Paul Young

Looking ahead to 2016, NZ sustainability advocates are hoping the government might make good on its talk around climate change and show good leadership. So far, the signals are looking mixed.

For a start, the government is continuing its support for increased fossil fuel exploration, releasing an announcement during the final days of COP21 that nine new oil and gas exploration permits have been issued for the Taranaki Basin.

Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges, who is also the associate minister for Climate Change Issues and attended the Paris conference, said the NZ Government “remains committed to the safe, sensible and environmentally responsible development of our oil, gas and minerals resources”.

Though, only eight days earlier, he announced NZ was now a member of the Global Geothermal Energy Alliance, an initiative led by the International Renewable Energy Agency to increase geothermal electricity generation and the direct use of geothermal heat.

“As the world transitions towards a lower carbon future, the increased demand for renewable energy, coupled with the ongoing interest in energy security, has focused attention on geothermal energy. Worldwide installed capacity is forecast to double this decade,” Mr Bridges said.

He said NZ is now the fourth largest geothermal power generator in the world after the United States, the Philippines and Indonesia.

“We have a very unique value proposition and advantage in geothermal,” Mr Bridges said.

“New Zealand has a long and successful history in the development of geothermal resources, with the first plant established still providing a reliable electricity source over 50 years later.”

Increased support for fossil fuels is not what NZ’s sustainability champions were hoping to hear the government commit to post-Paris.

Co-founder of Generation Zero, Paul Young, who is also a trustee of the National Energy Research Institute and modelling team leader for the NZ 2050 Pathways Project, said the government had for some time been “writing off” the country’s clean, green reputation internationally.

“The truth is the government is doing a lot to support the fossil fuel agenda. It is one of the key planks of its economic platform,” Mr Young said.

There is also “not a lot of transparency” around how much it financially assists the industry, he said.

What Mr Young and others had been hoping for post-Paris was that a rumoured announcement around electric vehicles or other positive moves might emerge.

“We are waiting to hear any substantive policy announcements,” he said.

There is also a degree of scepticism about how the review of the nation’s emissions trading scheme may pan out. The current scheme, Mr Young said, had delivered such a low price for carbon credits it was “a bit of a fig leaf”.

At one point between 2012 and 2013 the price dropped to just five cents a tonne as so many companies were buying “dodgy” carbon credits out of the Ukraine, Mr Young said.

This has now been stopped, but he said it may be some time before the price rises and delivers impetus for local initiatives such as carbon forestry.

Looking ahead, he said Generation Zero will continue to keep working on the local level, particularly around sustainable transport.

“The central government holds a lot of the purse strings, but there is still a fair amount local government can do.”

He said Paris was being looked at as one step along the road, and that overall the tone in NZ at the community level had shifted towards taking action on climate change. There is also a growing sense of the importance of tackling the issue among the business community.

“We’ll keep highlighting opportunities to do more,” he said.

Fossil fuels are something NZ can do something about.

“We have a lot of advantages we could be building on.”

Energy efficiency is an area that the nation can also take action on, including the substantial emissions created from coal-fired boilers and diesel generator use in the industrial sector. Stationary heat comprises almost half the nation’s carbon emissions, he said.

“Our per capita CO2 emissions are higher than the UK’s, even though the UK gets most of its electricity from coal.”

In the immediate future, there are three projects Mr Young would like to see the government invest in.

The first is the City rail link, which would remove the dead end that currently exists in the Auckland rail system and effectively double its capacity.

The government has committed future governments to pay for it, Mr Young said, with a 2020 start date for the project currently mooted.

The second project on the wish list is the government showing leadership and changing its own fleet over to EVs, he said. The government has expressed support for the low-carbon vehicles, now it “should put its money where its mouth is”.

“They actually had an opportunity earlier this year when they were purchasing new crown limos, but instead of going with Teslas they decided to stick with petrol-powered BMWs. Perfect example of them talking the talk and not walking the walk!

“Most of NZ’s new vehicle purchases are by fleets so this would be a good move of leadership and provide a market for second-hand EVs in a few years’ time.”

The third thing he’d like the central government to invest in is some type of funding or incentive scheme for wood chip to replace coal or diesel for stationary heat in the industrial sector.

Mr Young said the technology was already established, and that currently a lot of wood chip went to waste in NZ.

The ETS could provide a funding mechanism if the government were to auction credits to raise the revenue, he said.