There are forty people who will decide whether we decarbonise transport in Auckland, and New Zealand’s ultimate climate response depends on achieving this by 2030. The legacy we leave our children – a city of health and opportunity, or a stranglehold on freedom – will be determined by these people making the right decisions now.

On Monday evening last week, more than 150 people attended an event with Dr Paul Winton, Jenny Cooper QC, Lucy Lawless, Maulik Thakkar, Patrick Reynolds and Councillor Pippa Coom (and many more watched it live-streamed). They heard:

  • Why it is necessary to decarbonise transport by 2030,
  • Who the decision-makers with the power to enable this are,
  • The legal basis for requiring them to make these changes, and
  • What we can do.

When we finally achieve it, decarbonised transport will be wonderful – it’ll be healthier, safer, cheaper, more equitable and far more fun than the car dependence we have today.

Six advocacy groups (1Point5, Greater Auckland, Bike Auckland, Lawyers for Climate Action, Women in Urbanism and Generation Zero) have jointly penned an open letter urging these forty people to take the following actions so we can decarbonise Auckland’s transport by 2030:

Please sign it. Thanks to Generation Zero for creating the open letter signature form and to Bike Auckland for video-ing the meeting and providing a live stream [Edit: this is a cleaner version with better audio]:

Dr Paul Winton of The 1point5 Project outlined the climate challenge. He praised Auckland Council for its recent Climate Plan, but criticised our transport system as not meeting our needs:

And what’s worse… the plan in Auckland – which is supported by central government – really embeds this, and gives us a transport system that’s probably worse than the one we have today… it’s a more congested system and a worse carbon system.

So there’s a fork in the road…

He discussed two versions for transport decarbonisation:

There’s one that’s cleaner but congested and there’s one that transforms transport…

Paul says:

There are forty people who will change this… I’ve had the chance to talk to the board and the CEO’s of these organisations… Some of them get it and really want to do more. Some of them haven’t even thought about it. And some oppose change…

First… they haven’t done the work. None of these organisations have estimated the scale and rate of change needed under climate change and hence their beliefs and plans are hopelessly out of step with climate reality…

Secondly, the conversations have been very car-centric…

Lastly, they – generally speaking – don’t feel empowered or responsible for the change.

Jenny Cooper QC of Lawyers for Climate Action spoke about the legal obligations these decision-makers have. Her speech is available on Planetary Ecology.

Some of the key points Jenny made are:

All decision-makers who are exercising any form of public power have to act lawfully… Anyone affected can apply to the court for judicial review to determine if the decisions are legal or not.

Decisions can be found to be unlawful:

  • if they are outside the scope of the decision-maker’s legal powers or lawful purpose under the relevant Act;
  • if irrelevant considerations were taken into account, or mandatory considerations were not taken into account;
  • if they are unreasonable or irrational; or
  • if they have been affected by bias.

the courts are increasingly willing to get involved in decisions relating to climate change.

International law

International law, such as the Paris Agreement, is not directly enforceable in New Zealand courts. But courts do interpret domestic law in a manner consistent with international obligations where possible… International obligations can also be found to be mandatory considerations for decision-makers.

Jenny discussed the recent Heathrow runway case from the UK where the court found:

even though the Minister had no statutory obligation to consider the Paris Agreement in approving the third runway, “There can be some unincorporated international obligations that are so obviously material [to a decision] that they must be taken into account. The Paris Agreement fell into this category.” This was an incredibly powerful lawsuit and an incredibly powerful finding by the court.

In addition to the Paris Agreement, there are many other international agreements that impact on decarbonisation. Clearly joining the C40 network involved commitments that are material to decision-making for Auckland. But there will also be agreements in areas like environment, safety, health, equity and human rights which have decarbonisation implications too. The one that jumps out at me immediately is the Stockholm Declaration on Road Safety.

