Three Ways to Fix the Zero Carbon Bill

The Zero Carbon Bill is currently going through the select committee process, which gives you another chance to offer your feedback. The Zero Carbon Bill is an essential piece of legislation in the transition to a low carbon economy, but recent evidence suggests that its goals could be better. 

The Bill 

The Zero Carbon Bill is a long-awaited piece of legislation to pave the way to a low-emission economy in line with the Paris Agreement. Of course, we don’t know all the details about how that transition will happen. Instead, the bill sets some emission-reduction targets and establishes a Climate Commission to advise the government of the day on the best way to meet those targets. Right now, the targets are the important bit, so we’ve got to get them right. 

FIX 1: Zero Fossil Fuel Target

As it stands, the main goal in the Zero Carbon Bill is net zero emissions by 2050. The key word here is “net”. It means that we may still be emitting greenhouse gases in 2050, but that is okay so long as we are doing other things that soak them up. And the main way we have of doing this is planting more trees. 

That all sounds pretty reasonable so far. Some quibble about how quickly we should act, for example School Strike for Climate wants us to get to net zero by 2040, and Extinction Rebellion by 2025. 

However, some people look at the issue really differently and question whether the “net” bit is a good idea at all. In other words, should we plant trees to offset our emissions?  

The real enemy in the long term is carbon dioxide. This gas is created by burning fossil fuels and is causing most of the warming in the world today. Carbon dioxide lasts a long time in the atmosphere – around 1,000 years. 

Currently, the most reliable means of soaking up carbon dioxide we have is planting trees. Approaches like seaweed farming, building up soil carbon, and creating wetlands are all possible solutions in the future, but aren’t proven yet. 

While trees do soak up carbon, they can only soak up so much. Once mature, forests reach a steady state. And that means if we want to keep emitting fossil fuels, we need to plant up more and more land. Eventually this will squeeze other productive uses of land. 

We also don’t know how long trees will keep that carbon locked up. Plantation forests are deliberately cut down after 30 years. Even “permanent” native forest is prone to disease and fire. It is somewhat risky to rely on them as a “permanent” carbon sink. 

Tree planting also presents a problem in a practical sense. New Zealand has so much marginal land that offsets from planting trees will keep the carbon price low – too low for businesses to take real action to reduce their fossil fuel use. In other words, we could get to 2050 having done very little to lower our emissions and merely planted trees instead. This would leave us still facing an enormous challenge of weaning our economy off fossil fuels. 

No other country in the world allows unlimited levels of tree planting as an offset for burning fossil fuels, because they know we must get fossil fuel use to zero. So why not have that as the key target? Stop messing around with this “net” zero carbon idea entirely and truly work towards being a zero carbon country. The timeframe is up for debate, but this should definitely be the target. 

FIX 2: Plant Trees but Only to Offset Agricultural Emissions

New Zealand is unique among developed nations in having such a large proportion of our emissions from agriculture. As a result, no other developed country talks about it as much as we do. 

New Zealand definitely needs to take action on agricultural emissions. We need to stabilise and reduce them, particularly methane. However, we don’t need to get them to zero. 

So what should farmers (and government) be doing? The first priority should be sorting out fresh water quality, particularly in places like Canterbury. This is a far greater challenge than reducing agricultural emissions and will generally lower emissions anyway as farmers farm less intensively. 

Beyond that, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton suggests that agriculture is the appropriate place to use trees as offsets. After all, plantation forests soak up carbon for about 30 years - a similar time to the life of methane emissions in the atmosphere. Growing native forest also has a similar profile to nitrous emissions at 100-200 years. What’s more, agriculture and trees compete for the same land space. 

This naturally raises questions of fairness, whether farmers are “doing their bit”, and how emissions are accounted for internationally. I would say the world is looking to New Zealand to lead on this. 

FIX 3: Look for Win-Wins 

There are lots of examples where reducing emissions can have other benefits for people. In these side benefits are a massive part of what can make a low emissions economy appeal to people. Our health for example hugely benefits from better insulation and from greater use of active transport. The Zero Carbon Bill should recognise these win wins and encourage policies that achieve them. 

Another big example of potential win wins that needs thinking about is the area between adaptation and reducing emissions. The sad truth is that, based on other countries’ current promises, we are headed for a world that is at least 3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. That is above the 2 degree upper limit in the Paris Agreement and almost double the ideal goal of 1.5 degrees (which would prevent sea level rise that would threaten many low-lying countries, including the Pacific Islands). 

So what actions should we take? Surely we should look for win-wins that both reduce emissions and help us adapt to a warmer world. Planting up erosion-prone land with native trees is a clear starter, as there will be more storms in the future. Energy security could be a massive challenge and will largely be resolved by investing in renewable energy. And of course, improving energy efficiency is always a massive issue for both the economy and the environment. 

The Zero Carbon Act should make it clear that these win-wins are action priorities. Not only will they reduce emissions, but also help prepare us for the potential challenges ahead. 


Some other weaknesses of the Bill have been canvassed by others. In particular the Bill allows Governments to drag their heels on action and claim that we can do more later on, closer to 2050. This is just putting the problem in the lap of future generations. 

Also the Bill states that the Climate Change Commission will be independent except when it comes to the unit supply setting of the Emissions Trading Scheme. This seems bizarre - the Commission is supposed to provide carbon budgets and recommend the best way to achieve those carbon budgets. Yet when it comes to the biggest tool - the Emissions Trading Scheme - they will have their hands tied behind their back. It’s bizarre, the clause must have been added as a condition of support from someone who isn’t really serious about taking action (probably National or NZ First).