Emissions again

After my post the other day, I pricked up my ears when I heard on the radio this morning that new data on greenhouse gas emissions had been released, and at the same time heard various industry lobby groups calling for more government support (money or regulation”) for this, that or the other mitigating measure.  It is the costs of meeting the New Zealand government’s emissions reduction target that worries me.

(As it happens, I was emitting carbon at the time, driving home from the supermarket in a petrol-fuelled car.  But I had already walked up the (rather steep) hill carrying several kilos of groceries home earlier in the morning.)

Today’s release consists primarily of a 542 page report from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE).  But they also had a convenient eight page summary document.

In my post the other day, I included this chart of GDP per capita for OECD countries, in the most recent year for which there is data, 2014.

emissions per GDP

New Zealand was second only to Estonia in the level of emissions per unit of GDP.

I was interested to see that MfE made reference to this measure in their snapshot report.  Under the heading “New Zealand’s economy is growing faster than our emissions”, they included this chart.

MFE emissions

That looks quite good on first glance.

But how, I wondered, did New Zealand compare to other OECD countries?  You’ll notice that on that chart emissions per unit of GDP fell in 2015.  Since the OECD databases aren’t yet updated for 2015, and we don’t know what happened to other countries in 2015, the following charts use the data only for 1990 to 2014.    (MfE also report a rebasing of the entire series, slightly lowering New Zealand’s estimated emissions over the whole 25 year period.  But relative to the charts below this rebasing would worsen  New Zealand’s relative performance, since the revision downwards for 1990 was a little greater than the revision downwards for the more recent years.)

Here is emissions per unit of GDP for those OECD countries (all but one) for which there is 1990 data.

emissions 1990

In 1990 we were only sixth highest in the OECD.   And by 2014 we were second highest.  I guess the Ministry for the Environment (and their Minister) weren’t too keen on highlighting that point.

Here is the percentage changes in emissions per unit of GDP to 2014 (for a small number of countries only 2013 data is available).  MfE highlighted that New Zealand’s emissions fell by 35.9 per cent from 1990 to 2015.

change in emissions

Only 10 OECD countries had smaller reductions in emissions per unit of GDP than New Zealand over this period.  Of them, one might reasonably think that severe economic stresses (falls in GDP) in recent years might help explain Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal.  And as Japan’s emissions rose a lot in 2011,  the year of the earthquake/tsunami, the enforced shift away from nuclear power at the time probably explains what is going on there.

Of the five countries that were to the right of New Zealand in 1990, four had among the largest percentage reductions among OECD countries.  Even Australia’s reduction was around the median.  It does leave New Zealand rather standing out.

(Perhaps some of this is covered in more depth the 542 page report.  I went through the Executive Summary and the table of contents and couldn’t see any likely references, but I may have missed them.)

In the snapshot document, straight after the emissions per unit of GDP chart, MfE does have a brief section on

Some of the challenges New Zealand faces when reducing emissions include:

  • a growing population
  • almost half our emissions are from agriculture where there are fewer economically viable options currently available to reduce emissions
  • an electricity sector that is already 80.8 per cent renewable (meaning that we have fewer ‘easy wins’ available to us compared to other countries who can more easily make significant emissions reductions  by switching to renewable sources of electricity).

I was very pleasantly surprised to find the “growing population” as the first item on the list (it isn’t particularly relevant to emissions per unit of GDP, but is very relevant to total emissions –  the variable in terms of which our government’s target is expressed).

It is hard to disagree with them  But it does leave one wondering what advice or research/analysis they have done, and provided to Ministers –  including when the target was being adopted –  about the implications of New Zealand’s immigration policy.  Our non-citizen immigration policy pushes up the population by almost 1 per cent per annum (against an, admittedly unrealistic, benchmark of zero inward migration of non-citizens).  Have they analysed the potential costs and benefits from lowering the non-citizen immigration target relative to other possible abatement (or compensation) mechanisms?  Perhaps there is credible modelling that suggests the overall abatement costs to New Zealanders would be lower through other plausible mechanisms.  But given that population increases appear first, and without further commentary, on their lists of “challenges” it would be good to know if they have done the work.

On reflection, I think I will lodge an Official Information Act request to find out.

(And it still leave me mystified why, when even the government’s own Ministry for the Environment is citing continuing population increases as a constraint on meeting the emissions reduction target, the Green Party continues to support large non-citizen migration inflows.  Migration might only transfer people from one country to another but given (a) the issues around agriculture, and (b) the reasonable notion that New Zealand members of Parliament should be looking out first for the interests of New Zealanders, it shouldn’t be a consideration they can simply ignore in thinking about New Zealand’s ability (and at what cost) to meet the emissions reduction target.)