Domestic law

On New Zealand’s domestic law, Jenny says:

The centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate law is the Climate Change Response Act 2002, amended in 2019 (the “Zero Carbon Act”)…

Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold the view that the 1.5ºC target, the 2050 target, and the carbon budgets are so obviously material to decisions in some areas, like the transport system, that they must be taken into account. We’re looking forward to testing this in court, if necessary!

The right to life

Urgenda is a civil society group in the Netherlands… arguing in the Dutch courts that the Dutch government’s efforts to cut emissions are… not consistent with the right to life, because climate change creates a foreseeable risk of loss of life. On 20 December 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court agreed… Lawyers for Climate Action NZ argue that a similar positive legal obligation also applies in New Zealand and that decisions inconsistent with protection of the right to life are unlawful.

Lawyers for Climate Action wrote to the Board of Auckland Transport in mid-June outlining the legal obligations the organisation has in relation to climate change, and made a presentation to them in late July also. Here’s a slide from that presentation:

At last week’s meeting, Jenny was asked what the consequences would be if AT doesn’t respond:

Either they will spontaneously do things to bring down emissions or someone will need to do something about it… I’d much rather win them over.

She also answered a question about why New Zealand should bother if other countries don’t:

What if no-one else bothers and we do? There’s… great misunderstanding that things are not happening overseas. In fact we are very much behind… New Zealanders like to think that we’re environmentally forward, but we’re actually not. So there’s not much danger at the moment of us being way out in front.

So what can we do?

Our open letter says:

We need decisions to be made now. If you choose inaction, you are in fact taking direct action to create an unsustainable future in which our children face severe environmental degradation and exponentially rising costs.

Please sign the letter, and share it with others.

Paul suggests we need to support and empower those who understand the scale and rate of change that’s required, educate those who need it, and put

incessant pressure on those that are holding back.

He also recommends we (respectfully) have “awkward conversations” to raise awareness with people who don’t yet understand the need for transport decarbonisation. We shouldn’t just discuss it in our bubbles.

There’s no reason to fear the changes involved in decarbonising transport. The process of change might seem daunting, but the outcome itself will be liberating.

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35 comments

  1. Great work in Auckland. I have just put in submissions to a Kapiti transport plan (where i live) and one for Taupo (where I am interested in their long distance bus infrastructure). Kapiti declared a climate emergency last year but the transport plan doesn’t reflect that at all. And at the moment the main statements we hear from the mayor are supporting more road projects. Plus there is lobbying for more ratepayer support for the local airport. Taupo has a few words about reducing transport emissions but mainly business as usual. Again ratepayer (and taxpayer) support for airport projects but also, more positively in terms of emissions, some taxpayer support for cycleways. These reports are being done ahead of transport emission budgets coming out from the Climate Commission next year. I suspect in line of these budgets both councils will need to significantly redo their plans.

  2. “We have 9 years to halve our carbon emissions” – is that something NZ has signed up to? If so that is never going to happen!
    Is this one of those things that they sign up to that seems so far into the future that they never have to actually do anything (but then eventually comes home to roost).

    1. Watch the video, Jimbo. Paul explains things quite clearly.

      There’s no need to doubt what’s possible on the basis of inertia. We love our kids, and that’s what this is about. Ramping up our actions now to give them the best chance possible (while also making our lives better.)

    2. Yes, this is something that NZ has signed up to. Read this bit again: “Lawyers for Climate Action NZ hold the view that the 1.5ºC target, the 2050 target, and the carbon budgets are so obviously material to decisions in some areas, like the transport system, that they must be taken into account [by ALL decision makers]”. Also see the specific provisions of the Paris Agreement and the Zero Carbon Act.

      Nine years is not that far into the future. It requires action from the plans and budgets now under consideration.

      1. I am aware of the 2050 target. I imagine in terms of transport that will almost be met by default. I can’t really imagine ICE vehicles being around by then, and if so only in small quantities that can just be outlawed on that date. But what is the 2030 target?
        While I would love for this to happen in 9 years, lets face it it wont. Can you imagine say 50% of NZ giving up their cars and using PT or walking or cycling? I can’t. They couldn’t possibly even build that much PT by then. And also all PT would need to be emission free, that is a lot of electric buses and chargers etc. And then their is freight, deliveries, tradies, etc.
        If I was a TAB bookmaker I would give you million to one odds on reducing our transport emissions by 50% in 9 years time. So my question is who signed up to it and what have they done to try and make it happen?

