Covid and lower coal use push down emissions

Emissions see-sawed in winter, with a dramatic plunge in the third quarter of 2021 as Huntly power station burned less coal and lockdowns took force.

Statistics NZ has started releasing emissions data every three months, so people can track more closely how the country is doing at cutting planet-heating gases.

For the previous three months, the picture was poor, with a 4.7 per cent increase in the three months to June 2021.

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The latest data – for the three months to September 2021 – shows emissions fell 11 per cent on a seasonally-adjusted basis, a drop Statistics NZ attributed to lower coal use for making electricity, as well as Covid-19 lockdowns in late winter reducing activity.

In the last couple of years, emissions have undergone a “rocky period”, said Statistics NZ’s Adam Tipper.

Recently, emissions hikes are related to rainfall. When there’s little water in the hydro lakes, coal-powered generators are brought into service to make up the difference.

“In the previous quarter, there was a record increase in coal use which drove up emissions,” Tipper said. “In the [September] quarter, we’ve seen a significant decrease in coal use. So it’s come right back down again.”

The grounding of international flights is another significant contributor to the drop in emissions compared to previous years, Tipper said.

“It [international travel] was starting to increase a little bit. But again, with lockdown restrictions coming in during that last quarter, there was a subsequent decrease.”

The travel bubble with Australia opened in April before closing in July, after the Delta outbreak over the ditch. In the September quarter, international aviation was down 45 per cent compared to pre-Covid levels.

Emissions produced by households fell by 12 per cent during the three-month period. Here, the August lockdown – which lasted until late September in Auckland – is thought to be the primary driver.

Household transport emissions fell 13 per cent in the September quarter. A tiny proportion of this was offset by increased use of heaters, as people stayed in.

However, the lockdown savings were a minor road bump: since drivers hit the roads in such force in December 2020, household transport pollution actually increased 9 per cent in the 12 months from September 2020.

Still, there were positive signs in the data. No sector grew its greenhouse pollution during the three-month period, Tipper said.

“That’s agriculture, mining, manufacturing, electricity, gas, wastewater services, construction and the service industries as well as households showing decreases. That’s the first time that we’ve seen decreases in all industry groups in a quarter.”

Lower greenhouse pollution in the September quarter helped pushed emissions for the year to September 2021 down 4.4 percent compared with pre-Covid times, according to the Stats NZ series.

Huntly Power Station, owned by Genesis Energy, worked overtime burning coal in the three months to June 2021.


Huntly Power Station, owned by Genesis Energy, worked overtime burning coal in the three months to June 2021.

After reaching a high in the three months to June 2021, electricity and gas sector emissions fell by a third, mainly because electricity generators switched from coal to hydro generation.

Figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment show a quarter of electricity in the three months to June came from burning fossil fuels – a very high share by New Zealand standards. That dropped to 16 per cent in the three months to September.

As well as providing timely data on the country’s emissions, the statisticians are looking for a particular economic signal: a point where the country’s GDP continues to grow, but emissions start falling. Experts call this “decoupling”.

Asked whether the data had shown this signal, Tipper said emissions have remained stable over the long-term, while GDP has risen, in general.

However, Stats NZ’s Michele Lloyd​ warned that the volatility of repeated lockdowns “makes it hard” to spot this type of pattern in the data.

Statistics NZ calculates emissions using information reported by companies – from electricity generators to Air New Zealand – on their fossil fuel use, as well as electronic spending data.

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