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Climate change in New Zealand facts for kids

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Baringhead co2 v9
Atmospheric carbon dioxide record from Baring Head, Wellington from 1977 to 2018.

Climate change in New Zealand involves historical, current and future changes in the climate of New Zealand; and New Zealand's contribution and response to global climate change.

Summers are becoming longer and hotter, and some glaciers have melted completely and others have shrunk.

In 2021, the Ministry for the Environment estimated that New Zealand's gross emissions were 0.17% of the world's total gross greenhouse gas emissions. However, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is a significant emitter, the sixth highest within the Annex I countries, whereas on absolute gross emissions New Zealand is ranked as the 24th highest emitter.

Almost half New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, mainly methane from sheep and cow belches. Between 1990 and 2019, New Zealand's gross emissions (excluding removals from land use and forestry) increased by 26%. When the uptake of carbon dioxide by forests (sequestration) is taken into account, net emissions (including carbon removals from land use and forestry) have also risen – by 34% since 1990.

Climate change is being responded to in a variety of ways by civil society and the New Zealand Government. This includes participation in international treaties and in social and political debates related to climate change. New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme, and in 2019 the government introduced the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill which created a Climate Change Commission responsible for advising government led policies.

Science of climate change in New Zealand

Instrumental records and effects


New Zealand annual average land surface temperature from 1909 to 2013 with a locally weighted ('Lowess') trend lines. Source: Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature.

Since instrumental measurements began in the late 19th century, New Zealand's average air temperatures have fluctuated substantially year to year, and a number of studies indicate that New Zealand's average temperature has increased.

A significant upward trend in national average air temperature was detected of 0.11 °C per decade (for the period from 1896 to 1994) with a 95% confidence interval ± 0.035 °C. This is roughly twice the trend reported for global data, which may be due to the relative absence of sulfate aerosols in the South Pacific.

The Royal Society of New Zealand's statement on climate change notes that between 1908 and 2006, there has been a clear upward linear trend in the country-wide average air temperature of 0.9°Celsius.

Carbon dioxide

New Zealand has a long-term record of atmospheric carbon dioxide similar to the Keeling Curve. In 1970, Charles Keeling asked David Lowe, a physics graduate from Victoria University of Wellington to establish continuous atmospheric measurements at a New Zealand site. The south-facing Baring Head, on the eastern entrance to Wellington Harbour, was chosen as being representative of the atmosphere of the southern hemisphere. Lowe initially built an automatic air-sampling machine using parts from a used telephone exchange.

Modelled wind directions indicated that air flows were originating from 55 degrees south. The Baring Head data shows about the same overall rate of increase in CO2 as the measurements from the Mauna Loa Observatory, but with a smaller seasonal variation. The Baring Head CO2 concentrations have increased by 50 parts per million between first records in the early 1970s and 2005. The rate of increase in 2005 was 2.5 parts per million per year. The Baring Head record is the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 in the Southern Hemisphere and it featured in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 in conjunction with the better-known Mauna Loa record.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has also recorded atmospheric concentrations of methane (from 1989) and nitrous oxide (from 1997) at Baring Head.


Fox Franz Ivory Glaciers NZ fig6
Measured variations in the position of the termini of the Fox, Franz Josef, and Ivory Glaciers, 1870 to 1988.

Since 1977, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has been using aerial surveys of late summer snowline to estimate the mass balance of 50 index glaciers. The snowline marks the equilibrium line of a glacier; above the line the glacier is accumulating snow and below the line the glacier is melting. The mass balance is the net gain or loss of snow and ice. The latest survey, in 2009, indicated two years of decline in the overall mass of the index glaciers. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research considers that the volume of ice in New Zealand's glaciers has declined by about 50% in the last century, while New Zealand’s average temperature increased by about 1 °Celsius.

New Zealand's largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier has retreated about 180 metres a year on average since the 1990s and the glacier's terminal lake, Tasman Lake, is expanding at the expense of the glacier. Massey University scientists expect that Lake Tasman will stabilise at a maximum size in about 10 to 19 years, and eventually the Tasman Glacier will disappear completely. In 1973 the Tasman Glacier had no terminal lake and by 2008 Tasman Lake was 7 km long, 2 km wide and 245m deep.