        1. I take Jimbo’s point that halving emissions in 10 years is essentially impossible, based on what we’re doing or any level of change that can actually be imagined.

          Do we even know what would need to be done to achieve that level of change? How many more bus lanes? How much growth in PT use? How many cycle lanes? How high would road pricing charges need to be?

          Or do we simply hope that electric cars delivers most of this reduction, and the goal of PT, walking & cycling improvements is to just avoid VKT from growing?

        2. Impossible based on what we’re doing, yes.
          Impossible based on a level of change that can be imagined? No, but we certainly start seeing the limits to some people’s ability to imagine.

          The six key actions in the open letter aren’t plucked from the sky. They are based on a workable vision.

          My posts on Good Density, Reducing Traffic, Less Parking Please, Auckland’s Low Traffic Neighbourhood Plan, Ready-Made Council Plans at Your Service, Building Up and Out etc are all part of a very cohesive, very possible vision.

          What is impossible is meeting our safety goals – or our health goals, or equity, or housing – without making these changes. Decarbonisation wins from every angle.

          We need to stop sprawl in its tracks, put money into regeneration of our city, including direct investment in apartment building, make local areas and neighbourhoods liveable again by getting rid of the through-traffic, repurpose the arterials, put land used on car infrastructure to better uses, electrify the buses and the big vehicle fleets, reduce car ownership, redesign freight, give priority to designing for children, people in poverty and people with different abilities.

          Decarbonisation will follow from all this. And any remaining emissions reductions can come with electrification of most of the remaining private vehicles.

        3. In terms of practical steps to achieve the 2030 goals, Paul Winton’s model is available online here… https://transport2030.org.nz/

          Have a play and find out what the different levers deliver.

          What I take from this is that the moves required are certainly significant, radical even, but by no means impossible, let alone impractical.

        4. I’m not saying it’s impossible to achieve, just saying it won’t happen (without significant technology advances such as very cheap batteries but even then 9 years seems too quick for enough to upgrade).
          Heidi I agree with all of the things you say we need to do; but they are the long game, it will take a very long time to change from sprawl and car dependence. It is simply impossible to achieve any significant level of change to our built environment in 9 years, 9 decades would even be difficult.
          I guess the other point is whether we accept that in a democracy the majority have the say. I personally hate sprawl and car dependence, but a lot of people love it. To them the best way to decrease emissions is via electric cars (and that would probably be the quickest and cheapest way).

        5. I think there’s a misunderstanding of the 2030 target. It’s not been set politically. It has been recommended by the IPCC according to the best current modelling – If we (humanity) want to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees C by 2100, then we (all of humanity) need to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2030. If we (humanity) don’t reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, then the climate will respond with a higher level of warming by the end of the century, and that warming will be locked in.

        6. The need to reduce by *at least* 50% is strong. As I quoted Greta in “Fifty Percent May Be Acceptable To You”:

          “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

          Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.

          So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.

          To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons… With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.”

          As to whether it’s been set politically, have a look at the link to Jenny’s speech in Planetary Ecology above. She says:

          “The centrepiece of New Zealand’s climate law is the Climate Change Response Act 2002, amended in 2019 (the “Zero Carbon Act”). All powers under the Act must be exercised in a manner consistent with its purposes, which include contributing to the global effort under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.”

          NZ has committed to doing its fair share, which means reducing our emissions more than the global average.

