A first step towards controlled change

Published date21 May 2022
Publication titleMix, The

This week we saw Aotearoa’s first Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), and Climate Emergency Response Fund, released ahead of Thursday’s Budget. These actions follow on from national commitments made in Paris in 2015 — to reduce our emissions in line with a path to keep global warming to at most 2degC and preferably 1.5degC above pre-industrial temperatures — and in Wellington in 2019 when Parliament approved the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act with cross-party support. Do these actions we are taking in 2022 fulfil the commitments we made in 2015 and 2019? They do not, but they are at least first steps on the path to keeping our national commitment to fair and effective climate action.

At the most basic level, the carbon budgets approved this year will not meet our Paris commitments. By 2030 they will be at least 20 megatonnes (Mt) short, and those shortfalls will presumably be made up with purchases of overseas carbon credits. Fundamentally, the carbon credit market exists to allow polluters to emit more than their fair share while postponing domestic investment in the transition to a low-emissions economy. While we are paying others to take climate action, we are only making our eventual shift to a cleaner, healthier system more difficult by artificially extending the lifespan of practices no longer fit for purpose in a warming world.

We might call these practices ‘‘zombie’’ systems because even though they are still moving around they are already effectively dead. We rely on under-insulated buildings for housing, dirty and dangerous personal cars for transport, a fragile hydropower-based system already at risk from climate change for energy, and an extractive economy that exports our natural capital for foreign exchange. Each of these systems imposes massive costs on us already, even apart from their disproportionate contribution to global climate change. It is high time for transition to something better.

We are at least now on that path.

Prof Lisa Ellis is director, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Programme at the University of Otago.


Transport accounted for 39% of New Zealand’s CO2 emissions in 2019, and 17% of gross emissions across all greenhouse gases. Faced with those large percentages, it makes sense that the ERP emphasises decarbonising transport, in particular land transport. As well as emissions from land transport, New Zealand’s transport emissions total includes emissions from flights within New Zealand and coastal shipping, such as the interisland ferries. However, greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation and international maritime transport are not part of any country’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory total, including ours. As a result, zero percent of the first emissions budget mentioned in the ERP is allocated to international planes and ships bringing people and goods to New Zealand.

The ERP lists an action to ‘‘Work to decarbonise aviation’’ and another to ‘‘Progress the decarbonisation of maritime transport’’. Some of the specific initiatives within those actions are for domestic aviation and maritime transport, whereas some of them might apply to international transport. Unfortunately, most of the specific initiatives are vague, using phrases such as ‘‘develop and set targets’’, ‘‘establish a public-private leadership body’’, and ‘‘develop a national action plan’’. One initiative stands out for its firmer wording: ‘‘Implement a sustainable aviation fuel mandate’’.

‘‘Sustainable aviation fuel’’ is one of those ‘‘magic bullet’’ ideas that has been rolled out for many years, offering the elusive promise that business-as-usual and endless aviation growth can continue because some time ‘‘soon’’ aviation will be sustainable. Way back in 2008, I gave an invited talk at a symposium titled ‘‘Sustainable Aviation’’, run by the Royal Aeronautical Society New Zealand Division. I was asked to give the first talk about ‘‘What’s the problem?’’ and my talk was entitled ‘‘Can aviation be sustainable? The impacts of air transport on climate’’. I laid out the impacts on Earth’s climate of planes burning fossil fuels, and presented results from research on how...

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