In the run-up to the major United Nations climate change negotiations taking place in Paris this week, all countries were required to submit their "intended nationally determined contribution" in advance. New Zealand's stated target is a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below our 2005 levels by 2030.
This has been heavily criticised as being far too weak, especially given the Government's intention to meet most of the target by buying carbon credits from offshore rather than by trying to reduce our continually growing total emissions. But there are cost-effective solutions available to bridge the gap, and many have co-benefits such as improved health and employment opportunities, so why not encourage their uptake?
More than 80 per cent of our electricity generation comes from renewable hydro, geothermal, wind, bioenergy and a tiny bit of solar. Our electricity is therefore "low-carbon" compared with most countries, even without any Government interventions to encourage this.
We have a target in place to increase the renewables share to 90 per cent by 2025 but, other than the weak and ineffective Emissions Trading Scheme, no policies are yet in place to ensure it happens. The government's Smart Grid Forum is evaluating the opportunities that supporting integrated, small-scale, renewable power generation systems might deliver in the future, in conjunction with electric buses, e-trains and e-bikes as well as e-cars. There are around 800 e-cars already running around New Zealand.
Further in the future, a more flexible electricity grid, encouraging small-scale distributed generation, and integrating a larger share of variable wind and solar into the power generation mix without risks of power outages, would - and should - enable 100 per cent renewable electricity to be achieved.
Heat is a different story. Most of the demand for industry and buildings is currently met by burning coal and gas. But low-carbon, renewable alternatives are available and their uptake is growing. These include solar thermal for heating water and zero-energy buildings; geothermal heat for timber drying, prawn farming and so forth; woody biomass for making paper pulp and heating greenhouses; and wood pellets for heating homes, schools and other buildings.
It is also technically and economically feasible for Fonterra to stop burning coal and use renewable heat in its milk processing plants instead. In anticipation of the international price for emitting carbon dioxide increasing, it would make good business sense for coal to be displaced, and in some situations, even natural gas that also emits carbon dioxide.
Obtaining the desired energy services of comfort, mobility and lighting, but using less energy inputs as a result of using the energy more wisely is well understood. However, energy efficiency is still not widely implemented. New technologies, such as LED light bulbs, can reduce the energy demands, but even greater savings could be made by behavioural changes such as turning off appliances when not needed, or driving slower to reduce fuel consumption. Unfortunately, changing human behaviour is a real challenge, even when money can be saved.
For example, the transport sector has the fastest growth in emissions but many politicians seem loathe to discourage the use of cars (especially for short journeys), support the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles or expand the public transport system.
A person chooses either a private car, taxi, scooter, bus, train, plane, cycle or walking for a journey based on a mixture of cost, convenience, comfort, speed and safety. To break our dependence on the car requires making it easier and beneficial when travelling by other modes of transport. As well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the co-benefits are relieved traffic congestion, improved air pollution, better health through exercise, and saving money. According to the AA, the full cost of owning and operating a car is around $1 to $1.50 a kilometre travelled.
In the not-too-distant future, Uber taxis, electric vehicles, driverless cars, internet shopping, developments in social media and urban planning to encourage walking and cycling will reduce the desire for many people to own a car. Shifting freight from trucks to trains and coastal shipping will also be faster and cheaper as well as producing lower emissions.
All these developments are cost-effective and within our reach. With a well-educated population, New Zealand has the opportunity to greatly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and gain all the co-benefits that come with it. With a bit more ambition, we could also lead the development of innovative climate technologies - surely a guaranteed growth market - and show the world what can be achieved.
Unfortunately our "intended contribution" to reducing emissions is lower than that of most other countries, even Australia. We may only produce around 0.17 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions but, per person, we are around the fourth highest globally. Greater action now to reduce our emissions will help avoid some of the future high costs involved with having to adapt to extreme weather events and the need to become more resilient to them.
With biodiversity losses, dirty rivers, increasing traffic jams, local air pollution, high obesity levels, and rising greenhouse gas emissions, New Zealand's environmental leadership has badly slipped. There is still a chance to halve our greenhouse emissions by 2030 and regain our "clean, green" status - but, sadly, that opportunity is slowly slipping away.