Sea level

Twentieth century

An analysis of long term records from four New Zealand tide gauges indicates an average rate of increase in sea level of 1.6 mm a year for the 100 years to 2000, which is considered to be relatively consistent with other regional and global sea level rise calculations when corrected for glacial-isostatic effects. One global average rate of sea-level rise is 1.7 ± 0.3 mm per year for the 20th century (Church and White (2006). Another global average rate of sea-level rise is 1.8 mm/yr ± 0.1 for the period 1880–1980.

A 2008 study of cores from salt-marshes near Pounawea indicated that the rate of sea level rise in the 20th century, 2.8 ± 0.5 mm per year, had been greater than rate of change in earlier centuries (0.3 ± 0.3 mm per year from AD 1500 to AD 1900) and that the 20th century sea level rise was consistent with instrumental measurements recorded since 1924.

Twenty-first century

A report published by the Royal Society of New Zealand predicts sea level rise of at least 30 cm and possibly more than one metre this century. The report finds it likely that the sea level rise around New Zealand will exceed the global average and will cause coastal erosion and flooding, especially when combined with storm surges.

Emissions intensity

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions
New Zealand gross greenhouse gas emissions per capita 1990-2012 compared to United Kingdom, Europe, China, World average, India and Africa

The NZ Ministry for the Environment considers that the energy intensity of New Zealand's economic output has to some degree decreased since 1990. Greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP have declined slowly from about 750 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per million dollars of GDP in 1990, to 552 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2008.

According to estimates from the International Energy Association, New Zealand's per capita carbon dioxide emissions roughly doubled from 1970 to 2000 and then exceeded the per capita carbon dioxide emissions of either the United Kingdom or the European Union. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions are in the highest quartile of global emissions.

The 2007 State of the Environment Report noted that in 2005 New Zealand’s per capita emissions of the six greenhouse gases listed in the Kyoto Protocol were 18.5 tonnes CO2equivalents per head of population and were the 12th highest in the world, and the 5th highest out of the 27 OECD countries. The Ministry for the Environment's 2007 State of the Environment report noted that New Zealand's per capita GHG emissions were high and were exceeded in the OECD only by countries such as Australia and Canada. The greenhouse gas intensity of New Zealand's output is the second highest in the OECD (after Australia). Consequently, New Zealand is in the bottom half of the OECD in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP and greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Bertram and Terry (2010, p 164) state that on a per capita basis, New Zealand's GHG emissions are unambiguously a significant contribution.

Greenhouse gas emissions

NZ Gross GhG Emissions 1861 to 2012
NZ Agricultural & Energy Emissions 1861 to 2012
NZ's emissions over time 1990-2012
New Zealand's emissions from 1990 to 2012
NZ GHG Emissions Profile by Sector 2014
sector percent
NZ GHG Emissions Profile by Gas 2014
greenhouse gas percent
Carbon Dioxide
Nitrous Oxide
PFCs and SF6
NZ greenhouse gases by sector
New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions projected and actual from 1990 to 2030.

New Zealand has a relatively unique emissions profile. In 2014, agriculture contributed 49% of total emissions, energy (including transport); 40%, industry; 6%, waste; 5%. In other Kyoto Protocol Annex 1 countries, agriculture typically contributes about 11% of total emissions.

Between 1990 and 2014 New Zealand’s total (or gross) greenhouse gas emissions increased by 23.2%. Net emissions (after subtracting forest sequestration removals) increased by 53.6%. Emission increases by sector were - agriculture; 15.2%, energy; 35.5%, industry; 45.1%. waste; -0.5%.

N2O emissions originate from animal excrement and from the use of nitrogenous fertiliser. Livestock produce methane from rumination. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide as it can trap twenty times the heat of an equivalent volume of carbon dioxide. Since New Zealand has large stock numbers these emissions are significant. A dairy cow produces between 84 and 123 kg of methane per year from rumen fermentation. In 1997, New Zealand's per capita emissions of methane were almost six times the OECD average and ten times the global average

In 2003, the Government proposed an Agricultural emissions research levy to fund research into reducing ruminant emissions. The proposal, popularly called a "fart tax", was strongly opposed by Federated Farmers and was later abandoned. The Livestock Emissions and Abatement Research Network (LEARN) was launched in 2007 to address livestock emissions. The Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium between the New Zealand government and industry groups seeks to reduce agricultural emissions through the funding of research.

At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the New Zealand government announced the formation of the Global Research Alliance involving 20 other countries. New Zealand will contribute NZ$45 million over four years towards research on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Political and social aspects

International treaties

New Zealand ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) in September 1993.

