extent to which it is able to make use of new technologies and the extent to which it needs to embark upon substantial afforestation".

"With some constraints, there will be an opportunity to flexibly adjust the rate of afforestation as the pace of new technological development and deployment becomes clearer."

"If it chooses to substantially afforest and it is fortunate enough to benefit from the extensive availability of new technologies, it could be possible for the country to achieve domestic net zero emissions by 2050," says Vivid. However, forest planting would only be a useful approach until around mid-century.

"In the second half of the century alternative strategies will be needed," the report says, recommending the development of "a trajectory for emissions price policy values, to apply to all government assessments and analyses".

Far higher carbon prices than today's $17-plus would be required if the emissions trading scheme was to start changing investment and public behaviour and was necessary to prevent the potential for "asset-stranding" where carbon prices render some industries unviable.

The report raises the significant potential contribution to lower emissions if the country's aluminium smelter, steel producers and oil refinery were to cease operations, but does not recommend this or include those outcomes in its scenarios.

Vivid also notes that any such policy would be at risk to reduced agricultural output from New Zealand being replaced by another country at no guaranteed climate change gain.

It also urged political parties to articulate areas of common agreement on climate policy and the creation of an independent climate change institution to lead policy-making.

Green MP and former diplomat Kennedy Graham has been a prime mover in establishing GLOBE in New Zealand, with members from across the Parliament, including the National, NZ First, Act, United Future, Maori and Labour parties.

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