There are about 5.1 million people who call New Zealand home. In terms of global population, we have about 0.06% of the total world population.
We are not a big country, and some might ask why what we do on climate change matters — or why we should be doing more. There are a few good reasons for that, including that our emissions are not decreasing, our responsibility to smaller, more at-risk countries like those in the Pacific, or the fact that size just shouldn't matter when it comes to doing what's right.
New Zealand's population is about the same as a lot of places around the world — think Sydney, Los Angeles, Berlin, or Singapore. If all of those places opted out of climate action or were slow to make changes, the impact to the planet and people would be significant. We all have to pull our weight, together, for this to work.
We emit more than our fair share
New Zealand's gross emissions contribute about 0.17% of the world's gross emissions. That's three times more than our fair share when you look at our proportion of the global population.
In 2018 the average emissions of OECD countries were 12.9 tonnes of CO2e per capita. New Zealand's were 16.9 tonnes of CO2e per capita. We have the sixth highest emissions per capita in the OECD, despite our size.
That's partly because the make-up of our economy is fairly unusual. We have a high proportion of emissions from agriculture, while emissions from electricity are low as it's mostly renewable. If we set aside our methane emissions from agriculture, New Zealand is more in line with other OECD countries — although with definite room to improve.
Rod Carr, Chair of the Climate Change Commission, had some insights on our size in a consultation on the Commission's draft advice to Government.
"If we took all our agricultural emissions out of our emissions profile, and left all China's manufacturing in their profile, our emissions would still be twice theirs per capita.
"We are among the richest nations in the world and we have access to technologies that should we choose to, we can reduce our emissions… We can afford it, and arguing that because we are little we won't make a difference, would have meant that every New Zealander who ever fought in any war wasted their effort."
Our emissions are still going up
While we have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, our emissions are still rising. The Ministry for the Environment reports that between 1990 and 2019, our net greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 33.5%, from 13,778kt CO2e to 54,892.8kt CO2e.
Our energy-related emissions in 2019 were 44.3% higher than in 1990, mostly because of emissions from road transport (which increased by 96.2% since 1990) and fossil fuels in manufacturing and construction. Transport makes up almost half of our energy-related emissions and presents a big opportunity for emissions reduction through things like switching to lower-emissions vehicles and uptake of public and active forms of transport.
Our greenhouse gas emissions are projected to decrease in the coming decades, but not fast enough to meet our 2030 goals under the Paris Agreement. To change this, we need to ramp up what we're already doing on climate change and find new ways to decrease our emissions.
We have led the world before
We've proven many times that size doesn't matter when we've led the way on other important issues. Doing that got the attention of other countries and their citizens, and often led to widespread change.
Think back to 1893, when New Zealand became the first country in the world to give the vote to women. We set an example that the rest of the world followed. Or to 1987, when New Zealand passed a law to become a nuclear-free zone, the first Western-allied country to do so. Or more recently, with our health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a country, we're more than capable of making bold moves and doing what we believe is right, encouraging others to follow. We're already doing that on some areas of climate change — like enshrining our net-zero target in law in the Zero Carbon Act. But there is more we can do.
Our neighbours rely on us
New Zealand has a long-standing tradition of providing support to countries in the Pacific, and climate change is no different.
Island nations like Samoa, Tonga, and Niue, contribute almost nothing to global greenhouse gas emissions (the entire Pacific island region contributes about 0.03% in total). But they are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, from rising sea levels, to extreme weather events like droughts and flooding, and increasing ocean temperatures.
We have a responsibility to look out for those countries that are even smaller and more at risk than ourselves and make sure that our actions don't put them at even greater risk.
Not only that, but we can be a role model in this area and inspire other small countries to take action themselves. And together, the actions of all small nations would add weight to the climate change conversation and put pressure on bigger countries to follow suit.
Taking collective action
When one action becomes a collective action, it can drive lasting, meaningful change. Like Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama back in 1955. That single action helped kickstart the civil rights movement and changed the course of history.
It will take all of us acting on climate change — the government, businesses, communities, and individuals. But it can be done — we've proven it before. The changes that we need to make won't always be small — some will be system wide changes, others might mean the way we work, do business or live will look a little different. But the outcome will be worth it, we just need to be open to change.
So no, New Zealand isn't too small to make a difference. And we're not going to use that excuse when it comes to climate change.