This is a post by Heidi O’Callahan and Greater Auckland reader Paul Callister.
Would you take public transport to another city or small town? Can you imagine regional New Zealand having attractive alternatives to driving?
Greater Auckland’s main focus is on urban planning issues within our city. But Auckland is a node in the national transport networks. Auckland’s economy, transport, culture, and environmental footprint, are all intricately linked with those of the rest of the country.
New Zealand should develop and invest in a comprehensive national public transport network of rail, bus, ferry and van, linking with cycleways and walkways. It would use advanced information and communications technology to combine public and private transport providers. In this post, we discuss the environmental benefits.
The Government Policy Statement on Transport includes an Environment Goal:
reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as adverse effects on the local environment and public health
The Zero Carbon Bill, released this month, could be in force later this year. The legislation will require 3-yearly emissions budgets. The initial budget – to be set by the end of 2021 – is the most important. Our children will have the brightest possible future if we adopt some urgency around making radical changes to our short-term emissions. The more quickly we can adapt our infrastructure for a low-carbon lifestyle, the quicker we can avoid paying tens of billions of dollars in carbon abatement costs. In turn, this saving allows further investment in sustainable planning.
In considering how an emissions budget may realistically be met, the Commission and the Minister must include consideration of the following… identification of key opportunities for emissions reductions and removals in New Zealand…
Let’s avoid stale mindsets limiting what’s “realistic”. We won’t reduce our emissions by following the same practices of recent years. We need to discuss a national public transport network, not in terms of what has been normal, but in terms of the key opportunity it offers.
The emissions calculator from Enviro-Mark Solutions below compares the different modes for an example trip; travel from Auckland to New Plymouth:
Travel by long distance coach (13 kg) contributes far less to climate change than taking the trip by either driving (76 kg) or flying (73 kg). An improved national public transport network could allow people to “modeshift” in two ways:
- from flying to public transport, and
- from driving to public transport.
Modeshift from Flying
Emissions from NZ domestic aviation have been up and down since 1990; presumably the economy and more modern technology have played their part. Currently, the domestic aviation emissions (892.6 kt CO2e) make up 1.2% of NZ’s gross carbon emissions. Do our domestic flights contribute 1.2% towards everything we need and do and value? Or is this highly-polluting activity mainly benefitting a small group in society?
These emissions are increasing significantly at present – jumping 9.3% and 7.7% in the last two years (see inventories).
Some people see a solution in electrification of short-haul aviation, which would require substantial extra electricity generation capacity. Others are looking to biofuel technology, which has technical issues to resolve, or significant arable land requirements. But even if low-emissions aviation technology becomes viable, our existing fleet isn’t going to be replaced any time soon. According to Prof Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University:
No other industry has spent so much money on improving its performance. But all the benefits that have been made are being offset by growth in air traffic.
Over the next 10 years, which is the critical timeframe for optimising future outcomes, the available mechanism for reducing emissions from aviation is simply to reduce our flying. As the calculator above shows, travel that can be shifted from flying to long distance bus will involve a drop in emissions in the order of 80%.
NZ emissions from international aviation have risen considerably since 1990:
Those from global flights have risen significantly from 1332.9 kt CO2-e in 1990, to 3702.7 kt CO2-e in 2017, the last available figure.
These emissions could also be reduced if an improved national public transport network allows people to replace international travel with national travel; something we will discuss in a later post.
Modeshift from Driving
Carbon emissions from driving is often used as a measure of an activity’s impact (Credit: Andy Clarke, via twitter):
The post Acting Like Adults discusses reducing our road transport carbon emissions in line with our overall climate commitments. The current focus should be on reducing our annual travel from 49 billion to 28 billion vehicle km travelled by 2030, a drop of 43%, which requires Addressing Climate Change through the Transport Budget.
As with domestic aviation, electric vehicles and biofuels might offer relief in the long term, but emissions need to reduce now, not in 20 or so years when the fleet has changed substantially.
Currently, our big challenge is to tackle the steep upward trend in vehicle km travelled (MoT data):
The easiest place to make fast change is in cities, where urban planners have plenty of options for providing better mobility and access.
However, according to the NZTA’s current definition, rural roads account for 58% of our nation’s travel; urban roads 42%. The following chart uses this NZTA data, but note the caveat below. Also, the MoT and the NZTA use different estimation methods, which accounts for the different totals in the charts above and below.
This increase in vehicle kilometres travelled is from road building, and created a 6% increase in road transport carbon emissions in 2017, a worryingly higher rate of increase after the already-unacceptable rise of 2.5% the previous year.
In rural areas, the widened roads are like a sponge for more travel, but the newly generated traffic takes decades to reach equilibrium. The effect of roads built recently and under construction now will last long into the future.
Caveat: NZTA are improving the way they split vehicle km travelled into different road types at present, which is great. For now, it pays to note that NZTA have counted urban motorways as rural roads. A more accurate estimate might be arrived at by shifting that travel into the urban tally. The 2017/18 data (only, for now) is detailed enough to be able to do this, and the shift turns these figures around, to 42% rural, 58% urban. Rural travel is still significant.
If we concentrate on modeshift in the cities only, urban travel will need to reduce by 75% by 2030:
One outcome of such significant behaviour change would be that young people in the city wouldn’t bother learning to drive, and existing drivers might not retain sufficient skills to feel confident on rural roads. They will need public transport to other areas.
In any scenario that involves reducing our travel sufficiently nationwide (by 43% by 2030), a national public transport network will be required to maintain (or preferably improve) levels of access.
Other Environmental Benefits
If we can switch our travel from (many) private cars to (space efficient) buses, our road building and widening programmes can be slashed to just the work needed to improve safety.
The benefits for the local environment of not doing these huge projects would be huge.
This road construction through the countryside is dividing and destroying ecosystems, ruining soil and waterways, and contributing to biodiversity loss. Having fewer vehicles on our roads benefits the environment, too. As the recent Environment Aotearoa report notes:
Vehicle emissions contribute to poor air quality. Abrasion of road surfaces, tyres, and brake pads release small particles, including heavy metals into the environment. Petroleum spills and leaks contaminate land, soil, and water.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Chair, Sir Robert Watson said this month:
The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide… The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.
Nelson and Canterbury have declared a climate emergency, and parliament might follow, which lends weight to marshalling resources to opportunities such as this. By rights, there should be an ecological emergency declared at the same time.
However, the benefits of investing in a national public transport network reach far further than what we’ve touched on here about the environment. Further posts will explore other aspects. We welcome discussion.