Featured image: ÖBB Nightjet, image from Lucas via Wikipedia (Creative Commons)
This is a guest post by Paul Callister.
In March 2021 the government released the cabinet paper Leading the way: Establishing a Carbon Neutral Government Programme. The paper states that the government “must show leadership to reduce its own emissions, in order to demonstrate what is possible to other sectors in the New Zealand economy.” This is one part of the government’s follow-up to its declaration of a climate emergency in November 2020.
Throughout I have used the acronym CNGP for the Carbon Neutral Government Programme, which is a bit of a mouthful.
The long-term work programme for public sector organisations has the following goals:
- measure, verify and report emissions annually
- set gross emissions reductions targets and longer-term reduction plans for the next decade
- introduce a phased work programme to reduce organisations’ emissions, and
- offset after gross emissions reductions are made to achieve carbon neutrality
Two important areas of ‘phase one’ of the work programme focus on non-transport segments of government. These are:
Fossil fuel boilers for heating – the aim is to phase out coal boilers, prioritising the largest and most active coal boilers by 2025, continuing to use the State Sector Decarbonisation (SSD) Fund to replace them with clean alternatives.
Office space – the government aims to implement an energy efficiency building rating standard over five years from January 2021 for all mandated property agencies who occupy single tenanted, co-tenanted or co-located government office accommodation over 2,000m2.
But of more relevance to those interested in transport is the section on petrol and diesel cars. Here, the programme
- requires mandated agencies to optimise their fleets with the aim of reducing the number of vehicles in the government fleet.
- requires mandated agencies to purchase battery electric vehicles (BEVs), or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) if a BEV is not appropriate for the proposed use, unless their operational requirements or other circumstances require (following an approval process).
The Ministerial group governing the CNGP requires reporting on an ongoing basis, with reports from agencies needing to include an operational plan for how the vehicle fleets would be reduced and electrified, and how the proposed CNGP organisations will measure emissions, how they will manage and report on them, set gross emissions reduction targets and have credible reduction plans in place by December 2023.
An important report is due next month (June 2021). This will be on how carbon neutrality for the CNGP organisations could be achieved by December 2025 following further work by officials on the opportunities, risks and constraints around offsetting. Offsetting is an option, but any offsets need to be New Zealand based.
Which organisations does this include?
The scope of organisations covered in this initiative is very wide. Most are ‘directed’ and some ‘encouraged’ to be involved. Directed includes all the core public service, non-public service agencies including the police and defence force, New Zealand Blood Service and district health boards. Initially school boards were directed but there is on-going debate about this. Agencies encouraged include universities and the Reserve Bank. Excluded are SOEs, such as KiwiRail and companies that the government has a shareholding in such as Air New Zealand (52%). Through its operations, Air New Zealand is one of New Zealand’s highest greenhouse gas emitting enterprises.
What this means for Transport
Focussing on electrification of the car fleet, James Shaw announced (in May) there would be 422 new electric vehicles purchased, and charging infrastructure across the state sector would be established. As part of this there would be $5.1 million for the Department of Conservation to buy 148 electric vehicles and install charging infrastructure and $1.1 million to help Kāinga Ora buy 40 electric vehicles and install charging infrastructure. This was estimated to save 11,600 tonnes of carbon emissions over 10 years.
“Today’s announcement is a significant step towards our goal of carbon neutrality in the public sector within five years,” said James Shaw.
“The conversion of Government fleets also means more demand for electric vehicles, which will start flowing through into the second-hand market, making electric vehicles more accessible for everyone.”
Unfortunately on the same day there was a headline in Stuff stating Department of Conservation caught charging plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with diesel power.
As commentators such as Paul Winton have pointed out, electrification of the car fleet is only one part of decarbonising transport. Driving less and switching to public transport as well as biking and walking are more important. A significant number of Wellington’s public servants – and perhaps many in Auckland – will already head to work by bus or train. While policies to encourage wider walking, biking, catching trains and buses are not set out in the cabinet paper, changes that encourage this amongst the wider community will also help public servants with modeshift.
But surprisingly lacking in the body of the cabinet paper is the issue of aviation. Case studies are given in the appendix, for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Auckland District Health Board, Massey University and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. This is where it becomes apparent that aviation needs its own workstream and reporting procedures.
New Zealand Trade and Enterprise
Auckland District Health Board (Including Auckland City Hospital, Greenlane Clinical Centre and community sites)
Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority
All these examples show emissions from air travel are significant and need to be reduced.
Then in April 2021, marking another important potential turning point in the fight against climate change, the Minister of Transport released the New Zealand Rail Plan.
While short on detail at the time, the overall thrust of the report was that the government wishes to turn around the long-term underinvestment in rail. The report set out the clear climate change benefits of modeshift to rail especially for freight. But it had little focus on improving regional passenger rail services. There seems to be a gap between the need to decarbonise the public sector and a whole of government understanding of how rail might support this.
The 2021 Budget did provide more money for rail. But this was primarily to patch up the run down system and to support both freight services and urban rail. Lacking were any firm announcements on supporting a transformative re-build of long distance passenger rail, including the rapid rail promoted by Greater Auckland in 2017.
Nor was there any mention in either the Rail Plan or the Budget of the possibility of re-introducing a night train between Auckland and Wellington.
Heidi O’Callahan and I have written about the benefits of bringing back a night train.
The Main Trunk Line joins Wellington, home of the public service and Auckland, by far our largest city. A significant number of people live along this rail corridor. According to Statistics New Zealand data fifty seven percent of New Zealand’s population lives along the route. (42% in Auckland and Wellington, 15% in between.) It also spans five universities, home to many thousands of frequent flyers. For example, Massey University’s 3000+ staff flew an average of 18,000 km each in 2019.
In Europe, night trains were making a big comeback prior to Covid. As Europe emerges from the pandemic this growth is resuming. Showing government support, the French Prime Minister Jean Castex was on board the first overnight train from Paris to Nice on May 20th. Then on the 24th the first Nightjet train to Amsterdam left Vienna with the Austrian climate protection minister, Leonore Gewessler, a passenger.
The Nightjet operators stated:
This will enable our passengers to travel in a safe, relaxed and, above all, climate-friendly manner. Compared with an aeroplane, a single night train from Vienna to Amsterdam can save almost 100,000kg of CO2 emissions.
Along with buying electric cars, government support for a night train would assist the decarbonisation of the public sector. To help make the case for bringing back this service I have prepared a working paper.
The CNGP provides an opportunity to look at New Zealand’s inter-regional transport offerings with fresh eyes. A night train would help public servants travel around New Zealand with a much lower carbon footprint than driving or flying. It is important that this impetus is not lost: the aviation carbon footprints of each of the organisations must not be ignored as if they are inevitable. They are not. Initially, they can be radically reduced with investment in a night train. The night train can help build ridership and institutional capability in passenger rail, and be a useful step in building a low carbon regional transport system, that reconnects a nation-wide passenger rail network with regional buses. In time, this will enable the government organisations to bring down their transport emissions further.
And more importantly, if government takes these steps to lower their own transport emissions, they will be establishing a system that enables other people and organisations to follow suit. And this is exactly why leadership from government is important: it highlights – via scrutiny of their own carbon footprints – just what infrastructure the country needs. If in the process we can achieve a national public transport network, we will be bringing access, economic benefits, and safe, low carbon travel options to many New Zealanders.
That’s what investment in our wellbeing, our future and our economy looks like.