Aotearoa often punches above its weight on the world stage.
Usually that’s something to be proud of – but not so much when it comes to the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Because while New Zealand may only make up 0.17% of the world’s total gross emissions, it ranks sixth highest per capita in the OECD.
According to Climate Change Commission Chairperson Dr Rod Carr, there’s currently a lot of room for improvement.
He says New Zealand’s per capita emissions just from energy use like transport and industry are still around twice those of China.
“So, the idea that we can explain or excuse ourselves because of agriculture is not true,” he says.
Carr also takes a dim view of the opinion that New Zealand’s contribution to climate action is simply too small to make any difference.
“Every tonne emitted, whether it’s from New Zealand or China, is seen by the planet as the same tonne,” he says.
A high-energy nation
Around 40% of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use.
David Hall, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), says the country has a duty to tackle those.
“All of the wealthy countries have far greater responsibility to reduce energy-related emissions because our energy consumption is highest,” he says.
Most of New Zealand’s energy emissions come from transport, so switching to electric vehicles, e-bikes, and other forms of electric transport is important – and the sooner the better, Hall says.
“I think the people that have the financial capacity to choose between an electric vehicle and an internal combustion engine vehicle, and to choose whether to install a heat pump [in their home] and so on, those people should be choosing the low emissions option,” he says.
Hall says people who can afford to make those choices should do it even if the upfront costs are a little higher.
“We know that if we increase demand and we increase supporting infrastructure for these things, then the costs get cheaper for everybody, including the people who don’t currently have the financial headroom to be able to choose those sorts of options.”
Individual actions like this might seem insignificant with an issue this big, but Hall says people should remember climate change is already an accumulation of all of our choices.
“We’ve already warmed the planet by between 1.1 and 1.3 degrees, so all of those individual actions have had an enormous impact on the composition of the atmosphere and, consequently, the average temperature for the planet.”
On paper, 1.1-1.3 degrees doesn’t sound like much, but it’s already had devastating consequences as people lose their livelihoods and homes to extreme weather, flooding, wildfires, and sea level rise.
That means individual choices can also make a big impact on combating climate change when they’re put together.
Every action matters
Carr says making even the smallest of lifestyle changes can be effective in reducing emissions.
“Some action is better than no action. Taking the bus to work one day a week is still a 20% reduction compared to driving the car every day,” he says.
EECA calculates that if just one in five of us switch the car for cycling once a week (or work from home), we could avoid 84,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year – that’s like taking 35,000 cars off the road for good.
Carr adds being more aware of your household’s choices can also make a big difference.
“We’re all buyers of things, so every time you spend money on something, you are inviting the system to put that thing back on the shelf,” he says.
“So be mindful of the emissions profile of the things you’re buying and buy less of those things and then society will produce less of those things.”
Getting the energy transition under way
Meanwhile, as New Zealand heads to the COP27 climate summit this month, Carr says energy emissions will be key to meeting its emissions reduction targets.
“The Productivity Commission has done an estimate that if you look at the wind opportunity in New Zealand, and the solar opportunity and the additional, although somewhat modest, geothermal opportunity and you add it all up together, we have potentially three times the ability to generate electricity from renewable sources than we are likely to need,” he says.
“So unlike some countries that simply don’t have that abundance of potential to swap out coal and fossil gas, we do.
“And it’s in our own self interest to get on and do it because as the rest of the world needs to get on and do it, the competition for the technical skills and actual components to do this decarbonisation will increase.”
Hall says many crucial solutions are out there for the energy transition the country needs; it’s just a matter of actually implementing them.
But while it takes time for some of those critical energy-related transitions to take place, he says all New Zealanders can still do their bit right now.
“In the meantime, reducing demand for certain things, saying no to unnecessary work flights, and so on, all of that just gives future generations more space to operate,” Hall says.
“We can always make decisions now to forgo certain high emissions activities.
“And that’s always a gift to the future, because that just gives them a little more wiggle room in terms of keeping the planet within hospitable boundaries.”
This content was sponsored by EECA, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. You can find more ideas for cutting down energy emissions – at home, on the road, or at work – at genless.govt.nz. Gen Less is backed by EECA.
A TVNZ1 Climate Special, in partnership with EECA and hosted by Miriama Kamo, aims to inform, inspire and mobilise New Zealanders who want to take a step towards a green, low-carbon future. TVNZ1 Wednesday, 16 November at 7.30pm and on TVNZ+