Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand

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Sims, Ralph
Barton, Barry
Bennett, Paul
Isaacs, Nigel
Kerr, Suzi
Leaver, Jonathan
Reisinger, Andy
Stephenson, Janet
Author ORCID Profiles (clickable)
Ngā Upoko Tukutuku (Māori subject headings)
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
New Zealand
low-carbon economy
climate change
emission reduction pathways
energy policy
ANZSRC Field of Research Code (2020)
Sims, R., Barton, B., Bennett, P., Isaacs, N., Kerr, S., Leaver, J., Reisinger, A., & Stephenson, J. (2016). Transition to a low-carbon economy for New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Royal Society of New Zealand. Retrieved from
The problem The climate is changing. Average temperatures are increasing due to human activity, which has driven increasingly high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement adopted by 195 countries has the goal that the world will limit the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius (2 degrees C) above pre-industrial levels, and will pursue efforts to limit the increase to below 1.5 degrees C. Global GHG emissions continue to rise and under current trends, the world is heading towards a global 3–4 degrees C temperature rise. This will result in negative impacts on the global economy and significantly increase the risks from climate change through rising temperatures, accelerated sea level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, more frequent extreme weather events, and higher costs to adapt or protect ourselves and our infrastructure. We will need our economy to become more resilient. In order to limit temperature rise, we must reduce GHG emissions and work towards a low-carbon economy. The low-carbon economy for New Zealand, as defined in this study, is one that trends towards net zero emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), over the next few decades, while also reducing emissions of shorter-lived gases, mainly methane (CH4). Reducing CO2 is particularly important as it stays in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. Prioritising CO2 emission reductions in the near term is consistent with the authoritative assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concerning the actions needed globally to stabilise the climate and to limit warming to well below 2°C. This study provides a scientific analysis of the complex situation we find ourselves in and what we can best do about it. All New Zealanders need to understand the threats of climate change, accept that we need to change the way we act, realise there are trade-offs that will need to be made, and become personally involved in implementing mitigation solutions. Mitigation is where we take action to either reduce emissions, or support the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere. We have the potential to make the transition to a low-carbon economy within several decades by taking mitigation actions. While this will have costs, it will also bring benefits and opportunities that need to be considered. This study is a first step to enable an open debate around options, choices and time frames. There is very limited publicly available information on what we can and need to do, or the costs and policy options for their implementation now, or later, in individual sectors and across the economy. Such information is critical if we want to have a broad and inclusive debate involving all New Zealanders about how we best make the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the emissions reductions that could be achieved over time (commonly called emissions pathways). Addressing the information gaps so that we can have an informed debate is a very high priority.
Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ)
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Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ)
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