  3. Just a pop up cycleway or two would show their interest and support. Polls, TVNZ 2017, have found high support,64%, for PT, walking and bikeways in NZ
    I have seen pictures of busy bikeways in America, Australia, England, France, Germany all helping the wellbeing of the people and the economy.
    We import huge quantities of oil making us one of the worlds worst polluters

  4. The average age of cars on our roads is 14 years.
    Per the second video, to “almost completely decarbonise transport” by 2030 means many of these would need to be scrapped before the end of their useful lives, and waste the embodied carbon.
    To even halve transport carbon emissions by 2030 we shouldn’t be importing any more fossil fuel powered vehicles.
    In 2016 the National government committed to making a third of the government fleet electric or hybrid by 2021.
    In 2017 the agreement between Labour and New Zealand First stipulated that the entire fleet would be emissions-free by mid-2025, “where practicable”. But they’ve done virtually nothing to meet this and instead pushed out purchasing 100% electric vehicles beyond mid-2025.
    The government proposed a “guzzler” tax and electric subsidy but then did nothing on that either.
    Auckland council is still purchasing fossil fueled buses.
    The time for action has already passed and all I see is more talk and delay.
    The key target here is to “reduce and decarbonise the vehicle fleet”. Where’s the plan and what needs to be done each year of the next 9 years?

    1. Re: “Where’s the plan?” – as Paul Winston says in his talk, it’s the government’s and CCC’s job to come up with the plan. I believe there is ongoing work on this but until it’s released, we only have the studies done outside the government to go on. AC have approved the first part, as far as their responsibility goes. The next step would be for AT and the government to align with it. Another part of the plan is, as Jenny Cooper has said, is to prevent decision makers making unlawful decisions.

      On your other points:
      1. Scrapping old vehicles does sometimes work out to be a good idea, but no one has proposed it seriously as a major component
      2. The main work is done by reducing vehicle travel, not by decarbonising the fleet. There are many levers to reduce the demand for vehicle travel.
      3. The government didn’t introduce the feebate because NZF blocked it. It wasn’t strong enough for the considerations mentioned in the original post, but it is likely to arrive eventually.
      4. The time for action is not passed. Even if we crash past 3 degrees there will still be good reasons to stop burning fossil fuels.

  5. We have known about global warming for years. Some people write that it’s not happening for 10 years or 50 years or the year 2100.
    But it’s happening now, this week. Sea level are rising a few mm a year
    Huge devastating floods in China, Korea, Japan, India and Bangladesh (several times in the past month), Northland, Spain, Argentina etc
    Then the huge fires in Siberia, California, Brazil etc.
    The insurance costs have been rising steeply each year.

    1. Paul makes the point in his speech that while Climate Tracker suggests current action is going to leave us with an untenable 3 degree world, the insurance industry has done their own calculations, and think it’s closer to 4 degrees.

      How the big polluters are shifting into disaster management as a way to capitalise on the destruction they have brought brings out the cynical in most people. But we can turn this around.

      1. (Heidi this is an excellent article, I have no idea how I missed this event, but it didn’t come up on any of my networks!! I’m so thankful that you’ve written this).

        In reply to your comment: This is my concern. It’s going to happen, but we need to be prepared and resilient to survive in the likely altered climate. I’m using survive on purpose because that is close to what we are likely to be doing.
        Of course bike paths, and riding bikes, not needing fossil fuels to power transport, minimising single occupant and unnecessary vehicle movements, are all part of not only reducing emissions, but behaving in a resilient manner for When things are different.
        Either it helps the planet or it helps our exisiting on it, or both. There is nothing to lose from decarbonising transport. However I add to this that there is a pretty big lobby who don’t want people to stop consuming petrol and oil. The decision makers in these market forces need to be included in the equation. It took a decade to bring down big tobacco, big oil is going to be a long game too, and one that we don’t have time for.
        It’s so frustrating that when we see the success of covid on the transport network, working from home staying local… And it disappearing as fast as it appeared. This is where sharp change could be made, and made permanent.

        1. Thanks Jessica. You had to be in quick to get a ticket to the event anyway, so you weren’t the only one who missed out.

          I think one piece of hope is that many of the changes happening to transport overseas will be permanent – transport processes and planning works are being overhauled. New Zealand will catch up, it’s just we’re not getting this initial boost.

