Explainer: The big energy transition

Energy makes modern society tick. But not all energy is equal.

Some energy contributes to climate change, so addressing this is critical to reaching New Zealand’s net-zero carbon emissions targets.

But where do our energy emissions actually come from? How are we already reducing them? And what more could we be doing?

We explain the country’s energy equation.

What makes up Aotearoa’s energy emissions?

New Zealand might have one of the most renewable electricity grids in the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Government data shows that burning fossil fuels (gas, oil, or coal) makes up nearly 40% of the country’s total emissions each year.

Energy from fossil fuels is widely used for many things central to our daily life. For example, driving petrol or diesel cars, travelling in planes, and powering industrial processes that produce the goods we use every day.

Proportionally, transport is a big contributor. Of New Zealand’s energy-related emissions, around 30% come from light vehicles (cars and vans), while another 11% comes from other heavier transport, like buses, rail, freight, and planes.

The business sector also makes up a large chunk of emissions, particularly companies that use process heat powered by large boilers (that create hot water and steam) for things like brewing, pulp and paper production, and dairy processing.

Process heat specifically is responsible for around a quarter of the energy emissions across the country.

New government data has uncovered the scale of the fossil fuel problem, showing there are at least 176 sites and 315 large fossil fuel-powered boilers across the South Island. More than 90% of the fuel use captured comes from coal.

A smaller portion of fossil fuel emissions come from the public sector, including schools, hospitals, and prisons. New Zealand’s households are also a relatively low contributor at under 5% of total energy emissions, not including travel.

What can we do about those emissions?

Reducing these emissions is a big challenge given we live in such an energy-intensive society. But this is not a problem without solutions.

EECA’s energy scenario modelling shows most of Aotearoa’s energy emissions can be eliminated by 2050 using technology we already have.

Those scenarios also show that an environment where road transport is almost entirely fossil fuel-free is possible.

Energy efficiency is also critical to supporting a transition to renewables at scale – in practice this can include using smart chargers with electric vehicles (EVs) or choosing appliances (like heat pumps) that can reduce the amount of energy a household or a business needs to use.

What are some other alternatives?

Transport choices and reducing our reliance on fossil fuel vehicles is really important.

Things are changing a lot already – we are, for example, seeing more people turn to e-bikes for transport or choosing to work more days from home, thus reducing their travel footprint.

More people are considering EVs, too, and some carmakers have pledged to manufacture 100% electric vehicles within the next 10 years, as that demand grows.

At the large business end, speeding up the switch to renewables for heating and steam will be critical to meeting New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets.

Options for transitioning away from the coal and gas-powered boilers many of these businesses rely on include biomass such as wood pellets, electric high temperature heat pumps, and electrode boilers.

As well as reducing their carbon footprint, businesses are also finding low-emissions alternatives can future-proof them against rising emissions costs and unpredictable fuel markets.

Energy use in homes is largely based on electricity but using less of it, and then looking for cleaner options where it is needed, is a great place to start.

Changes are expected in the next few years that will enable two-way communication between households and the grid, reducing costs for households, taking pressure off the national electricity grid, and therefore helping reduce New Zealand’s carbon footprint.

So, can we do more?

In short, yes. And we need to do it now.

Aotearoa is currently in a race to reduce emissions to 50% below 2005 levels in the next seven years, and to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The work towards decarbonisation is underway, and all of us have a part to play.


This content was sponsored by EECA, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. You can find out more about New Zealand’s energy emissions and the work that’s going into reducing them at genless.govt.nz. Gen Less is backed by EECA.

A TVNZ1 Climate Special, in partnership with EECA and hosted by Miriama Kamo, aims to inform, inspire and mobilise New Zealanders who want to take a step towards a green, low-carbon future can be watched on TVNZ+