This is a guest post by sustainable transport and accessibility advocate Tim Adriaansen.
Yesterday we received two important and related announcements from Central Government:
- The first Emissions Reduction Plan, which sets out the pathway Aotearoa will follow to meet our emissions budgets through to 2035 and;
- Details of the Climate Emergency Response Fund which will be included in Budget 2022, to be announced on Thursday.
While the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) lays out the direction different sectors of the economy should take to help us stay on track at a national level, the Climate Emergency Response Fund is a much better measure of what the current government is actually prepared to do in terms of climate action.
So let’s take a look at what the ERP has in store for transportation, what this could mean, and what sort of impact it might have. Then, we’ll compare “the plan” with “the action”, and see if the money matches the message.
Some parts of the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) stand out as fundamentally good moves for the transport sector. In particular, it sets this target:
“Reduce total kilometres travelled [VKT] by the light fleet by 20 per cent by 2035 through improved urban form and providing better travel options, particularly in our largest cities.”
And on this point, the ERP aims to:
- Set sub-national VKT reduction targets for Aotearoa New Zealand’s major urban areas (Tier 1 and 2) by the end of 2022.
- Revise Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s national mode shift plan (Keeping Cities Moving) to ensure nationally led activities align with the pace and scale of VKT reduction and mode shift required in urban areas.
- Develop VKT reduction programmes for Aotearoa New Zealand’s major urban areas (Tier 1 and 2) in partnership with local government, Māori and community representatives.
It’s important to remember that we can’t reduce overall emissions from transport simply by doing more of something. More frequent buses, more trains, more people riding bikes or more people walking – these are great, but in and of themselves, won’t make any meaningful difference to our carbon emissions from transport.
The only way to reduce emissions from transport is to do less of something: consume less petrol and diesel. As 99% of our vehicle fleet currently runs on fossil fuels and there is no realistic chance of changing that any time soon, the only effective way to reduce New Zealand’s emissions from transport is for New Zealanders to drive less.
This is a conversation that we often see elected representatives and transport officials shy away from, so it’s fantastic to see it front-and-centre in the Emissions Reduction Plan.
To “support people to walk, cycle and use public transport”, we see an intention to:
- Improve the reach, frequency and quality of public transport;
- Deliver a step change in cycling and walking rates;
- Accelerate widespread street changes to support public transport, active travel and placemaking;
- Make school travel greener and healthier;
- Improve access and travel choice for the transport disadvantaged;
- Investigate the potential for public transport, walking and cycling in rural and provincial areas.
And under each of these sub-categories there is a smattering of ideas of how to do this – but while most have merit, almost all lack any measure of success. A consistent theme throughout the plan is that it doesn’t identify who, what, when or how something is going to be executed. This leaves far too much wiggle room for uncooperative officials or nervous politicians to escape actually doing something.
(And paradoxically, leaving out any measures is a missed opportunity to let New Zealanders know how extremely doable this all is: compare London’s rollout of 350 “school streets” in a single year.)
Carrots and Sticks
For congestion charging, a powerful tool we’ll be glad to see implemented, the plan plots a “steady as she goes” course.
In terms of road pricing, we see an intention to “Investigate additional pricing tools to reduce transport emissions (including parking pricing, VKT pricing and low-emissions zones)”, and “Explore a pilot Mobility as a Service project”.
We haven’t heard much about Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in Aotearoa just yet, but it could play an important role in reducing emissions from transport by eliminating the need for individuals to own whichever vehicle they may choose to use—be it an e-bike, cargo bike, electric car or van—and instead to simply pick one up from a useful location (such as a mobility hub), returning it to any other mobility hub nearby when they have completed their journey.
The end of motorway expansions?
There is some very exciting news with Action 10.1.4: Require roadway expansion and investment in new highways to be consistent with transport targets.
This action, in no uncertain terms, raises the burden of proof on highway projects to demonstrate that any expansion will align with the plan—and as we’ve already seen, that means reducing vehicle kilometres travelled—something which pretty much never happens when roads are widened or straightened at great expense.
If followed as described, this action point effectively halts expanding the road network (at least with a view to improving motor vehicle level of service). However, as we’ve seen previously, this is weak on enforceability, sitting on the fence with the phrase “establish a high threshold”, but not telling us when that will happen, who sets the bar or just how high the threshold will be.
There’s much talk in the ERP about rapidly adopting low-emissions vehicles, which includes a fairly predictable “spend lots of money helping people buy cars” approach.
It also includes:
- Initiatives which might spell the end of the current tax exemptions for light trucks;
- Minimum emissions standards for future imports and;
- An initiative to “determine whether legislative barriers preventing the use of some types of light low-emissions vehicles can be reduced without unduly compromising safety objectives”—which sounds like we might be clearing the way for micro-cars.
