The Carbon Challenge

From mid 2008, a series of scientific papers provided evidence that the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb additional emissions safely was far less than previously thought.  Avoiding dangerous climate change would require a lot more effort, and achieving a ‘safe’ concentration of greenhouse gases (likely to be under 350 ppm CO2) would require some carbon already resident in the atmosphere to be returned to earth. 

Global initiatives to secure emission reductions for the period from 2012 to 2020 resulted in little success.  Current pledges by developed countries that were projected to allow ‘Business as Usual’ levels once ‘loopholes’ are accounted for.  And New Zealand’s response was among the weakest for a developed country.

The successor United Nations Paris Agreement that sets an ambition to hold global heating below 2 degrees and to target no more than a 1.5 degree rise, is similarly lacking collective pledges to match this. While New Zealand’s target for 2030 is relatively ambitious relative to where the country starts from today (due to so little effective action in the past), it is relatively weak relative to the country’s fair share under the agreement.

Establishment of the Climate Change Commission allows New Zealand to build a coherent long term plan capable of reaching its domestic target of zero net emissions by 2050.  The Commission is responsible for the series of five year budgets that chart a pathway after assessing options for emissions reduction and carbon sequestration, sector by sector.  Carbon budgeting integrates the ETS, complementary measures, and financial limitations to secure long-term goals.

Pastoral agriculture is New Zealand’s biggest emitter and faces converging challenges that collectively make sharp rises in environmental standards inevitable. These pressures are combining to push market expectations towards animal protein products being fully carbon neutral – with the market transformation likely to occur well before New Zealand’s 2050 climate target would require this, in the West at least. Rather than framing the greenhouse gas challenge as a question around the regulation of methane, the focus needs to shift to how to help the pastoral sector attain carbon neutrality for its products.

Key documents

A New Carbon Accounting Unit for Permanent Sequestration

Zero Carbon Bill Submission

Market Pressures for Pastoral Products to go Carbon Neutral

Carbon BudgetingIntegrated Planning for Climate Action

The Carbon Budget Deficit


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