Kyoto Protocol

New Zealand's comparative emissions 1990-2012
A comparison between New Zealand emissions (net and gross) and those of other countries from 1990 to 2012

New Zealand signed the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC on 22 May 1998 and ratified it on 19 December 2002.

Under Article 3.1 and Annex B of the Protocol, New Zealand has a target to ensure that 'aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A do not exceed' 100% of 1990 gross emissions (the baseline).

New Zealand's target is expressed as an "assigned amount" of allowed emissions over the five-year 2008-2012 commitment period. This is divided into Assigned amount units (AAUs) (denominated as 1 metric tonne of CO2 equivalent) which each Annex I Party issues to itself.

In 2002, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) noted that it expected New Zealand to be able to increase emissions and comply with the Kyoto Protocol, and make an economic gain. Not withstanding the Annex B reduction target of 100% of the 1990 base year gross emissions, New Zealand would be able to emit more than its initial assigned amount as long as more emission units were obtained from forest carbon sinks between 2008 and 2012. MFAT predicted that New Zealand would emit between 50 and 75 million tonnes of greenhouse gases more than the 365 million tonnes of the initial assigned amount during the first commitment period. However, MFAT considered that the increase in emissions would be offset by about 110 million Removal Units (RMU) originating from forests planted from 1990 onwards (post-1989 forests.

So, specifically, for the 2008-2012 commitment period (CP1), New Zealand may either limit emissions to the assigned amount (five times the 1990 gross volume of emissions) or allow emissions to increase and add emission units from domestic afforestation or from the international carbon markets to the assigned amount. The additional units may be any of the Kyoto units; Assigned amount units (AAU), Removal Units (RMU), Emission Reduction Units (ERU) and Certified Emission Reduction (CER) units.

In December 2007, New Zealand's 309,564,733 Assigned amount units were recorded in the New Zealand Emission Unit Register.

In June 2005, a financial liability under the Kyoto Protocol for a shortfall of emission units of 36.2 million tonnes of CO2-e was first recognised in the Financial Statements of the Government of New Zealand. It was estimated as a liability of $NZ310 million. New Zealand's net balance under the Kyoto Protocol remained in deficit from 2005 (a deficit of 36 million units) until May 2008 (a deficit of 21.7 million units).

In November 2012, the Ministry for the Environment reported that the latest projection of New Zealand's net Kyoto position was a surplus of 35.3 million emission units valued at NZ$38 million (based on an international carbon price of 0.68 Euro per tonne).

On 9 November 2012, the New Zealand Government announced it would make climate pledges for the period from 2013 to 2020 under the UNFCCC process rather than agree to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The Minister for Climate Change Issues, Tim Groser, argued that this was a principled decision, noting that:

"the key requirement [to address climate change] has been to refocus political and negotiating attention beyond the Kyoto Protocol to a more comprehensive agreement that is capable of dealing with the real environmental problem – the vast bulk of emissions that would never have been covered by Kyoto...That figure is 86% and will reach 90% of total global emissions in a few years. It is a matter of simple arithmetic that the only agreement that makes environmental sense long term is an agreement that deals with the bulk of emissions, not an increasingly small part of global emissions"

This announcement was reported internationally as New Zealand avoiding legally binding obligations and as a move that angered environmentalists. Green Party climate change spokesman Kennedy Graham said the Government's announcement was about hot air at talks instead of legally binding measures to reduce emissions. The decision was also heavily criticised by the World Wildlife Fund. Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand should not lead the way on climate change, but instead be a "fast follower". The Alliance of Small Island States voiced disappointment at New Zealand's decision.

2020 target under the UNFCCC

On Friday 16 August 2013, the Government announced a new mitigation responsibility target under the UNFCCC of -5% on 1990 emissions by the year 2020. The Minister for Climate Change issues noted that New Zealand will also continue to honour its prior (2009) conditional offer to reduce emissions to 10 - 20% below 1990 levels but only if other countries come on board. Although -5% is more ambitious than the targets of Australia, Canada and the United States (when compared on 1990 levels), a number of environmental groups have noted that it is below the level recommended by scientists in order reduce the damage of anthropogenic climate change. Some groups in New Zealand have misunderstood the 2013 target, for example assuming that it replaced the target set in 2009.