          Meanwhile, using sustainable transport to get around is important for all the reasons you mention PLUS it helps shift others’ mindsets, provides anecdotes and data to bust myths, and informs the discussion with real life local experience whenever decisions are made.

    1. +1. Although a very good and timely post, I also could not see how these 40 were capable of achieving these serious reductions in climate changing emissions. It would need government direction to enforce measures to achieve this and that would seem a courageous move since those measures would likely prove extremely unpopular with voters.
      Has anyone seriously looked at other measures to mitigate the pollution levels if none of these reduction figures are reached? Rather than trying to control the pollution at source is there any technology to remove pollutants once in the atmosphere? Eg co2 scrubbers etc.

  6. I dont know if this is still the case but historically NZ transport models only used existing price values all fixed at year X in real NZD for year X. These stayed the same for future years.

    Where I live our transport model is fully multi-modal and includes real future year price values all expressed in NZD (Year X) terms. This allows the model to reflect real gdp changes etc.

    One way to assist having carbon taken account of in transport decision making is for the decision makers to agree that the real carbon price should be varied in transport modelling and transport economic assessment. (For simplicity all other prices could stay at the fixed year X real NZD level if this is still the approach being taken)

    The productivity commission estimated the real cost of carbon in NZD(circa 2015?) would need to be NZD250/tonne for net zero emissions. This is 7.4x recent prices (33.90 spot) and would require the carbon tax on fuel to be circa 7.4x more per litre than currently (est 9c/litre from AA website). This would push up the vehicle operating costs by the same factor in any modelling work at 2050.

    1. I think the last time New Zealand included guesses of future prices in economic assessments we ended up getting Think Big projects like the Motunui gas to gasoline debacle.

      1. It would seem we are already doing so if NZ is using $65.58 / tonne (vs $34 spot).

        I don’t agree with your argument. On that basis we would continue to value for example, seaside land (or a ski field) at its existing price even if it is expected to disappear in 50 years due to storm surge and sea level rise (or less snow through climate change).

        There are cases where the central scenario is better determined by the path of expected future prices than existing prices. The latter can always be considered as a sensitivity test.

        Also even if NZ did adopt NZD250 (circa 2015NZD) for 2050 now for analysis, there is no reason that value cant be reviewed on an ongoing basis.

        1. The $65 value isn’t a projection of a future price. It is a policy decision that the Government is willing to pay that for each tonne reduced now. It simply admits that there is market failure, something we all know and understand. In your ski field or seaside land example we would set the asset value at zero at the point it no longer exists and discount back to a present value. That is quite different to guessing the future price of an input resource like fuel. If you want an example of how that fails just look at: the synthetic petrol plant at Motunui, the methanol plant at Waitara, the urea plant at Kapuni, or the electrification of the main trunk railway line from Hamilton to Palmerston North. Someone guessed at future prices and got it horribly wrong.

    2. Yes, good points. I looked up what they use. On the 31st August this year, the Monetised Benefits and Costs Manual will be taking over from the Economic Evaluation Manual. So this is the most up to date policy. It says:

      “The value of NZ$65.58 per tonne of CO2 (as at June 2016) should be used for project evaluation. This is based on the Austroads (2012) value.

      The predicted value change in CO2 emissions shall be calculated as $65.58 per tonne of CO2, and must be included in the BCR. CO2 impacts should also be quantified in tonnes and reported in the project summary sheet.

      The monetary value adopted to reflect the damage costs of CO2 emissions in project evaluations has no relationship to the level of carbon tax or carbon price that the government might consider as a policy instrument to restrain CO2 emissions…”

      Looks like it’s a document I need to get my teeth into because while it talks of induced demand, the assumption that responding to “insufficient capacity in the do-minimum to carry the forecast travel demands” with extra road capacity is still the mindset, instead of finding a way to reduce that forecast travel demand.

      If anyone knows otherwise, please advise, but my guess is that the forecast travel demand is still modelled assuming sprawl and steady road capacity expansion. I don’t imagine this manual changes that. So it doesn’t reflect what’s possible under proper climate planning.

