Ardern says climate crisis is ‘life or death’ as New Zealand landmark report calls for sweeping changes

New Zealand has been handed a new vision for dramatic reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions – including reduced animal numbers on farms, no new household gas connections by 2025, and a dramatic shift to electric cars in the next decade.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the climate crisis was a matter of “life or death” as she spoke at the release of a new roadmap for the government’s response to global heating.

The Climate Commission, an independent body set up to advise the government, released its final advice on Wednesday – a sweeping document outlining what New Zealand must do if it wants to meet its target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and reducing biogenic methane emissions by 24%-47%.

Ardern and climate minister James Shaw endorsed the report’s findings, calling them an “achievable blueprint” for change. But they stressed that they would need more time to digest the 400-page document before outlining a formal policy response.

Multi-partisan legislation passed by Ardern in 2019 means the government is legally obliged to consider and create a policy plan based on the commission’s advice, which it will release before the end of year.

The report laid out pathways for New Zealand to meet its greenhouse gas reduction obligations by 2050. They include wide-scale agricultural reform to reduce methane emissions, dropping herd sizes by 10%-15%, ending imports of combustion-engine cars, eliminating new household gas connections, and less travel by car overall. Some of those changes would need to be dramatic transformations: to meet its goal for transport emissions, New Zealand would need to increase electric vehicle share of the market to 50% in the next 10 years. It is now around 1-2%.

At the release of the commission’s advice, Ardern said the report was “one of the most significant documents I’ll receive in my time as prime minister”.

She also noted that the path ahead would be challenging for New Zealand. “Having a roadmap doesn’t change the fact the road will be steep and tough at times,” she said.

Ardern emphasised in her speech that “meeting our climate targets is achievable and affordable with existing technology”, and outlined progress the government had already made. But hitting its climate goals will require a total reversal of New Zealand’s current trajectory. New Zealand is one of the world’s worst performers on emission increases. Its emissions rose by 57% between 1990 and 2018 – the second greatest increase of all industrialised countries. Earlier this year, data showed that New Zealand’s emissions had increased by 2% in 2018-19.

That increase means the commission’s advice had changed from its earlier drafts – it is now calling for steeper, earlier cuts to emissions than it had in January.

The plan will require changes across every part of New Zealand life. In agriculture, some of the work to reduce methane emissions could be done through improved farm practices and breeding animals that produced less gas – but the commission found it would also require a drop in the number of total herd numbers by 10%-15%.

The country would need to end imports of fossil-fuel-powered cars by 2030-35, and transition to electric vehicles. Ardern said the government was taking action to make them more affordable – including switching the government fleet to electric cars to create a secondhand market, and creating a new incentives regime. The 2021 budget released in May put aside about $300m for incentives to try to boost electric vehicle uptake, but did not provide details on how the program would look.

The commission’s draft advice had prompted fears that New Zealanders may lose access to the beloved sausage sizzles on gas barbecues, which some consider a fixture of Kiwi culture. The commission took a moment to specifically refute that claim.

“Many submitters were concerned the advice would mean a ‘ban on gas barbecues’ and strongly opposed that. No recommendations were made about banning fossil gas barbecues.”

The commission’s advice was also clear about failings of policy in the past, which had not put New Zealand on a lower-emissions trajectory – and warned that relying on forest-planting offsets to reduce net emissions would not be enough. “Instead of putting policies in place to decarbonise the economy … Aotearoa used forests planted in the 1990s to offset its emissions and meet its targets,” it said. “The carbon removal benefits of these forests are now coming to an end.”

Shaw said the government was taking action, and had done more on climate in the past three-and-a-half years than the past three-and-a-half decades of governments combined. “Is it enough? No.” he said.

“We are yet to see a sustained decline in the pollution we put into the atmosphere. And even when we do, we need to ensure that decline continues and, in fact, picks up pace every year.”

The commission modelled both the cost of its recommended changes, and the cost of doing nothing. The cost of the recommended changes would amount to about 1.2% of GPD by 2050. But delaying action on the climate crisis would end up costing the economy more, with GDP in 2050 falling by about 2.3%. In both cases, that cost described a reduction of economic growth.

Ardern said the modelling showed that “acting now makes more economic sense than waiting, and that we can reduce emissions while continuing to grow the economy”.

The commission sets out goals for net reductions in emissions, including an 18% drop in net carbon dioxide from 2019 levels by 2025, 47% below 2019 by 2030 and 78% by 2035. Biogenic methane, the gas broadly produced by agricultural animals, must drop 8% by 2025, 12% by 2030, 17% by 2035.

The report comes as the world’s major democracies are increasing commitments, and pressuring others to do the same, to cut emissions this decade, as the science says is necessary. The topic will be a major focus at the G7 summit in Cornwall later this week. All G7 countries have increased their 2030 commitments in recent months, and are promising new policies.

The next step in response to the commission’s report is for the government to prepare an emissions reduction plan based on them, which it will release by the end of 2021.

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