An increase in New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions is a step in the wrong direction towards the country’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, say experts, who have called on the government to bring in more radical action.

The latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory, released by the minister for the environment on Tuesday, shows that both gross and net emissions increased by 2% in the 12 months to the end of 2019. The increase was predominantly driven by the energy sector and an increase in methanol production in the manufacturing industries.

“The increase in emissions is not the direction we need to going in, as a country or globally,” said a climate scientist, James Renwick, head of the school of geography, environment and earth sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.

New Zealand’s net emissions rose by 57% between 1990 and 2018, placing it among the poorest performers in the OECD. In late 2019 the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, ushered through legislation that set a target of net zero by 2050 for CO2 emissions, including agriculture.

The reported increase from 2018 to 2019 “has taken us further away from meeting the targets we committed to in law”, said the minister for climate change, James Shaw.

He said the new figures did not take into account the impact of emissions reduction measures introduced by the government since 2019, such as a cap on the emissions trading scheme introduced last year; but they highlighted the need for further, urgent action. “The time for delay is over,” Shaw said.

Ralph Chapman, the director of Victoria University’s environmental studies programme, told the Guardian that the inventory reporting year on year was less indicative than a longer-term view, as the 2% increase in 2018-19 probably reflected decisions made years earlier.

“The government might be taking valuable action – in areas like banning new coal boilers in industry, and investing in public transport infrastructure – but each policy action takes a fairly long time to show up. … There will be reversals from time to time in the figures. But the trend in the greenhouse gas numbers has to be downward.”

The independent Climate Change Commission, tasked by the government with devising a strategy for how to decarbonise the economy by 2050, is in the process of finalising its proposal after a period of public consultation.

Among the measures advised in its draft report, delivered in January, were accelerated renewable energy generation, climate-friendly farming practices and reduced livestock numbers, more permanent (and more native) forests, and a comprehensive move to electric vehicles.

The commission is revising its report to reflect more than 15,000 submissions, with the final roadmap due to be tabled in parliament at the end of May. The government is then legally bound to adopt that, or devise its own plan by the year’s end.

Renwick – one of the six commissioners – said the latest figures could provide an “extra impetus” for action. “We have all the power, we know what we need to do, and we have most of the technologies we need,” he said. “It is a question of getting on and not worrying about whether we can or can’t achieve certain targets, to just go as far as we can and see how far we get.”

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow in November, is an opportunity for New Zealand to lead the world in setting more ambitious targets for carbon neutrality, according to Renwick. “I think it’s great that the commission’s advice shows that it’s doable and it’s affordable, for this country at least.”

But Chapman, who co-wrote a submission on the Climate Change Commission’s draft plan on behalf of the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, said the proposal did not go far enough to manage the risks around attaining net zero emissions by 2050.

The slowness of policy actions to take effect meant more rapid, radical change was needed if New Zealand was to cut emissions by around 50% by 2030, in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendation, said Chapman. “Those concerned about future climate change should not be deflected from demanding further government policy action.”

Last week thousands of students took part in protests across New Zealand in the country’s first School Strike 4 Climate protest since the Covid-19 pandemic hit.



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