Time to see the light as NZ struggles to take climate action

When New Zealand ratified the Paris climate agreement last week it was the one bit of positive news in an otherwise bleak month when it came to us taking meaningful action on climate change.

In the space of just a few weeks we published an underwhelming report on our climate action plans (relying heavily on purchasing carbon credits overseas and that hasn’t worked out well so far), announced extensive plans to continue our oil and gas exploration programme, pushed out the deadline to end coal-fired electricity generation and revealed another gas power plant could open when we already have the plans and infrastructure to meet all our power needs using renewable energy.

It’s exactly this last century mindset that has earned our country a reputation of being a climate laggard. We were world leaders when it came to giving women the vote, or taking a stance on nuclear power but, on the big issue of climate change, we’re at the back of the pack.

New Zealand claims to have a strong and internationally respected voice on climate change but we’re hardly walking the talk - it’s more like one faltering step forward and several leaps backwards.

Our net emissions of greenhouse gases climbed 53.6 per cent between 1990 and 2014. The 2015 Climate Change Performance Index rated New Zealand as ‘poor', in 40th place out of 58 countries, and the seventh worst in the OECD.

Our target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 (which equates to 11 percent below 1990 levels). That's been ridiculed and earned us the Fossil of the Day Award when the UN climate talks got underway in Paris last December. It wasn’t the first time that we’d received that dubious honour. For similar reasons it was also awarded to us at the climate talks in both Bonn and Copenhagen in 2009.

Our ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming to between 1.5 to 2C was a chance to show leadership but, in the end, we joined through peer pressure and the process had to be fast-tracked at the 11th hour so we weren’t locked out of any subsequent rule-making negotiations. This was not the time to be waiting around to see what everyone else was going to do, especially with the urgency to address climate change ratcheting up to whole new levels.

Nasa reports the past 11 months have been the hottest on record continuing a long term warming trend with dire consequences. Last month scientists, at a conference to discuss how to limit warming to the 1.5C goal, warned the planet could pass that target in about a decade. They say that will prompt accelerating loss of glaciers, steep declines in water availability, worsening land conflicts and deepening poverty. To quote our climate change Minister Paula Bennett; “It’s no exaggeration to say that climate change is the largest environmental challenge of our time.”

The Paris agreement has created the vital momentum for the world to shift away from burning fossil fuels in favour of clean energy. And a US think tank says governments that permit or profit from the expansion of the fossil fuel industry are like people selling cigarettes in a cancer ward. 

So, why then, are we planning to open up more than 500,000 square kilometres of land and seabed to oil and gas exploration next year? Why has Genesis Energy reneged on its plans to end coal burning at the Huntly power station, pushing that deadline out until “at least the end of 2022” saying it could even fire up one of its mothballed turbines to make the most of all the cheap coal that the rest of the world doesn’t want? And why are there plans to open a gas-fired power plant in the Waikato when, according to the Green Party, there is almost 4000 MW of renewable generation already consented and ready to be built?

These actions will do nothing to lower carbon emissions, they’ll do the exact opposite.

Thankfully, some Kiwis are taking climate action on their own, whether it's by making small changes to the way they live, or by protesting against attempts to increase fossil fuel exploration here.

While we’re fortunate in New Zealand that about 80% of our electricity is generated from renewable sources, that renewable percentage drops down to 40% when you look at our total energy needs. That’s a lot of room for improvement and renewable energy sources, like solar, are going help clean up both the electricity and transport sectors. For example, electric vehicles running on renewable power will help cut our high transport emissions.

Here’s another spot of bright news. In August, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment released a report including five scenarios for New Zealand’s energy future over the next 25 years. Encouragingly, solar photovoltaic generation featured across all five with between 100,000 and 390,000 residential and commercial solar units installed by 2040. Importantly, a key finding showed investment in residential solar panels with batteries can maximise household use of solar generation and shift household demand away from peak periods which would help reduce the need for gas-fired peaking generation.

Going solar is a smart way to take climate action. Currently more than 10,500 Kiwi homes have solar panels, representing a 184% increase in uptake over the past two years. In 2015, solar PV generated 33GWh of electricity which would have been enough to power the whole of central Hawke’s Bay.

The introduction of solarcity’s solarZero energy service (close to celebrating its second anniversary) has helped to drive up those numbers by making it easy and more affordable for Kiwis to go solar. Now you can go solar without the cost of buying a solar system - that includes the panels and battery storage. Instead, you buy clean, affordable solar energy, generated on your roof by solar panels that we own and manage. You simply pay a low, fixed monthly fee for energy services providing solar power and improved energy efficiency that could save thousands of dollars on power bills over the long term.

If 5% of Kiwi households install solar to meet their daytime energy needs our carbon emissions would decrease by 56,400 cubic tonnes.

It’s often argued that New Zealand’s total emissions are small on the global scale. However, all the small emitters, like us, added up together are responsible for 30% of the global total, so we can make a difference if we’re all working towards the same goal.

Now’s the time to be taking bold steps.

Find out more about solarZero here.