Last month, Beca attended the Decarbonising New Zealand Conference in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. Participants gathered to learn from each other, to achieve a common goal for decarbonisation.

This year’s Decarbonising New Zealand Conference signaled a strategic approach to climate action with a drive to focus on the right things, at the right time and place, rather than getting lost in the scale and a possible sense of "everything, everywhere, all at once."

Balancing tensions

When a country tries to take urgent and unified action to address a major crisis, like climate change, there will always be challenges of scale and complexity; balancing tensions across regulatory bodies, markets, the physical environment, and competing demands and views of millions of people.

What I heard at the conference is that such tensions have been, and are being, dealt with at varying scales over recent years, ranging from individual action, technical responses at a project or organisational scale, and through whole-sector and market-level interventions.

Speakers acknowledged that with the many recent policy changes as the incoming Government articulates and actions its priorities, there are many potential areas of focus, across various sectors. It was also noted that many of those working in decarbonisation, are eagerly anticipating further word on strategies for achieving the first emissions budget for Aotearoa New Zealand this coming June.

Beca’s focus themes for impact

Decarbonisation is one of Beca's three focus themes for impact, helping to guide what we focus on over the next three to five years. Our other themes are Climate Adaptation & Resilience, and Resource Stewardship.

Decarbonisation is a challenge that touches all elements of our economy and society. Beyond 'simply' an environmental issue, it speaks to social equity and supports a just and equitable transition to a low-carbon future for all. After we were approached to present at the conference, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to partner and deliver this message. Decarbonising our country will require more than sound policy and a will for action, it needs technical expertise to deliver complex solutions, and financial investment to bring these initiatives to life.

Decarbonisation is not just an electric future

One cohesive message throughout the conference was that a decarbonised future is not only an electric future, but is intrinsically linked to the concept of 'using less'. This was exemplified in the presentations focused on the buildings sector on the first day of the conference. Ben Masters, Manager - Sustainable Buildings at Beca, explored the challenges of decarbonising the healthcare sector, through the Taranaki Base Hospital redevelopment. Nicolas Brisson, Beca Senior Associate – Security and Communications, explained sustainable buildings are not just a trend, they are the future. Data and technology will drive this change, allowing us to manage and improve building performance effectively, and increase consumer engagement.

The challenge of 'using less' was put into perspective when a presentation shared the startling fact that a single interaction with ChatGPT or similar generative AI uses the equivalent electrical energy to run a lightbulb for over three hours - which is 1,000 times more intensive than a Google search. Figuring out how to decouple this growth in data storage and processing requirements from an associated escalation in carbon emissions is a major technical challenge in the future of data centres, and one where New Zealand can hopefully play a role on the global stage. A complex climate challenge such as this is going to rely on technical expertise in energy systems, building efficiency and climate adaptation, none of which can be considered in isolation.

As of 2024 in Aotearoa, we have witnessed what is possible to achieve at a project level for decarbonisation, at least from a technical perspective. However, all signs point to these 'flagship' moments being a thing of the past, and what does not become unviable will likely become business as usual. Embracing large-scale solutions which meet technical, environmental, and financial criteria requires persistent and significant action. However, this will only happen if the wider sector and market is set up to support these initiatives in a robust and ongoing fashion.

Lower carbon solutions

Market-level interventions for lower-carbon options are one path forward, identified by several speakers at the conference. What form these interventions take is to be determined, whether through industry-wide subsidies on lower-carbon products, alternative rates for buildings demonstrating a certain level of carbon performance, or one of the many other financial levers available to nudge industry in the right direction. Green finance is an ever-growing presence, and entities such as the New Zealand Green Investment Finance (NZGIF) and private banking are establishing long-term frameworks reliant on technical assurance. Providing technical assurance to environmentally linked outcomes is a critical issue to address.
One interesting, and enlightening recurring theme from the technical presentations was the reliance on specific, local engagement and ownership to implement effective solutions. Fonterra’s Mouna Neyogi presented alongside Jack Timings, Beca Senior Process Engineer, on a fuel switching project which has demonstrated both substantial reductions in carbon emissions, and the outcomes achieved through effective buy-in with plant operators, managing to design a system which worked for all.

Beca’s Jack Timings, Senior Process Engineer presenting with Mouna Neyogi FBNZ IWS & Transformation Office Manager from Fonterra Brands NZ

Similarly, another presentation shared truck driver training programmes have resulted in an almost 4% reduction in fuel use. This demonstrates the power of not just telling people what they should do, but showing them how they can make a real difference. Behaviour change drives all decarbonisation, and so our role as professionals within our sectors is to simplify the decision process for individuals and steer them towards choices that result in lower carbon emissions.

With these and many other fantastic speakers, the Decarbonising NZ Conference was a valuable forum, bringing together participants to connect, learn, and work towards a common goal. The conference emphasised the need for a strategic approach, market-level interventions, local engagement and innovative solutions to achieve a low-carbon future. Decarbonisation is a complex and multi-faceted challenge that touches all elements of our economy and society, and requires persistent, consistent and significant action to achieve a low-carbon future, for everyone.

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Phoebe Moses

Carbon Navigator

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