Tuesday 26 April 2016

Charting a course toward New Zealand’s low-emission future

by Catherine Leining, Policy Fellow, Suzi Kerr, Senior Fellow, and Ceridwyn Roberts, Communications Director, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

When Captain Cook set out to observe the Transit of Venus in the South Pacific, it was a part of Earth so poorly explored by westerners that European mapmakers couldn’t agree if he would find a giant continent there or not. Cook steered across miles of open ocean, fighting storms and scurvy to reach Tahiti.

These days there’s similar trepidation awaiting those who try to map the future landscape of climate change solutions.

Over the last two years, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research has convened the Low-Emission Future Dialogue, engaging a group of cross-sector stakeholders in their personal capacities to explore options for a successful zero-net-emission economy in New Zealand.  The goal was creative problem solving, not consensus on recommendations.  The outcomes are a collection of ideas not necessarily endorsed by individual participants, their affiliated organisations, or programme funders.  

A Zero-Net-Emission Vision for New Zealand
There are countless courses we could chart in our efforts to achieve the vision for a successful zero-net-emission economy (see figure above). Some of them may create exciting opportunities for economic development and environmental and social co-benefits, while others may involve rough waters or stall us in the doldrums.  

Ultimately successful pathways will be adaptive, emerging over time from the interaction between domestic choices for policy and action and external drivers which are beyond our control, like major changes in technology and shifts in social norms.  This journey will be supported by capacity building, experimentation, taking steps to leave potentially desirable options open, and avoiding lock-in to high-emission technologies, infrastructure and behaviour. 

Our dialogue group has identified a basic framework that could underpin a zero-net-emission future (see figure below). This includes breakthroughs in technologies and practices across key sectors. These will be supported by enabling infrastructure and shifting demand away from emissions-intensive goods and services. Residual emissions can then be offset by forest sinks, carbon capture and storage (CCS) or other means.  

Drivers of a zero-net-emission future: Shifting demand, enabling infrastructure, and innovation in technology and practice

This journey of transformation will affect all New Zealanders and many different groups will have important roles to play.  Constructive cross-sector processes are needed to:
  • shape a series of broadly shared and accepted goals for climate change mitigation,
  • enable greater policy certainty across election cycles,
  • align policy with action and investment, 
  • safeguard vulnerable communities during the transition, and
  • respond to rapid change with greater agility and coordination. 

New Zealanders have a proud history of traversing wide and wild oceans and pioneering solutions to challenging problems.  Let’s harness this spirit of adventure and travel forward toward a net-zero-emission future. 

Footnote: We wish to thank the Dialogue participants for their expertise and dedication, and the funders who made this initiative possible: the Aotearoa Foundation, Meridian Energy, Z Energy, Ministry for the Environment, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

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