Is a low-emissions energy future possible?

The Government has committed to Net Zero Carbon by 2050, but two thirds of our energy is supplied by fossil fuels. Is zero carbon possible? And what do we have to do to get there?

Long-term planning

Energy & Waste

Existing infrastructure

10 min read

Photography NZ Story

Change is coming and we have a choice

Climate change is already having an impact on our weather. Our rainfall patterns are changing, weather events are becoming more extreme and our sea levels are rising. Carbon emissions continue to rise as global temperatures are changing.  

We need to significantly grow our clean electricity generation over the next 30 years to meet our net-zero carbon emissions targets and play our part in responding to climate change. We have more than enough natural, clean resources like wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy to do this.

We’ve done it before and we can do it again

This challenge might sound overwhelming, but looking to the past should give some confidence that it can be done. New Zealand has been a world leader in renewable energy, and from around the 1960s onward we built a series of large hydroelectric power stations that still serve us today.  

In fact, taking into account the size of our economy, we built at a faster pace between 1960 and 1990 than we’ll need to over the next 30 years. Since then, construction technology has improved, and the wind and solar farms that will be a big part of the solution are a lot easier to build than hydro dams. They also have less impact on our environment.  

"When you take into account the size of our economy, we built at a faster pace between 1960 and 1990 than we’ll need to over the next 30 years."

What’s holding us back

Our energy companies already have advanced plans for building clean energy infrastructure, although they face uncertainty about how quickly the demand for energy will grow. Some will need to invest before more energy is needed, and others will have to invest quickly to match the demand as it occurs.     

One of the main things that could hold us back from meeting our goals is regulation that makes it hard to get consent for building this infrastructure. This hasn’t prevented New Zealand from meeting our needs in recent decades because demand has been relatively flat, but over the next 30 years we will need to build at a much faster rate and the regulations could be a major hurdle. Currently it can take several years to gain consent, especially for large infrastructure. Streamlining this consenting process can unlock our potential, making it possible to build the infrastructure we need. 

One way we can achieve this is for councils to identify low-emissions energy zones in their regional spatial plans. These zones are areas that would be suitable for low-emissions energy infrastructure where there would be fewer barriers to gaining resource consent. 

We can also look out to sea. Technology developments and experience in the UK suggest offshore windfarms could become a viable option in the medium term, but again, our consenting system doesn’t allow for this option. 

But it doesn’t all need to be big. Our regulations should help with the uptake of low-emission distributed energy generation, such as rooftop solar panels, smaller wind turbines, batteries and demand management systems at a residential, business and community scale. 

By harnessing our low-emissions energy resources alongside other complementary technologies, we could treble our annual electricity supply and better manage periods when there is less rainfall to power our hydro stations. If we harness these resources, we can attract energy-intensive industries to grow our economy, create higher paying jobs and improve our quality of life. This is good for us and good for the planet. 

In fact, the opportunity is there not only to meet our net-zero emissions targets but to go further and generate enough clean energy to support energy-intensive industries like large-scale data centres, reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and creating sustainable jobs for New Zealanders. 

Some of the changes we'll need to make

A low-emissions energy future is possible - we’ve made shifts of even greater scale before. Getting there will mean making renewable energy and climate change a priority and making some trade-offs. 

The New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy explores some of the changes we’ll need to make, including: 

  • A consenting system that recognises the national importance of low-emissions energy and provides a pathway for approvals to be granted both on-shore and offshore windfarms. 
  • A planning and consenting system that anticipates our low-emissions energy needs, creating zones with fewer barriers and aligning the investment of our transmission, distribution and generation companies. 
  • Regulations that anticipate and allow for the latest technologies for storing and generating low-emissions energy.