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A full carbon budget for New Zealand

To combat climate change and assess the impact of government policies, we need to be able to measure greenhouse gas emissions.

Spectacular clouds at sunset. Photo: Allan Blacklock

Information from CarbonWatchNZ will be crucial in forming mitigation strategies. Photo: Allan Blacklock

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“What makes CarbonWatchNZ so vital is that doing this work is not just about scientific discovery, it is work that will make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher,
Atmosphere-Ocean Scientist, NIWA

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Specialists at GNS Science are collaborating on a world-first project: the development of a complete top-down picture of New Zealand’s carbon balance. 

CarbonWatchNZ is a five-year project that will combine measurements of greenhouse gases in the air above New Zealand with high resolution atmospheric models that show where the gases have come from. New Zealand is the first country in the world to develop a national-scale picture of a country’s carbon balance. 

GNS Science has already done some pilot work in Auckland using radiocarbon measurements to develop a full carbon budget for the city and prove the methodology. The good news from this work is that Auckland’s carbon sink (trees and other vegetation) may be offsetting more carbon than was first anticipated. The study is being expanded as part of the wider CarbonWatchNZ project. 

This new nationwide project will measure our two main greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and methane — in the three landscapes that are most important to New Zealand’s carbon balance — forests, farmland and urban environments. There will be 17 continuous measurement sites around the country. 

Our involvement is providing land carbon modelling to estimate the carbon exchange between the land and forests, and measuring greenhouse gas emissions on the urban scale. GNS Science has particular expertise in radiocarbon measurements. These allow us to separate the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning versus carbon dioxide from biogenic exchange (through photosynthesis and respiration). 

The information from these measurements will be crucial in making good decisions about carbon mitigation strategies both nationally and regionally. In Auckland, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei have engaged with the project to help understand the benefits of their ongoing native tree planting work on their land. 

CarbonWatchNZ is a globally recognised project funded by MBIE’s Endeavour Fund and involving our partners NIWA, Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, Auckland Council, and the University of Waikato. Information from the project is used in Ministry for the Environment reporting to the United Nations about New Zealand’s work to meet its obligations as a signatory to the Paris climate change agreement.