Is New Zealand 'emissions freeloading'?

What is climate equity? 

It’s all about fairness. 

You may have heard the line ‘act now for the sake of your children or grandchildren’. That bandied about one-liner sums up the concept of fairness for future generations or what is known as intergenerational equity. 

You're less likely to have heard the line ‘act now for the sake of vulnerable communities’. Thinking about fairness towards people currently living is a plea for climate equity generally. It’s about asking how can we level the playing field. If we're going to be taking climate action, who should it benefit? If we have $20 to invest in fighting climate change, should it be used to buy a glass straw and line the pockets of some global corporation, or should it help those who need it most? 

New Zealand is a small nation; what we do doesn’t matter, right?

In New Zealand, we like to think we’re pretty green and only responsible for a blip of global emissions compared to the US, China, or India. The truth is, what we emit today doesn’t paint a complete picture. Greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere over centuries. We are a high-income country and industrialised by relying heavily on fossil fuels. We’re also still a net exporter of emissions offloading climate pollution to other countries, i.e. our exports create more climate pollution than the imported goods we consume within New Zealand. 
Because of our historic role, we have a greater responsibility to fight the climate crisis and help developing countries industrialise without making the same high-carbon mistakes we did. This is the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the UNFCCC. For us, doing our fair share means aiming for more than net zero. Factoring in historical emissions, the Climate Equity Calculator has calculated that New Zealand should be aiming for 100% below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We have committed to 11% below 1990 levels by 2030. In 2018, our net emissions were up 57% on 1990 levels. 

Add to this present-day issues of inequity. Those who are the least culpable for historical emissions tend to be those most vulnerable; those on the frontline of the climate crisis already feeling the effects and struggling to meet their basic needs let alone adapt to changing weather patterns or rising sea-levels.

Want to know how vulnerable a place is? The NY Times has this fantastic infographic worth playing around with. As Yaryna Serkezit points out, it shows how “most people at greatest risk from climate change live in low- and mid-income regions…In densely populated lower-income countries close to the equator, with weak economies, inadequate roads and power supplies and other infrastructure deficiencies, climate risks could lead to food shortages, mass migrations and other social challenges.”

Climate change is the opposite of the great equaliser; it is the great differentiator, exacerbating existing socioeconomic inequalities. In 2020, 700mill people lived and died in extreme poverty. We’re in a 1*c world; it’s hard to imagine what a 2*c world will be like. As the impacts mount, addressing this only becomes more urgent. 

Why are we being accused of ‘emissions freeloading’?

“New Zealand is one of the few countries in the OECD to have increased gross emissions since 1990, doing so at a rate higher than all nations except Turkey, Iceland, and Australia... despite New Zealand’s unusually high proportion of renewable energy, a head start most nations could only dream of having” according to Charlie Mitchell in Stuff. He continues “New Zealand is freeloading and forcing less financially advantaged nations to go beyond their fair share of emissions to preserve our way of life” and, our only defence is “that Australia is even worse”.

Recent reports by Oxfam and an article published in The Lancet has also found that New Zealand’s actions are inadequate at a moral level. According to Charlie Mitchell in Stuff “New Zealand was ranked 21st of 23 developed nations in the amount of climate-related financing it offered to other countries.” 

How do we level the playing field?

It’s not a lost cause. We are in the lucky position of being willing and able to address climate equity. We all share the same atmosphere, so it doesn’t matter if we reduce emissions in New Zealand or Namibia. By prioritising climate action that focuses on the most vulnerable we can:
  • Maximise the gain. We can typically reduce more emissions from the atmosphere more cost-effectively in low-income countries than we can when we act in New Zealand (turns out tree planting in NZ is comparatively quite an expensive way to reduce global emissions), and
  • Minimise the pain. By helping low-income nations with low-carbon development, we can enhance the capabilities and strengthen the resilience of those most vulnerable while easing their transition to a low-carbon economy.

What Co-Benefits is doing to help.

We started Co-Benefits to try to address global climate equity by helping everyday kiwis take fairer climate action. 

Our fund helps everyday Kiwis stop ‘emissions freeloading’ and start having a more meaningful impact on people and the planet. By joining, you're supporting a careful selection of low-carbon projects that help boost up vulnerable communities. All the projects we work with not only lower emissions cost-effectively, but they also have positive spillover effects on the local communities they’re located in (known as co-benefits) that meet at least 3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Things like decreasing lung cancer rates as charcoal cookstoves are replaced with clean ones, increasing literacy rates as kids can do their homework after dark under solar-powered lights. This isn’t just anecdotal impact; the Gold Standard has assessed that every offset purchased from a biogas project (which costs approx. NZD 30), creates NZD 700 worth of socio-economic value. 

We think co-benefits should be an intrinsic part of any climate solution; they are super compelling on their own and shouldn’t be seen as a secondary effect. That’s why we’ve adopted the term as our name.

Want to know more about co-benefits? Check out our projects page here. Want to help us start levelling the playing field? Sign up to help grow our fund here

Join the collective

Low-carbon. High-impact.