Big cuts are needed in transport emissions say climate change experts as the latest data shows New Zealand continuing to rely on forestry rather than actual reductions to meet international obligations.

New Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures, released today, showed New Zealand's gross emissions dropped by one per cent between 2017 and 2018, accounting for some 78.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e).

But despite the drop, the annual report, which provides the most up-to-date picture of emissions, shows the scale of achieving zero net emissions by 2050, and current efforts continuing to fall short on international commitments.

One of those was to reduce emissions in 2020 5 per cent below 1990 levels (for the period 2013-2020), yet gross emissions increased 24 per cent to 2018.

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Net emissions, which are gross emissions minus carbon dioxide absorbed by forestry, also increased by 57 per cent since 1990.

To make up the difference and meet the 2020 target New Zealand will be relying on forestry and surplus units - after meeting a previous target - rather than actual emissions reductions.

It comes after Government projections last year showed the country falling woefully short of its commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions 30 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels.

The latest inventory covers 2018 as it takes about 15 months to collect and analyse the data - any effects of the Covid-19 outbreak won't be fully known until the 2022 inventory.

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Agriculture at 48 per cent and the energy sector at 41 per cent - including 19 per cent for road transport - continued to be the largest contributors to gross emissions in 2018.

Since 1990 the biggest increases in emissions have also been in those sectors.

Agricultural emissions increased 17 per cent since 1990, primarily due to an 86 per cent increase in the national dairy herd and increase of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser by 670 per cent, but only increased 0.7 per cent in 2018.

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Energy emissions have increased 34 per cent since 1990, largely due to more than doubling in road transport emissions.

The energy sector saw a slight fall in emissions in 2018, largely due to an increase in hydroelectric production, but this was offset by a 2 per cent increase in road transport.

Professor Dave Frame, director of Victoria University's New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, said a major concern was transport emissions, which had increased 20 per cent between 2008 and 2018.

"Unfortunately a lot of the good we are doing in all kinds of sectors is being undone if we keep buying Ford Rangers."

Easy policy changes included introducing fleet-wide vehicle emissions standards - New Zealand was among just a handful of countries without them - and incentives for people to switch to low-emission and electric vehicles, such as a feebate scheme or price signals about fuel price increases.

"We have set ourselves a lot of goals, but they do not have the policies to back them up."

New Zealand's GHG emissions between 1990 and 2018. Image / MFE
New Zealand's GHG emissions between 1990 and 2018. Image / MFE

Victoria University of Wellington climate scientist Professor James Renwick said the latest data showed New Zealand continuing to rely on forestry, rather than real emissions reductions.

In 2018, forestry accounted for 30 per cent of net emissions reductions.

"It is pretty clear to meet our 2020 obligations we will be relying on forestry, as we have done right from the beginning," said Renwick, speaking as an independent scientist and not in his role on the Climate Change Commission.

The Government's billion trees programme showed this continued to be part of the picture - but that had to change, Renwick said.

"Transport emissions continue and are projected to go up, and this is largely just private cars burning petrol and diesel. We need to find ways to reduce that, along with fossil fuel use in the wider energy sector."

It was "disappointing" to see the feebate electric vehicle scheme scrapped last year, as Renwick said there needed to be more incentives for people to opt for low emissions vehicles over "gas guzzlers".

Coronavirus and the economic downturn would make it difficult to make this conversion in the short term due to reliance on imported vehicles, but in a "terrible way" the lockdown had shown what could happen when cars were taken off the road.

"We've seen air quality improve dramatically all across the country, and we know the same will be happening with CO2 emissions. Hopefully we can take lessons out of this present situation and find ways to lock in some of these reductions, particularly around transport."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the report showed there was a long way to go to achieve zero net emissions by 2050.

The scale of what was required also went beyond current policies, he said.

"Building on our track record of progress is going to be crucial if we are to solve climate change and create a better future for our kids and grandkids."

Shaw said the economic recovery needed to happen in a way that helped the climate.

Economic growth increased by 3.2 per cent from 2017-18, the same period emissions fell one per cent, suggesting it was possible for the economic recovery to also include measures to solve climate change.

"We have an opportunity to change the quality of our economic growth and reduce its impact on the climate.

"Our goal is to transition to a net-zero carbon economy in a way that gives people good job opportunities and certainty about how they will provide for their families."

The Climate Change Commission, along with a range of NGOs, have been urging the Government not to "lock" New Zealand into a high-emissions future and "compound" the crisis with its Covid-19 economic recovery.

They have called for a "climate change lens" to be applied to choosing major investment projects and initiatives.

Greenpeace sustainable agriculture campaigner Gen Toop said Covid-19 had shown people and governments could respond and adapt quickly in a time of crisis.

"It's a reminder that we can make big leaps for our health and wellbeing if we choose to.

"The Government needs to direct its multi-billion dollar infrastructure and stimulus funds towards regenerative farming and clean transformative infrastructure like renewable energy and electric transport."