Bad news for New Zealand on climate change

Apr 19, 2016, 12:06 PM EDT
Auckland, New Zealand.
(Source: Elena Yanchyn/flickr)

It's been a rough two days for New Zealand and climate change. On Monday a report was released accusing the government of cheating on CO2 emissions by purchasing fraudulent carbon credit offsets from Ukraine and Russia. Then, on Tuesday a separate report was published, warning that the country is very vulnerable to climate change, particularly since two thirds of its population lives in flood-prone areas.

The first report’s foreword stated "we are, without doubt, cheats." Rather than peaking in 1990 as was intended, New Zealand's real greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise.         

Granted, the country has laudable renewable energy targets: it aims to increase the share of electricity generated from renewables from 79.9 in 2014 to 90% by 2025, as Blouin News reported last month. Even so, its dairy and agriculture sectors are vital to the economy, and their emissions are much harder to decrease. Therefore, New Zealand will depend heavily on purchasing carbon credits to meet its reduction obligations under the Paris climate agreement sealed in December.

"Proportional to our emissions, New Zealand has been by far the largest purchaser of these Ukrainian and Russian credits through our Emissions Trading Scheme," the report stated. And while the government banned the purchase of foreign carbon credits in 2014, the surplus built up from earlier purchases is allowed to be carried forward. "Our Government now plans to knowingly utilise all these fraudulent credits so it can claim we are meeting our international obligations through to at least 2020,” the report continued. Thus real emissions could very well keep rising, unless the fraudulent credits are discarded, as the reports implores.

Dependence on cheaper foreign credits also caused the carbon price to plummet in New Zealand, which meant the local forestry industry no longer had an incentive to plant trees. As a result, many forestry firms converted their land to dairy farms -- putting more pressure on the environment – which caused the dairy bubble to get bigger before it burst.

The matter of mitigating climate change should be all the more urgent in New Zealand, as the second report found that the sea level rise around the country will likely exceed the global average – at least 30cm (almost 1 foot) this century, and as much as 1 meter. This will cause coastal erosion and flooding, especially when combined with storm surges. “With a 30cm rise in sea level, the current ‘1 in 100 year’ extreme sea event would be expected to occur once every year or so in many coastal regions,” said Professor James Renwick, the author. There are other risks to freshwater availability, as well as unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

The country can still correct course and encourage others to do the same, but the time has to be now.

For more insights on this topic, see the video from last year’s BCLS panel Climate Change and Civilization.