17 thoughts on “Emissions again

  1. The Greens are for immigration and against population growth because they want population growth restricted to a so-called sustainable rate of 1%

    Is nothing new about that contradiction because they also worry about climate change and runaway carbon emissions as well is believe firmly in peak oil and running out of the main source of carbon emissions in a couple of decades time


  2. How about we count in all the tourists as well. Oh they don’t make CO2?

    convince me that a tree growth stimulant is a problem and I might be impressed. Until then just a ponzi scheme run by ponzi pollies and bankers.

    They need more of the Trump treatment like he handed out to Nato today. Yey.


    • 3.5 million tourists burning jet fuel coming into NZ, hiring millions of cars, busses and camper vans should be made to pay a tax on emissions.


  3. Second Graph
    NZ’s Total emissions per unit of GDP 1990-2015 ….

    Tonnes of Co2 per unit of GDP decreased from 600+ tonnes in 1992 to under 400 tonnes in 2015

    That’s a 30% decrease – not bad at all … but
    More importantly, Tonnes at 2010 were 400 while at 2015 were (about) 360 tonnes

    So the real question is –
    What were we doing over those last 6 years, and can we do it again
    But we need to know what it was that we did right


  4. It is industry and New Zealanders driving the migrant numbers. Nothing really to do with government. In fact government is far too restrictive and far too slow in all the checks they have preventing easy access to foreign labour. Tourists are foreigners. New Zealand businesses love tourism. Maori businesses are significantly based on tourism and on food products directed at foreign markets. This drives the need for foreign speaking employees and foreign chefs to cook foreign food.


  5. “A study of the near-space environment surrounding Earth reveals that human activity may have caused a barrier to form protecting the planet from potentially harmful space radiation. Increasing the bubble shroud around the Earth could protect us from future bad space weather, such a solar flares.


    Not all human emissions are bad for the environment.


  6. Green Party policy on immigration:


    “Immigration Quotas

    Exempt marriage, civil union, and de facto partnership reunification from all quotas.
    Ensure that the setting of immigration levels would be reviewed regularly, based on:

    Net population change;
    The need to have spare population capacity for returning NZ citizens and people displaced by climate change;
    The capacity of systems in place to cope fairly and effectively;
    The ability to encourage settlement outside areas under infrastructure and population capacity stress;
    The ability of our environment to cope with population increases;
    New Zealand’s humanitarian obligations with regard to refugees”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link. I found interesting both their full immigration policy document and their full population policy document (the latter quoting some, unreferenced, MfE work suggesting the “carrying capacity” if NZ is 5.7m people).

      Click to access immigration_20170322.pdf

      Click to access Green%20Party%20Population%20Policy.pdf

      But actually neither really attempt to engage with the point I’m raising: keeping on increasing our population, by policy, makes it harder and more costly to meet any given NZ emissions reduction target. If so, a reasonable economic logic might well point one towards a lower immigration target even if (as the Greens do) one wanted to increase the refugee intake and be open to “refugees from climate change”.


      • We have already proven that our carrying capacity is 200 million. Each cow eats and has the waste production equivalent to 20 people therefore with already 10 million cows, we have proven that NZ has the carrying capacity for 200 million people.


    • Golriz Ghahraman is sitting at number ten on the Green Party’s candidate list for the upcoming election – that means she’s almost guaranteed to get a seat in Parliament. She came to NZ as a 9 year old refugee and has been a human rights and constitutional lawyer for twelve years, and has worked and lived in Africa, The Hague and Cambodia. In New Zealand she’s advocated for people’s rights before the Supreme Courts.

      This does mean that the Green’s agenda has shifted heavily towards more refugees. So expect more migrants from Green Party policy rather than less.


  7. Michael, this post demonstrates why productivity should matter to a broad audience.

    Increasing productivity is often framed as meaning more production – which turns away people primarily concerned with sustainability.

    But productivity is really about making more with less. Less inputs, less labour – and less pollution. Our poor carbon productivity is undoubtedly connected to our poor labour productivity.


    • I suspect you are right when thinking of emissions per unit of GDP (in fact, it seems almost certainly so) but recall that our Paris commitments are in terms of total emissions, and typically (tho not always of course) higher productivity would go hand in hand with higher output, so that even material improvements in broad-based productivity wouldn’t necessarily lead to a reduction in total emissions.

      (of course, improvements that were specific to those particular inputs – eg around the ability to substitute solar or tidal energy for coal, gas or oil – more probably would)


      • Thanks Michael. The point is, to meet our Paris commitments without a material reduction in our current living standards, we need to up our productivity (productivity in a broad sense – not just focused on one input, but all inputs). When framed in those terms, policies intended to enhance productivity appeal to a wider audience.


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