The plan proposes scrap-and-replace and vehicle leasing schemes as a way to assist low-income and transport-disadvantaged New Zealanders into low-emissions vehicles, selling the ideas through an equity lens. Both of these, however, still focus on private vehicle ownership/possession.
Car dependency itself creates unequal outcomes. This plan could be an opportunity to address that built-in inequity by investing in a transport system where people don’t need to own and operate a large, expensive, complicated machine in order to move around their city.
Unfortunately, this section of the ERP risks locking us into a transport model that is fundamentally unsustainable and inequitable.
The ERP is big on freight, but light on detail: As we’ve seen elsewhere, freight is dealt with largely by “we have a plan to make and implement more plans”. This is complemented with an objective to reduce the emissions intensity of fuels; AKA biofuels.
Developing ‘a national freight and supply chain strategy’ in partnership with industry is indubitably a good idea, and logistics providers are the experts in this area. Appropriately pricing emissions and VKT would likely create an economic situation in which logistics companies would themselves decarbonise operations, so there may be less work here than the government thinks—so long as cumbersome legislation doesn’t stand in the way of industry innovation.
Other objectives in this section:
- only purchase zero-emissions public buses from 2025
- set a target for decarbonisation of air travel (by 2050)
- create a plan and set targets for the maritime fleet, including work towards zero-emissions near-shore vessels, including ferries.
All in all, the ERP specifies around one-third of emissions reduction will come from reducing car travel, around half will come from shifting to low-emissions vehicles in both the light vehicle and freight fleets. The remainder will come from other policy initiatives, including rail, coastal shipping and aviation.
This should keep us on track for the emissions budgets set out in the broader scope of the plan.
Notably missing from the ERP is a restriction on fossil fuel vehicle imports from a particular date, which runs the risk of New Zealand becoming a dumping ground for used cars from other parts of the world.
Without action to back it up, a plan isn’t worth the hard drive space it’s stored on.
So it was also good to see the Minister for Transport put out a press release detailing what’s in the upcoming budget that will achieve some of the outcomes of the ERP. This is, unfortunately, where things don’t quite track the way we need them to:
“The Clean Car Discount Scheme has been successful in supporting the uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles. However, we know for many families, the cost of transitioning to cleaner vehicles can be too expensive. Starting with an initial trial of up to 2,500 vehicles, the Clean Car Upgrade will provide targeted assistance to lower- and middle- income households to shift to low-emission alternatives in exchange for scrapping their old vehicle.”
The change in language used by the Minister is an immediate red flag: we’ve gone from “low-emissions vehicles” to “Rolling out the Clean Car Upgrade programme”.
We know that electric vehicles (EVs) simply aren’t a solution to Climate Change – they’re too expensive and we can’t possibly obtain enough of them in order to stay on track with emissions reductions. This means that any expenditure on EVs represents a substantial opportunity cost away from genuine climate action.
Even with massive subsidies, there are just 31,356 pure EVs registered in NZ.
Out of 4,431,860 vehicles register – that's less than 0.1% of the fleet.
EVs will NEVER get us to our transport climate goals in an acceptable timeframe.
— Tim Welch (@TimFWelch) May 16, 2022
The language change, too, signals a backing away from any e-bike subsidy. Why? Shifting people from clunkers to e-bikes would likely have a much greater impact at much lower cost, and we’ve already seen highly successful international examples – such as this wildly popular scheme in Denver, Colorado – which feature a strong equity component.
Crucially, subsidies for e-bikes would rapidly shift the dial in terms of social license for the street-level changes we so desperately need to make in order to create safe, liveable communities that encourage walking, wheeling, cycling and scooting. The more people who have access to any kind of bike, the more welcome the transformations will be.
Overall, these are the Minister’s announcement promises for the Climate Emergency Response Fund:
- $569 million for Clean Car Upgrade;
- $350 million to fund Transport Choices, including walking, cycling and public transport improvements;
- $20 million for a vehicle social leasing scheme trial;
- $23 million to develop ambitious national active modes plan;
- $61 million to support a sustainable, skilled workforce of bus drivers;
- $40 million over four years to accelerate the decarbonisation of public buses;
- $20 million to accelerate the decarbonisation of freight transport.
These are all fundamentally good. But it’s difficult to look past the fact that the combined improvements for walking, cycling and public transport clock in at significantly less than the Clean Car Upgrade programme.
Spread across multiple modes of transport and distributed around the country, the $350 million in additional funding will barely make a dent in our current transport emissions.
In short, the funding priorities are out of order and the budget allocated simply isn’t enough—compare the $1.3 billion spent on emissions reduction with the $8.7 billion investment that made up the NZ Upgrade Programme. While I’m excited to see this plan finally arrive, it’s difficult not to feel that the actions which accompany it are not even close to the scale and pace of change that we need to see.