NZ in 2035: Is this what our clean, green future looks like?

A 400-page masterplan delivered by New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission dreams of a decade of radical transformation. Now politicians must decide if they want it to be a reality, as Jamie Morton reports.

Here’s a few things we can expect by the year 2035.

Children born on this day will be halfway through their first year of high school.

Pink Floyd’s classic long-player Wish You Were Here will turn 60.

If the band’s members are still alive, like many Baby Boomers, they’ll be in their 90s.

Hollywood star Brad Pitt will be in his early 70s.

Pop singer Lorde will be nearing 40.

Nasa could be landing astronauts on Mars and the moon could have its own lunar base.

New Zealand, if one throwaway prediction by Martin Snedden comes to pass, could again be hosting the Rugby World Cup.

Here are some other things we might imagine.

The sight of hundreds of freshly imported petrol and diesel-powered cars, utes and SUVs lining Auckland’s docks will be a thing of the past.

Instead, those neat rows of vehicles will be electric vehicles – by now making up virtually all of the cars we ship into the country.

Huntly Power Station will have stopped burning coal, and the Tiwai Point Aluminium Point will have shut down completely, about halfway through the previous decade.

If scientists haven’t yet found a way to suppress the methane sheep and cows belch out, there will be far fewer roaming our pastures.

There will be an extra 380,000ha of plantation forest – that’s roughly the combined urban areas of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Hamilton, Tauranga, Palmerston North and Taupō – spread across the land.

Many more of our homes will be warmer, dryer and cleaner – and no longer heated by gas.

In all, New Zealand will be pumping about 42 per cent fewer climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than it was back in 2019.

We’ll be well on track to the mid-century goal we set when Parliament passed the Zero Carbon Act, and no longer a laggard amid the global effort to cut emissions.

That’s all, of course, if the Government has opted to pick up and run with the road map the Climate Change Commission has just conveniently – or perhaps inconveniently –handed it.

Asked to sketch out a nation transformed, Climate Change Minister James Shaw describes cities filled with denser housing, laid out better to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians, and more buses moving about our streets.

“Over coming years, as you’re walking around your neighbourhood, you’ll see probably a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of rooftop solar panels.”

Shaw pictures more wind turbines looming above our rural landscapes, and stands of native trees and riparian planting greening our farmland.

How does this low-carbon utopia compare with New Zealand today?

Though we contribute less than 0.3 per cent of the planet’s emissions, we embarrassingly have the 12th highest level of emissions per capita in the developed world.

Transport makes up just over a third of our long-lived greenhouse gases – and emissions from road transport, particularly, have shot up by 100 per cent since 1990.

That shouldn’t be surprising given there are now more of us, we drive more alone, as well as further, and our country has one of the oldest fleets in the OECD.

We’ve either failed to understand – or simply ignored the fact – that building more roads doesn’t reduce demand, but induces it.

But the biggest factor that makes our greenhouse gas profile unique in the world is agriculture.

It accounts for around half of our emissions pie because of its dominance, and our relatively small population and level of manufacturing.

Three-quarters of the sector’s emissions come from methane and though farmers have made gains in limiting their footprint, those levels are still rising.

Because agricultural emissions are largely driven by the amount of feed eaten by animals, the sector faces the quandary of trying to slash emissions without sacrificing the production that much of our economy relies on.

The other big piece of the pie is energy, which might be tackled more easily through banning most industrial coal burners – as the Government has already committed to – and ramping up renewable sources like geothermal, solar, wind, hydro and bio-energy.

Ultimately, the fact remains that New Zealand is well off track – by millions of tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent – to fit in with the global aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5C.

That message wouldn’t have surprised anyone in Government when the commission turned in its draft report at the end of January, nor would its warning that we couldn’t keep planting our way out of making hard steps.

Even in the six months since then, the road forward has become much steeper.

The commission’s final report, drawing on updated data and modelling, shows the country needs to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 63 per cent – and biogenic methane by 17 per cent – by 2035.

That could come, the commission recommends, in three five-year budgets – each with their own targets – requiring a scale of change never seen before.

But its main roadmap for each major sector – or “demonstration pathways” as it dubsthem – could help us visualise what that 14-year journey will look like.

Part of its vision for transport is predicated on Kiwis travelling less, or over shorter distances, and using public transport, walking or cycling.

That doesn’t force us all out of our cars: by 2035, it assumes the national “mode share” of the distance travelled through these low-emissions options will have risen from 6 per cent in 2019, to just 14 per cent.

But the shift will happen sharpest in big cities: the share of public transport travel will have to triple in Auckland this decade, and grow by around 60 per cent in Wellington.

Another chunk of the transport transformation puts EVs front and centre.

This might seem fanciful, given there are still fewer than 30,000 of them on our roads today, and that, compared with their petrol-powered counterparts, they cost an average extra $16,000 upfront.

Yet about $11,000 of that extra price is in the cost of the battery, which is projected to halve in this decade alone.

As early as 2031, the commission assumes they will reach price parity with new petrol cars.

The modelling further assumes that EVs will make up nearly half of the light vehicles we import by 2029 – and nearly all of them six years after.

