Move to clean energy must be started soon

By Vanessa Atkinson


Vanessa Atkinson is a Greenpeace New Zealand climate campaigner.

We are heavy polluters in New Zealand. Since 1991 we’ve allowed our levels of greenhouse pollution to increase by more than 21 per cent. We’re now the ninth worst among comparable OECD countries for increasing emissions.

We’ve signed the Kyoto Protocol, but year after year of failed policies mean very little has actually been done to reduce our emissions. We now face an ever-increasing bill for failing to meet targets.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has set a goal of a “carbon neutral” New Zealand but her Government’s proposed policies are a far cry from what’s needed. Meanwhile, special interest groups are queuing to avoid responsibility.

But as the Chambers of Commerce have pointed out, lagging behind other countries will seriously damage our reputation as a responsible international citizen.

There are also huge opportunities in the emerging low-carbon economy. As National Party leader John Key says, climate change can be used to our advantage and forward-looking businesses should be positioning themselves now.

Outside the business sector, New Zealand needs to revolutionise the way it thinks about energy.

Late last year Greenpeace joined the German Aerospace Centre’s Institute of Technical Thermodynamics Department and Wellington energy experts Dialogue Consultants to model different energy futures for New Zealand.

The news is good, and the report – New Zealand Energy Revolution: How To Prevent Climate Chaos – sets out a pathway for a secure and environmentally sustainable energy system.

It concludes that we can achieve a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply by 2025, and reduce carbon emissions by 72 per cent by 2050, through domestic action alone.

But how? We need legally binding targets. Relatively wealthy countries such as New Zealand need to reduce emissions 30 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 and 90 per cent by 2050. The next step is a cost on carbon and other greenhouse pollution. There is debate about whether this should be a trading system or a carbon charge. The Government is veering towards the former, but we need both.

Sorting out a trading system will take time, and we don’t have time to waste. We already have a carbon charge system ready to go. This should be introduced immediately to ensure we don’t get further on the back foot.

When a trading system does come into force it must be economy-wide from day one, create an even playing field and not exempt any one industry. A carbon charge could be phased out at this stage.

These “sticks” will ensure polluters pay for the carbon they emit. But the Government also needs to introduce “carrots” to spark a rapid uptake in renewable energy.

The best way to achieve this is through a guaranteed pricing scheme – a feed-in tariff. This would provide certainty to investors by ensuring a guaranteed sale price for electricity they generate for a specified number of years, after which the project must exist in the market without support.

The tariff could be set at different levels with targeted encouragement for technologies such as tidal energy, or household and distributed generation.

We need to re-think our centrally controlled electricity transmission system and make generation more geographically dispersed – close to where the electricity’s needed.

Households and businesses must be encouraged to generate their own electricity. Key to this will be net metering, which lets people who generate more than they need on site to be paid for electricity they feed into the grid.

We need more locally owned generation projects. Community ownership in countries such as Denmark has helped make wind power popular with rural communities, avoiding the sort of battles that have plagued the fledgling New Zealand wind industry, and injecting valuable income into regional communities. A targeted feed-in tariff for community owned projects will help.

We need to decrease energy demand by increasing energy efficiency and conservation. This could be done through a demand management fund, expansion of the solar water heater programme and greater deployment of smart meters to allow consumers to respond to price signals during demand peaks.

And we need to rapidly retire carbon-intensive energy infrastructure such as the Huntly coal-fired power station.

Then there’s transport. The Government’s solution to traffic problems seems to be to build more roads. But history shows roads create traffic rather than reduce it.

The priority should be cutting road use – by improving public transport, introducing low-impact means of travel, shifting longer-distance freight from road to rail and sea, and introducing a range of measures to improve vehicle fleet efficiency.

The Greenpeace report allows for a possible expansion of the use of biofuels in the transport sector, providing they’re produced sustainably.

Another crucial area is agriculture. More aggressive demands must be placed on this sector to reduce its emissions. This requires a heavy commitment of funding to research and develop new farming techniques. It may also require a shifting of agricultural practices from dairying to less greenhouse gas intensive farming practices.

On a smaller scale, what can the average New Zealander do to help? Most people are already doing something, whether it’s recycling, turning appliances off at the wall or catching the bus to work instead of driving.

If you care about the climate and want to do more there are plenty of options – choosing energy-efficient light bulbs, switching to a more climate-friendly energy company, installing a solar water heater or buying locally produced products.

New Zealand has very little time left to start the shift to clean energy. Delaying even a few years will make a smooth transition impossible. The longer we wait, the higher the price we pay – in every respect.