Emissions trading scheme

New Zealand Unit Prices 2010 to 2015

The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) is a partial-coverage all-free allocation uncapped highly internationally linked emissions trading scheme. The NZ ETS was first legislated in the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading) Amendment Act 2008 in September 2008 under the Fifth Labour Government of New Zealand and then amended in November 2009 and in November 2012 by the Fifth National Government of New Zealand.

The NZ ETS covers forestry (a net sink), energy (43.4% of total 2010 emissions), industry (6.7% of total 2010 emissions) and waste (2.8% of total 2010 emissions) but not pastoral agriculture (47% of 2010 total emissions). Participants in the NZ ETS must surrender one emission unit (either an international 'Kyoto' unit or a New Zealand-issued unit) for every two tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions reported or they may choose to buy NZ units from the government at a fixed price of NZ$25.

Individual sectors of the economy have different entry dates when their obligations to report emissions and surrender emission units take effect. Forestry, which contributed net removals of 17.5 Mts of CO2e in 2010 (19% of NZ's 2008 emissions,) entered the NZ ETS on 1 January 2008. The stationary energy, industrial processes and liquid fossil fuel sectors entered the NZ ETS on 1 July 2010. The waste sector (landfill operators) will enter on 1 January 2013. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from pastoral agriculture are not included in the NZ ETS. (From November 2009, agriculture was to enter the NZ ETS on 1 January 2015)

The NZ ETS is highly linked to international carbon markets as it allows the importing of most of the Kyoto Protocol emission units. It also creates a specific domestic unit; the 'New Zealand Unit' (NZU), which will be issued by free allocation to emitters, with no auctions intended in the short term. Free allocation of NZUs will vary by sector. The commercial fishery sector (who are not participants) will receive a free allocation of units on a historic basis. Owners of pre-1990 forests will receive a fixed free allocation of units. Free allocation to emissions-intensive industry, will be provided on an output-intensity basis. For this sector, there is no set limit on the number of units that may be allocated. The number of units allocated to eligible emitters will be based on the average emissions per unit of output within a defined 'activity'. Bertram and Terry (2010, p 16) state that as the NZ ETS does not 'cap' emissions, the NZ ETS is not a cap and trade scheme as understood in the economics literature.

Some stakeholders have criticized the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme for its generous free allocations of emission units and the lack of a carbon price signal (the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment), and for being ineffective in reducing emissions (Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand).

The NZ ETS was reviewed in late 2011 by an independent panel, which reported to the public in September 2011.

Political parties stance on climate change

Prior to the 2008 election, the Fifth Labour Government of New Zealand had committed itself to addressing climate change and had declared a goal for New Zealand of carbon neutrality. To achieve this, two objectives were set: generating 90 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025; and, halving per capita transport emissions by 2040. The Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Bill was introduced into Parliament by the Fifth Labour Government on 4 December 2007. On 10 September 2008, the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading) Amendment Act 2008 had its third reading in Parliament and was adopted 63 votes to 57 with support from the Green Party and New Zealand First.

According to Colin James, National Party "herded with" the climate change skeptics up to 2006. Then in May 2007, National stopped opposing the Kyoto Protocol and adopted a policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. For the 2008 election, National's policy was to honour New Zealand's Kyoto Protocol obligations and the 50% reduction by 2050 emissions target. The Labour Party's emissions trading scheme would be amended to better balance environmental and economic concerns, and to make it fiscally neutral, flexible, aligned with the Australian Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and not disadvantageous to consumers and small business.

The Green Party support lowering carbon emissions, exposing the economy to the externalities of carbon emissions and using income from a carbon tax to achieve a low carbon economy and to protect those on low incomes from the economic consequences of climate change.

The ACT Party went into the 2008 election with a policy that in part stated "New Zealand is not warming" and that their policy goal was to ensure: "That no New Zealand government will ever impose needless and unjustified taxation or regulation on its citizens in a misguided attempt to reduce global warming or become a world leader in carbon neutrality" In September 2008, ACT Party Leader Rodney Hide stated "that the entire climate change – global warming hypothesis is a hoax, that the data and the hypothesis do not hold together, that Al Gore is a phoney and a fraud on this issue, and that the emissions trading scheme is a worldwide scam and swindle". In October 2012, in response to a speech on climate change by Green Party MP Kennedy Graham, ACT leader John Banks said he had "never heard such claptrap in this parliament... a bogeyman tirade, humbug."