At the same time, imports of used petrol and diesel cars will be wound down by 2032 – followed by a ban on new ones by 2035.

By then, about 36 per cent of the cars on our roads will be electric, and nearly half our travel in light vehicles will be in one of them.

The switch also applies to bigger vehicles: 95 per cent of imported medium trucks, and 72 per cent of heavy ones, will have to be electric within 14 years.

Policy-wise, there’s a long way to go – the Government has only just fully committed to electrifying its own fleet, and an intriguing “Clean Car Discount” funded in last month’s Budget is yet to be announced.

As for agriculture, new methane-busting technology will help, but the commission has found that the required cuts can still be made without it.

It says farm practice changes could allow New Zealand to slash its dairy herd by 13 per cent this decade, while maintaining roughly the same levels of projected milk production.

Sheep and beef animal numbers will need to fall by the same proportion – but much of that is predicted to happen anyway, as more farmland is retired and converted to forestry.

Above all of this, a still-under-development pricing system for farm emissions will prove crucial.

Through changes like these, by the end of the decade, methane emissions could have dipped about 11 per cent, to where they were back in 2017.

The commission’s suggested cuts to biogenic methane have drawn disappointment and criticism from environmentalists – but have nonetheless left farmers asking where they willget the cash and expertise needed to make the transition.

When it comes to housing, the modelling points to the climate – and health – gains that will come with improved energy efficiency.

Through switches like swapping out coal and fossil gas for heat pumps, the modelling assumes that heat demand from Kiwi homes could drop by a small, yet still significant, 6 per cent by 2035 – while newly-built homes will require just over a third less heating than today.

All new space heating and hot water systems installed in new buildings after 2025 will be electric, with a phase-out for current buildings starting by 2030.

Likewise, there will be no further fossil fuel gas connections to the grid – or bottled LPG connections – after 2025.

Less reliance on fossil fuels means more reliance on electricity – meaning wind and solar generation, particularly, will have to massively ramp up in the 2030s, when much of the shift to EVs is under way.

But the commission has found electricity companies might not commit to this expansion while there is still uncertainty around how much longer New Zealand’s single biggest user – the Tiwai Point Aluminum Smelter – keeps running.

Regardless, it assumes the smelter will probably close this decade, after which, wind, solar and geothermal generation will be increasing by more than one trillion watt-hours each year.

More widely, by 2035, about 60 per cent of New Zealand’s energy will need to come from renewable sources.

Much more straightforward is the elimination of coal for low- and medium-process heat, used by industries to convert milk into powder, or wood pulp into paper.

The Government has already announced a ban on new coal boilers in this range from next year – helping take the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of cars off the road.

But thatdoesn’t apply to high-temperature ones, which generally use energy in a way that is highly integrated into plants, meaning there are fewer low-carbon opportunities.

As for how forestry factors into the grand plan, the commission makesit clear that New Zealand can’t keep relying on its offsets alone to achieve carbon neutrality – though they still have a major place in the mix. Between now and 2035, we need to plant that extra 380,000ha of exotic forestry – ramping up this decade, but easing off after 2030.

Just as importantly, the commission proposes a further 300,000ha of permanent, new native forest – which studies have suggested there is more than enough room for amid the country’s steep and erosion-prone land.

Planting that much native forest will come with a hefty cost – somewhere between $5b and $15b – but that price is outweighed by the carbon benefits alone.

It also reflects the larger point of the commission’s entire report: that, while our road to 2035 means economic pain in the short term, the pay-off is still bigger in the long run.

Going ahead with the commission’s recommended budgets will see the level of GDP fall by around 0.5 per cent in 2035, and 1.2 per cent in 2050 – but not acting will mean double that hit.

As many commentators have pointed out, the critical factor is to ensure the costs of the coming transition don’t fall too heavily on those who can afford it least.

And the even bigger takeaway?

This is about doing our part to help spare our future generations – those newborns who’ll be teenagers in 2035, and their children and grandchildren – the very worst impacts that climate change projections portend.

Right now, the world is about 1.2C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and warming at between 0.2C and 0.25C per decade.

Victoria University climate scientist Dr Luke Harrington says the 1.5C mark – an aspirational target of the UN-led Paris Agreement – doesn’t represent a cliff that we might fall off.

“For New Zealand in particular, a 1.6C world might not seem that cataclysmic,” he said.

“But with every extra 0.1C of warming, the associated impacts will continue to worsen – and often accelerate.”

The commission’s latest advice, he says, will therefore be crucial for transitioning to a future where New Zealand can credibly claim to no longer be warming the planet.

“At its simplest, avoiding catastrophic climate change involves an end to burning fossil fuels for energy, heat and transport,” adds Dr Sam Dean, Niwa’s chief scientist for climate, atmosphere and hazards

“Up until today New Zealand has relied on forestry offsets to avoid hard conversations about how to do this – a form of procrastination that will not be well regarded by future generations.”

Dean acknowledges that rising to the challenge won’t be easy – and we will only know how much of the commission’s recommendations will become reality when the Government reveals its own 15-year plan at the end of this year.

Still, he feels this week’s report marks a historic milestone toward a cleaner, greener, future.

“The report… is a breath of fresh air, that I believe will come to be seen as a turning point in our climate response.”

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