      Similarly, I imagine the forecast travel demand for the do-minimum scenario matches the forecast travel demand for the project scenario. This is the methodology used for Waterview Connection, East West Link, etc, and it’s a well-debunked method; the do-minimum scenario doesn’t add road capacity and should have much smaller travel demand than the project scenarios. If I’m right that they’re continuing on this basis, the business case will continue to completely miss the lower vkt, emissions and health cost benefits of the do-minimum scenario and way overstate the travel times. In which case, the comparison of do-minimum and project scenarios in the business case will remain hugely incorrect, despite having this $66 carbon price.

      If I’m wrong on this, please advise, anyone. It would be heartening to know that the government has tackled this.

    3. I used to work in the field of transport modelling but no longer. The same consultants would be employed to do the modelling as the civil engineering for the a particular RoNS project, so you bet there was a bit of fudging going on. And because it’s such a technical and dark art of a discipline nobody seems to question the underlying assumptions. Overall models work based on a vicious feedback loop of predict and provide for more cars which will come no matter what when land gets developed. I feel the whole modelling regime needs an overhaul or dismantling to really change our planning frameworks for the better.

  7. An interesting discussion [remainder of comment deleted by admin as unnecessary]
    The problem is that no matter how well intended, apart from the legal aspect, the presenters were all just enthusiasts. There were no actual experts.
    The Government is already well informed of what the options are through exhaustive studies by its agencies. The current thinking is that the light vehicle fleet will transition to BEV and that will be assisted by the Frebate (bound to be reintroduced if the next Government doesn’t include NZF) and from investment in charging stations and upgrades to the power grid.
    Heavy transport will be addressed with HFC and advanced biofuels.
    What The Central Government and AT do not have available is ‘pie in the sky’ solutions. To think that we could somehow ban all ICE imports from 2025 and ban all ICE use in 9.5 years is crazy.
    With a pandemic to pay for, neither the public or private sector can afford this.
    Paul Winton acknowledged that the farming sector have loans and cannot afford to transition from animals to trees, it’s the same for fleet operators.
    Without the rose coloured glass view, AT knows that there needs to be a Low carbon solution for the bus fleet that has 18 years life left, before these current new buses can be replaced with Electric or Hydrogen power units.
    Some of the problems can be reduced by changing our oil refinery to be able to co process waste as well as crude oil and other problems can be solved with imported clean fuels.
    We need to look at what is being done in other parts of the world. The EU with RED2 and the US with LCFS and RINS. I was disappointed that none of the presentation dealt with this, other than to say that the UK had reduced by 40%. It’s actually 38% and 36% of that was just moving away from coal powergen.
    As I said, interesting, but mostly wrong conclusions.

  8. Good post, I need to look at the links etc closer when I have time but I’ll be sure to sign the open letter. Like part of your comment @11:28 Heidi that “Decarbonisation wins from every angle.”

  9. This is a great piece Heidi. But with due respect to you and the others involved and the dinosaurs who mostly comprise the 40 decision makers, the action required has to be very radical. Far more than they and possibly you are thinking.
    In addition to the things you and this website advocate, which are grand, much much bolder government interventions are required.
    One of the things that is urgently required is for the government to embark on a massive apartment building program. Not just big, but massive. Not only continue with the good stuff they are doing, but use the powers they will have to develop high density precincts at scale near centers and RTN stations. This needs to be affordable as well as social housing.
    This needs to be done to disincentivise the development of Greenfield land. If the governmeng builds housing, and sells it at cost to first home buyers then suddenly a 3 bedroom apartment selling for 650k looks attractive against a 3 bedroom house way out in the whoop whoops for 850k.
    The govt needs to set up a 21st century version of the Ministry of Works pronto.
    I believe that this would be one of the most important things that could be done to not only address housing, but also climate change.

  10. Heidi
    I’m really impressed by your energy and arguments, in this blog. I only sporadically read Greater Auckland but this particular blog spurs me to keep in touch.
    Good work, Ralph Chapman (VUW and NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities): 021 725 742

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