Formed in August 2014, the NZ Climate Party believe that climate change is an urgent priority and should receive much greater political attention. The party believes current & past New Zealand Governments have not been taking the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nearly seriously enough.

Civil society and non-governmental organisations

A number of civil society groupings and NGOs have formed to lobby in favour of and against a variety of climate change policies. Individuals also express policy preferences through forums such as the Internet, Letters to the Editor and talkback radio.

Forest and Bird, New Zealand's largest conservation organisation, campaigns on climate change by increasing public awareness. Climate has an effect on ecosystems and therefore on species. New Zealand has a number of endangered species that may be affected by climate change.

The Royal Society of New Zealand advocates and provides funds for science research including research into global warming. The Royal Society considered it important to be seen to be doing something about climate change, so it became carbon neutral in 2008 when it received carboNZero certification from Landcare Research. Similar to other national science organisations, the Royal Society of New Zealand has released a position statement on global warming.

The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition has the goal of refuting what it believes are unfounded claims about anthropogenic global warming. It was formed in May 2006 by Vincent Gray and Augie Auer among others. In August 2010, the Coalition announced it had commenced legal action against the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), asking the High Court to invalidate its official temperature record, to prevent it using the temperature record when advising Government and to require NIWA to produce a "full and accurate" temperature record. In September 2012, the High Court dismissed the allegations of the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust, declined to review the NIWA temperature data and awarded costs to NIWA.

The Greenhouse Policy Coalition represented the energy-intensive sector (aluminium, steel, forestry, coal, dairy processing and gas sectors). It was set up in 1996, and represented most of New Zealand’s largest electricity users such as New Zealand Steel, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Limited, Solid Energy, Fonterra, Methanex New Zealand and four pulp and paper manufacturers. In 2005, the Greenhouse Policy Coalition opposed the Labour Government's proposal for 2005 carbon tax. The group accepts anthropogenic climate change and sees a need for public policy to mitigate its effects, as long as that policy is 'moderate and measured'. The Greenhouse Policy Coalition stopped operating on 31 March 2012.

OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health is a group of senior doctors and other health professionals concerned about the effect of climate change on population health. It was formed to lead the New Zealand medical advocacy response, in light of recognition of the importance of this topic by the World Medical Association and leading medical journals.

Grassroots activism also plays a part. Climate Camp Aotearoa, part of the Camps for Climate Action held an event in Wellington in December 2009. On 21 December 2009, members of the Camp for Climate Action disrupted the New Zealand stock exchange as a protest against the failure of the Copenhagen climate change talks and 'to confront the profiteers of climate change'. have also organised various events around New Zealand.

A coalition called Climaction were active in Auckland between 2006 and 2008. They advocated system change, not climate change. They held mass direct action blockades of major streets in Auckland City to demand free public transport and a 90% reduction in greenhouse gases by the year 2030.

In May 2011, the climate scientist James Hansen visited New Zealand for a speaking tour. Hansen drew huge crowds for his public talks which emphasized that the likely global warming catastrophe from increased fossil fuel sourced CO2 emissions could be avoided as long as the world's coal resources, including seams of Southland lignite, were not used. Hansen said he did not agree with cap and trade schemes, like the NZETS that included forestry offsets. "In my opinion you have to have the simplest, transparent scheme so I just say it should be a flat fee proportional to the amount of carbon in the fuel. And the money, I say, has to go to the public." New Zealand Herald economics editor Brian Fallow described Hansen as "authoritative on the science and compelling on the ethics".

In April 2016, an individual set up a Climate Dashboard NZ website to provide more visual tracking of NZ's Greenhouse Gas emission reduction efforts.

Media reporting and public opinion

A six-month study in 1988 on climate change reporting in the media found that 80% of stories were no worse than slightly inaccurate. However, one story in six contained significant misreporting.

The popular media in New Zealand often give equal weight to those supporting anthropogenic climate change and those who deny it. This stance is out of step with the findings of the scientific community where the vast majority support the climate change scenarios.

A survey carried out in 2007 on climate change gave the following responses:

Not really a problem 8%
A problem for the future 13%
A problem now 42%
An urgent and immediate problem 35%
Don't know 2%

In August 2012, a Horizons poll showed that 64.4 per cent of respondents wanted Parliament to do more to respond to global warming. 67.5 per cent of respondents wanted business to do more to address global warming. Horizons commented that the poll "makes a strong case for more political action".

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