New Zealand feels the heat as Paris climate change talks approach
Global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are coming to a head at a conference hosted by the United Nations in Paris at the end of the month.
A research paper in respected science journal Nature in September suggested temperatures in the Arabian Gulf would become too hot for human life if nothing was done to curb emissions.
The Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says global risks include more natural disasters, reduced food supplies and sea level rises of up to 7 metres.
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There is growing concern that further acidification of the oceans will be a major threat to marine life. Researchers at Hawaii University believe the ocean around Antarctica could become "inhospitable" to creatures at the bottom of the food chain by 2030.
The Prime Minister's chief science adviser Peter Gluckman agreed in 2013 that climate change was real and there was "very high scientific consensus" about the scale of the challenge.
The goal of the 2015 Climate Change Conference, between November 30 and December 11, is to obtain a "world first" legally binding commitment on emissions from every country with the objective of trying to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The IPCC estimates that would mean no more than the equivalent of a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide can be released into the atmosphere, versus the 1.9 trillion tonnes already released over the past 140 years.
At current emission rates, the entire "carbon budget" will be spent by November 2038 according to an online ticker hosted by Oxford University's Physics Department.
What commitment will New Zealand make in Paris?
The Government committed in July to reducing carbon emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, so long as an international agreement is ratified.
However, not all of that cut would be achieved through a reduction of domestic emissions. Environment Ministry spokeswoman Elspeth McIntyre said New Zealand could achieve its target in part by planting more forests and by "offsetting" its emissions by buying international carbon credits.
A Cabinet paper estimated the annual cost of the pledge to the economy at $3.7 billion.
The European Union has set a target of cutting its emissions by 35 per cent from 2005 levels, while the United States is looking at a 26 to 28 per cent reduction from the same base.
What's our record on emissions?
New Zealand could be top of the class when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, given its "renewable trifecta" of abundant hydro, geothermal and wind resources.
Mighty River Power chief executive Fraser Whineray says New Zealand has planning consent for enough green power to make a complete switch to electric cars. "There is no country in the world that has that renewable electricity proposition available to it."
But high agricultural emissions and New Zealand's reliance on fossil fuels for transport mean it's sitting towards the back of the class.
And by the numbers?
New Zealand was responsible for generating the equivalent of 81 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2013, up from 67 million tonnes in 1990, according to the Environment Ministry. That was about 0.15 per cent of total global emissions.
Agriculture was responsible for 48 per cent of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to the Environment Ministry. The burning of fossil fuels contributed 39 per cent and other sources, such as cement product and the disposal of waste, 12 per cent.
Is that good?
Not really. A Cabinet paper published this year admits New Zealand's emissions "have increased more than most since 1990 and remain on an upward trajectory".
On a per capita basis, New Zealand sat uncomfortably high at 25th out of 219 countries on the world's list of greenhouse polluters in 2012, according to the European Commission's Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research.
New Zealand's reliance on agricultural exports may be some excuse. But the country still ranked 40th on that list, and rising, when only the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes are taken into account.
Most concerning perhaps, by that latter measure, New Zealand's per capita emissions increased 18 per cent between 1990 and 2013, according to the European Commission database.
That put them above those in Britain, which achieved a 27 per cent reduction in per capita emissions over the same timeframe.
The silver lining is the rise in New Zealand's emissions occurred during the years prior to 2005 and has trended down since then, showing change is possible.
What more can New Zealand do to cut its emissions?
Some of the last of the low-hanging fruit is about to be picked.
Genesis Energy will close the country's last two coal-fired electricity generators at Huntly in 2018 and Mighty River Power will close its last gas turbine this year.
Beyond that, the country may be relying on behavioural and technological change for big advances.
Any mass take-up of electric cars would have a significant impact on emissions.
A move away from dairy and red meat production would reduce the country's emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas that is counted in the carbon emission figures.
But Federated Farmers climate change spokesman Anders Crofoot argues that would only result in production moving to less efficient farms overseas, meaning global greenhouse gas emissions would rise, not fall.
Could the country play a wider role?
New Zealand can't export renewable electricity, but it can export the products that can be made with it, in the same way it already exports aluminium from the Tiwai Point smelter in Bluff, which is powered by the Manapouri Hydro dam.
New Zealand could help reduce emissions overseas by increasing its renewable generating capacity, attracting industrial activities that can only be performed economically in some countries using fossil fuels.
InternetNZ has suggested New Zealand could, for example, be an ideal location for international technology companies to locate "green" data centres housing their computer servers.