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Our Environment: Issue 27 Winter 2001

 Our Environment: Christchurch City Councils Environmental Newsletter

Climate Change – A Problem And An Opportunity

Increasing emissions from industry, agriculture, motor vehicles and electricity generation, as well as deforestation and other human activities have led to a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The effect of this build-up is described as climate change.

Our climate has undergone many changes over millions of years – from ice ages to tropical heat and back again. Natural changes have generally been gradual, allowing people and other species to adapt or migrate, although some prehistoric climate changes may have led to mass extinction of species. Over the past 50 to 100 years, the process of change has sped up because of the growing build-up in the atmosphere of trace ‘greenhouse’ gases – carbon dioxide (CO2 ), methane and nitrous oxide. We are now undergoing, as a result of this build-up, the most rapid change in global temperatures for ten thousand years. Because of the inertia in the climate system, there’s not much we can do to mitigate changes over the next few decades. We appear to be already committed to global warming that exceeds more than twice the warming that occurred during the twentieth century.

While we cannot say with certainty what the worst climate change effects will be, nor how severe they will be, scientists expect more extremes of weather such as floods, droughts and violent storms.

International efforts

The New Zealand Government is part of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to contribute to international research. We have signed and ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which came into force in 1994 and has been ratified by more than 170 countries. Under the Convention, countries are committed to helping avoid climate change and to monitoring and reporting on their emissions of greenhouse gases from all major sources as well as the absorption of gases (eg, by forests).

The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC was adopted internationally in 1997. For industrialised countries – those which have been mostly responsible for increases in greenhouse gases since the mid 1800s – the Protocol established legally binding targets to reduce emissions.

The New Zealand Government aims to ratify the Kyoto Protocol next year. When the Protocol comes into force New Zealand will be obliged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels on average in the 2008-2012 period, or take responsibility for any emissions above that level.

The Government has said that it wants New Zealand to be, and to be seen to be, an environmentally responsible world citizen. Compared with some countries New Zealand makes an insignificant contribution to the climate change problem – we emit about 0.2 per cent of global greenhouse gases. However, the risks to our communities and our economy are significant and we need to play our part in international efforts to deal with a problem that many international political and business leaders see as the most critical issue facing the world. There is no one simple solution to meeting our international obligations. The Government will need to decide on the most appropriate mix of options to achieve results in different sectors and with different greenhouse gases. For example, the energy and industrial sectors, which produce most of New Zealand’s growing carbon dioxide emissions, are quite different from the agricultural sector which produces most of our methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Energy emissions, especially from transport and electricity generation, have risen significantly since 1990; agricultural emissions are roughly the same as in 1990.

New Zealand’s response

Climate change policy is the responsibility of a group of ministers convened by the Minister of Energy, Pete Hodgson. It involves a number of other ministers, government departments and agencies. Policy advice is provided by working groups comprising officials from government departments. The work of these groups is coordinated by a steering group of senior officials. The groups work through issues ranging from transport fuel efficiency to

abatement of agricultural emissions, from the legal framework for emissions trading to carbon sinks, to better systems for monitoring and reporting emissions. The Government aims to make decisions in principle on details of New Zealand’s policy response to climate change later this year. There will be public consultation as part of the Kyoto Protocol ratification process in October and November, with legislation planned for introduction early next year.

A range of discussions with targeted groups of stakeholders has already taken place, primarily to gather information for input into policy development. Consultation in late 2001 will be on the policies the Government will be proposing.

Energy efficiency

The National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy is expected to play a key role in achieving reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions.

Though agricultural emissions still make up most of our total emissions, these are at present below 1990 levels, while emissions of CO2   are still rising. The draft National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy was developed by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) in conjunction with the Ministry for the Environment, interest groups, stakeholders and members of the public.

The draft strategy represents a concerted effort by government to encourage innovative thinking about energy use throughout the country. It aims for a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency by 2012 across the government, residential, transport, energy supply and industrial sectors. The final strategy will be released by 1 October 2001.

Latest report on emissions New Zealand is required under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to submit a greenhouse gas inventory report each year. The latest report shows that overall New Zealand’s greenhouse

gas emissions have increased 5 per cent in the period 1990 to 1999. Decreases (relative to 1990) in the agricultural and waste sectors have partially offset emissions growth in the energy and industrial processes sectors, and from other sources. We have more up-to-date data on energy sector greenhouse gas emissions. Overall New Zealand’s gross carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions from the energy and industrial sectors have increased by 22 per cent between 1990 and 2000. This compares with 20 per cent growth from 1990-1999. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas around the world, though it’s less than half New Zealand’s total emissions.

Our significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 is the most prominent climate change issue facing this country. If we continue with “business as usual”, our greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow. They will be more costly and difficult to deal with the longer we delay action.

Potential benefits

Energy Minister Pete Hodgson says that New Zealand could also reap significant benefits from an effective response to climate change. He says that the costs of allowing global warming to continue unchecked include more frequent extreme weather events, erosion and saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels, biosecurity threats from the spread of sub-tropical pests and diseases, and a delay in the recovery of the ozone layer. On the other hand, potential benefits could come from our “Kyoto forests”. By 2008, 850,000 hectares of plantation forest is expected to have been established since the Protocol’s benchmark year of 1990. If international carbon trading begins, and international negotiations regarding sinks are resolved to the advantage of New Zealand, these are likely to be worth at least $1 billion in sink credits.

Important gains can be made from the boost to technological innovation and business competitiveness provided by a commitment to tackle climate change. The Kyoto Protocol could be a major spur to innovation and efficiency improvements in our use of energy and natural resources, Mr Hodgson says.

One sector where innovation could earn good money for New Zealand is agriculture. Methane emissions account for almost half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Research into livestock digestion and pasture composition could potentially deliver the double benefit of reducing methane emissions while improving the efficiency of the animals’ conversion of food to bodyweight. New Zealand Climate Change Programme officials will continue to work with the agricultural sector to assess the different options for agriculture.

Further information

To help those interested keep in touch with the work under way in the New Zealand Climate Change Programme, the Ministry for the Environment has a regular newsletter, ClimateWise. If you would like to receive this newsletter, contact Brenda Wallace, phone (04) 917 7510 or email (  

The Ministry has also developed a website, To navigate the site start with   click on resources and then go to resource kits.

There are 2 levels.

The basic level fact sheets cover:

Advanced Fact Sheets:

Teachers and students should also check out the Kids and Educators site which has a range of games that help kids wrestle with the topic.

Information provided by the Ministry for the Environment

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