AP Interview: New Zealand minister says emissions to rise

New Zealand has set itself apart from neighboring Australia by declaring climate change a top priority. But despite some lofty goals, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in the South Pacific nation and could do so for years to come.

And the country faces some unusual challenges with half of those emissions coming from farm animals.

New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who will travel to Poland on Sunday to attend U.N. climate talks, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he expects emissions to peak by 2025 and only then start to decline.

"We have not bent the curve," he said.

Under the terms of the Paris climate agreement, New Zealand is supposed to reduce its emissions by 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. Is it possible?

"Well, we're a long way off to tell you the honest truth," Shaw said.

He said the biggest challenge is cars and trucks.

"Our transport emissions have gone up 24 percent in the last decade," he said. "For every electric vehicle that we import, we import 24 Ford Rangers."

New Zealand's liberal government has promised to plant 1 billion trees over the next 10 years, and intends to pass legislation next year requiring the country to become carbon neutral by 2050. But vital details of the law are still being negotiated, including whether the country will be able to trade carbon credits overseas.

"We've got an aversion to using international credits before we've really exhausted all of the domestic options," Shaw said. "But we could see the possibility that a future government might need to have that option open."

Shaw said research indicates it is possible for New Zealand to become carbon neutral within its own borders, although it will be challenging.

Also at stake is the degree to which farmers will be affected.

Agriculture is a vital industry in New Zealand, and the human population of 5 million is dwarfed by the country's 10 million cows and 27 million sheep. The animals add to nitrous oxide emissions and release methane gas.

But just how to classify methane remains contentious. It's a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but also disappears from the atmosphere much more quickly.

Shaw said New Zealand has taken a more bipartisan approach to climate change than in Australia, where he said successive leaders have failed on the issue. He said part of the problem is that Australia has a long history with industries such as coal mining.

"It's deeply rooted in people's sense of self and culture," he said. "So when you talk about the need to make that transition, even over quite long timelines, it meets with resistance."

Shaw said New Zealand doesn't face the same existential threat from rising seas as some of its low-lying Pacific neighbors such as the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, although the nation would still be severely affected.

"If you look at where New Zealanders live, most of us live very close to the sea," he said. "And our largest cities have significant infrastructure quite close to the shoreline."